One thing that I miss about living in the UK is the seagulls. In the north of the country it seems like you are never so far inland that you don’t see them circling somewhere.
Predictably enough, when I did live in Britain, I barely noticed they were there. If I thought about them at all, I thought them an annoyance, a symptom of the nation’s ever-growing garbage problem and a perennial source of bird pooh on clean clothes. Times change.
Where I live now you don’t see them ever. We produce just as much garbage as the Brits but we’re two hundred miles inland and so now that they’re gone, I miss them. A pigeon shitting on your head from the roof of the stand when you’re watching football just isn’t quite the same I’m afraid.
There are plenty of gulls around today. It six o’ clock on a Saturday morning, the sun is shining, the birds are squawking and the rabbits are hopping outside on the grass.
I have spent the night in the town of Nordenham, just off Germany’s North Sea coast. It’s been a short night: It took two busses, four trains, a ferry and a couple of miles of walking to get me to the youth hostel.
My sleep was further curtailed by the people in the room next door, who, judging by the volume of their conversation and apparent difficulty in performing simple manoeuvres such as unlocking a door, had drunk the bar dry.
In spite of that, the sea air is obviously doing me good. I feel fresh, awake and ready for adventure. I pull on my shoes, take a good swig of water out of the bottle, slam the door with a satisfying thwack! and head out into the morning sunshine.
The reason I’ve come so far — and got up so early — is that I had an argument. More precisely I lost an argument. The argument was with one of my students, who had just returned from her honeymoon in southern Spain where she had made a day trip to Gibraltar.
“Why does Britain hang on to it?” she asked me. “It’s not like you need it. It must cost a fortune. The only reason Britain wants to hold on to Gibraltar is to stick a finger up at the Spanish!”
This is fighting talk. My country’s honour has been questioned and I feel obliged to join the battle.
“Yes, but it’s strategically important you see…”
“Because er…well…er..yes…and then there are the economic implications. It’s crucial for Britain’s trading interests.”
“Because er…yes, well…er…yes.”
Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. I feel like Boris Johnson with the mother of all hangovers.
I fail spectacularly to defend Britain’s good name and, as is always the way in arguments, for the next few days my mind starts forming a list of things I should have said. Not that it helps. These bloody Germans are so stubborn that you can never make them see sense. I mean, who won the bloody war anyway?
Britain’s colonial experiment, I reason, was benign and charitable; a civilising influence which brought — and continues to bring — mutual benefits and affection to both coloniser and colonised. I resolve to travel to a former British colony to confirm my prejudices.
Gibraltar is too far away to travel at such short notice, so I decide to travel to the nearest former British colony I can find. As luck would have it, there’s one not thirty miles off the German coast — and so I’m up early to get the ferry to the tiny islands of Heligoland.
Heligoland ticks all the boxes as far as former colonies is concerned. Captured from Denmark by the British in 1807, it had a series of Lieutenant-Governors appointed by Whitehall before being exchanged with the Germans for Zanzibar in 1890.
Queen Victoria was reportedly not amused at the swap. Presumably she wanted to stick the finger up at her relatives. “Next we’d be giving up Gibraltar” she reportedly said. The very thought.
Today, Heligoland is very much German but I’m still very much expecting a hearty welcome warmed by the glow of nostalgia that surrounds the old colonial master.
I’ve never actually been to a former British colony: One can hardly place Ireland and America into this category on account of their Bolshevism in the face of Britain’s civilizing influence. They fought wars against us. Proper British colonies don’t do that, they much prefer to be steered by the gentle guiding hand of the motherland. That’s what it says in my copy of Boy’s Own.
I’m very much expecting the kind of warm welcome that my Dad always talk from his travels in India and Pakistan back in the sixties. He often quotes an Indian army Major who pushed through the crowds to help him buy his ticket from Delhi to Calcutta:
“We British must stick together.”
That’s the spirit. I expect the Heligolanders will adopt a similar attitude.
The boat trip takes about three hours and most of the passengers find their sea legs through the medium of alcohol. These days, the islands (there are two, only one of which is inhabited) do a brisk trade in cut-price booze thanks to their tax-free status. This is something of a hangover from the colonial era, when the main sources of income were smuggling and piracy.
