On Thursday, Scotland will decide whether to become an independent country. This time next week we might be coming to terms with the end of Britain. I’ve blogged a few times about the independence vote, starting with the 2012 Edinburgh agreement between the UK and Scottish governments to hold a referendum. More recently, I voiced concern that the rest of the country was paying more attention to the Great British Bake Off than the Great British Break Up. That has changed at the eleventh hour as the British establishment finally realised that the union was in deadly peril.
It’s the ultimate British bike ride: from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats on Scotland’s far north coast. The End to End. I did the ride in 2002. I’m now starting to dream about doing it again with my son when he’s older.
To feed that dream, I’ve just read two books about other riders’ End to End experiences. My favourite was Ellie Bennett’s Blood Sweat and Gears. Ellie clearly loved and loathed the experience, a contrast most End to End riders will recognise. The sinking feeling as you see yet another West Country hill looming ahead of you. The dread at the number of miles and hills before that night’s destination. And wondering if the rain will ever stop.
Could this be the summer that sees the end of Britain? Scots could choose independence on 18 September. Yet the Great British Break Up is getting less attention than the Great British Bake Off, at least outside Scotland. Amazingly, the first TV debate between SNP leader Alex Salmond and Better Together’s Alistair Darling wasn’t even shown on TV south of the border.
The D-Day Normandy landings were awe-inspiring for countless reasons: the bravery of young men who risked everything. The sacrifice made by those boys a world away from their homes in America and Canada as well as Britain. The courage of French people resisting a brutal enemy to support their liberation. And the unimaginable scale of the assault on Hitler’s European fortress – one of the greatest feats of organisation as well as arms.
This week’s 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day was humbling and inspiring. Not for the inevitable array of heads of state and government, but for the sight of hundreds of ageing veterans of Operation Overlord visiting the landing beaches for the last time. My generation can hardly imagine what they went through. Next time you’re fretting over a PowerPoint presentation or a cancelled train, think of Normandy 1944.
My mind went back to my mother-in-law Aline’s account of growing up in Sussex during the second world war. Here’s her graphic description of how she and her family found out that D-Day had begun:
“There appeared on the horizon day after day more and more objects; we didn’t know what they were. They covered the horizon as far as you could see, right the way along. And then one night the tugs were going – all night long you could hear them ‘woop-woop; woop-woop’. And my father, who used to go out about seven in the morning came back and said, “You’ll never believe it, they’ve all gone. And we found out later they were the Mulberry harbours.” These were extraordinary prefabricated harbours the size of Dover docks, built in Britain and towed at 5mph to Normandy.
Britain was known as the unsinkable aircraft carrier at this stage in the war because of the millions of troops of many nations stationed here ready for the great invasion. Aline talks about how she and her older sister were befriended by a Canadian solder who was part of the Commonwealth forces encamped near Bognor. Her sister nearly missed an 11 plus exam because a convoy of tanks was passing as she waited to cross to the exam hall. One tank stopped to let her across – stopping the whole convoy! Then one day they discovered the Canadian soldier and his comrades had gone, like the Mulberry harbours, across the channel to France.
Back in 1998, I got the ferry to Ouistreham (Sword beach) and cycled along the D-Day coast to Arromanches. As I freewheeled down the hill towards the town, I could see the remains of the Mulberry harbour in the bay. It was a bleak scene in the rain, but my discomfort was nothing to that experienced by the seasick liberators of 1944, wading ashore to deadly gunfire. I was sorry I didn’t have time to visit the excellent D-Day museum at Arromanches, with the story of the harbour that handled 4 million tonnes of supplies and 500,000 vehicles in the 10 months it was used.
D-Day echoes down the years. Nearly 40 years after the liberation of Europe began, the British carried out another audacious landing at San Carlos in the Falkland islands to begin the end of Argentina’s occupation of the islands. On Friday 21 May 1982 I listened to Radio 4’s PM programme’s account of the invasion. Growing up on memories of the second world war, I never imagined that Britain would once again be sending men to war in assault ships. The echoes of the 1944 operation were evident – just weeks after Britain had sunk Argentina’s Pearl Harbor survivor, General Belgrano. The war may have been controversial, but the courage displayed was timeless.
Back to 1944. England’s south coast was the launchpad for the invasion. Weymouth in Dorset was a key location, and the American rangers who suffered such a toll scaling the cliffs of Normandy embarked here. In 2010 I was moved to see a British veteran paying tribute in Weymouth to those who died in the D-Day ‘Tiger’ training exercise in Lyme Bay.
You can see a US tank recovered from the Tiger disaster at Slapton Sands in Devon.
We all owe a huge debt to the men and women who risked everything for our freedom.
One of the joys of browsing in a real, rather than online, bookshop is coming across a brilliant book on a subject you’d never think of reading about. So I was chuffed to discover Map Addict by Mike Parker, published by Collins, during a holiday visit to Waterstone’s in Dorchester, Dorset.
