Welcomes and warnings

Phil Wyborn-Brown, former custodian of Dover Castle

An information panel outside the White Cliffs Visitor Centre describes the landmark as “A symbol of steadfastness, safety and home”. I think that’s a pretty good encapsulation of how they are normally viewed. But within this is an apparent paradox: they are seen as both a comforting symbol of home and a fierce symbol of defiance and defence. They wrap one arm around us in a warm embrace and raise the other with an intimidating fist.

A similar tension also surfaced in another guise during my visit to Dover Castle. Our guide was the former custodian of the Castle and an old family friend, Phil Wyborn-Brown. I think most of us would think of the castle first and foremost as a military building. But Phil said “We are in fact the bed and breakfast hotel,” using an affectionate familial “we”. True, it did become a fortress “and certainly most of our history has been military. But it was built for Henry II as an overnight stop for important guests going to the tomb of Tomas Becket.”

Beckett was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 and it didn’t take long for pious Catholics to undertake pilgrimages to the site of his murder. One such pilgrim was the French King. As Phil tells it, one day he arrived on the beach in Dover. Henry, who was in Faversham or Chilham, “comes haring down to Dover to meet this very important guest and thinks ‘I’ve got nowhere to keep him. I’ve got nowhere to put a king.’ So he actually has to put him into St Martin’s Priory.” So although the castle was indeed planned as fort, “it’s converted basically to a state of the art luxury bed and breakfast.”

The castle therefore stands, like the cliffs, both a symbol of defiance and resistance, but also one of hospitality and welcome.

One thing I like about this story is that it is a welcome antidote to the excessive stress on the role of the coast as a barrier rather than as a port of entry. Phil also had a fresh take on this. “They’re always portrayed as this great bastion of strength and fortitude,” he said of the cliffs, “and the damn things are full of holes and held up by concrete and steel reinforcing. They’re so full of tunnels and chambers and underground stuff from before the Victorians right up to the current day. It’s like being defended by a white honeycomb.” To him, they are not fearsome at all but “welcoming”, “friendly” and “familiar”.

But perhaps this isn’t such a tension between the embrace and the defiance after all. Feeling comfortable requires a sense of security. You can only be relaxed about opening your home to strangers if you feel sure it will not be overrun by intruders. Hospitality requires confidence that it will not be taken advantage of.

That’s why I think we do need to see the cliffs as both welcoming and protecting. Without a sense of openness, the symbol of defiance can degenerate into an insularity rooted in fear and insecurity. In that state, we end up closing our doors to friends and the needy as well as to those who want to use us for their own ends. The cliffs are indeed “A symbol of steadfastness, safety and home”, but I know of no truly happy home which is not also a hospitable one.

Lost in the fog

Nature herself set the tone for today perfectly. When I rose early to be at the South Foreland Lighthouse at 7:20 for a Radio Four interview, the cliffs themselves were hardly to be seen, obscured by a succession of thick rolling clouds of fog. Their invisibility turned out to be remarkably apt, for in what followed the real cliffs were never really called into action at all. Today, they existed almost entirely in representations and as symbols.

The fog had also hidden the lighthouse, which is one reason why I was still frantically trying to find it at a quarter past. I finally pulled up on the gravel at 7:18, only to find my contact was not there: unable to find it herself, she had set up camp at the White Cliffs visitor centre instead.

If you think about it, this is all somewhat bizarre. I was going to a place that could not be seen in order to talk about it through a medium that is entirely audio. Did I need to be anywhere near the cliffs at all? Couldn’t I have been talking about them from California, where Nat Burton penned the famous Vera Lynn song about them?

After a while, it also crossed my mind that not only were the cliffs redundant, but so was my job. If the main purpose of this residency is to raise awareness of the importance of the cliffs and get people thinking about what they meant, then the flurry of interviews and articles that came out today (many listed below) probably did the trick more effectively than my final essay will. I have done my job before really even starting work on it.

I know all this risks ending up in a post-modern abyss. It’s tempting to conclude that representations matter more than reality, that signifiers have become more important that what they signify. Ernst Cassirer was certainly on to something when he wrote that a human is the “’representational animal’, homo symbolicum, the creature whose distinctive character is the creation and manipulation of signs – things that stand for or take the place of something else.” But I think people both overstate and misses the real point of this when they conclude reality itself has been made redundant.

In the build up to my week-long writer’s residency at the White Cliffs, I and others have been talking about the cliffs as a kind of symbol of nationhood. And this first day has certainly underlined how it is possible for symbols to do their work independently of the realities from where they spring. But it also seems obvious to me that certain symbols only have their power because they are rooted in concrete reality.

This is, I think, what made sense of the strange idea of doing radio on location. It may seem illogical, but it does make a difference that someone is talking from the site of what they talking about. It would be a scandal if I had pretended to be on the cliffs when really I was in San Francisco. Words are not things and symbols are not objects. But without things and objects, words and symbols are empty.

And of course this is true of the East Kent coast. Without a real White Cliffs, there can be no symbolic White Cliffs. In order to stand for something, they must first stand. And if we care about what they stand for, we should also care for them.

Highlights of media coverage of project launch

“White cliffs of Dover get writer in residence.” BBC News

“There’ll be blue-sky thinking over the white cliffs of Dover.” The Guardian

“Why there’ll be a few words over the White Cliffs of Dover…” The Independent

“White Cliffs of Dover get writer-in-residence.” Daily Telegraph

Interview on Radio Four’s Today programme (at 08:42, so around 2h40m in)

NB: Some of these reports state I was born in Folkestone. Raised there, yes, but I was born in Buckland Hospital, Dover.


What this week is all about

I’m arriving in Dover today to start my one-week writing residency. I’ve written a piece for the Guardian which explains a little about why I’m here.

The white cliffs of Dover have a very special place in the collective imagination, even for those who have never seen them. Nat Burton, who wrote Vera Lynn’s famous song about the cliffs, was an American who had never crossed the Atlantic, let alone the Channel. We should harness their emotive and symbolic power, as we should with many other features of our coast and countryside, to help build a sense of togetherness and nationhood…

You can read the rest here.

Introducing our White Cliffs of Dover writer – Julian Baggini

The White Cliffs of Dover loom large in our national story.  They have come to symbolise, for many, the spirit and nature of the British character.  These imposing chalky cliffs have also played a crucial part in a sense of journey and the adventure of travel or that feeling of coming home and stepping on to terra firma.  For millions of Brits living across the world the White Cliffs are a clear symbol of British identity, in the same way that the statue of liberty has defined American values.

Writer and philosopher Julian Baggini will be spending a week at the White Cliffs of Dover, much of which is cared for by the National Trust, unpicking the meaning of this much loved stretch of the Kent coast.  He will be delving into why they have become so wrapped up with our national identity.  How can one place become so intrinsically linked to defining our sense of belonging?

As an Island nation we’re never that far from the coast, and he’ll also be looking at what our relationship with the coast says about us.

Julian will be talking to the people that live and work in vicinity of the White Cliffs, taking time out to travel to France for a fresh perspective and unpack their meaning with local experts.