Saturday, 18 June 2016

“Peak Blighty”, Nationalism and Nostalgia - Referendum reflections during a Village Gala.

We drive into the featureless urban sprawl of Portchester with its large 30s houses and 50s and 60s housing estates to deliver my stepson to a Scout Parade which is to precede the local gala. We drop him at the Community Centre and then head for the Roman/Norman Castle which sits on the shoreline at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. With a suddeness we are in the single street of the old village of Portchester leading to the castle. We could be in an ancient village such as Selbourne in the heart of Hampshire. Thatched houses alternate with Georgian, some bearing plaques commemorating the location of the old pillory or an Admiral’s domicile. The tiny village green is surmounted by a large oak tree under which a Salvation Army band plays. We are in the territory of the ‘Village Green Preservation Society.’ Lilac, wisteria and ceanothus abound in front gardens and people throng towards the precincts of the Castle to wait for the Parade to arrive. We are embraced by the warmth of pure Englishness and by the sunshine. There is a kind of rapture about the completeness of this vision and its benignity. It feels like a quotation.

As the parade will take a while we patrol the lines of awnings and stalls set up inside the lawned Castle grounds. I buy a second hand chess set and then we approach St Mary’s, the medium sized Norman church, which is also a feature of the Castle enclosure. The graveyard is dominated by a huge, spreading yew tree whose dark twisted trunk is of enormous girth. The branches touch the North wall of the Church. We pass under a toothed and chevroned Norman arch over the doorway into the interior where a group of campanologists are practising with handbells. The further we penetrate this place and this event the closer it seems to the nostalgia suggested in an article I read recently by the TV critic AA Gill, writing on the inspiration, as he sees it, of the Referendum ‘Leave’ contingent. We explore the church with its Elizabethan roof in the North transept and its reference, in the leaflet guide, to the visit to the church and castle in 1601 by Elizabeth I.

We exit, returning to the enclosure via the lych gate. Three young Latvians(?) in windcheaters pass us pushing an even younger one in a stroller. By now the parade is approaching and the crowd has swelled to a few thousand. I see an attractive long-haired English woman in her thirties in a long flowing dress with bare shoulders decorated, as is her neck, with dark tattoos. Like the Latvians, she pushes a stroller. I look around at the towering Castle keep with its Norman windows and at the crumbling external walls of the enclosure. They are studded with flint and irregularly torn by crude and broken holes which scarcely deserve the name of crenellations but which still evoke a sense of embattlement and siege. Two marching bands enter – a naval cadets’ band and a pipe band from the local Caledonian Society. They are followed by twenty or so senescent local women dressed as belly dancers, their spilling bellies veiled in black patterned voile. My stepson’s troop comes next after a float with Harry Potter maquettes trailed by a gaggle of bespectacled tiny children in academic gowns and stripy paper ties, brandishing wands.

It is all an evocation of another world; the Harry Potter theme and the spur of the idyllic village High Street, culminating in the Castle grounds, jutting into the real sea on one side and into the sea of bland housing estates that surround it, lapping at it on the other. There is no question that this is where we have come from. A curiously English form of nostalgia defines it. It is me and my origins in terms of my consciousness, although I didn’t grow up amidst such antique surroundings. However, the ‘me’ that moves amongst it now also lives elsewhere; this isn’t the place I inhabit physically or mentally. I walk down the street as an observer of the past knowing that the world will change, is changing, has always changed and that any attempt to capture the past, distant or recent, is futile. None of us have a right to demand such fixity, to demand that the present and future be defined by what we are accustomed to, for the world is not and cannot be defined by our experience. The world moves on metalled roads and the only enjoinder upon us is that towards the alertness that can discern where it is going. Like a river it cannot stand still and imposes on us, uniquely, the need to adjust to the passing of time, which will continue to pass, taking no account of our regrets, whether we like it or not.

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