Bluebottle's Barnes Blog

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Bluebottle apologises to those expecting an article about Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the Bouncing Bomb. Alas, this is a rant brought on by reading a book by Julian Barnes entitled England, England.

People fortunate enough to be born and grow up on the Isle of Wight soon realise one thing; mainlanders look down on the Island, and unfairly consider it a joke. On the ferry to the Island, mainlanders often make jokes, such as stating that Islanders believe that the Earth is flat, and that they've never heard of cars. Pointing out that Islanders know very well that the Earth is not flat1, as the 100% successful Black Knight rockets were designed and built on the Island, and that as for cars, Thrust 2, the World's Fastest Car between 1983-1997 had similarly been built on the Isle of Wight makes no difference. Mainlanders believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Isle of Wight, and all their inhabitants, are backwards. The BBC reinforces this view, frequently stating in programmes such as Have I Got News For You, that the Isle of Wight is stuck in the 1950s2.

To a Caulkhead3, it soon becomes apparent that mentioning to someone not from the Island where you are from usually results in being asked an insulting question, such as 'Do you have electricity there yet? Har har har har'. Yes, Osborne House had electricity in the mid 19th Century and a telephone in 1878. Do mainlanders care? No. They just assume that because you are from an island that you are a brain-dead pitchfork-carrying yokel. This is annoying, but at least you can take comfort in knowing that they are a stupid, ignorant mainlander who does not know any better. But what if the insulter is someone who should know better? What if, for example, the person being insulting is Booker Prize winning novelist Julian Barnes in his Booker Prize shortlisted novel, England, England?

England, England

England, England is the story of wealthy tycoon, Sir Jack Pitman, who decides to turn the Isle of Wight into a theme-park replica of England, containing in miniature everything that England is famous for. In a way it makes sense – after all, the Isle of Wight invented the theme park when Blackgang Chine opened in 18434. He believes that people prefer replicas to the real thing, based on the fact that visitors to the Bayeaux Tapestry spend longer admiring a replica than the real tapestry, or that more people visit the replica statue of David than the real thing. This is quite a nice idea. Barnes writes that all of England could either be replicated or rebuilt on the Isle of Wight, stating,

'The White Cliffs of Dover relocated without much linguistic wrenching to what had been Whitecliff Bay'


'Parkhurst Forest easily became Sherwood Forest.'

The Isle of Wight is introduced with the description 'snuggling into the soft underbelly of England. The little cutie. The little beauty. Look at the shape of her. Pure diamond, that's what struck me straight away. A pure diamond. Little jewel... it's perfect on the map...'

Soon, however, Barnes begins to get bored of his book, and chooses not to do any research, presumably relying on a memory of a holiday to the Island he had had when he was seven, or an overheard conversation. This is the only explanation I can think of how someone who, as an apparently intelligent man who has won prizes for literature, proceeds to get all his facts about the Isle of Wight completely wrong. The Island's shape is described as 'a turbot… mixture of rolling chalk downland of considerable beauty and bungaloid dystopia5'. Even Lynne Truss, in her novel Tennyson's Gift, was more flattering, describing the Island as shaped like a pair of lips. He then has the audacity to summarise the Isle of Wight with the words:

'"The place is pretty flat as a whole. Good-looking cliffs…" [one of the characters showed] a small glass lighthouse filled with bands of different coloured sand. "Local specialty. From Alum Bay. Twelve or so colours... Otherwise some things called Chines… a detail about squirrels: they only have the red variety... oh yes, and... they do have puffins…

"One castle, rather nice: ramparts, gatehouse, keep, chapel. No moat... One royal palace: Osborne House... Italianate... Two resident monarchs: Charles I in captivity at the said castle before his execution; Queen Victoria, in residence at the said palace... One resident famous poet: Tennyson. A couple of Roman villas, famous mosaics... a large number of manor houses of different periods. Various parish churches... many thatched cottages, perfect for tea-shops... most of which already are tea-shops. No modern buildings of note except Quarr Abbey, circa 1910, a masterpiece of early 20th Century Expressionism, Belgian brick out of Gaudi, Catalonia, Cordova, Cluny, designed by a Benedictine monk.

…Cowes Regatta, King Charles's bowling-green, Tennyson's tennis-court. A vineyard or two. The Needles. Various obelisks and monuments. Two large prisons, complete with prisoners…

However he has not taken the time to check that he has his facts right. There are 21 different shades of sand at Alum Bay, not twelve. This is a minor mistake, not really of any consequence, and no-one can be expected to quibble about sand. Then he mentions that Island is home to puffins. In the 18th Century, yes, there were reportedly a few puffins found in the Needles headland, but no puffins have been on the Island in recent times. This would imply that his facts are out of date, but his next point is that the Island has one castle. Actually, it has three surviving castles; Carisbrooke (which, despite what he has written, does indeed have a moat. A dry moat, true, but a valid moat nonetheless), Cowes and Yarmouth. All of which have been there for half a millennium and are rather hard to miss. Cowes Castle and Yarmouth Castle are both visible from the ferry, so anyone actually bothering to visit the Island would see them. Not to mention the numerous forts.

'One famous resident poet' ?! As well as Poet-Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson there was Algernon Swinburne, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. The Isle of Wight has plenty of other literary connections. Cowsheds (As Barnes doesn't seem concerned with getting his facts right, I see no reason why I should call him by his correct name and henceforth Barnes will be referred to as 'Cowsheds') also seems to object to the fact that there are thatched buildings on the Island. Some of these are not only tea-shops but also pubs, restaurants and churches, but most are family homes. Like much of the world, Island residents built their houses out of available materials and so, naturally, many buildings are thatched. It may look quaint, old-fashioned and favoured by the National Trust, but that does not give him the right to infer inferiority.

