A few weeks before Gorgeous Dunny and his delightful partner Sim left these shores, GD sent me the piece published below. This was the accompanying email:
I’m aiming on this journey to do a series of articles, loosely titled Journey Into My Past. I’m hoping to fuse my English-origin heritage views with some of my childhood perceptions, along with general reflections on life and values.
In particular I’m trying to articulate what made us what we are. The English-speaking peoples, as Winston liked to call them, have had a dominant influence over the past two centuries. It will last a while longer despite the rise of China and India. I’m trying to highlight what got them in this position. I don’t think it was any special virtue or industry, but more a series of events and the pragmatic way they adapted: taking something from the past and building on it.
The attached is intended as a preamble to where I’d like to go. I may not get there, since I’m keeping an open mind. It is also a useful digression from the horrors of Abbott-Murdoch government.
I would value your opinion on this piece and the general aim. You are free to run it at The Pub if you think it is interesting enough, but my main intent at present is just to test the waters.
I look forward to any feedback you may offer … at your leisure.
As always, GD, your thoughts are well worth publishing. Your travel experiences will be equally welcomed.
I wish you calm seas (airs) and a prosperous voyage, and a very happy and fulfilling time.
This series of stories relates to my reaching into my past. It is in both senses of the word: drawing on my boyhood education and experience, and reaching out into my ancestral influences.
It was inspired by my plans to visit England for the first time in my life. At 73 years, I am old enough to reflect on life influences. My known ancestral origins are flimsy enough not to justify too much time. My paternal ancestors appear to have come from Lincolnshire. My father’s mother, an Alderman, had grandparents from Wiltshire. I have no substantial information on my maternal ancestry of the Mortimers and O’Donnells.
So my journey to the Old Country on ancestry will not occupy much of the three weeks I will have there. In truth I had not had a burning desire to go there until my partner Sim expressed a desire to go. She is of Chinese Malaysian origins. She won a nursing cadetship for two years in England in the 1960s. An old friend from that time is living in the Midlands and is in poor health. Sim wants to see her again while there is still time.
We planned it with that in mind. However, later she indicated that a few hours would be sufficient and we could travel the rest of our time. I had limited funds and started travel plans with that in mind. I wanted to accrue the maximum I could within that limit and time.
I’d had an earlier career in tourism and used that experience in research and planning. Although that is over 30 years ago, a lot of the skills still remain in getting the best value. In addition, what can be found online now makes it easier than it was during my working days. I soon got used to checking out almost anything.
Once I got beyond the key basic points of air transport and accommodation I could look at what we wanted to see in the time we had. Sim’s friend and her husband live in the Midlands. I decided to fly to Birmingham Airport for that reason. It was an accidental but inspired choice as it turned out.
Also incidental was my decision to use the Britrail Pass for getting around. A variety of schemes were on offer. Since we were staying in England for three weeks, we settled on the 15-days (in one month) Flexipass. I also purchased a Metro London Oyster pass for the six days we’d have there. That meant that the 15 days of the Flexipass was ample for our requirements.
Although first class rail was barely needed (and on some services not available) for the relatively short distances, I decided to purchase for the modest extra expense above standard class. Aside from marginal extra comfort, it will almost certainly allow us seats on most services without advance notice. We will be travelling in the peak summer months, and some destinations can be much in demand for standard seats. There are also the minor perks of tea and newspapers.
An accidental discovery/purchase in an Op Shop here of a booklet on Hadrian’s Wall really got me going on planning. It re-awakened a childhood interest I’d had in Roman-occupied Britain. I thought more about British history and my childhood education on it.
My schooling was in the early post-War years in South Australia. It is fair to say that it was very much an Anglophile view of the world then. At Gawler Primary School, which I attended from 1948 to 1954, we had daily school assembly where we were marched into classroom lines. It began with the Oath of Allegiance.
I am an Australian
I love my country, the British Empire
I salute her flag, the Union Jack
I honour her King, King George VI
I promise cheerfully to obey her laws.
In later years the Monarch line became “… Queen, Queen Elizabeth II”. Another change soon after was the changing of the word “Empire” to “Commonwealth”. It took the teachers a few days of prompting to get that right. Probably it reflected the unavoidable reality that we were a self-governing Dominion. Yet the “…my country…” remained. It reflected the ambiguity.
We saw ourselves as Australians, especially in sport. But part of us remained British. Our passports then were headed “British Subject”. Personally, I like to think I found it offensive even then.
It was certainly against my Labor-Australian nationalist view, but that probably didn’t really occur until I was an adult. By then I resented the subservient word “subject” as much as “British”. As children, however, we saw the world as out-posted British subjects.
I remember our class teacher for grade 5 and grade 6 (1952 and 1953) Mr Horsnell talking enthusiastically on British history. Most of our teachers had served during the War. Although I didn’t know at the time, I’m sure a few probably qualified as teachers under Post-War Repatriation program scholarships.
We were told of the Roman conquest and occupation. Boadicea was portrayed as a hero for leading a rebellion. We were led to believe that the Celtic Britons offered some resistance but were outmatched in war by the Romans. We showed patriotic empathy for the Britons.
So much so that Mr Horsnell felt it necessary to point to the positives that came from the Roman occupation. Foremost was the civilising influence. Roads, bridges and ports were constructed. Water supply and baths were introduced, and cities with stone buildings were built. The Roman Villa was probably the forerunner of the manors and country estates later to dominate. Very likely the words “villain” and “village” derived from it. The Romans brought villages, towns and cities to Britain. Celtic huts and cottages were primitive in comparison. The Britons gradually accepted the more advanced civilisation, which later brought Christianity to Britain.
