Rule Two regarding life in England: The press is generally horrid.
I have only been on English soil two days and already the press exasperates me.
I rarely see people buy newspapers as they either subscribe online or they read the free newspapers found at any rail or Tube station.
The free paper Metro, suitable for relieving boredom when you literally have naught else to read or for wrapping fish in, reported that a bungling BBC reporter says the Queen is dead, then claims tweets were sent by someone else.
I can’t decide what is more frightening: that reporters have to invent stories, or how quickly her tweets were picked up by foreign news outlets, including CNN in the US and Bild in Germany.
The reporter claimed that she was the victim of a prankster.
Her bosses claimed that the tweets were sent during a dry run for reporting a royal death.
The Daily Mail reported that the reason British blood banks were finding it harder and harder to replace their declining stock is that migrants are refusing to contribute.
My best friend’s wife, a migrant from Australia, is incensed.
She is a regular blood donor.
She says that it is not that migrants refuse to donate blood, but rather it is the migrants leaving Britain in disgust.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I visited Winchester and felt somewhat deflated by the experience.
Winchester truly feels like a temple devoted to the God of the sale of goods rather than a tourist town, which I suppose could be viewed both positively and negatively.
As a first-timer I found signage haphazard and maps confusing and had to rely on following other people who seemed to know where they were going more than I did.
Winchester, to be fair, is not an unattractive town, but it certainly does not feel like a place that once was one of the mightiest settlements in England.
The Romans started the place as Venta Belgarum, the 5th largest town in Britain, but it was Alfred the Great who gave Winchester real status when he made it the capital of his Wessex kingdom in the 9th century.
Winchester once held the allure of London.
Coronations were held in the cathedral here.
Its bishops became chancellors of England.
Days of glory, pomp and circumstance ended when Winchester sided with royalty in the English Civil War and never recovered from that mistake.
The Cathedral is much like yours truly…
The exterior is not the best feature.
We are both squat and massive to observe and stand apart from our neat pristine surroundings, but our interiors are rich and complex.
If it was the intention of the cathedral’s architects to design a building that intimidates, then as Europe’s largest medieval church, Winchester Cathedral succeeds grandly.
If the huge high long ceilings don’t make you feel small, then the array of the famous deceased beneath its floor will remind you of your insignificance compared to the former great and mighty.
Jane Austin, one of England’s greatest novelists, is buried here.
Kings pre-Conquest (pre-1066) are interred here including Knut (Canute).
William Rufus lies in the presbytery, killed in the nearby New Forest in a hunting “accident”.
St. Swithun is also buried here despite his request to be left outside in the churchyard.
His remains were brought inside so that the “rain of heaven” would no longer fall upon him.
Swithun remains displeased by this decision.
The legend goes that if it rains on St. Swithun’s Day (15 July) it will continue to rain for another forty.
An oddity of the Cathedral is the due that is given a diver, complete with bust of a man’s head in diving gear.
William Walker, in the early years of the 20th century(1906 – 1912), saved the Cathedral from certain demise.
The Cathedral was built on a marsh and even today the Norman crypt to the north of the Cathedral is rarely open due to flooding.
Walker dove under the Cathedral and spent five years replacing the rotting timber foundations with concrete and brick.
The staff of the Cathedral are friendly and helpful, but nonetheless the Cathedral lacks charm.
It does not seduce as much as it dominates.
Many a tour group was being led around me, but I opted to discover things myself.
I wanted to experience the place one-to-one.
A large group of French students were gratefully surprised that Someone could speak French with them, while the Germans seemed grumpy at the cheerfulness of their group leader.
What was evident was that the Cathedral was eager to offer assistance, for it was a rare alcove that didn’t advertise tours focused on one theme or another: World War 1, Jane Austen, St. Swithun, stained glass, an eaves tour, the list endless.
Much like the town of Winchester itself, the Cathedral has transformed itself into a temple of merchandise.
The second sight in the area I wanted to see was the Jane Austen House Museum, but reaching it as a pedestrian is an exercise in determination.
First one must find the bus, then one travels 15 miles to arrive in the village of Alton, (home terminus of the steam train line, the Watercress), to find that you must either take a £7.00 taxi ride or walk along busy roads in the hot sun to reach the hamlet of Chawton.
This complicated method for non-drivers to reach Chawton Cottage (Jane’s home) not only makes no sense but tests the tolerance of one’s sensibilities.
The Jane Austen House Museum is yet another clear example of how much a 6’5″/1.94 metres man like myself would not have blended in former times.
I constantly had to bend my frame to pass through doorways between the rooms and into the buildings themselves.
Jane Austen, herself stood 5’6″, which for the 18th/19th centuries was considered tall for a woman.
She was born on 16 December 1775 and died 18 July 1817 and lived at Chawton Cottage most of the last eight years of her life, the years she was most prolific and published.
Jane’s life was a bittersweet one.
Her works, filled with fundamentally comic observations about the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security, were usually popular, but were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime.
She died unmarried and was largely self-educated.
Her writing, perhaps as a result, was experimental, risqué.
Yet she seemed, from what we know of her life, to have been mostly happy.
She lived in an open, easy intellectual environment where ideas were openly discussed on all matters political or social and had many friends and was beloved and respected by her family.
Jane mocked popular novels of her time, parodied historical writing and the Gothic novel.
For her time, she was boisterous and anarchic, and had she lived in later times a fitting addition to Monty Python’s Flying Circus!
Jane is famous, as a result of later Hollywood/BBC movies, for Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park.
Personally I like Lady Susan, a novella about a sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray and abuse her victims, whether they were lovers, friends or family, with a force of character greater than anyone she encounters.
Lady Susan reminds me of my own past with women!
Much ado is made regarding a small ring in the collection on display.
The American performer Kelly Clarkson wanted to buy a ring that Jane Austen once wore.
Massive protests were heard across England and among Austen fans to keep English heritage in England where it belongs.
Funds were quickly organised to ensure that Jane’s ring remains in Chowton.
Yet at no time do the English see the hypocrisy inherent in keeping the heritage of other nations upon their shores or the Elgin Marbles would have been returned to Greece a long time ago.
The train services back to Swanwick were delayed as someone had been hit by a train.
No one seemed concerned that a life had been lost but rather annoyed by the inconvenience this person had caused to the schedule.
Back in my friends’ flat and the warmth of their welcome, I reflected at how England reminded me of Switzerland.
Both nations feel separate and isolated from the rest of Europe and are content to remain this way.
Both countries are expensive to live in and travel about.
Both have a quiet sense of superiority about themselves and see little reason to change, unless it is profitable to do so.
In a way, the Metro story aforementioned is very characteristic of England herself.
Rumours of her glory’s demise may be broadcast about the world but she quietly remains ever certain of her constancy.