“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So wrote L. P. Hartley as the opening sentence of his 1953 novel, The Go-Between.
I’ve been acting as a bit of a go-between myself recently. A couple of months ago, my cousin Phil and I agreed to collaborate on the production of a book about our great-grandfather and his progeny. Phil is supplying the research and I’m putting the words together. To help share our progress with other relatives, we’ve set up a website called The Gisby Saga. If you’re interested in a period of history stretching from the heyday of the Victorian age to the outbreak of the Second World War, you might find a visit to the website rewarding.
Charlie Gisby was born in 1859 in Margate, a fishing port that had burgeoned into a leading Victorian seaside resort. Charlie lived there for most of his life and died there. Margate is located on the Kent coast – which is in England, of course. I was born in Scotland and have lived there for most of my life. To me, therefore, the past really is a foreign country.
Even though he was a foreigner, I’ve grown rather fond of old Charlie. He was born into the poorest of circumstances; his birthplace was in a narrow lane called Alkali Row, which was also the home of a Victorian soup kitchen. His early years were spent as a fisherman; a life of “the most unremitting toil”, it was once described by Prince Albert, the second son of Queen Victoria. Later, Charlie became a shopkeeper and a businessman. He married two striking women, and suffered the dramatic loss of one of them. He fathered five sons and a daughter. And at the age of fifty-five, he joined the Army and served in the defence of his country throughout the four years of the Great War, receiving two campaign medals and earning himself an Army pension to boot.
The picture of Charlie I have in my mind is that of an adventurer, perhaps a bit of a rogue and most certainly a ladies’ man. They say that even on his deathbed in Margate Hospital at the ripe old age of seventy-nine he had the nurses fawning over him!
I’ve never set foot in the place, but I’ve also grown quite attached to Margate. That old girl has been through an awful lot over the years. I’ve learnt that, in the midst of the prosperity created by all those Victorian holidaymakers flocking to the town to enjoy her sandy beaches and balmy sea air, there was abject poverty among her residents.
I’ve realised that gin-drinking, the “great vice of England” railed against by Charles Dickens at the time, was not confined to the slums of London; it was also rife in the poor quarters of many towns throughout the country, including Margate, and it was the death of my great-grandmother.
I’ve appreciated the mixture of fear and excitement that Charlie Gisby and his neighbours must have felt from the repeated assaults on Margate during the Great War years. On an almost daily basis, there were attacks by German seaplanes, aeroplanes, Zeppelin airships and even flotillas of torpedo boats.
And because there is little doubt that our Charlie was one of his “humble people”, I’ve understood for the first time what T. S. Eliot meant when he penned those haunting lines about Margate in his most famous poem, The Wasteland:
On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing/ The broken fingernails of dirty hands./ My people humble people who expect/ Nothing.
In fact, I feel so connected to Margate that sometimes I think I should make the ultimate romantic gesture of a writer by going to live there, the home of my forebears. Like old Charlie, I could dispel my final breath within a stone’s throw of the sight and sound and smell of an English sea.
But then I get real. I remember the landslide victory of the Scottish National Party in the recent Scottish Parliament elections, bringing with it the tangible prospect of an independent Scotland in the not too distant future. I remember Prime Minister Cameron’s subsequent arrogant call to all “sensible” Scots to preserve the three hundred year-old Union with England by rejecting independence out of hand. And I remember the weasel words of Queen Elizabeth during her “historic” trip to Dublin this week; not finding it within her to utter even a mealy-mouthed apology to the Irish people for the atrocities committed by her Army over hundreds of years, the best she could do was to express her regrets for the past “difficulties” between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Then I ask myself: Do I really want to live out the rest of my life in a country governed by a bunch of Old Etonian toffs, whose hardly hidden political agenda is to put the working classes of Britain, those “humble people” of Eliot’s, back in their place? Do I really want to spend my last days in a land presided over by an overblown monarch who is as relevant to England’s heritage as... well, German sausage? Scotland or England? Sorry, Charlie, but it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Now, where’s my kilt?