Sunday, 27 August 2017

Enid Blyton's England still exists

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Jenni Russell wrote in The Times on Thursday about how danger and novelty make time slow down. We all know this and it has been investigated in a book called The Brain, by scientist David Eagleman. 

He has proved, she said,

that we don’t actually slow down our perception of time in a crisis because he tested that by giving volunteers digital wrist displays and inducing terror by dropping them backwards into a net down a 150 ft shaft. If they could slow time they could have read the rapidly changing displays. That proved impossible.
So it just seems that time slows down or speeds up. And the best way to make time seem to slow down, short of feeling in danger, is by new experiences, such as new places. 

Graham Greene wrote a short story about a dying man who moved his bed in his large house from room to room to make his remaining time seem longer.

I always knew that contrast is the stuff of life. This has a large bearing on the question of whether to relax on holiday in the same place, not doing much, or to cram in a lot. I do the latter and today I feel, after three weeks away, that I've had about ten holidays.

And zig-zagging around Southern England by train from far west to far east I saw that England is the loveliest of all countries (Italy and Romania perhaps excepted). Outside a few tourist traps it has almost as few foreign tourists as Albania and is delightfully cool in
August. It was 42 degrees on my last day in Bucharest (108) but in England for my two weeks the temperature rarely reached 23. I was very grateful.

A practical note. If you live outside Great Britain you can buy an Interrail pass that allows you to travel where you please by rail in Britain and the continent. You can do things cheaper if you buy tickets months ahead but an Interrail is useful if, like me, you don't like to plan your journey. From this year it applies on Eurostar, for crossing the English Channel, as well on French TGVs (these are very big savings that make it a great bargain).

The best thing in my holiday was the taxi drive yesterday at sunrise down the empty embankment of the Seine from the Gare de Nord to Porte Maillot, where I caught the bus for Beauvais airport. 

Or perhaps, because post-Communist Europe always beats the West, the best thing was the first day, in Timisoara in western Romania, where I had a ten hour stopover and it was 41 degrees Celsius, which is 108 Fahrenheit. Almost too hot to explore but I did so. 
I had been told it was popular with Japanese on guided tours but it was empty. Everyone stayed indoors.

Timisoara is a beautiful city,  the most beautiful in Romania. It has one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, now called Piata Unirii, on which stand two delicious baroque cathedrals, one Catholic and one Serbian Orthodox. Timisoara also has a rather ugly Romanian Orthodox one built after Timisoara ended up in Romania, to show 'We are the masters now', and a striking synagogue. Hapsburg architecture mixed, in the cruel heat, with Latin America. 

I wrote about Timisoara here

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But probably the best part of the three weeks was my wonderful twenty four hours in the Scilly Islands, which I wrote about here.

It felt great to be back in kindly, comfortable, decent England and in beautiful Colchester, the Roman capital of Britain before the Romans moved the capital to London. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth said Colchester was named after Old King Cole, whom Geoffrey probably invented. The better view is that it is named after the River Colne.

By coincidence I was reading Eamon Duffy on the reign of Mary Tudor. A very large proportion of the 280 Protestants she burnt were burnt in Colchester. In fairness to Mary, her sister Elizabeth hanged drew and quartered hundreds of Catholics and her father Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of Catholics.

Sudbury and the Gainsborough Museum. I am indifferent to Gainsborough, as opposed to Turner and (to a certain extent) Constable, whom I actively dislike, but Sudbury is unusual (unique?) among English towns in having a museum devoted to one of the world's great painters. It is charming and very English, as is the town. Do go, if you are nearby.

I went from Colchester, thirty minutes via the semi-mythical Mark's Tey to Sudbury branch line. The real England is glimpsed best from branch lines, not Intercity or still less suburban lines. The same is possibly true of life.

Glossy London. Where have the years gone since aged twenty I first knew South Kensington?

The West End. Clubs. A haircut at Trumper's. Bookshops in Mayfair. The London of books and black and white films. Still there, but much pricier. 
The British Museum is by far the biggest sight in the city.

Phantom of the Opera was great fun for the second time with nephews and nieces. 

They left me to go alone to the Wallace collection, a great art collection in a beautiful house, which I simply love. It later cost some chicanery, a cab fare and holding out the attractiveness of afternoon tea in the covered garden to get them to go there and they still did not look at the pictures. They said art is not their thing. I said beauty is truth, truth beauty, but they said Keats is now considered out of date.

