Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bread and circuses

I spent last week in London wondering what it means to belong. My ancestors are from England, but they fled the crushing poverty and emigrated to Australia. 150-odd years later, I was born. 34 years after that, I thought it was time to check the place out!

Mooching around, with a big apartment to go home to, a down jacket to keep out the elements and money in my pocket, was a blast. We spent four days in a blur of touring: Buckingham Palace (where I was most gratified to see a cleaning lady burst out a side door, weave between two soldiers, and stuff a sack of garbage into a dumpster halfway through the otherwise highly choreographed changing of the guard); the Tower of London; the National Gallery; the Portrait Gallery; and the British Museum. We saw the greatest hits of British history and English colonialism: the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies and the Crown Jewels, and dozens of paintings that left me gobsmacked. I spent hours gazing at art, thinking and dreaming and wondering, and have been nourished for months to come.

All well and good. But my ancestors left for a reason. They were tin miners in Cornwall. With the opening of the mines, life expectancy dropped to just over 20. Children as young as seven worked in the mines, and babies were cared for by even younger children and invalids. Industrial and household accidents were common. Nutrition was abysmal, disease was rife, and everyone was poor.

By contrast, life expectancy in South Australia, where my family moved, was 45. Fresh food was available, young children did not work, and people had a reasonable chance of survival. The only reason I can afford to waltz around London, three kids in tow, is because our people left the UK many years ago.

So I have mixed feelings. I may be visiting the home of my ancestors and drinking deep from cultural wells; I may be relishing the ice and snow and grey skies and muddy puddles; I may feel a deep sense of comfort in the narrow laneways and the squashed together sort of living - but I also feel resentful. For all the grand buildings in London, for all the wealth represented by the acquisition of paintings and antiquities from around the world, for all the money spent on war with the Spanish and French, my people, along with many thousands of others, went hungry. As much as I love visiting the galleries and museums, I no longer belong here because my people had to leave in order to live. We were at the bottom of the social scale at a time when there was no safety net.

Our London apartment emphasized the class structure. It was a flat in a grand old mansion. The lounge was triple the size of our lounge at home, with three couches taking up only half the room; large bureaux and arm chairs were dotted around the remaining space. The dining room held a mahogany table that seated eight. My husband and I enjoyed sitting at the far ends of the table and waving - but the footmen never reported for duty, so we spent most of every meal walking laps just to pass the food. The front bedrooms were high ceilinged and generous. The kitchen, however, was accessed through a dark narrow corridor, and through the kitchen one found the third bedroom and bathroom. They were low-ceilinged, single glazed, and cramped. It was the servant's quarters. There was no structural reason to have low ceilings in the back part of the flat. Instead, it was a political statement: your ceilings are low, your rooms chilly, your cornices devoid of decoration, because you are a servant. I may have slept in the front bedroom this week, but I belong in the back, and I resented it.

Down at the Palace, the band played martial music and then, to my astonishment, an ABBA medley. The Union Jack hung limply from the flagpole. The Queen was not at home. As we stood in the crush of tourists, listening to Mamma Mia and watching the guards stride around in front of an enormous empty building, all I could think was, Bread and circuses.

We walked away and my father said, Well that's the one good thing that came out of the monarchy.

The disparity in wealth here radicalised my family. On all sides they were dissenters, passionately opposed to the State Church. 150 years on, their great great grandchildren simmer still.


  1. Interesting....

    I remember going to the UK when I was 21 to see my brother who was studying there. I went expecting to find my heritage, but was instead forecfully struck with the understanding that I was descended from the people who had *left* that place. Those who lived there were not, after all, 'my people'.

    I was struck by the class distinctions and by the strength of convention in guiding people's lives.

    I enjoyed so much of 'tourist Britain', but was impatient with their world view, as well.

    It would be interesting to see how I would respond now, at 33, with a deeper appreciation of injustice in my own society and the gulf between my wealth and that of the majority world...

  2. Yes, 'my people' were the ones who left, too. On the other hand, my grandfather's ears walked past me this morning. Very disconcerting! Much to think about...


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