21 Jul


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Many will be aware how excited I get when I let my mind wander across the extreme corners of human history. I’m particularly fond of the bits that describe the slow and probably painful evolution of our dimmest ancestors until they could stand on two feet and think a few thoughts.

This happened, according to archaeological evidence, on the plains of Africa, and Owongo the First (my name for him) had to battle for survival against a whole host of hungry predators. Life will have been tough back then, and consequently life expectancy short.

It will have been as a consequence of the hardships he found as he teetered along that he (and his progeny) started to look elsewhere for peace, harmony and a decent place to bring up their kids. And they slowly wandered off, hoping to leave the angry and hungry big cats behind.

This was the beginning of mankind’s conquest of his planet, and it was almost certainly inspired by the need to find somewhere better. There’s an instinct in just about all of us to hold a metaphoric umbrella over the heads of our offspring, and protect them, and put down roots in solid ground so they can have a stable future.

So the adventure began. Hills and mountains, rivers and streams, deserts and pastures were crossed. It was slow, though. Maybe they’d pause and rest until Owongo 3rd replaced Owongo 2nd who had already buried Owongo 1st beneath African sods. Temporary homesteads that lasted for generations would have been built. That’s the way people under the kind of pressure that involves escaping from a savage lion’s territory move: a few dozen miles until everything seems okay … for the time being. And if you want to gainsay me remember that you weren’t there to check my facts. And yes, I know I wasn’t, either.

As various tribes spread they found themselves occasionally feeling in need of planting their tents on the same lump of soil as each other. It was bound to happen: the human race breeds at an absurd rate as a consequence of having evolved a broadly beautiful sexuality. Anything that feels so overwhelmingly good as sexual contact is going to work out just fine, isn’t it?

I dared say that if we tried to assess the number of hearts that were stopped violently in this or that skirmish for a nice piece of real estate we’d be horrified at the enormity of the number. It’s how wars were invented, of course. We might be led to believe that ideology and principles drove the impetus for battle, but it was probably a pastoral knoll and tempting passing brook rather than a philosophical treatise.

Eventually all but a few acres of desert were called “home” by somebody (though not necessarily in the English language) and if there was an impetus to move on then the movers had to cast greedy eyes on someone else’s turf.

It would be about then that homo sapiens (our lot) finally dispatched Neanderthal Man to the happy hunting grounds (probably over a disagreement regarding territorial rights) and started on each other.

But it’s time to narrow the vision I have and concentrate purely on the turf I’m most familiar with: the UK. Not that it was called that back then. It was home, purely and simply, and became the target of many attempts to wrest it from those who considered themselves native (though, of course, go back far enough in time and nobody inhabited these islands so there were no natives capable of tracing their line back to the start of things. We are all, in fact, rooted in Africa if anywhere). But occupation being nine-tenths of the law, there were tribes that accounted themselves as native to the islands we so love.

And there were other tribes, some of them in the next valley and others across the sundering seas. And there were inevitable conquests. In fact, floods of them, across the English Channel from the bulk of continental Europe (which wasn’t called that, of course) and the North Sea (from northern Europe). Some of them were probably quite peaceable. Others would have involved violence. And the net result was that our country became a kind of repository for those hardy enough to come and conquer. Natural selection on a grand scale!

The last successful attempt at pinching the grass from beneath our feet was in 1066 AD when the Normans came and conquered. After then invaders have come by invitation only.

And there have been invitations over the centuries. The Huguenots came in the seventeenth century (from France, trying to escape from religious persecution – I guess that rings a bell) and there are ethnic enclaves all over the place.

That’s what has marked our country as different from some. Those in need of shelter have been welcomed peaceably, probably because the opposite to peace is war, and there’s always been too much of that). And by welcoming those in need we have strengthened ourselves. We have absorbed the good and tended to reject that which is less than good.

When I was growing up there was, just round the corner from where I lived, a huge complex of temporary-looking buildings that constituted a camp for Polish refugees following the second world war, and that was part of the story. The camp’s gone now but some of those who lived there have stayed, have become us.

And now we live in very uncertain times. Remember the Huguenots and the religious persecution they fled from? There’s a great deal more of that going on in far reaches of our planet. Back in the seventeenth century it was persecution, in France, of protestant Calvinists. Now it’s Islamic persecution using weird interpretations of an ancient text that would be best placed into a bonfire and consumed in flames. It’s not ideology because there’s nothing ideal in religions that disenfranchise those who disagree with them, but it is very much the same old story, and those in greatest need should be welcomed in our midst like they long have been.

Maybe the future will mark our names with respect for so doing. And maybe our nation will become all the stronger for the wisdom of strangers.

© Peter Rogerson 21.07.15


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