Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Good Trip

Our trip was wonderful. I don’t think we could possibly have enjoyed our trip more than we did.

This year’s trip was different from last year’s trip. Last year’s trip, devoted exclusively to London, was overwhelming, and this was so simply because London itself is so overwhelming. Last year we restricted ourselves roughly to one particular quadrant of London, exploring that quadrant in as much detail as possible, and yet everywhere we turned there was something fascinating to examine. Last year’s trip was filled almost with too much stimulation.

This year’s trip was more relaxing and much slower-paced than last year’s trip. There was some driving most days, which allowed for relaxation, and our evenings were not as jam-packed with activity as last year, which allowed both for more relaxation and more reflection.

A few places we visited were disappointing to me. The moors of Dartmoor were, I thought, completely unremarkable. The village of Widecombe-In-The-Moor was not worth visiting. Land’s End was a tourist trap, pure and simple. The Cotswold villages of Stow On The Wold and Broadway, especially, were no more interesting than Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Stratford-Upon-Avon, for me, was the biggest disappointment. The historic Shakespeare attractions, truly, were not particularly interesting, and the town itself possessed a modicum of charm, but perhaps not enough to go out of one’s way to experience.

Salisbury Cathedral, however, was a miracle. Bristol, a marvelous city, was unexpectedly interesting. Oxford, a city of magnificent architecture and stately lawns, was an ideal place in which to spend the final day of the trip. Of all the places we visited, these three were my personal favorites.

The trip was beautifully-arranged, beautifully-paced and beautifully-organized. I cannot imagine a more artful examination of the attractions of Southern England. Alex and Andrew had done a superb job in planning the detailed itinerary.

My sister loved everything we visited. Everything was new to her, and the trip was the experience of a lifetime for her.

There was one place in which my sister was uncomfortable, and this surprised me, because I thought it might be the highlight of her trip.

My sister found London to be an unpleasant and forbidding place, filled with wonders but also filled with peculiar people. Perhaps it was just as well that we devoted only two days to London. For her, London was a contemporary city of grime and grunge and poverty, not an historic capital reflecting centuries of a glorious imperial past. She was dismayed at the attire and manners of Londoners, especially among the young. She was also dismayed at the poverty to be seen everywhere. I don’t think she was prepared for such widespread indicia of poverty and social breakdown.

The youth of London constitute a lost generation, uneducated, unwashed, uncouth and uncivilized. The youth in Bristol and Plymouth, the other two large cities we visited, were much the same. We actually witnessed young persons vomiting on the streets of Plymouth. It was not a pretty sight. The future of Britain is bleak.

Once we departed London, however, my sister was no longer uncomfortable. By the time we were halfway to Canterbury, she had already forgotten about London’s grime and seediness.

Andrew’s parents loved everything about the trip. They had a marvelous time.

They were especially captivated by their return to Rye, which they had last visited on their honeymoon. Andrew’s parents said that absolutely nothing had changed in Rye in the intervening three-and-a-half decades since their last visit—except for the prices.

Andrew’s parents enjoyed the opportunity to see art, architecture, museums, castles, stately homes, and churches, abbeys and cathedrals. They enjoyed the evenings in the theater. They enjoyed the drives through the countryside. They enjoyed the fact that Alex and Andrew had planned everything beautifully, which allowed them to sit back and relax and enjoy everything worry-free, with the additional benefit that they were able to enjoy the company of their sons.

Our vehicle for the sixteen days we toured the English countryside was a brand-new Peugeot station wagon. The vehicle featured 2-3-2 seating, and Andrew’s parents sat in the middle seat, where they had the most room and where they enjoyed the greatest degree of comfort. It worked out beautifully.

Andrew’s parents had a couple of surprises on the trip.

They were keenly disappointed in Saint Michael’s Mount, an inevitable disappointment, no doubt, for anyone who has visited Mont Saint Michel off the coast of Normandy.

Andrew’s parents were also disappointed in Lynmouth, as were my sister and I. Alex and Andrew had told us so much about Lynmouth that we all had assumed that it must be a very special place indeed. It was not. Alex and Andrew had visited Lynmouth in 2004, during horrific rainstorms, which must somehow have lent the place a dramatic aura. In good weather, Lynmouth did not have quite so much appeal.

On the other hand, Andrew’s parents were delighted to find Bristol so interesting, and they were amazed at the magnificent churches in Launceston, Holsworthy and Cirencester, churches virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic.

