Sceptred Isle

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Merely pausing over the deep blue Atlantic on Google Earth is enough make me gulp for air. That drowning space, cleaver of continents, can inspire a dreadful awe in members of maritime families who have lost their kin to the waves in war and peace-time. Nor does it have to be in unduly dramatic circumstances. My youthful uncle lost his life in The Solent when he dived from the deck of HMS Acheron in a bid to rescue a shipmate who had fallen overboard. There is no record of his burial. The body was never recovered. It was 1940, just over a year into WWII. 

We are a nation of seafarers – it is in our plasma – an island people colonised at various stages of history by other seafarers, but never conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte who feared the 'wooden walls' of our naval barricades.

When I view a map of Britain, spread out like a spatchcock chicken, I muse on the  magical diversity of landscape and customs and its historic ethnicity, its coast circled at various times by Viking invaders from Norway and Denmark who tamed it with their agricultural know-how. Then there were the Roman legions who laid straight roads, avenued with trees to keep their troops cool on the march (spot the Mediterranean optimism!) and their mosaicked villas and cypress gardens dedicated to wholesale well-being. I think of their vocabulary foursquare as their architecture and the imperialism that preferred not to disrupt the tenor of life in the hostage nation. 

All this, before the Normans overran these islands in 1066 and taught us the art of cuisine and chivalry, assimilating with all the fine nuance of their mother tongue.

On the left flank of the map lies the mythical west, where ancient kings still roam the twilight mists and castles perch on promontories, telling of yore. Saints stir the dust of medieval churches and, if you are very still, you may catch the sprites' chorus in forest streams. The watered mountains and meadows are shamrock green and exuberant tides flay the shores with glistening spume. Rock pools silently teem with micro worlds. Like layered torte, the granite striations are imaged on the pages of Charles Kingsley stories, and sea-birds breed in the sky-scraping crevices. There are bays and sequestered coves in places along the whole length of the coast where the water is as turquoise as the Aegean and where the violet rhodora blooms well before spring. The vast blue yonder is all ocean, beguiling the curious and the fugitive to discover new worlds. 

The side to the east harbours well-glazed wool churches, big as small cathedrals, where the open light breaks over their altars with a pride in prosperity that founded the nation's wealth and gave its Lord Chancellor somewhere to rest his frame in the Upper House. Orchards and weatherboards give way to busy docks and august monuments, rolling pastures and Fens drained by Huguenots who brought their farming, weaving, silversmithing and legal skills. From the air, the earth intersected by glittering watercourses, looks a bit like cloisonné work. The coast lies open to commerce with Scandinavia and the Low Countries under clouds tagging towards the Urals and back. The North Sea is fickle and blue, an illusory transfer of clear skies on waves of industrial taupe.

And, as I stand on the Isle of Wight and face a ghostly meridian that becomes the Pennine backbone of the country, I think about those ancestors who thought it was worth defending and wonder where exactly it was that John Cornelius Pitt was engulfed by eternity.

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Comments 10

 
Barbara Froman on Thursday, 30 April 2015 20:51

What a beautiful memorial, Rosy. It conveys all the aroma and allure of great bodies of water. I suppose it's appropriate, as Mother's Day approaches, that it mostly makes me think of my mother, who was born in the Hungarian plains, yet felt drawn by some inexplicable force to the sea. She believed it was in her plasma, too, and was at her most serene on the water, no matter how rough it was. She would have loved this piece.

What a beautiful memorial, Rosy. It conveys all the aroma and allure of great bodies of water. I suppose it's appropriate, as Mother's Day approaches, that it mostly makes me think of my mother, who was born in the Hungarian plains, yet felt drawn by some inexplicable force to the sea. She believed it was in her plasma, too, and was at her most serene on the water, no matter how rough it was. She would have loved this piece.
Rosy Cole on Friday, 01 May 2015 16:37

How interesting about your Mom, Barb, and I am touched by the kind things you say. Thank you.

I seem to remember that you spent some months in Budapest. I've been there, too, and have travelled those plains out to Marcali, just south of Lake Balaton. I may have mentioned before that I was in Hungary a few months after the Berlin Wall came down and they were in a frenzy to adopt western values and turn their department stores from what were essentially warehouses into salons of sophisticated consumerism. It just couldn't be done overnight...and, since then, they have discovered that capitalism is a free-for-all that is not free for all. They have become disillusioned...and have reverted to many of the old ways. Imperialism, Communism and Capitalism must really mess with your sense of identity and heritage.

