A Home on the Rock

A need to see the White Cliffs of Dover as a symbol that reflects a new found positive patriotism is the conclusion of a new pamphlet by philosopher Julian Baggini published today.

“I want people to see the Dover chalk and think of liberty, hospitality and freedom,” he concludes. But he worries that they can also be seen as “a citadel wall” which he claims “would be an immense loss to our national reputation”.

As part of its ongoing fundraising appeal to buy an iconic stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover, the National Trust commissioned Julian Baggini to spend a week based at the cliffs in August to examine their role in shaping our national identity.

In the introduction Julian Baggini says: “The White Cliffs of Dover are among the symbols which are formative of Britain’s national identity.

“If they stand for us, then what we see in them we will also see in ourselves.  And so we should make sure that we are happy with what see in the chalk.”

During his week at the White Cliffs, Julian Baggini spent time unpacking their meaning by talking to local people, delving into their history and thinking about the role they have played in shaping our image of ourselves and how they have influenced the world’s view of Britain.

Download ‘A Home on the Rock’

Don’t let the barbarians hand over the Cliffs

It’s the People’s Port and some people will do what they like in it…

It’s a bitter irony that, just as the National Trust is successfully raising funds to buy a section of the White Cliffs of Dover for the benefit of the nation, the Government could be about to sanction the sale of another stretch right next to it. Dover Harbour Board, a non-profit independent statutory body which has run the docks since 1606, wants to privatise the docks, along with a section of the cliffs that form part of their backdrop. The buyer would be a wholly owned subsidiary of the board, a company limited by shares. A decision is due in the next few weeks.

Article in today’s Telegraph. (As with all posts here, it is of course the case that all opinions expressed are mine alone and not necessarily those of the National Trust)

We’ll meet again…

St Margaret’s Bay

Yesterday, I walked from St Margaret’s Bay to Deal, bringing my week-long writer’s residency to a close by going to the literal end of the White Cliffs. It’s been an extremely interesting and rewarding week, unlike any project I’ve done before.

The work of trying to understand the “meaning” and “significance” of a place like this could be undertaken as a kind of informal opinion poll. Talking to people, it soon became clear that the vast majority saw the cliffs as standing for home and/or Britain (sometimes England). A large minority associated them mainly with wartime, particularly Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. And for a few, they were very beautiful but they had no meaning at all.

None of this is very surprising and it does not require a writer-in-residence to find this out. But there are, I hope, reasons to bring in a philosophically-trained writer to take the meanings we already see in things and push them further. The cliffs mean “home”, for example, but what does “home” mean and why is a chalk coastline a good symbol for it? In asking questions like this, the purpose is not necessarily to get inside the minds of the public and speculate about what is going on. This would be pointless, not only because every individual is different and so will have different deep associations, but also because there is no way of knowing whether the resulting answers will be inventions or discoveries.

The point of pushing the symbolism further is rather that symbols are not simply there, given. Symbols are things we create, sometimes from scratch but more often from moulding something that is already there. So if the cliffs mean home and country, there is an opportunity to take that as a starting point and invite people to see them in particular ways, and so to think of home and country in richer ways.

This is worth doing because most of the time what we call “thinking” is really little more than mentally working with rough and ready pre-made filters and frameworks. The images and symbols we associate with places and things provide mental short cuts for when we have to make decisions relating to them. Ask someone about immigration, for example, and their answer will not usually be the result of a careful process of deliberation but will spring from what that word evokes, which might be sympathy-inducing images of people enduring hardship to get here, scary imaginings of criminal gangs, or much-loved local shops run by earlier immigrants. Which one is associated with immigration affects what people do and even how they vote.

But it is also important to understand the value and meaning of special places for more conscious deliberation. Right now, there are plans to sell off Dover Harbour, and with it part of the cliffs, with a decision due next month (September 2012). Ownership will pass from a trust, Dover Harbour Board, which as existed since 1606, to a private company, perhaps overseas. Many are concerned about this, but why does it matter? I think that understanding the meaning and significance of the cliffs, and other public, historic spaces like them, will give us a much better answer to this than distrust of private profit or foreigners.