Alex and Andrew enjoyed everything, without discrimination. When something was not particularly interesting, they would create their own fun.

In Land’s End, one of the world’s dreariest capitals of kitsch, they enjoyed themselves enormously, making fun of the cheap souvenir trinkets for sale in the shops, ranging from the most mundane items to the most bizarre curiosities. Alex and Andrew had the rest of us in stitches as they seriously debated the relative merits of buying a Land’s End hand-operated can-opener as a memento of their visit or holding to their initial instincts and picking up a pair of Western leather chaps, just the thing, they said, for their next rodeo. Andrew’s mother told them that, if they bought either item, the rest of us would proceed on to Saint Ives without them, and that she wished them all the best as they embarked upon new lives in Land’s End, peddling trinkets in one of the most God-forsaken spots on the face of the earth.

Andrew still talks wistfully about the can-opener he wished he had bought at Land’s End—he says it would have been a precious and timeless reminder of his visit, something tangible to hold on to forever and ever. (It was exactly like any $1.19 can-opener that may be purchased at any K Mart in the U.S.)

We did buy a few gifts on our trip, but none of our gifts were purchased at Land’s End.

My sister and I purchased a gift for our mother in London. She and I purchased a gift for our father in Stratford-Upon-Avon. She and I purchased a gift for our brother in Rye. She and I purchased gifts for our aunts and uncles in Saint Ives and Bath.

My sister did not have any problem with the food in Britain. She even enjoyed the traditional English breakfast—she ate a full breakfast every morning, even though she is generally not a breakfast person.

Since this was her first trip to Britain, my sister was surprised to discover that British newspapers are so deplorable, written by and for idiots, and that British television is even worse than American television. Americans who have never visited Britain often assume that British newspapers and British television must somehow be better than ours. Americans are always disavailed of this notion on their very first day in Britain.

Except for The Financial Times, written for an international audience, British newspapers are tabloids, literally and figuratively, and little more than screed sheets. Even the worst of American newspapers, in comparison to British newspapers, appears to be edited by Jacques Barzun.

British television is simply indescribable. It is entirely unwatchable. There has been growing resentment among the British public about mandatory BBC license fees, and this resentment has two sources: the vast sums of money thrown at the BBC without a high-quality end result; and the lack of trustworthiness of the BBC News Service, a situation simply unthinkable thirty years ago. The BBC is held in such low regard at present that its budget was frozen this year, the first such freeze in the institution’s history.

Happily, we did not spend much time reading newspapers or watching television. We were out and about all day, exploring towns and cities and exploring the countryside, seeing interesting things and having interesting times.

Andrew’s father always has insightful and original observations to make, and it is always a pleasure to learn what he has to say about anything. About halfway through our trip, he pointed out that everything in Britain worth seeing, and everything that makes Britain unique, pre-dates World War I.

World War I was the great turning point in Britain’s fortunes. The country has never recovered from the disaster of The Great War, from which Britain emerged as a titular victor but from which Britain also emerged as a spent force. Nothing created in Britain after World War I—whether buildings or institutions—is of anything other than parochial quality or interest.

Other than summoning one last burst of energy to get through World War II, Britain is a nation that has been in long-term decline since The Great War. After 1918, the nation turned inward, and shifted its focus to bitter domestic infighting over apportioning pieces of a dwindling national wealth. That decline will soon be one century old, and there is no sign of abatement in its depressing progress. Its insignia are everywhere.

The most obvious evidence may be witnessed in its citizens. Britain’s people are provincial and narrow-minded, poor and poorly-educated, unable to accept and adapt to the fact that Britain is now a Third-World country, more or less irrelevant on the world stage.

The standard of living in Britain is remarkably low, and the gap in living standards between Britain and the most advanced societies such as the United States, Japan and Singapore is great and ever-widening. The quality of goods is poor, the quality of food is poor, the quality of health care is poor, and the quality of education is poor. This has very troubling implications for the future of the Atlantic Alliance, an alliance many Americans assume will die (and rightfully so) over the course of the next two, three or four decades.

Thirty years ago, Britain enjoyed a standard of living that was the envy of Spain. Today Spain enjoys a standard of living that is the envy of Britain. The standard of living is today higher in traditionally-impoverished Ireland than in Britain, a situation genuinely unthinkable as recently as one generation ago. Soon enough, Poland will enjoy a standard of living higher than Britain’s.