How interesting about your Mom, Barb, and I am touched by the kind things you say. Thank you. I seem to remember that you spent some months in Budapest. I've been there, too, and have travelled those plains out to Marcali, just south of Lake Balaton. I may have mentioned before that I was in Hungary a few months after the Berlin Wall came down and they were in a frenzy to adopt western values and turn their department stores from what were essentially warehouses into salons of sophisticated consumerism. It just couldn't be done overnight...and, since then, they have discovered that capitalism is a free-for-all that is not free for all. They have become disillusioned...and have reverted to many of the old ways. Imperialism, Communism and Capitalism must really mess with your sense of identity and heritage.
Barbara Froman on Saturday, 02 May 2015 19:51

I find what is going on in Hungary now, their turn to the right, both sad and frightening. We were there from early February to early June of 2001. Most people earned very little (indeed, we were told doctors there earned less than cleaning ladies), had very little, but clung fiercely to what they had because the memory of Soviet control was still so fresh. Our apartment had iron bars on the door and every window. We asked if this was due to a crime problem and were told that bars like this went up people's homes with the end of the Communist bloc. It was their way of declaring personal ownership of property.

But, despite the economic problems, one had the feeling that Budapest (in particular) was really coming back to life. We had been there in 1995, and the difference in the city between then and 2001 was enormous. In 2001, it had a vibrancy to it, a sense purpose and optimism, and desire to return the city to its former glory as a center of culture.

A final thought, which I'm sharing because I think you'll appreciate it. We attended many wonderful and memorable performances there, but none of them impressed me as much as a performance of Cosi Fan Tutte at the opera house. By the end of the first act, it was clear that the gentleman who was playing Don Alfonso was developing a terrible case of laryngitis. During the intermission, we were informed that there would be a delay in the start of the second act because they were trying to find a substitute. Forty-five minutes later, we headed back to our seats for the second act. However, the understudy must have been unavailable, because the same vocally impaired gentleman appeared on stage. Like a true pro, he went on with his role, while the orchestra and other cast members accommodated him by reducing their dynamic levels. At the end of the opera, the entire audience rose to their feet for him, shouting and clapping rhythmically as they do to show appreciation.

I have no doubt that had anything like this occurred in a major opera house in the US, many audience members would have complained and demanded a refund. But not so in Budapest, at least, not on that night. Opera tickets, like opera tickets everywhere don't come cheaply. Yet people found the forints necessary to purchase them because the music was important to them. Even so, it was more important for them to support an artist who was having a serious problem yet did his best to give them what they paid dearly to hear.

More than a sense of identity and heritage, which for me comes more from my parents and grandparents than any geographical area, my affection for the cultural leanings of the Hungarian feels torn. How can any of the arts flourish under oppression? How can the best of any people, as I saw it that night, withstand that weight?

I find what is going on in Hungary now, their turn to the right, both sad and frightening. We were there from early February to early June of 2001. Most people earned very little (indeed, we were told doctors there earned less than cleaning ladies), had very little, but clung fiercely to what they had because the memory of Soviet control was still so fresh. Our apartment had iron bars on the door and every window. We asked if this was due to a crime problem and were told that bars like this went up people's homes with the end of the Communist bloc. It was their way of declaring personal ownership of property. But, despite the economic problems, one had the feeling that Budapest (in particular) was really coming back to life. We had been there in 1995, and the difference in the city between then and 2001 was enormous. In 2001, it had a vibrancy to it, a sense purpose and optimism, and desire to return the city to its former glory as a center of culture. A final thought, which I'm sharing because I think you'll appreciate it. We attended many wonderful and memorable performances there, but none of them impressed me as much as a performance of Cosi Fan Tutte at the opera house. By the end of the first act, it was clear that the gentleman who was playing Don Alfonso was developing a terrible case of laryngitis. During the intermission, we were informed that there would be a delay in the start of the second act because they were trying to find a substitute. Forty-five minutes later, we headed back to our seats for the second act. However, the understudy must have been unavailable, because the same vocally impaired gentleman appeared on stage. Like a true pro, he went on with his role, while the orchestra and other cast members accommodated him by reducing their dynamic levels. At the end of the opera, the entire audience rose to their feet for him, shouting and clapping rhythmically as they do to show appreciation. I have no doubt that had anything like this occurred in a major opera house in the US, many audience members would have complained and demanded a refund. But not so in Budapest, at least, not on that night. Opera tickets, like opera tickets everywhere don't come cheaply. Yet people found the forints necessary to purchase them because the music was important to them. Even so, it was more important for them to support an artist who was having a serious problem yet did his best to give them what they paid dearly to hear. More than a sense of identity and heritage, which for me comes more from my parents and grandparents than any geographical area, my affection for the cultural leanings of the Hungarian feels torn. How can any of the arts flourish under oppression? How can the best of any people, as I saw it that night, withstand that weight?
Rosy Cole on Sunday, 03 May 2015 17:21

