WILL SELF: The lessons of Little Britain Lake

PUBLISHED: 15:50 13 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:21 13 February 2020

Little Britain Lake. Photo: Google Images

Little Britain Lake. Photo: Google Images


WILL SELF goes searching for metaphors on the shores of Little Britain Lake.

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During our last session I took my students for a walk around Little Britain Lake, which lies in a confusion of confluences between Fray's River, the River Colne and the Grand Union Canal, about a mile to the west of the campus. The lake and its environs have an important role in recent British environmentalism, being the site of the naturalist Richard Mabey's first foray into what he dubbed "the unofficial countryside": those edgelands, between the urban and the rural that evince greater biodiversity than the monocultures of the official countryside. Mabey's eponymous book became a sort of missal for those who like to wander these strange landscapes in the hinterland of our cities, where all the industries of urbanity's auto-cannibalism - gravel pits, brick fields, landfills, car breakers and totters' yards - reside.

Despite having taught nearby for almost a decade, and taking students out on many walks in the university's environs, I'd never actually been to the lake before - which is bizarre for a self-proclaimed "psychogeographer", who's preoccupied by the affects of place and space. I suspect it's the very name of the place that put me off: surely, it would be impossible to view it as anything but either a synecdoche or a microcosm of Big Britain - and while I, too, enjoyed Matt Lucas and David Walliams' comedy sketch show of the same name, in our current parlous position that joke isn't funny anymore.

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Crossing a hump-backed bridge that spans the canal, on an impulse we dropped down off the road, clambered over a sagging barbed-wire fence and into an uncultivated field full of brambles. The desiccated stems of last year's cow parsley crackled underfoot, the contrails of planes approaching Heathrow scratched at the baby-blue empyrean, and in the mid-distance the razor wire garnishing the fences of a lorry park coruscated with the winter sun's rays. I talked to the students a bit about the right to roam, the distinction between common and criminal trespass, and how they should never be intimidated by bellicose propertarians bellowing at them to "Get off of my land!" I was trying to stay focused on the idea of the unofficial countryside - but as we gained the far corner of the field and realised the head-high gate out on to the lane was chained shut, I couldn't help thinking about points-based immigration systems, and the folly of trying to prevent incomers entering at one port, while the coastline remains wide open.

Having backtracked, we headed down Old Mill Lane, passing a substantial Tudorbethan style detached house that was still under construction. Once more we halted, so I could ram home my oft-repeated message: that this perennial vernacular architecture represents the real core of the English national character, which is fervent uchronicism: the belief in a time-that-never was - Merrie England, when knights were bold, ladies compliant, and peasants happy in the muck of their organic social hierarchy. Then we went on - and found ourselves on the shores of the lake, beside comprehensive signage warning us not to swim, to operate drones, or - should we be licensed to "fish" - to carry off our catch. This latter injunction was illustrated by a stick-figure sprinting with a ludicrously outsize stick-fish in his arms.

Was this, I wondered (although not aloud), some wishful graphic thinking, indicating, perhaps, an underlying conviction that once freed from the punitive quotas of the European Union, our trawlers will again bring home a watery bounty? Probably not. Rather, the signage, the small parking area, the benches and balustrades, the bins and the small jetties for people to sit on while they pretended to be doing something, indicated that Mabey's unofficial countryside had now been gazetted: incorporated into that wider territory known as "Great Britain". I didn't note whether there were any CCTV cameras focused on the sylvan scene - but if not, there ought to have been, for nothing more typifies this renascent national identity of ours that its infantile narcissism: we have more of this surveillance than any other country in the world, and why on earth would we want to preserve so many images of our shopping centres and our car parks if not because we're convinced of their singular beauty.

In truth, Little Britain Lake was rather beautiful on a sunny February morning, with a noble heron arching its neck in a great and twiggy nest that sat atop the withies exploding from a semi-submerged willow. As to why this flooded gravel pit is so-called, it is as I feared due to a certain congruence between it and its greater namesake; namely, they're both the same shape. It's a trivial and arbitrary reason for a designation - I'm sure you'll agree, although not quite as trivial as the reasoning of those who persist in the delusion that the "great" in Britain refers to an absolute and numinous quality, rather than a highly relative and phenomenal one.

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