Other great moments? Dinners with friends. Good conversation with clever people. English cooking. I ate three steak and kidney pies and portions of three summer puddings, accompanied by pudding wine each time.

Ruth Dudley Edwards invited me to dinner at the Reform Club, which was open for August having been lent to Cartier for six weeks for them to use as an emporium. It netted the club £1.2 million and Cartier many, many times more.

She said she went to a conference on 'What do we do about English nationalism?' at which everyone was very friendly until she said she voted for Brexit. 

I picked up the Evening Standard and found it has become a relentlessly anti-Brexit magazine. So much so that I didn't take it seriously. The vendetta on George Osborne's part felt rather embarrassing. Newspapers should pretend to be objective, just as materialistic girls pretend to love sugar daddies.

There were two men on the club table at the City University Club. One had voted for and one against Brexit. Both were now in favour of it. They said that a lot of people in the City had voted Leave and everyone now accepted it and wanted to get on with it.

When I lived in London in my twenties it never occurred to me that people lived in the countryside, but they do. People as deserving of respect as Londoners.

My travels outside London began accidentally with a beautiful journey to Exeter. I chose to go almost at random and found myself in the last Pullman restaurant car in the country, with three single men of my age who kept calling for gin and Chablis. I felt I'd joined an offbeat club. How nice men are. A great sex. 

Before privatisation there were 270 such carriages, which strengthens my suspicion that privatisation was a mistake.

Exeter Cathedral, the best example of the Decorated style, then lovely and eccentric Totnes, once colonised by hippies who as a consequence are now very rich. It has very few chain shores and supposedly its own currency. 

Cornwall. The Looe scenic railway was a bit of an anticlimax. Looe bulged with parents and darling kiddies. Then the gorgeous granite village of Madron, two miles from Penzance, where I stayed with a friend. Very Cornish. Very un-English.

I love the Cornish race (they are of course Celts) and hope they retain their identity, which they have done since the early first millennium. However, my friend, unfortunately, gets a lot of hostility because she is an Anglo-Saxon,
an Emmet or furriner, not Cornish.

I hitch-hiked into Penzance and walked to St Michael's Mount. The walk was hauntingly beautiful in the drizzle last year. This year, almost disappointingly, the rain stopped before I set out after a lazy breakfast at the Longboat public house.

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St Michael's Mount
St Ives is very much more beautiful than any painting in its innumerable galleries. Its sky is an incomparable blue. It gets a great number of tourists but it can absorb them.

Outside London, the Home Counties and the built up areas, I found that England is still the England of Enid Blyton, the imaginary homeland of all nicely brought up English people of all classes. The horrors of modernity seemed invisible. 

Feminism meant female station-masters, but I noticed few other things that would have raised Miss Blyton's eyebrow. 

An introduction in the Tate Gallery St Ives of an exhibition, explaining a sculptor's exploration of his 'gender fluidity' via the plates he made, did not seem her cup of tea, even though she was reputedly pretty gender fluid herself. His eureka moment was when he saw that his plates (or was it tea cups?) would have the wavy 'crimps' found on a Cornish pastie. This seemed more her thing.

The explanation of the exhibition was there but there was no exhibition nor any cups. Perhaps it was an elaborate joke. I'd like to think so, but nothing suggested that anyone in the Tate Gallery had any sense of humour. In fact, the gallery had just small exhibitions of two very uninteresting artists. 
The £10 ticket (and £1 donation) was a swizz, as Nigel Molesworth would say, but the restaurant served excellent moules marinière and had great views of the sea and town.

Westbury in Wiltshire and its horse etched into the chalk of the hillside to greet the usurpation of the throne by George, Elector of Hanover. The local politician who bought me lunch said the road signs were stolen and sold as scrap metal.

'Who would do that?' 

'Gypsies, but I wouldn't say that if I were in London.'

Bath on the one warm day. Lots of people there are trying to make money via Jane Austen. I remembered Humphrey Clinker and the New Bath Guide. Do people read either? Clinker is extremely funny.

Ely is astonishingly lovely. Did I go there only once in my four years at nearby Cambridge? I recommend it and the famous Old Fire Engine restaurant. And it's only just over an hour from King's Cross.

