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A nation on the brink, but we won't get carried away

WHEN cliffs start collapsing into the sea at Scarborough and four-star hotels start falling into the sea with them, it is hard not to feel a certain kind of pleasurable interest. Was it not de la Rochefoucauld who said: 'Hard would he be of heart who could see a friend falling off a roof without a certain satisfaction?' Something like that.

But my thoughts went immediately to the one man who would have derived the most pleasure from the sight of Britain's coastline crumbling, but who, alas, died in 1905, too early to rub his hands at the sight. His name was Alphonse Allais, he was a Frenchman, and here is what he wrote a century ago:

'I am afraid our English friends have not had a very good press of late. Their jubilee celebrations were so ostentatious and arrogant that most of Europe felt distinctly alienated; some of the comments in the continental press had to be read to be believed. The loudest voices in this chorus of resentment came, of course, from Germany, where they have never been slow to make fun of the British colossus, which they see merely as a huge inflated balloon waiting for the first pin to come along and deflate it.

'Well, our friends in Germany speak truer than they know, because their little joke is about to become very prophetic indeed. I now take great pleasure in revealing that Britain is about to disappear altogether . . . The English have taken so much coal and ore and mineral wealth from the bowels of the earth that their country has become light enough to float. And it has started, at last. The whole island has now been drifting for the past two days . . .'

It is interesting to note that we were big and powerful enough in those days to attract the sort of resentment that now is reserved for America. It is interesting that then we made a splash with jubilee celebrations, whereas now it is their absence that draws attention. But, above all, it is nice to know that we didn't actually float away.

Allais explained this in a subsequent article by saying that British scientists were aware of the risk of the country being floated away and had taken steps to secure the island in position. How? By underwater cables. Yes, those huge, long telegraph cables under the sea to Europe and America were merely a method for the cunning British to lash their island into position. Allais speculated on the possibility of the French navy going out at night and cutting the cables before towing the British Isles to somewhere off the French mainland as a new colony. And there he might have let the matter drop if he had not received a report from England that cheered him up again.

'I have just received the latest number of the Kent Messenger. It contains a story which I know will bring great joy to all those among my brilliant and warm-hearted readership who suffer from Anglophobia. Here it is:

'The last church in Dunwich has just been swallowed up by the sea. Although Dunwich was once a flourishing town containing no less than 20,000 inhabitants and at least six fine churches, the sea has gradually encroached until the last remaining church has crumbled and vanished into the waves. Soon there will be nothing left of Dunwich but memories and old sea stories.'

'Alas, poor Dunwich]

'But back to the ever-fascinating Kent Messenger: 'Recently we reported that a French humorist, a certain Alphonse Allais, had told his readers that England has started to float, that so much coal had been taken from underground that our island is in danger of drifting away . . . Unfortunately, the truth is even more serious than this, and it looks as if the time is not far off when we shall all say: 'Farewell, England]' Because our coastline is becoming subject to the alarming process of erosion of the land by the sea, and nowhere more so than in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and the whole of Yorkshire. The Goodwin Sands were once part of the mainland; now they are almost six miles out to sea . . . ' '

Food for thought, indeed. My only contribution to all this is that in the Eighties I once took a drive along the Normandy coast between Honfleur and Deauville, where much of the cliff-face had crumbled into the sea, leaving houses hopelessly cracked in half, whole rooms fallen away and other rooms suddenly exposed to the air, and a wonderful view of the sea, right below. A thoroughly sad and yet satisfying sight. Why satisfying? This part of Normandy is where Alphonse Allais came from.