Great Britain. United Kingdom. Whatever you call it, this is a fascinating place.
Perhaps it helps that my ancestors are from England (the Stewart side) and Scotland (the Cudworth side) but there has not been a minute in my visit where it did not feel somewhat like home.
Yet traveling out to Blenheim Castle on Saturday made me realize that Britain has a history borne much more from struggle than familiarity. Blenheim was the boyhood home of a certain Winston Churchill, savior of Britain from the aggressive attacks of Germany in World War II. This was not a man that lived a life of ease despite his upbringing on an estate that in scope, size and history plainly boggles the mind.
Winston was no star student, yet his imagination and love of dramatic narratives saw him setting up massive battles with highly detailed toy soldiers. It would turn out to be a prescient occupation of the young boy’s mind. Churchill’s fascination with war would turn out to be a critical contribution to a long British history of wars, conquered lands and being conquered.
He also fought a sometimes desperate war with his own mental health. Plagued as he was with a predisposition to depression, which Winston called The Black Dog, he was perhaps better than anyone equipped to deal with the truly dark days of World War II. Yes a world war is nothing to sneeze at, but facing down your own propensity for dark thoughts can be just as terrifying.
You might even say that Winston Churchill perfectly symbolizes the national character of Britain. Finding that stiff upper lip and keeping up appearances in the face of incredible odds is the source of inspiring British drama and amazing comedy as well. How else can we explain the miracle of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, in which the holiest of quests turns into a running banter on the stuffy, sometimes witless pursuits of the British for glory.
It’s true of British athletes as well. One of my favorite all-time distance runners is a peripatetic soul named David Bedford. This man looked like a classic Brit in every way. The white uniform, loosely arrayed on a skinny frame. The dark hair flying. And his racing style? A front-runner no matter what. Bedford would take you to the limit of die trying. That was his schtick.
And Bedford was followed by other Great Brits. Men like Sebastian Coe, a miling great from the late 70s and early 80s who went on to Olympic Gold. But there was also Steve Ovett, an enigmatically speedy runner who seemed to race for the sake of racing. He’d set world records too at the mile. Yet he won the Olympic 800 when Coe was supposed to win. Go figure.
Finally we find a certain David Moorcroft, an English runner that was first under the 13:00 mark for 5000 meters. Track writer Kenny Moore once characterized that race as Moorcroft going “wonderfully mad.”
There is a certain madness to the whole British character it seems. Churchill facing down the terrible Germans. Or men holed up in fortresses like the Tower of London, the many-walled castle once was surrounded by a moat filled by waters from the Thames River. There are hundreds of slits in cross-like shapes designed to allow archers to aim and shoot down attackers as they tried to take the fortress. Yet there were also massive parties inside the walls where life was communal if always a bit structured.
Those who went afoul of British rule were sometimes kept as prisoners inside the Tower of London. Some were tortured multiple times if they refused to give in. Some of these men carved their names in stone or drew incredible figures of the earth and sky to occupy their time.
But ultimately, if they failed to confess whatever the Brits wanted to know, they were then hung, drawn and quartered. That means they strung you by a rope to hang and die. Then they tied your limbs to a quadrant of horses and gave those horses a firm slap on the butt so that they would all run in opposite directions. If that force alone didn’t rip you apart, there was always the tap of an axe or some other sharp instrument start the ripping process and send you splintering in all directions.
No one said the British were always nice.
In fact, there are plenty of horrors to be told in both directions when it comes to British history. They document such things in tapestries and paintings, the better to remind both royalty and subjects that any notion of freedom comes with a cost.
Certainly Great Britain did its best for a while to rule the world. It worked for a while, but then overreaching always comes with a cost. Nowadays colonialism is working almost in reverse with Britain struggling in some ways to incorporate immigrants from all over the world. It’s almost as if nations like Great Britain and the United States have become a sort of earthly Black Hole. Our conquering ways come back to haunt us when immigrants flood back into the nation that once proudly swept its way over other cultures.
The Tube in London is filled with advertisements about the contributions of immigrants to British society. It’s as if the Brits forget that the Romans once pulled the same shit on them, conquering southern England and then pulling back from the desperate suck of their own internal contractions.
We visited the Roman baths out in Bath today to view the amazing constructions of ancient engineers from 2000 years ago. The Romans built a giant bathhouse and temple to the goddess Minerva in southwest England. For a while it was lost to posterity until Victorian archeologists dug it up and figured out that Bath once housed an incredible complex of heated pools, saunas and steam rooms.
It all points up that fact that people have not changed all that much in the last 2000 years. We’re still fascinated with the same physical comforts and emotional constructs that drove the Romans to construct what amounts to a health club out there on the west edge of the island.
One can readily imagine a Roman soldier going out for a three-mile run in the hills around Bath to get in shape for his soldierly duties. He could finish up with a hot bath and stare at the multitudes of hot babes wallowing in sundry states of undress at the bath. If so moved, he could wander over and say a prayer to Minerva. Or, if he was pissed at someone in the ranks or among civilians, he could etch an angry prayer into a sheet of lead and toss it into the bath where it was fully expected those prayers would result in vengeful or practical answers.
This was 2000 years ago. Long before Churchill was borne into near-royalty at Blenheim and grew old enough to defend his country, life in Britain was formed of both simple and royal aims. It remains the same. The glories of Great Britain are mixed with sophistication and folly. But what glorious history it is. And what glorious folly as well.