I stayed a couple of nights in Overstrand, a tiny place on the north Norfolk coast, built by three Edwardian plutocrats of the sort that King Edward VII cultivated. One house, called Seamarge, was built by a German British American Jewish financier who built the first three London tube lines (far too deep), funded the Proms, was falsely accused of signalling from here to German warships and was eventually stripped of his British citizenship. Seamarge is now a good restaurant and hotel - and feels like the setting for an Agatha Christie or Enid Blyton story.

Much more beautiful is an arts and crafts mansion by Lutyens called The Pleasaunce.

The Pleasaunce
Coming straight from the exciting Atlantic pounding Cornwall, the quiet, flat Edwardian coast of Norfolk might seem dull to some, but not to me.

I grew up in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, and am therefore not easily impressed by coastal towns, but the walk along the beach or along the rather wild cliffs to Cromer is unforgettable. Cromer after two miles rears up like an Italian coastal town.

I thought of The Riddle of the Sands. Cromer seemed 1940s children's story stuff too, though with charity shops and a rough edge, but hours after I left it was 'closed down' by the police, due to what the Daily Express called gypsy riots. But then there were badly behaved gypsies in Enid Blyton too.

Walsingham - the English Lourdes and a numinous, holy place, despite the Protestant destruction of the monastery. And lovely Norwich. I prefer the city and close at Norwich to Exeter, but prefer Exeter cathedral. And then by train to Avignon (the journey from St. Pancras took six hours). France requires her own post.


  1. Beauvais itself is perhaps more beautiful than Paris, but I only saw the airport this time. Next time I'll return via very cheap flights just for a weekend in Beauvais.

  2. I tried reading famous five books to my kids but they are SO sexist and classist I had to keep interrupting the story to say things like we no longer compliment a girl by saying she's almost as good as a boy. So I gave up.

    1. Janet, I met a number of Blyton fans in the Scillies. One said she had given all the Famous Fives to her daughter and expressed pleasure that the bowdlerised version had flopped.

  3. The very best satire on them was done by the Comic strip in the 1980's particularly Uncle Quentin , filmed at a friends of mine in Devon. They remain an imaginary world for people of low imagination who cannot cope in the reality of modern times and wish for a return to the naive world of the nursery where nothing was known and therefore everything was feared.


  4. Carlyle said that the past is attractive because it is drained of fear.

  5. Bewitching is the best description of Top'sham (that's the local pronunciation as they are very proud to be serfs of the Top family 900 years ago)
    Next time you are here if you are free for lunch there is a pub the other side of the estuary only accessible by boat or long walk (I favour boat). Food is ok but the setting so magical that last year Prince Harry had his birthday party there and the leader of the opposition had lunch there before a party conference.
    The topsham Dutch architecture is said to stem from the days when there was much trade with the Low Countries.
    Buy a holiday home there and I can see more of you!

  6. Of course the real England has always been in its countryside. That wonderful (but misguided) 19th century song "Jerusalem" spoke of England's "green and pleasant" land; the cities were the repositories of those "dark, satanic mills". Your account of your recent travels around England confirms this view (it seems you certainly got good value for your Interail pass!). I know well many of the places of which you wrote. Like you, among my favourites are the city of Norwich and the north Norfolk coast. I once tried to buy a holiday home in Cromer but was gazumped (how many of your Romanian readers will understand that term??) almost at the end of the purchase process, so I gave up after that. I succeeded in persuading a succession of girlfriends to get up early to go with me to Beeston Bump to witness the sunrise, and I often took my ageing grandmother to Blakeney for afternoon tea. Ah, happy days. Thank you for a few moments of pleasurable nostalgia, and congratulations on an entertaining travelogue.

    1. The countryside in every country is the real country. It's sad to see the loathing for rural America that was displayed by American intellectuals after Donald Trump's victory last year. Romanians sometimes view the people in the countrywide in a disparaging way too but for other reasons.
      On the other hand the countryside though beautiful is what Sydney Smith called it, a kind of healthy grave.
      I love country towns more than the countryside. England excels in them.

    2. I had intended to blog every day but didn't so I fear it reads like a long catalogue of places. A bit like Churchill's pudding that had no theme.

  7. Thank you, Paul. Enchanting.