So I’m off now to think and then write about all this. Thanks to everyone who has helped me this last week, in particular staff and volunteers at the National Trust and people who have contacted me and talked to me. Watch this space for the end results.

Sanctuaries and citadels

Most visitors to the White Cliffs walk the land to the east of Dover mostly owned (and if the current appeal is successful, soon entirely owned) by the National Trust. Here, nothing but warm associations and delight at the beauty is recorded in the visitor’s book at South Foreland lighthouse I put in for my residency shows.

But there is another side to the White Cliffs – literally. The Western Heights sit on top of the chalk cliffs to Dover’s west and although passed in the final stretch of the North Downs way by walkers, it is not so visited. If you do go you’ll find a remarkably extensive network of fortifications, comprising the citadel and the Drop Redoubt. Unlike the Castle, which is designed to be seen, these were dug in to make them less visible to the more cannons of Napoleon’s forces, which they were originally built to repel, and latter the big guns of Nazi Germany, when they were called into active use again. The whole thing is divided and surrounded by a series very deep dry ditch ditches.

There is also a unique 140ft deep triple spiral staircase, the Grands Shaft. It has been closed to the public for years, although my mother remembers when she, like other kids, used to climb up them free from the constraints of health and safety.

When I was a kid, the citadel was home to a borstal, as prisons for young offenders were formally known until 1982, and informally for several years more. We never went up there but it stirred fear in the heart every time it was pointed out as where you’d end up if you went of the rails. Now it is Dover Immigration Removal Centre, run by Mer Majesty’s Prison Service, and it is a prison in all but name.

I was taken to walk around it (literally around, not inside) Rod Edmond, a Professor of English retired to Deal who has started doing some advocacy work for asylum seekers. Reminiscent of a prisoner of war camp, it’s a forbidding monument to one of the less glorious and difficult aspects of the area’s recent history. Gill Casebourne, a veteran local campaigner for the rights of refugees, told me that for many seeking asylum who spent time in Calais before trying to get to Britain, the sight of the White Cliffs represented sanctuary. That symbol would have been turned on its head if they found themselves locked up on the top of them, awaiting removal.

She also answered the question many people have about refugees who make their way to Britain via Dover. Why here? Why not stay in France, Germany or whatever European country they had travelled through? The reason is not that they have any cause to believe that they will be showered with money and given prime housing, as many of the worst kind of anti-immigration campaigners have claimed. It’s simply that Britain still has a reputation for fairness, decency and human rights. This again is something the sight of the cliffs would represent to people looking to flee here.

But over recent decades the country has become much less hospitable to immigrants. Rarely does this amount to bigoted hatred, and there is fair measure of compassion out there. In a cafe in Dover town centre I overheard one woman talking about “economic migrants”, saying that even if people are not fleeing persecution, the fact that they are prepared to risk dangerous sea crossings in small boats and put up with many other varieties of hell means they have to be desperate.

Still, the default has shifted so that instead of seeing “refugees” whom we assume need help, we see “asylum seekers” who are assumed to be “bogus” until proven otherwise. Suspicion and fear have become widespread. One person told me that many locals felt intimidated by immigrants on the streets, which I thought a bit odd, given that there is a sizeable proportion of the local community that would surely be even more intimidating to the immigrants.

Of course there are problems, there has to be a system, and not all applications are legitimate. But we ought to think about what we want our country, and so also the cliffs which represent them, to stand for. I would be delighted if people would look over the channel from France, see the Dover chalk and think of liberty, hospitality and freedom. It would be deeply sad if they instead started to see them as a citadel wall.

Long live homo cambiens

Trucks at Dover Eastern Docks

A hard-headed rationalist will tell you that co-incidences are bound to happen because random events will inevitable generate some fortuitous pairings. They may also tell you that random events do no distribute themselves easily which means co-incidences are not evenly spaced in the calendar. Still, it is uncanny that in this of all weeks, there has been a co-incidence of coincidences.