Heligoland is so small that you can fit the main island into one photo frame. Most passenger ships cannot even land here. Actually reaching the island therefore requires a swift if undignified disembarkation process whereby all passengers, regardless of age or intoxication, are grabbed by the arms by two local boatmen and dumped into a landing boat.
They are very friendly about it and have an exemplary safety record, but I can’t help thinking that this isn’t the way that one should welcome a fellow citizen of the Empire. In any case, the weather is starting to turn and it’s nice to be on dry land.
The harbour is situated in the lower part of the island, the Unterland, along with a good selection of bars and duty-free shops.
Architecturally it won’t win any beauty awards because every single building on the island was destroyed by British bombs during and after the Second World War. Most of the 2,000 or so inhabitants live in almost identical two-up-two down terraces, separated by narrow paved streets. Cars are banned on the island.
The “town” sits on the flat land at the base of the plateau which makes up the Oberland. I pay ninety-five cents to take the elevator up there, the only public transport that Heligolanders have at their disposal, and walk through the scrub.
It’s nice up there, provided you’re dressed for the wind. Anyone who has ever been to the west of Ireland or the north of Scotland will have seen more spectacular cliffs, and will have shared the view with fewer fellow tourists armed with selfie sticks and disposable raincoats, but it’s worth it.
There is nothing on the horizon but sea in any direction — few places in Scotland can say that — and the rocks are a gorgeous deep red. There are plenty of seagulls. I crack open a can of duty-free beer and look out onto Lange Anna, the stack which has become the island’s most enduring symbol. You could almost be in Britain and it feels good.
It would have been a fine addition to Britain’s coastline I reason. I’m still struggling to find another reason for the occupation. They never used it as a military base, although the smuggling came in handy during Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, when trade with the British mainland was prohibited. All of Britain’s imported goods had to come from Heligoland, Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and Capri.
Capri. I never knew that.
Having taken in the Oberland and the Unterland, it’s only a short walk to the Mittelland. If Lange Anne is Heligoland’s most notable symbol, the Mittelland is its most poignant.
A manmade geographical feature, it was created at the end of the Second World War when the British detonated the 1947 version of Donald Trump’s Mother Of All Bombs in order to destroy the bunker system installed by the Germans.
The largest non-nuclear detonation in history, it was a risky experiment and nobody was entirely sure what was going to happen. The local claim is that they wished for the island’s complete destruction, and it seems that even if this was not the aim it would have been seen as acceptable collateral damage.
In the end, the island shook and a large chunk of the 45 million-year-old rock was blown into the air. The resulting bomb crater is the Mittelland. In 1952 that the Royal Air Force stopped using the island as a bombing range and the islanders, some of whom still held British passports, were allowed to return home. We British must stick together after all.
As far as my attitude to the colonial experience goes, I must admit that scepticism is beginning to creep in. Gibraltarians have made their wish to remain part of Britain clear and these wishes must be respected, but I get the sneaking suspicion that in Heligoland’s case the locals were actually not that sorry to see the back of us.
These are treasonous thoughts and I need to get a grip.
“Put these thoughts from your mind!” I tell myself. “For you Brian, the trip is not over.”
I still have one thing place to visit. Down by the harbour is a statue of the poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, author of what was to become the German national anthem. The piece was written in 1841 at the time when Britain was still sticking the finger up at the Germans by holding Heligoland as a colony and, in an ironic twist, it was on Heligoland that it was written.
A German sticking the finger up at the British sticking the finger up at the Germans. It’s starting to get confusing and I only have twenty minutes to get my duty-free shopping done before the boat goes. Best not to think too much about it.
It was all a long time ago anyway. Britain and Germany have moved on to bigger and better things since the days when they swapped Zanzibar and Heligoland.
Nowadays the empires have passed into memory and economies have replaced armies. Any sticking up of fingers is done at the negotiating table or — in extremis — from opposite ends of the sports field.
Zanzibar is no longer part of Britain, these days it’s part of Tanzania, while Heligoland…
The boat is here and so I must break in mid-sentence. Not much else to say really.
I mean, who won the bloody war anyway?