The end of empire

Empires should end with a bang, not a whimper. Barbarians should pour through the gates and the circling carrion birds should be silhouetted against the flames of the burning city. If the job is to be done, it ought to be done properly

You might ask why I was thinking about this. Well yesterday I went for a walk along the coast north of here. A little bit of history and geography might be useful. Barrow has one of the best deep water harbours in the UK. But around the town are considerable areas of level sand. Indeed from memory the land area of the borough more than doubles when the tide goes out. During the Second World War there was concern that should the Germans invade this country, Barrow might become a target. A glider attack could land on the sands and merchant shipping that had been lurking along the coast of a neutral Irish republic could be discharging men and supplies within hours of the town falling.
When I was a child, ‘The War’ was still a factor in our lives, even those of us born more than a decade after the end. I can remember sitting at meals listening to what is now Radio 4. News broadcasts would start with, ‘Twenty years ago today’. Men and women of my parent’s generation would go quiet remembering those they knew who hadn’t survived, whether they died in fighting abroad or in the bombing at home.
Back then the beaches round here were still covered with anti-glider defences, poles driven into the sands, to deter the enemy from attempting to land, and concrete pill boxes were scattered around the coast.
Well my parent’s generation have largely gone now, the anti-glider posts have rotted and are no more. But concrete wears well and the Pill boxes are still there. Solid, immoveable, great chunks of poured concrete, all in one piece, their embrasures like blind eyes still stare out over the level sands. They wait tirelessly for an enemy who hasn’t arrived yet.
And yet and yet, as I walked along the coast in the early evening I passed four of them. A warm sun played on them, solid, eternal, set among the short beach grasses and wild flowers, dominating the beach. Across the beach they have Black Combe and the Lakeland fells as a back drop. Time has hit even these slumbering behemoths. Set on their concrete beds to master the sea, the sea has mastered them. Two have been so undermined that they have slipped slowly down the concrete pads built to take them and now lie like discarded milk crates. They look as if we built them, and then out of habit we attempted to launch them. They lie at the foot of the ‘slipway’ as if waiting for the tide to right them.
A third sits where it should, guarding the footpath off the beach, whilst the fourth is spectacularly upended. It rests entirely on its front, its roof and floors now the only vertical walls, with its entrance up in the air and totally inaccessible. It has a post-modernist air, simultaneously both sculpture and comment on the futility of endeavour.
And it reminded me of another place. Back in the 1980s I was on Iceland, and there in the far north there had been a British wartime radar base. I walked up to it. Very British, there was a pier for supplies to be landed by boat, and a narrow gauge railway had carried supplies up to the camp. I walked up a long staircase of short concrete sleepers stamped RME. (Royal Military Engineers) The steel of the rails had long since been taken for recycling. In that part of Iceland all the hills have been taken off at the same height by ice sheets in the past. Get to the top of one and there isn’t anywhere higher than you. So at the top on a plateau I could see for miles, out across the Arctic Ocean. Both sea and sky were that particular shade of faded washed out blue that you get up there, as if someone had mixed in more white that was really necessary.
And there was the camp. A huddle of Nissen huts, all that was left of them was the brick built chimney stacks and the concrete bases they’d stood on. Forty years of winter gales and no maintenance had got rid of the rest.
And then there were the light anti-aircraft guns. Still on their mounts, rusted permanently in place, their barrels pointing skywards; only the breeches had been removed. I stood looked out over the ocean for a fair while. Abandoned, forgotten, this place felt like a lesser known contemporary of Hadrian’s Wall.

Empires don’t end with a bang. In ‘The Life of St. Severinus’ as written by Eugippius, written about 500AD, the author describes the end of the Roman Empire in what we might now think of as Northern Austria and Slovenia in about 470AD

“So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together. The troop at Batavis, however, held out. Some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades, and no one knew that the barbarians had slain them on the way.”

Empires end with a whimper. There isn’t the money any more and they just take the breech-blocks out and go home.

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4 thoughts on “The end of empire

  1. M T McGuire June 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm Reply

    I suspect it’s our habit of wanting closure that makes us yearn for neat ends to things.

    Cracking post.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • jwebster2 June 20, 2013 at 3:37 pm Reply

      And of course art can do this. Indeed writers are criticized if they leave to many loose ends. But life has different rules and doesn’t really care about our preferences

  2. Stephen Irwin June 20, 2013 at 9:19 pm Reply

    We were just discussing pillboxes today, specifically those at Rampside. We used to climb around them and play commando raids in the long grass before the field was fenced off. Good to know they are still there in case the Spanish decide to make a punt for Piel Island. It’s not Gibraltar, but I hear the beer is good.

    • jwebster2 June 21, 2013 at 6:43 am Reply

      Those of us who grew up amidst the detritus of war deserve the occasional decent pint

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