Bumped up against two different strands of Englishness yesterday. We went to Whitstable, which is almost a theme park of Englishness, though a lot less contrived than that description suggests (though still a bit). Whitebait, aniseed balls, scampi and chips, sherbet lemons, oysters, pineapple cubes, tweed cap, whelks: that's a pretty English list and we managed to buy all of them and eat most of them on the day.
Whilst we were mooching round the little old shops, T was in discussion with a producer about a piece she's done for today's Broadcasting House (about twenty minutes in) based on a book by Alex Butterworth: 'The World that Never Was'. It's subtitled 'A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents' and was inspired by Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' (interesting how a work of fiction has given rise to a work of history; I imagine it mostly happens the other way around).
T visited the anarchist bookshop in Whitechapel founded by Kropotkin and interviewed the non-proprietor. She also had a walk around the Fitzrovia home of the German anarchists of a hundred years ago (an area that boasted German beer-halls up until the First World War). As readers of The Secret Agent will know the whole palaver fulfilled all the clichés (or perhaps what Conrad's success turned into clichés): it was a game of cloak-and-dagger, of double-dealing, of agent provocateurs, fog and shadows, fanatics and cynics.
If you look hard enough you keep on stumbling across pieces of cultural archaeology left over from this time. Our first flat in Clerkenwell was a few doors down from a converted pub where Trotsky used to meet his exiled compadrés, including Lenin who lived over Kings Cross way for a year or so. "Trotsky used to drink in our local sushi bar" was a statement that used to tickle me.
There are obviously present-day resonances: there's nothing new under the sun, not in London anyway. Londoners have often shared their city with the politically extreme and even the nihilistically murderous. It goes back a long way. Russian oligarchs and Islamists are only the most recent arrivals: they're preceded by Russian communists, German anarchists, Eastern European Zionists and before them Italian and Hungarian nationalists, French philosophes and then royalist reactionaries and going back even further, Hugeuenots and Lutherans.
Whilst it wasn't wise to allow the entire batch of recent political refugees to remain undisturbed in London - I mean mad mullahs more than muzhik millionaires - we have to recognise this tradition is as English as sherbet lemons and much older. Russians and Middle Easterners baffle us sometimes - I imagine we are just as baffling to them. A peculiar principle. Cough candy twist anyone?