I’ve blogged before about my love of maps and the map’s evolution from a printed sheet to an icon on a smartphone. Parker’s book brought back many more memories – such as the lack of any photo on the cover of the original Ordnance Survey maps that replaced the much-loved one inch series. And the fact the 1:50 000 series index map, showing which map covered which part of Great Britain, was cut by a line across the country indicating that the northern maps would only appear two years later, in 1976.
We’re enjoying a holiday in Dorset, one of England’s most attractive counties. It’s our third family holiday here, and the first since Owen was a toddler.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of what Thomas Hardy’s Wessex has to offer. Here are some of our favourites – with the health warning that this is a personal choice rather than an exhaustive list.
Best museum: The Tank Museum, Bovington Continue reading
Britain’s roads were full of cyclists this weekend, as glorious weather added to the eternal appeal of exploring on two wheels. I wonder how many of these weekend cyclists dreamed of doing the ultimate British bike ride, from Land’s End to John O’Groats? Continue reading
This is one of my shortest blogposts.
I just want to pay tribute to Stephen Sutton, the teenage cancer fundraiser, who has died at 19. It’s heartbreaking to watch and hear today’s archive recordings of him. But what breathtaking maturity and wisdom.
His parents deserve huge thanks for raising such a credit to humanity. At a time when there are so many examples of man’s cruelty to mankind, Stephen’s example and legacy will live on.
The Guardian was once a proud northern newspaper. As The Manchester Guardian, it was one of that great city’s treasures, along with the Hallé, Manchester University and free trade. The historian AJP Taylor celebrated it in his essay about the city in his book Essays in English History.
How things change. The Guardian is now arguably our most London centric national newspaper. Its outlook is Islington not Irwell. It’s hard to imagine the Manchester Guardian publishing Saturday’s ‘It’s grim up north’ article by Andy Beckett about the north east. True, Beckett set out to portray the impact of government spending cuts on the region. And no one would pretend that the north doest face some stark challenges. But it was a bleak and inaccurate portrait, describing the north east as our remotest region – a surprise to anyone enjoying the excellent transport connections from Newcastle. And I have news for Andy Beckett: distance from Islington isn’t a definitive measure of remoteness. On that basis, Sydney, Australia would be the back of beyond.
Beckett’s article has sparked outrage. Hartlepool MP Iain Wright pointed out the irony of casting the region as a British Detroit given the success of Nissan’s plant in Sunderland, which he says builds more cars than Italy. PR consultant Sarah Hall has launched a petition under the hashtag #NEandProud asking Beckett to return to the north east to write a more balanced piece.
I first visited the north of England when I was 15, returning regularly when I was at university in Leicester. I loved the sheer difference between Yorkshire and the south of England. (It took longer for me to get to Newcastle.) I was struck by the stunning scenery and the vibrant cities. As AJP Taylor said of Manchester, part of the glory of the north east is a refreshingly different outlook from that of London and the south east.
The media love lazy stereotypes. Growing up in Cardiff I was all too familiar with them; I grew weary of explaining that Cardiff wasn’t in the valleys and that the only coal mine in the Welsh capital was in the National Museum.
One last thought. The great northern cities were products of a fiercely proud local tradition. They were not forged by dictat from London. Britain is so much poorer for the miserable and demeaning centralism that has blighted our politics over the past forty years. If Andy Beckett wants to win back a few friends, he could do worse than start a campaign to put the local back into public life.
Above: Scotland’s Future launch. Photo: Scottish Government
Fifty years ago, the idea that Scotland would leave the United Kingdom would have been almost impossible to imagine. But this week the Scottish Government launched a white paper, Scotland’s Future, setting out the case for just that in next year’s independence referendum.
For a party proclaiming the case for divorce, the SNP seem curiously keen on many aspects of the United Kingdom. The Queen would still be head of state. The pound sterling would still be Scotland’s currency. And the white paper even reassures Scots that they’d still enjoy Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and CBeebies – even though the BBC would be replaced by a Scots equivalent. Heaven help us if Waybuloo is the only thing holding back the break up of Britain.
As many have said, it’s far from certain if the remaining UK countries would allow all this to happen. But it’s a clever ploy by Alex Salmond to suggest Scotland can have it all outside the union.
Scotland is, of course, right to decide its future. The fact the vote is even happening is an indictment of the failures of successive Westminster governments to govern for the whole of these islands. As I wrote a year ago, there are echoes here of the way British malevolence and incompetence led Ireland to independence rather than home rule.
I still hope that Scotland chooses to help us reshape Britain, rather than break it. Scotland has played a hugely important part in our nation’s history. It, like Wales, has shown that we can enjoy multiple identities: Scottish/Welsh and British. That diversity is a great model for life in these islands. It would be a great shame to diminish Celtic influence in Britain.