First, the woman whose house we are letting the ground floor of stuck her head around the corner to say “I think there’s someone upstairs who knows you.” Indeed she did: it was the woman who had run the youth club in Folkestone I went to as a teenager. I saw a photo of her son – pre-school when I first knew him – with a child of his own.

Perhaps even more oddly, there weren’t many leaflets on the counter of Le Bar à Vins in Calais, but one was for The Black Horse inn at Monks Horton. I had to ask why they were there, for the very next day we were due to go there to catch up with the owners, who had just taken over management: a family we had known since childhood.

It turns out that Isobel and Luc, owners of Le Bar à Vins, had got to know the family simply because they had supplied their various restaurants with wine over the years. And had taken up their invitation to come and eat when they were in England. This they had done a number of times, creating more than just a professional friendship.

Hearing this, the coincidence became a little less random. Given the family of restaurateurs is Italian, I am likely to know them through the informal network of Italian immigrants that my father is a member of, and through the catholic primary school the children went to. As discerning restaurateurs in Folkestone, they are likely to buy wine from one of the better outlets over the short stretch of water in a wine-producing nation. A somewhat discerning individual on a day trip to France, such as myself, is going to want to find out what the better wine merchants are and go there rather than the pile-’em-high, sell-’em-cheap warehouse. And so I am likely to end up at the same wine merchant as the Italian restaurateurs I know.

If you don’t like this kind of analytic reduction of mystery, there is perhaps a more important moral to this story: trade brings people together, and it always has done. There are many ways of marking the human difference, and one which surely does matter is that we are a species that exchanges goods. Some have even argued that it is because we are homo cambiens that we have made as much progress as we have. Trade meant people could specialise in what they were good at, which meant that instead of being a species where we could all do the basics just well enough, we could collectively do lots more things excellently. Trade also led to the movements of peoples. Tourism is a late arrival on the scene: for centuries it was business that drew people across long distances.

Of course trade can be exploitative. But generally speaking, sustainable trade requires trust and the rule of law. When specific forms of trade become illegal, you get smuggling instead, and with it criminality and suspicion. Good trade needs and builds good human relations.

As the closest point between France and England, the White Cliffs Country has been a centre of trade for centuries. The lorries loading and unloading from the ferries are the latest incarnation of a long tradition. From the outside, it can just look like stuff moving soullessly, a cog in the capitalist machine. And trade can indeed become no more than that, with customer scanning their own goods at self-service checkouts or ordering goods online. The dangers of this can perhaps be seen in what happens when city traders deal with nothing more than numbers on a screen, with no connection to the people or things behind them. Homo cambiens – exchanging man, tis not the same as homo economicus: a single-minded maximiser of financial gain, and we should not allow him to become so.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the human dimension of trade, not just to appreciate it, but to make sure we don’t lose it in an increasingly impersonal world. And the White Cliffs, with evidence of commercial movement all around you, is a pretty good place to do it.

Can you really see France from here?

The best place from which to see the White Cliffs of Dover is, of course, the sea. That’s why today I saw the pride of Britain from The Spirit of Britain: the name of P&O ferry that took me over to Calais and back. As we pulled away, the deck was full of people photographing the cliffs and watching them recede into the distance without ever disappearing from sight. The coastline of the Pas de Calais, for all its beauty, did not seem to have quite the same effect.

But sometimes what makes us proud does not impress others quite so much, as I was reminded when talking to a German couple. Yes, they have known about the cliffs from childhood, when they learned about them in school. But the only thing the cliffs signified to them was Dover. And they were keen to tell me that Germany also has its white cliffs, on the island of Rugen.

Similarly, the head of the ship’s onboard services, Stéphan, preferred to tell me about the cliffs of his home region of Normandy than to talk about Dover’s more famous ones. Had I also bumped into a resident of the Pas-de-Calais and the island of Mon in Denmark I would have heard from devotees from all the white cliffs in the world outside the United Kingdom. For all their fame, the white cliffs are just another pretty view for those who don’t associate them with home.

