The British and Invasions January 13, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
I watched a few years ago an even then old documentary in which a celebrated/notorious British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell interviewed (God knows how they pulled this off) a Soviet general and shared with him an unusual geographical philosophy. EP said that Britain and Russia were both protected by geography, one by water ‘as a moat defensive to a house’, the other by vast open spaces. The Soviet general looked rather anxious at the comparison. He had probably been given instructions not to agree with EP on anything, but ‘the most dangerous Tory in Britain’ was on fire with it, his eyes were flickering and his head erect (like a lizard) in that curious way he had. And, of course, EP was not and is not alone. The British do get rather excited about the English Channel and anyone who dares to cross it, bearing weapons, gifts or peace. A recent post on invasion paranoia before the First World War got Beach thinking about how old this mentality is. Is it really coincidence, for example, that the original (discuss) inhabitants of Britain and Ireland saw their history in terms of invasions? The national Irish myths that were bandied around by the Gaels as serious history as late as the nineteenth century is called the Lebor Gabala Erenn (The Book of the Takings of Ireland) and describes wave after wave of magical johnny foreigners coming to mess things up for the true born. The British Celts had similar beliefs, though no similar national work survives: there are only fragments that come through to us in medieval Welsh literature. For example, in the tale Lludd and Llefelys.
After a space of time had passed, three afflictions fell on the Island of Britain, so that no one in the islands had ever seen anything like them. The first was a certain race that came, called the Coranieid; and their knowledge was so great, that there was no conversation in the Island, however quietly spoken, which the Coranieid did not know of, if the wind caught it… The second affliction was a shrieking which occurred every May-eve, over every hearth in the Island of Britain. And this went through people’s hearts, and so shocked them that the men went pale and weakened, the women miscarried, the young men and women went mad, and all the animals and trees and earth and waters were left barren. The third affliction was that whatever amount of provisions and food was prepared in the king’s courts, even a year’s provision of meat and drink, none of it could ever be found, except what was eaten up on the first night.
Even more striking is the passage in the greatest of all medieval Welsh tales, Branwen when Bran (king of Britain) orders that his decapitated head (if that sounds confusing it should be remembered that Bran continues to speak for eighty odd years after his head is chopped off) should be buried in the White Hill in London: for a possible connection with the raven legend of the Tower of London see a previous post. And while Bran’s head is there, the storyteller claims, no invasions will come to Britain. In Welsh legend it was Arthur that dug up Bran’s head and so opened the way to devestating attacks on the island, including the invasions of the Saxons (aka the English).
The English, after trashing their British-Celtic predecessors and confirming several unfortunate prejudices, inherited the island mentality and with a mythic conception of space like this – we here, outside bad, you outside, I smite your head outsider… – no wonder the British as a whole continue to look askance at offshore folk. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the British you will know that there are things to be said for and against them in terms of their tolerance and their manners: but that they certainly have a unique way of relating to the wider world. Of course, in defence of the insular Briton lots of pretty bad things have turned up at or close to the White Cliffs over the past two thousand plus years: that SOB Caesar, Napoleon’s flat-bottomed boats, the Luftwaffe, mobile phones, croissants… Our insular Briton buys into the national myth (and it is a myth) that Britain has not been invaded since 1066. He gets a little antsy when he thinks about the Channel Tunnel. And he tends to see dangers as coming to Britian rather than originating there. The only exception I know to this general British tendency is in historical and perhaps particularly archaeological literature where there is a concerted attempt to stress continuity over revolution: an attempt to play down the significance of men with boats and spears. The Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans were, according to this point of view, just so many birthday bumps: a bit of innocent fun, good for adrenalin and a corrective to the quiet life. It goes without saying that, at least in this case, the academics are further from the truth than Colonel Blimp. Any more on Britain’s insular mentality? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
16 Jan 2014: The unimitable Borky writes with an experience that will resonate among Brits: Beach I remember goin’ abroad for the first time when I was nearly thirty on a music biz related thing an’ I don’t know whether it was Belgium’d seemed so unexotic t’the point of bein’ mis’rable [apologies t’any mis’rable Belgirunians readin’ this] but the moment I saw that wall o’ white flash in t’sight on the ferry back I seemed t’be inundated by this monumental tidal wave of countless millennia o’ travel’ers all experiencin’ a kind o’mystical reverie explodin’ in their chests as they each beheld what seemed t’them a sort of enchanted white castle straight out the fairy tales emergin’ from the sea it prob’ly helped I find bein’ suspended upon bottomless abzus o’ black as night water even more harrowin’ than bein’ suspended in bottomless abzus o’ air. I’d always hated the stinkin’ sentimentality o’ Vera Lynn’s White Cliffs song but for a moment I actu’ly understood how much the song’d genuinely meant t’so many an’ I was never able t’hate it quite so much ever again.’ Thanks Borky!