The English Channel occupies a strangely ambivalent position in the national mythology of England. On the one hand, it stands for the indefatigability of the nation, the ultimate moat that has protected this sceptred isle from being successfully invaded by a foreign army in nearly a thousand years. On the other hand, it has been viewed as England’s soft underbelly, the potential means through which this country could be overrun by foreigners: concerned coverage of illegal immigrants crossing it in recent years betrays this latter concern.
As a resident of Deal at the eastern mouth of the Channel, Charlie Connelly will be familiar with constant local television news coverage of immigrants and asylum-seekers trying to make their way from Calais to Dover (I, too, live in Deal). Hence East Kent residents can tend to be more overtly patriotic, or certainly vigilant as to the numbers of incomers from the continent.
It was on Walmer Beach in Deal, after all, where Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain took place in 55BC (his original plan to land at Dover was foiled by fierce resistance of the natives; few things change). Yet later Celts and then Anglo-Saxons were far more likely to view the Channel as a positive conduit of communication: “The notion of the Channel as a moat cutting us from the foreigners across the water is a recent development, dating back roughly as far as the eighteenth century.” The medieval scribe Geoffrey of Monmouth enthused how the “straits of the south” would “allow one to sail to Gaul”.
While Connelly adroitly places this stretch of water in its historical and cultural context, The Channel is for the most part a jaunty travel guide around the towns of France and Britain towards the eastern part of the water, and a multi-biographical guide to the characters who brought fame and repute to it.
The author is blessed with a bounty of characters from whom and source material from which to choose. An opening chapter, which charts the history of cross-Channel ferry crossings, cites the 1909 poem “A Channel Passage” by Rupert Brooke, in which he compared the nausea of a stormy voyage to France to his troubled love life. “The damned ship lurched and slithered,” he wrote. “Quiet and quick my cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew I must think hard of something or be sick; And could think hard of only one thing — you!”
Later on the author visits Brighton, a once small town originally popularised in the eighteenth century by Martha Gunn, the figure who was responsible for creating the notion that sea water and sea air were good for one’s health. Her Brighton contemporary, the physician Richard Russell, was an even more fanatical seaside devotee, instructing his patients to drink a pint of sea water at least once a day. Dr Johnson was less enthusiastic about the Sussex town, writing in 1776: “It is a country so truly desolate that if one had the mind to hang oneself in desperation at being obliged to live there it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten a rope.”
Connelly is judicious in the time and space he allots to both French and British towns. His chapter on Calais reminds us how this used to be a resort people visited, rather than just travelled through. The section on Dieppe brings more light relief, in reminding us in the nineteenth century it became a magnet for artists such as Turner, Delacroix, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Braquet and Sickert. The disgraced Oscar Wilde had a miserable time in Dieppe, with the former inmate of Reading Gaol being widely ostracised. More curiously, Ho Chi Minh worked on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry after the First World War, before returning to Vietnam in 1923.
Connelly tries to restore repute to Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the balloonist who made the first aerial crossing between England and France in January 1783, and in doing so became the first man to see Dover Castle and the walls of Calais as if they were features on a map. Connelly contrasts the brilliant Blanchard with Louis Bleriot, who became the first man to fly over the Channel 1909 by sheer luck. Bleriot was a terrible pilot, who by 1905 had already walked away from 40 crashes. Even his famous flight of 1909 did not “touch down” by Dover Castle but literally crashed down by it.
It remains just about in the national memory that Matthew Webb was the first person to swim the Channel, in 1875; he fortified himself for his feat with eggs, bacon, half a pint of beer and a jug of claret. Webb was a lousy showman who fell into penury and would die eight years later trying to swim the rapids of Niagara Falls.
A swimmer who came after him was the epitome of heroic failure, the Glaswegian Jabez Wolfe, who tried and failed to swim the Channel 22 times. Undoubtedly the saddest fate among the cast assembled here was that which befell the first woman to fly the Channel, Harriet Quimby, on 16 April, 1912. Her feat would surely have made global newspaper headlines had the Titanic not sunk the night before. She died in a plane crash in Boston less than three months later.
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