'No modern buildings of note except Quarr Abbey', if by that he meant that the public has access to, then the point is acceded, largely as no-one foresaw that St Mary's Hospital revolutionary state-of-the-art design would weather and rust as badly as it did. That said, the Island does have Dinosaur Isle, a pterodactyl-shaped dinosaur museum, which opened in 2001. Tennyson's tennis courts? Nice bit of alliteration, no basis in fact. Cowsheds ends with 'Two large prisons', proving once again his inability to count; HMP Parkhurst, HMP Albany and HMP Camp Hill quite obviously make three, and all of which have existed for over 50 years. One minor mistake is forgivable, but to get things wrong time after time shows no effort made in research, not even a cursory glance at an OS Map to see the setting of his novel's location.

It doesn't get any better later in subsequent chapters. He calls the Island's residents 'Wighters', not Caulkheads or Islanders as they are actually known. He discusses the Island's 'extreme unliklihood of it being spot-listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site' despite the bid for the Island's northeast coastline to be granted World Heritage Site status.

Presumably Cowsheds plans on writing a sequel, entitled America, America, in which he would write with all seriousness and sincerity.

'America is a country comprised of 42 states, some of which are represented on its flag, the stars and spots. The capital of the country is Showerington AC and the largest city is called New Hull, also nicknamed the Large Grapefruit.'

Even the blurb on the back of the book is wrong. This begins with the words,

'As every schoolboy knows, you can fit the whole of England on the Isle of Wight.'

Eh? How does that make sense? The Isle of Wight is a total of 156 square miles, mainland England is over 50,000 square miles larger. I can only assume that Cowsheds has mis-remembered the popular saying that, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, everyone on Earth can fit onto the Isle of Wight. An expression that, even if 'every schoolboy knows', Cowsheds clearly doesn't.

And how do the fictional inhabitants of the Island react in his book? Have they gone off the idea of progress, feeling it over-rated? We don't know, because Cowsheds never bothers to create a resident Island character. My people are not even allowed a voice, even though there is no doubt that no-one would have listened to them if they had been given one. The closest he gets is with the words, 'Islanders are not heard to complain', a statement which shows a lack of understanding of Caulkheads if ever I heard one6.

Cowsheds frequently discusses the Island's last independent ruler who died in 1293. Although he appears to have done a little research as to the circumstances of how the Isle of Wight became part of England, this is all in vain as every time he mentions Isabella de Fortibus, he spells her surname wrong.

'He had to report that in the opinion of both contract lawyers and constitutional experts the original purchase of the Island in 1293, by Edward I from Isabella de Fortuibus [sic], for the sum of six thousand marks, was manifestly dubious and quite possibly illegal. Six thousand marks was chickenfeed. It had clearly not been an arm's length deal. Duress was still duress… if indeed it was the case - which no-one seemed to contradict – that the Island had been unlawfully been acquired by the British Crown? What might be the consequences First a formal challenge in the European courts to the Fortuibus [sic] contract of 1293'

Cowsheds seems to be quite pleased with himself that he has invented something that no-one else had ever thought of, that the people on the Island might consider separating themselves from England. In fact, this view is hardly new, and over the decades there have been many minor political parties such as the Vectis Nationalist Party and Independence (Isle of Wight Residents') Party, though these have never been in any danger of actually winning any local elections. In truth, Islanders already consider themselves fairly independent, and 'England' often means that large land across the water, not the Isle of Wight itself. 'England' is the mainland, that place ignorant tourists come from which has all the crime, road rage, pollution and motorways, and where you used to go Christmas shopping before the invention of the internet. Not really part of the real world, which is the Island.

Rant's End

Maybe I am over-sensitive, sentimental and protective of my home. Maybe the Island's mentality, after suffering from invasion following invasion since records began, has made us too defensive and quick to fight back at the least provocation. But I cannot relax and read sentences like

'Bulldozers scurried and cranes teetered, as the dull landscape became a pop-up book of hotels and harbours, airports and golf courses'

about my home without feeling anything and questioning what gives Cowsheds the authority to call my home, an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for 50 fifty years with many Sites of Special Scientific Interest for Nature Conservation a 'dull landscape'.

In a work of fiction, Arthur Dent lay in front of a bulldozer to prevent his home from being bulldozed to make way for a bypass. Similarly, Cowshed's novel fictitiously bulldozes my home, yet no-one lies in his way or stops him.

Typical ignorant mainlander. smiley - grr

A reader of the h2g2 Post

The Bluebottle Archive


11.02.13 Front Page

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1It is a myth that 'they believed that the Earth was flat until Columbus', one created by Washington Irving in 1828. The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew that the Earth was a sphere.2Though why the 1950s is such a bad time to be stuck in I've never learnt. Televisions became popular in time for the Coronation, rationing ended so you could legally drink as much tea as you like, no-one was bombing Britain, and on the Island Dr Beeching hadn't destroyed all the railways yet, and the Island economy still enjoyed aircraft, shipping, hovercraft and space industries as well as booming tourism. Yet somehow the 1950s is labelled the dull decade, the pause between the nostalgic 1940s and the swinging 60s.3A term used to describe someone born on the Isle of Wight.4In the 1970s Disney were reportedly considering constructing Euro Disney on the Isle of Wight, as one of their many venues considered, before their research department asked Islanders their opinion and were answered with a flat 'No'.5Admittedly, 'bungaloid dystopia' is a fair, though unfriendly, description of the village of Binstead, but not the Island as a whole.6Caulkheads are often, by nature, both laid back and extremely stubborn. If you tell one that they can't do something, they will immediately prove that they can, whereas if you say that they must do something, generally they won't. There is also a well-known Isle of Wight joke;
how many Caulkheads does it take to change a lightbulb.

Change? We don't like change round here.

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