The forays, invasions and then settlements of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, at least from the account given by Bede, presented a few problems for this empathy view. Then the theory was that the Britons were swept aside: that those surviving ended up in Wales and the more remote western parts. The rest were exterminated.
Explaining that in an empathetic manner to schoolchildren was not easy. Our teacher went along with the official line that the invaders, though our ancestors, were barbaric and wilfully cast aside the civilising parts of Roman Britain. In addition, they went back to pagan gods (which explains how some of our days like Wednesday and Thursday got their names) from Christian Britain. And that it took St Augustine coming to get it back on the Christian path.
I didn’t like the Anglo-Saxons much on that account, ancestors or not. More recent historical research has suggested a more nuanced view. That is, the Saxons and others may well have come there over a longer period. That the Romans might well have asked them to come as mercenaries or allies to boost a thin Roman force against other invaders. If they were capable warriors it would have helped.
They have also suggested that the Anglo-Saxons out-fought the Briton elite once the Romans had gone, and became the new elite. Germanic Old English and not the Celtic languages became the primary language. It might have been more convenient for trade.
Far from trashing the Roman influence, they seemed to adapt to it. They did bring their pagan gods, but gradually became Christian. The Viking-Danish raids and then conquests and settlements led to a further phase under Danelaw. They came to control about a third of the country (albeit it was not then really a single country but several kingdoms).
Their Norse language was closely related to the Germanic Old English. It probably led to a hybrid English language being formed. The Norman conquerors, however, had since settling at Normandy adopted French as their primary language. French did not take on as well with the conquered people. Over time it was easier for Normans to adapt to English than the other way round.
A peculiarity, as English evolved, was the variations in dialect and vocabulary in the different counties. The example given us was the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written in the North. It differs from Mallory’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, even though from the same mythology that led to it.
The legend of King Arthur and Camelot provides examples of how such events, if they did occur, can be purloined for national identity. The Welsh refer to him as “the once and future king”. At school we’d imagined him as a Briton king resisting the Romans. However, since the name was Roman-origin, it seems more likely he led resistance against the Anglo-Saxons. He probably passed into English folklore as they integrated with the Celts. And perhaps he was the symbol of a better age before the Norman Conquest.
The legend of King Arthur made its way into Norman folklore, and possibly thence into French. It might have helped that the greatest knight, Sir Lancelot, was French. Both cultures emphasised castles, monasteries and chivalry.
Other folk legend heroes such as Robin Hood and Hereward had their origins in Norman oppression. I gained an impression that it was ruthless and brutal in the early centuries. It softened a little with the Black Plague, and later the ending of French possessions. Anglicising would have occurred from then. The island separation from the Continent then allowed a more local development.
It is that isolation that contributed to its development in the succeeding centuries. Prior to larger-scale trade and capitalism, feudal wealth came from land ownership and what could be produced from it. The barons and landowners quickly realised that they had no wealth from their land unless crops were harvested and livestock were raised.
The Black Plague took out at least half and probably more than that of the labouring classes. There were not enough to do the work, and owners had to bid for those that were available. It ended serfdom and led to higher wages. Lords fought rearguard actions to suppress wages. They were only partly successful. More independent workers and yeoman helped contribute to more upward mobility and independent thinking. The corruption in episcopal and monasterial control of worship and lives was challenged.
That occurred more than a century before Henry VIII’s severing of ties to the Catholic Church. It was during the Tudor reign, however, that England emerged as a single monarchy with a strong growing navy. The Renaissance era was most conspicuous through the development of theatre in the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
The emergence of the Puritans challenged the Church’s dominance in social control. Catholic versus anti-Catholic squabbles was just the beginning. So there was upward mobility, gradual freedom of expression and being open to new ideas. The creation of a navy under Alfred became still bigger under the Tudors, leading to an imperial expansion.
So the modern nation started to take shape from about the time of the Magna Carta in 1215. Politically, most of the landmarks are about the limits of power: how the rights of subjects are maintained in return for loyalty and obedience. It is simplifying to suggest it was a continuum, or that most were not won without bloodshed. Over generations it gradually extended to common law and to all.
Culturally, the Renaissance came a little later than it had to other parts of Europe. Chaucer was an early example is a poet/diplomat, helping to establish English over Latin or French for poetry. It reached a maturing during the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. In poetry, the flowering of Spenser and Shakespeare soon led to the Metaphysical Poets. And the King James Version of the Bible was an outstanding literary achievement in addition to putting the sacred text into English.
Despite Civil War and several revolutions, the 17th and early 18th centuries offered a transition to the Age of Enlightenment and the rapid growth in science following Newton. Wealth from the growing empire encouraged enquiry.
The Canal Age expedited transport and trade. Some brilliant engineering occurred and that was to continue during the Steam Age and the Industrial Revolution. England got a huge jump on the rest of the world, allowing empire and trade to expand through the Victorian Years.
One of Australia’s greatest writers, David Malouf, once commented on the differences between the English settlements in the USA and Australia. America was founded in the Puritan Age; Australia in the Age of Enlightenment.
Our two greatest navigators, Cook and Flinders, mapped our land. Governor Macquarie extended the emancipation of convicts to positions of office. From that the ideas of equality of opportunity flowed to my country.
So there will be much to absorb in just a few weeks as I come to terms with my ancestral origins.