ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Who knows what would have happened if Geoffrey Chaucer had not written "The Canterbury Tales" in English? After all, French or Latin would have been more likely for the time. Who knows what impact that would have had on the great stream of English literature that then flowed from Britain, or on the adoption of English as the language of America and of the world?

All week, Rob Gifford is retracing Chaucer's steps on the road from London to Canterbury in search of insight into contemporary Britain. Today he picks up his journey at a place steeped in English literature and empire.

ROB GIFFORD: Well, quite apart from Geoffrey Chaucer, the marshland here around me on the windswept northern coast of the county of Kent, where the Canterbury Road comes near to the estuary of the River Thames, is steeped in English literature. Somerset Maugham lived nearby. So did Joseph Conrad, who was then buried at Canterbury in 1924. In fact, at the start of Conrad's classic book of empire, "Heart of Darkness," he wrote of the River Thames right here: What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth? The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.

But the writer whose spirit haunts this area more than any other is not Conrad, but Charles Dickens, who lived for decades nearby. It was here in the marshes at Cooling that the memorable scene at the start of "Great Expectations" took place, when the young Pip had the meeting with the convict Magwitch that would change his life.

(Soundbite of school)

GIFFORD: Hello. Hello.

Ms. SARAH GARRATT (Teacher, Gad's Hill School): Hello.

GIFFORD: You must be Sarah.

Ms. GARRATT: I am Sarah, yes. Welcome to Gad's Hill School, formerly home of Charles Dickens.

GIFFORD: Sarah Garratt is a teacher at Gad's Hill, which for more than 80 years has been a small private school housed in Charles Dickens' old house right on the Canterbury Road just outside Rochester.

Ms. GARRATT: Books overseen here at Gad's Hill: "Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," and he died in - whilst he was writing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

(Soundbite of school children)

Ms. GARRATT: And this is the conservatory.

GIFFORD: Good place for the children to have their lunch.

Ms. GARRATT: It is a fantastic place for the children to have their lunch. We've got 400 kids, obviously not 400 in here at the moment.

GIFFORD: So, is there a sort of process that scholarly osmosis whereby these children absorb this sort of genius of the great man?

Ms. GARRATT: Yeah, I would like to think so. I mean, it's not something we put in our prospectus, you know, come here and you'll become a fantastic author. And…

GIFFORD: You have to have read the work of Charles Dickens to get in.

Ms. GARRATT: It's on the entrance exam, yes, of course. No, it isn't actually.

GIFFORD: Fantastic. I think I can see Oliver Twist in the corner there.

Ms. GARRATT: Yes, he wants more?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GIFFORD: Dickens is everywhere in Rochester. There's "Great Expectations" this, and Miss Havisham that, and Mr. Pickwick and Edwin Drood all over town, all celebrating the life of the great chronicler of Victorian England, when the British Empire was at its height.

But the towns of the River Medway that flows into the Thames estuary have taken a beating since the closure of the massive naval dockyard where Dickens' father worked in the 19th century. The dockyard on the Medway had been a crucial part of this throbbing narrative of imperial history that coalesced between Elizabeth I and the present queen, the two Elizabeths who became the historical bookends of the British Empire.

Mr. RICHARD HOLDSWORTH (Museum and Heritage Director, Chatham Historic Dockyard): Right. We're now standing on the side of the Medway, the Royal Navy had a naval base on this site from 1613.

GIFFORD: Richard Holdsworth is museum and heritage director of the Chatham Historic Dockyard.

Mr. HOLDSWORTH: The first evidence of the Navy's use of the Medway was a little bit further upstream, which was where the Tudor dockyard, the dockyard of Elizabeth I's reign was built. It was from here that the ships that fought the Spanish Armada were repaired and sent out. And the site played a huge role in English history.

GIFFORD: The British armed forces moved out, though, in the 1980s, when the dockyard closed, and as the military itself began to downsize.

Mr. HOLDSWORTH: For 300 years this had been Medway Town's principal employer. Everything revolved around the dockyard: people who worked here, supplier industries, even the education system. So its loss was hugely significant 25 years ago.

Unidentified Man #1: Now, to make this rope I need some reasonably big and strong volunteers. Are you big and strong?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

GIFFORD: The dockyard has turned itself into a fantastic historical attraction, where children can take part in making thick coils of naval rope, or go on board a Royal Navy submarine. Other old buildings have been turned into offices and apartments. But outside the dockyard, Rochester and Chatham and Gillingham, the Medway Towns have struggled to reinvent themselves. There's a big drugs problem here, and many people are on long-term unemployment benefit.

But the main thing people everywhere are complaining about is immigration, because Britain in the early 21st century has become the new America, and the English Channel has become the Rio Grande.

(Soundbite of a chanting)

GIFFORD: Soccer is religion in Britain. And a few miles before Rochester, I'd found myself at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic Football Club. Sitting next to me is 51-year-old Steve Bailey of the Charlton supporters' club. He's a salt of the earth Englishman who's involved in his local community. But he says his family moved out of London towards Canterbury long ago because of increased immigration.

Mr. STEVE BAILEY (Charlton Athletic Supporters' Club): It's interesting, when you go down to the Canterbury Whitstable area, you will find that a lot of people would say that. Nearly everybody you meet there will be people that moved from south London because of the immigration. Who have we got to blame, ourselves, our government, trying to embrace the world when we're not embracing our own people first.

GIFFORD: It's more difficult to say that sort of thing in the United States because almost everyone came from somewhere else. But there are a huge number of white people here who feel they are the real British people, and they're being ignored by the new multicultural agenda. Everyone in Steve's local pub agrees that something needs to be done about immigration. Dave Hiatt and his friend, Abby, who didn't want her last name used, say it's not racism, it's common sense.

Mr. DAVE HIATT: It's not a question of race. It's a question of space.

ABBY: That's the thing. The problem is, in the economic climate we're in, we don't have enough money for the people who've been here for generations, let alone anyone else.

GIFFORD: Dave says there's a unity and a pride in America that Britain now lacks.

Mr. HIATT: In Grand Central Terminal in New York, you walk in there, 1930s art deco. And you get different colors, different creeds walking around and the biggest, largest stars and stripes you can see above them. They all class themselves as American. In this country, if you put a flag up at Charing Cross or Waterloo, there'd be an outcry.

GIFFORD: That's a good summary of what many white people have said to me all along the Canterbury Road, as it follows the River Thames here towards the North Sea. Even in the economic downturn, Britain still has hugely successful parts of its economy. Its arts and literature are world class. And it's a great place to visit. But underneath, beyond the London, the Oxford, the Canterbury that visitors see, there is undoubtedly a malaise here.

Same passage at the start of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Conrad writes of the English going out into the world on the River Thames, just a few miles away from where I'm standing, as messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. That spark seems somehow to have been extinguished. The confidence has been replaced with confusion. And the question now is how to reignite it for modern - or postmodern - times.

This is Rob Gifford, NPR News on the Canterbury Road, not far from the River Thames.

BLOCK: And tomorrow Rob visits the home of Charles Darwin and asks the question: Whatever happened to Christian England? The New "Canterbury Tales" also continues online at npr.org. There, you can explore an interactive map of the road from London to Canterbury and get a preview of the other destinations on Rob's journey.

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