Grinding through the slow moving traffic, the blackened pillars, the open wrought iron gates come into view on the right. There is a spasm of nervousness as I indicate and pull over to the centre of the road and wait for a break in the oncoming line of cars. The metalled drive curves up the hill, through the park like acres of grass and trees – oaks and beeches. No sign of the inmates or the Victorian pile of the asylum. Damp December morning, a week before Christmas. Reluctant to get there too soon, I ease slowly over the speed humps and watch the stark trees for signs of life. For something! I imagine corpses swaying and slowly spinning in the breeze, hanging from the massive branches and leave them, pass them by, not knowing who they might be, whose side were they on, speed up, jolting over the humps, putting that image behind me. Are the inmates better cared for than my imagination does for them?
Oh, look over there, the first signs of human life, little figures skip skipping through the long grass. Little Englanders, mostly men, cared for on this reservation, free to roam and dream of distant empires. Well, they look happy enough. Well fed – even a bit on the pudgy side like little round steamed puddings; full of roast beef and, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes followed by spotted dick and lumpy custard. Don’t look now, they’ve noticed me, in unison their heads turn towards me. Can they see my pro-European disposition, my tendency to see England as a small peninsular off the north western coast of Europe that got cut off by the incoming tide leaving the marooned islanders to believe that they had done it themselves.
Ukania with its dreams of fratricide, its dreams of slaves beaten into submission, cutting the sugar can on distant tropical islands. How quickly the years pass. How unreliable the memory.
Ukania – are you suggesting we look in the mirror and see Serbia? I remember both the dark streets of arrival in Belgrade and the bright sunshine the following morning as we strolled the castle grounds.
How the little Englanders cheered for their pinkly glowing champion. Though at the end of another week a different narrative seems to be gathering ground – turning a blind eye to the petit gesture of the veto and getting on with what needs doing. But then again it’s Christmas.
Reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando one of the many things I have been struck by is how she describes the changing character of people over the three centuries of Orlando’s life. The shift towards allowing an uncertainty of identity. Of course she wrote in the midst of both her privileged background and the ‘wild’ community of the Bloomsbury group. A threat to certainty – it must have been deeply disturbing for many readers. The older idea of fixed identities – take Dicken’s characters, for example – was passing. We became more interested in the complexity of our inner lives, the complexity and conflicted nature of our desires.
In twenty years (God willing) we’ll be able to look back and see the where, when and who of the coming paradigm shift – what out of all the stuff we’re reading – will form the texture of the future?