WILL SELF: Those who forget their geography are doomed to repeat history’s mistakes

A giant SOS message is projected on to the white cliffs of Dover. Photograph: Led By Donkeys.

A giant SOS message is projected on to the white cliffs of Dover. Photograph: Led By Donkeys. - Credit: Archant

WILL SELF on the rise in international tourist arrivals and why people no longer casually refer to 'the continent' when 'going abroad'.

- According to the World Tourism Organisation - and frankly, who else would be qualified to comment? - last year saw a record 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals, a 6% rise on the previous year. Since 1990, there's been a greater than 300% increase in the numbers of people going on holiday to what my late father used to describe as 'abroad'. You don't hear that expression much anymore - and nor do you hear people casually referring to 'the continent', as a geographic shorthand for the European landmass. The old joke newspaper headline: 'STORMS IN CHANNEL, CONTINENT CUT OFF' seems altogether unbelievable now, given it can be cheaper to fly from Stansted to Dusseldorf than it is to get to the bloody airport in the first place.

Although, this being noted, it was still a shock to find myself on the Eurostar last week, sitting next to a well-educated professional, who had no idea that Britain and France were inconveniently separated by 20-odd miles of briny. He was the paterfamilias of an American family, who, from their conversation, I realised hailed from California.

I wasn't exactly eavesdropping: there were the parents and two adolescent children, while some Americans can be quite loud. (Others can be remarkably quiet. I remember attending the wedding of an Ivy League professor in upstate New York. The reception was held in a 300-year-old clapboard house, and there perhaps 40 guests. At one point I became distracted by an insistent buzzing noise, and realised it was the sound of a fly batting against a windowpane: the guests were so damn quiet [and f**king well-spoken], it seemed as loud as a chainsaw.)

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- Anyway, from their conversation I gathered both parents were accountants of some sort; and presumably doing well, since they could afford Standard Premier tickets for the whole family. Mom and the kids drowsed - but Pa remained awake; and about five minutes after we'd entered the Channel tunnel he became a little agitated, looking from one darkened window to the next, as if expecting to see some explanation written there. I put him out of his misery: "We're in a tunnel that goes beneath the sea separating France from England," I explained, "we'll emerge in another ten minutes or so - but behind the white cliffs of Dover, rather than in front of them."

I put the bit in about the white cliffs, hoping this would jog his recollection, and he'd be reminded of the shapes of the world's significant landmasses. No dice. The Californian accountant received my information as if it were simply anodyne reassurance, snuggled down in his seat, and was soon drowsing along with the rest of his brood.

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Fair enough, I thought - after all, when the British were the hegemon, they too basked in such crazed insularity; although it did seem a little bizarre when evinced by a man who himself lives on a vast landmass. Still, the capacity of high-speed transport connections to abolish distances both physical, and cultural, has been well attested to ever since the dawn of the railway age.

Writing in 1843, on the occasion of the opening of a line linking Paris to Rouen and Orléans, Heinrich Heine was hyperbolic: "Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea's breakers are rolling against my door."

- Maybe so, but my earliest experience of cross-channel transit seemed to bring all distances into the greatest possible salience. It could have been simply the child's lowly perspective, which renders everything Brobdingnagian and strange, but my recollection of the boat train - as it was then - from Waterloo to Paris, was of entering an altogether alien realm. One where the water from the tap was, patently, unfit for consumption - else why would they sell it in bottles labelled 'Vichy'? together with weird little flaky-bread rolls and miniscule cups of coffee, from a cart pushed along the train corridor by a very angry and unshaven man wearing a very short, tight white jacket. Not that I had the appetite for either having puked my guts out on the un-stabilised ferry as it heaved its way from Dover to Calais.

It's said that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it - but it could well be that those who forget their geography are doomed once more to experience it. As the countries of Europe retreat into nativist delusions, and the barriers to trade and travel rise, so once more we can feel the British Isles casting off into the Atlantic. I wonder where we'll fetch up - some seem to think that what with our vigorous entertainment industry, and entrepreneurial spirit, we'll round the Horn then run aground on Venice Beach. Venice, California, that is.

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