About 30 years ago, my wife and I were returning from France. We drove on board the car ferry at Dunkirk; were summoned below as it approached the English coastline; and watched, through the open bow doors of the half empty car deck, as dawn broke over the cliffs of Dover. It was hauntingly memorable.
Dover Cliffs are a potent symbol, as we know from last week’s VE Day celebrations. But their significance extends beyond Dame Vera’s blue birds. Alba is the Latin for white: down the years these cliffs have represented hope, purity, resistance, and survival. To generations of Britons, they symbolise our island of Albion.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Gloucester, his eyes torn out by his family, makes towards Dover, where he encounters his loyal son Edgar, disguised. Edgar allows the despairing Gloucester to believe he is throwing himself off the cliff; but then, impersonating another person at the “bottom” of the cliff, Edgar persuades Gloucester that he has survived. “Why I do trifle thus with his despair” Edgar explains, “is done to cure it.”
Later in life Shakespeare rendered the text of King Lear more pessimistic. The end is further away than we ever consider it to be. “Is this the promised end?” asks Kent, in hope; but there are several more vicious disappointments to come. “Oh Gods,” Edgar learns, “Who is’t can say I am at the worst.”
Now if you have you been alongside anyone who is very ill, you’re likely to realise what Edgar means. You fear the worst, and that soon; – or you hope for some improvement and imagine that soon too. But suffering is self-prolonging, one episode elongating into another.
When in the holiday Mr Sparkes invited me to write a 'Thought of the Day' I deliberately chose the week before Leave Out. We would surely be returning in two weeks time. The theme, uplifting, would be revisitation. The current crisis reminds us never to count on better things happening soon.
It was a beautiful view through those bow doors; but only a few years later, the open bow doors on a sister ship, the Herald of Free Enterprise, resulted not in a glimpse of beauty, but in an international catastrophe, the death of 193 passengers and crew.
Old Wykehamist Matthew Arnold went to Dover on his honeymoon, and there wrote one of his most famous poems, Dover Beach. The world lies before Arnold and his wife like a land of dreams; but in fact the narrator hears an “old eternal sadness” in the waves, made worse by the melancholy roar of the withdrawing sea of faith.
At Winchester, Arnold had burned his hand badly in a chemistry lesson. Science was not his thing. A bit like modern medics, Arnold concludes that “we are here as on a darkling plain, … where ignorant armies clash by night.” All he and his newly wed can do is summarised in less than a line: “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”
The extraordinary artist JMW Turner returned to Dover many times, as the watercolour above reminds us (Dover, 1825, Tate Collection). Expectations, conditions and realities change. All too often, just when we think things cannot get worse, that’s exactly what they do: the bluebirds desert the cliffs. In these unprecedented times, we need to be prepared for disappointment. To put it in modernity-speak, we need to be resilient.
Times are hard. Times are disappointing. But we need to abide by our principles. Some things have to be looked at twice. We all need to appreciate that though events alter, principles don’t. Sooner or later we will be back, and I look forward to it.
26th May 2020
Deeply missing Winchester, Rtvik reflects on his favourite things about the summer term, from BBQs to swimming in the river.
20th May 2020
It would have been his last term at Winchester so Zefaan is understandably nostalgic about the things he will miss this Cloister Time. His choice of 'Leavers Photo', outside Chantry with his Div don and class illustrates the impact on pupils of this unique approach to learning and exploration.
19th May 2020
This year, Winchester Maths Summer School will go ahead, virtually. 25 students from the maintained sector will enjoy maths challenges, get advice from current undergraduates, and prepare to study maths at university.
13th May 2020
A keen classics scholar, Tom draws comparisons with pandemics in history to inform his response to the current situation.
11th May 2020
As he sets off on his own creative sabbatical, Malcolm recommends exploring one's own creativity, and spending time in nature, as a balm for life, beyond the present circumstances.
10th May 2020
In this article, Mr Ben Gould, Economics don explores how the pandemic might impact economic recovery.