This post follows on in some ways from several previous ones about the coastline of south-east England, a place that continues to interest me for a number of reasons which keep resurfacing here. It’s in the nature of a blog too, I guess, that certain subjects are returned to again and again, somewhat partially each time.
The clip above is taken from Quadrophenia, the 1978 film based on The Who’s rock opera about mid ‘60’s mod culture. In the film’s final scene, Jimmy – it’s ostensible hero – appears to ride his scooter over the edge of the cliff at Beachy Head, on the East Sussex coast. Beachy Head is an infamous suicide spot, a place where the rolling south downs rise up to reveal a dizzyingly vertiginous and unprotected drop to the English Channel below. It’s a highly symbolic and ideologically charged location, a stunningly beautiful stretch of landscape where the familiar, jagged outline of England becomes physically and visually legible.
The chalky white cliffs below Beachy Head are part of a landscape overwritten with various narratives of Englishness. To such an extent, in fact, that it’s hard to write about them without being drawn into murky, nationalist sentiment. Quadrophenia is interesting thought because, in some senses, it offers a counter narrative to the familiar one of heroic resistance and national pride. For a start, Jimmy is far from an establishment or conservative figure. His suicide is prompted, at least in part, by equal parts self-disgust and disgust at the rottenness of the country around him.
Beachy Head is 60 miles to the west of Dover. Along the length of coastline between these two poinyd lie the remains of hundreds of years of defensive fortifications. The cliffs are like ideology translated into geography, furiously over-coded with symbolic significance and bearing the traces of endless assertions of nationhood. Any attempt, however ironic, to summon up the plucky fighting spirit of the English is likely to make reference to them at some point.
Nike’s Rugby World cup advert from 2007 is typical, the cliffs offering the perfect location for yet another sporting re-enactment of the second world war. Likewise, Tango’s notorious 1996 advert featuring – supposedly – a middle manager from the company taking exception to a letter of complaint from a French customer, ends with the offer of a fight in a boxing ring perched on the edge of the cliffs, while Harrier Jump Jets loom up over the rolling downs behind.
I'm on the white cliffs of Dover
Thinking it over and over
And if I jump it's all over
A cautionary tale for you
Blur, Clover over Dover, 1994
It’s strange then that these cliffs – the one’s celebrated ad-nauseum in Very Lynn’s 2nd World War anthem There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover – should also act as a bleakly comic shorthand for self-surrender and despair. Blur’s song Clover over Dover manages to conflate the two, linking Quadrophenia and Vera Lynn in a queasy ode to both pastoral beauty and personal despair. Clover over Dover is, of course, a song from the album Parklife, Blur’s nostalgic requiem for Brit youth culture. The nostalgia is second, or, maybe, even third hand though, because Quadrophenia was itself a homage to the mid-sixties mod movement viewed through the resigned cynicism of the late ‘70’s.
Parklife itself can be read as a mapping of the British Isles, a concept album about various ideas of Englishness. It’s closing song This is a Low, uses the evocative place names of the BBC’s shipping forecast – Dogger Bank, Malin Head, Land’s End – to describe a hazy edge where the country disappears, the invisible line beyond the coast where national sovereignty gives way to International Waters. The sharp, jagged outline of the white cliffs – an extraordinarily graphic and highly visual boundary – becomes replaced in the song by an ambiguous, watery point somewhere out to sea.
While This is a Low is a kind of dreamy reverie, a half-in and half-out of consciousness lullaby, Clover Over Dover concerns a more specific and literal attempt to escape. The song’s narrator fantasises about physical dissolution and of rejecting the country’s suffocating and over familiar embrace.
Viewed from the sea, the white cliffs offer the illusion of an impressive, impregnable wall, a geological line of defence. They no longer provide a literal defence though. That too, has become more virtual than physical, manifest in racist political posturing and destructive legislation like the coalition government’s proposals for an immigration cap. Another kind of defensive unit still patrols the coast though. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team, with their disconcertingly breezy strap line “we bring people back from the brink”, regularly walk the cliff path, ready to persuade people not to jump. Or leave.