All this got me thinking about national pride. Patriotism seems to me to be a potent force that needs to be handled with care if it is to be benign. The key to getting it right can be seen in comparison with family pride. It is not only right that parents should appreciate and love their own children’s attributes more than those of others, those who don’t strike us as cold and distant. But if they come come to believe that their offspring deserve the same kind of attention, appreciation and praise from other people, and so fail to give due credit to other children, their paternal love becomes a competitive, divisive force.

Patriotism is somewhat similar. At its best, it is taking pride in your own country while equally appreciating that others will take just as much pride in theirs. And for that reciprocity to be genuine, it means making an effort to appreciate what other nations have to offer, not just harping on about how great your own is.

I’m not sure that Britons are always good at this. I’m not saying that your average Brit is a bigoted would-be colonialist who can’t stand Johnny foreigner. And the other side of the coin is that there is certainly a strand of liberal Britain which is much more comfortable praising Provence or Tuscany than anywhere in their own country. It’s just that we’re not always as good at appreciating the countries we visit.

The channel crossing has been witness to this over the years. Plenty do relax over a decent French lunch and appreciate the beautiful coastline from the port to Cap Gris Nez and Bolougne-sur-Mer. But too many tend towards the stereotypical full English breakfast on the boat, trip to the hypermarket to stock up on Australian wine, with a stop for moules-frites and a cold beer if you’re lucky. Calais is treated as Dover’s very out of town shopping outlet.

The channel should be a two-way street. After waving the cliffs goodbye we should turn round and look towards the coast of a country that is remarkably close but still very different, knowing that we can truly enjoy la différence for a few hours and return to the home we love soon enough. It is often remarked that you can see France from the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s just a pity more people don’t look a little closer.

Slowly shifting sands


Fallen chalk

Nothing seems more permanent than seven miles of solid rock, towering above the sea. People have stood on them over the centuries and have looked out to see Roman invaders, Napoleon’ troops lighting camp fires in France, the Armada sailing by, a flotilla of small boats bringing back soldiers from Dunkirk, and much more. Hitsory has flowed and the cliffs have remained steadfast.

Or at least that’s how it seems. In fact. Look more closely and the cliffs too have flowed, albeit more slowly, while history reveals its own kind of permanence.

Walking along the cliff yesterday, I looked down to see a protrusion of fallen chalk, surrounded by a kind of halo of milky blue, the water around it being whipped up by the waves with chalk dust. Above it, a section of cliffs was pure white, showing how recent the rockfall had been.

A little further up the coast stands the South Foreland lighthouse and the second smaller lighthouse nearer the cliff. The purpose of the second tower was that sailors could line up the two lights. If the higher, main light was to the right of the second one, that meant they had drifted too far north and risked hitting the shallows of the Goodwin Sands. Otherwise, they knew they were safe.

However, this function didn’t last long. The Goodwin Sands, the great ship swallower that has sunk over 2,000 vessels, shifted position and the line marked by the lights ceased to mark the line of danger. Meanwhile, cliff erosion means the second lighthouse is now several yards closer to the edge and it almost certainly won’t see the end of the century.

If the cliffs are less static than they appear, so history reveals that our ancestors were not as different as their strange costumes make them look. Go back to any period and you find people are all grappling with the same issues and coming up with remarkably similar solutions. At Dover Castle, for example, you’ll find a Roman lighthouse. Kept burning 24 hours, with wet wood to create a smoke plume by day and dry wood to create a light at night, sailors would work out their position by seeing where they were in relation to a triangle of towers, two on the lent coats and one in France. They lined up the lights, just as the victorians did.

There are numerous other reminders along this coast of the continuities of human nature and the flux of nature. In that respect, the Cliffs are a kind of lesson in time. They remind us that nothing lasts forever, but that although our individual lives are all to short, there are scales by which human society and nature move more slowly. We are bit characters in just one chapter of a much longer book, a book written into the chalk at Dover.