Friday, June 01, 2007

A sense of place

I am that rare creature, someone who is completely English. I used to envy friends who could boast mixed ancestry as they always seemed to have a richer life, spending their school holidays abroad visiting eccentric relatives. I have a couple of friends who have Irish mothers and thanks to the post-war diaspora of people from Ireland, they have uncles and aunts in every port. My family doesn't even come from another part of England. Both sides originate from the Home Counties and the most daring thing we ever did was to move to London in the 1840s and leave it 150 years later.

And it wasn't even as if we could say that we'd lived here for thousands of years. According to received wisdom, we were descended from Danish and German invaders who usurped the native Britons in the fifth century. It might sound a long time ago, but go to certain parts of Wales and they're still angry about it.

A few years ago I decided to walk the South Downs Way, which is almost exactly 100 miles, starting in Winchester and ending at the sea in Eastbourne. Most of the paths were routes that had been in use for thousands of years. I felt a sense of connection with all of the people who had used these paths in the past, whether they were hunters, Roman legionnaires or shepherds. But I knew that it was unlikely that I was descended from any of them and in some ways, I felt like an interloper.

However, recent DNA tests have turned conventional wisdom on its head. It now seems that most people in Britain are descended from settlers who arrived after the last ice age, 20,000 years ago and I like that. I don't have any dodgy racial agenda. I just believe that an awareness of our past protects us from the ephemeral values of capitalism and gives us a sense of perspective.

I am lucky enough to live in Lewes - a town centred around an 800-year-old castle with an eclectic mix of buildings including a medieval priory and a 15th-century shop. My house is relatively modern, built in 1890, but it's situated on a 12-century battlefield. When I walk through the town I feel that my life is a very small part of the story of Lewes. That may sound trite as it's a truism, but look at the number of towns and cities who survived the Luftwaffe only to to ruined by the greed and short-termism of post-war town planning. Lewes almost became a victim but common sense prevailed and everywhere I look, the dead live among us.

This is a very rambling post, written after several glasses of wine which I awarded myself after a hard day, but I hope you see my point: the past is a buffer, a defence against those people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That doesn't mean going back to the past. I have no nostalgia for the age of racism, backstreet abortions and intolerance towards homosexuals. However, we need to be freed from the tyranny of the present so that we can get things into perspective.

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