Thank you so much for this illumination. Hungary has clearly changed and changed again. And that is a wonderful opera story. I tend to think that in Britain we would behave the same as the Hungarians. Historically, we have been noted for our sympathy with the underdog and we forgive much that is less than perfect when we see someone giving their all.

If you haven't come across it, do seek out the poet George Szirtes' blog where he chronicles his thoughts on what's going on in his homeland now. He was one of the 1956 refugees to Britain when he was eight. He's a remarkable man.

But arts do, eventually, flourish under oppression. They find a way. That is 'art'.

Thank you so much for this illumination. Hungary has clearly changed and changed again. And that is a wonderful opera story. I tend to think that in Britain we would behave the same as the Hungarians. Historically, we have been noted for our sympathy with the underdog and we forgive much that is less than perfect when we see someone giving their all. If you haven't come across it, do seek out the poet George Szirtes' blog where he chronicles his thoughts on what's going on in his homeland now. He was one of the 1956 refugees to Britain when he was eight. He's a remarkable man. But arts do, eventually, flourish under oppression. They find a way. That is 'art'.
Katherine Gregor on Friday, 01 May 2015 17:43

What a beautiful tribute to both the sea and our island, Rosy. Strangely, although I grew up by the sea (Rome, Athens, Nice), I've never been attracted to it. In fact, I've always found the sea somewhat intimidating (unlike rivers), and don't like the smell of it. Still, I remember standing on a cliff in Tintagel, once, staring down at the foaming waves attacking the angular rocks, utterly bewitched.

What a beautiful tribute to both the sea and our island, Rosy. Strangely, although I grew up by the sea (Rome, Athens, Nice), I've never been attracted to it. In fact, I've always found the sea somewhat intimidating (unlike rivers), and don't like the smell of it. Still, I remember standing on a cliff in Tintagel, once, staring down at the foaming waves attacking the angular rocks, utterly bewitched.
Rosy Cole on Sunday, 03 May 2015 17:44

Ah well, you see, Katia, Tintagel is a magical place, depicted in the picture above. The West Country is God's Own :-) My mother's was the maritime family from Hampshire, but my father's folks were concentrated in South and West Somerset. The name 'Arthur' runs in the family. My grandfather was born at South Cadbury which, some claim, is the seat of King Arthur's Camelot. I have two tapestries of Pre-Raphaelite scenes of the Round Table knights and their ladies.

The sea on the Atlantic side of Britain is spectacular, but I find, as I get older, I fear it more and actually do prefer mountain streams. I've never enjoyed swimming, either, and abandoned lessons as soon as the chance came.

Thanks kindly for your appreciation.

Ah well, you see, Katia, Tintagel is a magical place, depicted in the picture above. The West Country is God's Own :-) My mother's was the maritime family from Hampshire, but my father's folks were concentrated in South and West Somerset. The name 'Arthur' runs in the family. My grandfather was born at South Cadbury which, some claim, is the seat of King Arthur's Camelot. I have two tapestries of Pre-Raphaelite scenes of the Round Table knights and their ladies. The sea on the Atlantic side of Britain is spectacular, but I find, as I get older, I fear it more and actually do prefer mountain streams. I've never enjoyed swimming, either, and abandoned lessons as soon as the chance came. Thanks kindly for your appreciation.
Anonymous on Saturday, 02 May 2015 05:18

Quite a lot of history squeezed into a fairly small space. Over recent years I've supplemented my time in England with movies and TV shows from there. (Foyle's War, as you know, has been my favorite.) Even with the increase in population the landscapes still seem breathtaking and vast. I've never been on a cruise ship and have had no desire to do so, but I recall the troop ships going over to England and returning to the U.S. with great nostalgia. Sitting on the deck -- not on deck chairs but on the deck -- in the silent dark of night was as serene an experience as I could ever imagine. The middle of the ocean. What could be quieter? I think of Brendan setting out in ships that might not have been all that sea worthy to discover what lay out there beyond the horizon. Two days ago, 29 April, I celebrated my return from England and my discharge from the Air Force 61 years ago. I only regret that I didn't get to know the country and the people better.

