Remembrance of Empires Past

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There are very few things I share in common with Brexiters but a weakness for harking back to the past may be one of them. I love steam railways, 1930’s songs and classic cars.

Click on the video above for a nostalgic journey back into Britain’s lost empire. “Bye bye Britannia” was written and performed by Doug Bird, a severely disabled but highly talented man, virtually unknown. Despite the greatness of Britain being diminished by Brexit, great Britons still exist.

Or take this long forgotten song by Paddy Roberts: “l’anglais avec son sang froid”. Translated humorously as “the Englishman with his usual bloody cold”, it takes us back to a gentler and more civilised era when Englishmen were noted for their politeness and reserve.

Britain still retains a dim but influential memory of its empire, of the great and global power we once were. The pens I used as a child at school were inscribed “empire made”, and it was an empire on which the sun never set.

The First and Second World War put an end to our empire, but brought new self regard in victory. We fondly cherish the wartime image of Britain carrying the torch of liberty, standing alone against the dark forces which were engulfing the continent. And now that wartime spirit has been rekindled, as we go to war against the EU.

Smells, too, are potent spurs to memory. This is sometimes called the Marcel Proust effect, after the French novelist who dipped his Madeleine biscuit in tea and was moved to write his seven volume memoire “À la recherche du temps perdu”. (Usually translated as “Remembrance of things past”).

The evocative power of smell can be useful both for stressed people who want to revive pleasant past experiences from their lives, and for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Back in the 1980’s the idea was enthusiastically endorsed by the media, Andrew Marr boasting in the Daily Mirror that it came from a British University (Warwick).  

For example, the whiff of sea air recalling childhood holidays, or a stroll through a forest. Whilst at Warwick we journeyed mainly to the seaside, in France a company called L’Artisan Parfumeur offered a range of fragrant recollections, from “Le baiser du soir” (mother’s goodnight kiss, essentially a vintage lipstick perfume) to “La rentrée” (return to the schoolroom, with cedarwood pencils). 

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Especially emotive for the older generation are smells of wartime. The sulphurous reek of smoke in the blitz, the rich brew of tea as served in the NAAFI. You can experience these things at Eden Camp in Yorkshire, a museum devoted to World War 2. Lay aside your critical judgement for a moment, forget that we did not really win the war single handed, and enjoy the fantasy. 

So when someone tells you that Brexit Britain is the laughing stock of the world, a self-exiled backwater, you know what to do. Brew yourself a nice pot of extra strong and fragrant tea. It will remind you that we have enjoyed well over a century of imperial grandeur, and all things must come to an end. We have a wonderful heritage second to none, and nothing can take that away.

Mindful of which, it is surely time now to leave the world of 1940, and join a peaceful Europe.

Editor’s note

This is a tongue in cheek article with a sting in the tail: a realistic view of Empire requires us to join the real world. The British Empire is a far from universally admired institution and it is associated with a great number of atrocities and other problems. Some of these we have covered in other articles, such as this one (which also looks at modern legacies). We welcome other contributions on the realities of empire and its legacies.  

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