Personal productivity is today higher in France, of all places, than in Britain. Personal productivity is also higher in Brazil, still an under-developed country by any reasonable measure.

For the cause of its decline, Britain need only examine its tax policies, which inhibit the creation of capital.

None of this will change unless and until Britain abandons its present course, and this is very unlikely to happen. Only a shocking external event could reverse the course of decline Britain has embraced, and even a shocking external event may no longer do the trick.

Ironically, Britain’s decline was set in stone, not in the first half of the 1940’s, while war raged, but in the second half of that decade. Having secured a victory over Germany for the second time in as many generations, Britain voted Churchill out of office even before victory in the Pacific theater had been secured. The new government instituted policies that guaranteed that Germany, the loser of the war, would be the ultimate victor. To what ends had the great sacrifices of the war years been perverted?

Churchill did not return to power until 1951, at which point he was too old to take a firm hand in shaping his country’s future, lacking the strength and the willpower necessary to dismantle the social welfare programs and revoke the draconian tax laws enacted by Clement Atlee and Ernest Bevin. Churchill led what amounted to a caretaker government until 1955, at which point he was gently eased into retirement by the senior leadership of the Conservative Party and succeeded by Anthony Eden, who was to fall from power only one year later, a victim of the Suez misadventure.

At least Churchill, upon his death in 1965, ten years after retiring from office, was awarded the honor of a grand State Funeral. His was the last State Funeral to be accorded to one not a member of The Royal Family. (It was recently determined that Baroness Thatcher, upon her death, will also be honored with a State Funeral).

We visited Churchill’s grave at Bladon very early on Monday morning, our last full day in Britain. We were the only visitors present at such an early hour.

Churchill’s grave is a simple stone slab in a small rural churchyard, only a short distance from Blenheim Palace, where Churchill spent his unhappy childhood years. His grave is surrounded by trees as well as the graves of his loved ones: his British father and his American mother, his devoted Clementine, and three of their children, including Randolph, Churchill’s favorite. (The grave of another Churchill relative, Consuelo Vanderbilt, wife of the Ninth Duke Of Marlborough, is also nearby. The Churchill men clearly liked to marry American brides.)

Churchill’s gravestone is white. This shocked us greatly. Alex and Andrew had visited Churchill’s grave in 2004, and they had told us that the gravestone was dark gray in color, almost black.

As things turned out, we learned that Churchill’s gravestone had been cleaned in 2006 and restored to its original color. The current gravestone, however, is not the original. It is the second gravestone installed over Churchill’s grave. The first gravestone had been replaced in 1998, decayed by the tens of thousands of visitors who had worn away the gravestone by touching its surface in tribute to the great man. The current gravestone, too, shows great signs of wear, and will probably have to be replaced in another decade or so.

It is very telling that such a great man, who could have elected to be buried at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and who could have commanded a great monument to rival the magnificent stone edifices erected for Wellington and Nelson, chose for his final resting place a simple grave in an isolated country churchyard near his native soil.

We spent twenty minutes or so standing and quietly paying our respects. We all touched the gravestone, which was somehow important to us. Churchill, half-American, one of the greatest Anglo men who ever lived, was THE great figure of the Twentieth Century, just as Abraham Lincoln was THE great figure of the 19th Century and just as George Washington was THE great figure of the 18th Century. Churchill, however, somehow seems closer to us than Lincoln or Washington, perhaps because he was not such a distant figure. There are millions of people alive today who lived through the Churchill years, although their number grows smaller with each passing year.

Visiting Churchill’s grave was a deeply moving experience. It was also, oddly, a very sad experience. Our sadness was almost inexplicable in view of the fact that Churchill had enjoyed such a long and fulfilling life, a life of vast achievement and vast accomplishment in many fields, a life of long and deep friendships, a life that produced a devoted circle of family members and admirers. At age ninety-one, Churchill had earned well his final rest, and at his death no one lamented the fact that the old lion, who had performed his services to his nation so admirably, had been called home at last. (His beloved Clementine survived him by a dozen years, but Clementine retired permanently from public life at Winston’s death. She spent the final twelve years of her life in seclusion.)

It must have been the passing not of the man himself, but of what Churchill represented, that filled us with a great sense of sadness.

His like will not come again.

I wonder what Winston Churchill would make of the Britain of today.


  1. Hey, Josh...

    A quick hello from Buenos Aires.

    Nice to see you back in business. I'll be back on Sunday.

    Talk to you soon,


  2. Good riddance you arrogant American.