Quite a lot of history squeezed into a fairly small space. Over recent years I've supplemented my time in England with movies and TV shows from there. (Foyle's War, as you know, has been my favorite.) Even with the increase in population the landscapes still seem breathtaking and vast. I've never been on a cruise ship and have had no desire to do so, but I recall the troop ships going over to England and returning to the U.S. with great nostalgia. Sitting on the deck -- not on deck chairs but on the deck -- in the silent dark of night was as serene an experience as I could ever imagine. The middle of the ocean. What could be quieter? I think of Brendan setting out in ships that might not have been all that sea worthy to discover what lay out there beyond the horizon. Two days ago, 29 April, I celebrated my return from England and my discharge from the Air Force 61 years ago. I only regret that I didn't get to know the country and the people better.
Rosy Cole on Sunday, 03 May 2015 17:53

I'm glad you got a chance to see some it, even under those circumstances, Charlie. Knowing another Foyle's War aficionado has given me a chance to reminisce, because the tenor of life, the fashions, the mores, were extant long into my childhood after WWII.

Reputedly, Britain has the greatest diversity and landscape and peoples for its size on the globe. It's a pity quite so many of us are concentrated in the South because it hikes the price of property well out of proportion with the national average.

Those troop ships beg some stories!

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

I'm glad you got a chance to see some it, even under those circumstances, Charlie. Knowing another [i]Foyle's War[/i] aficionado has given me a chance to reminisce, because the tenor of life, the fashions, the mores, were extant long into my childhood after WWII. Reputedly, Britain has the greatest diversity and landscape and peoples for its size on the globe. It's a pity quite so many of us are concentrated in the South because it hikes the price of property well out of proportion with the national average. Those troop ships beg some stories! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Anonymous on Sunday, 03 May 2015 18:54

Funny. I got up at 3am and as I passed the computer I switched on the monitor and saw that I had an email from a cousin in Oregon.
Thought I should send a quick reply. Two hours. By then I was wound up and needed something to wind down so I pulled up an episode of Foyle's War. I've seen them all several times. But I enjoyed it -- just watching consummate pros do what they do. Thought I should go back to bad and get some more sleep but checked my emails first. Comments from Green Room. Then more. I can't let these things go until later. 2pm now. I must get some more sleep. Oh, well, if the internet hadn't come along while I was wondering
what to do next I wouldn't know all these interesting people from all these places. Foyle's War forever!

Funny. I got up at 3am and as I passed the computer I switched on the monitor and saw that I had an email from a cousin in Oregon. Thought I should send a quick reply. Two hours. By then I was wound up and needed something to wind down so I pulled up an episode of Foyle's War. I've seen them all several times. But I enjoyed it -- just watching consummate pros do what they do. Thought I should go back to bad and get some more sleep but checked my emails first. Comments from Green Room. Then more. I can't let these things go until later. 2pm now. I must get some more sleep. Oh, well, if the internet hadn't come along while I was wondering what to do next I wouldn't know all these interesting people from all these places. Foyle's War forever!
Anonymous on Sunday, 03 May 2015 18:12

Comment on comment by Barbara Froman: In no order, I had to think of Pavarotti, years ago, being booed at La Scala. Maybe he had an off night, maybe the audience just wanted more than they'd paid for. But the kind of scene described concerning the laryngitic opera singer almost chokes me up and I don't choke up easily. But the way fine arts and inspired creation have survived in so many countries that have been subjected to brutality, centuries of it, often home-grown, proves something about the human heart. We can hope and often see evidenced that the works and memories of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Shumann (Traumerai!), Monet, Manet and legions of those who preferred bringing beauty and gentleness to their worlds to waging barbarity on other humans will outlast those of their leaders. I'm
happy that you were able to make that visit and bring it to us.

Comment on comment by Barbara Froman: In no order, I had to think of Pavarotti, years ago, being booed at La Scala. Maybe he had an off night, maybe the audience just wanted more than they'd paid for. But the kind of scene described concerning the laryngitic opera singer almost chokes me up and I don't choke up easily. But the way fine arts and inspired creation have survived in so many countries that have been subjected to brutality, centuries of it, often home-grown, proves something about the human heart. We can hope and often see evidenced that the works and memories of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Shumann (Traumerai!), Monet, Manet and legions of those who preferred bringing beauty and gentleness to their worlds to waging barbarity on other humans will outlast those of their leaders. I'm happy that you were able to make that visit and bring it to us.
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