There was this thing called the British Empire.
And it did some terrible, terrible things.
So much worse than anyone else, of course.
Wait a minute.
Yes, in the name of empire; and through a quite inappropriate relationship with companies such as The East India company, Britain did some terrible things. Started wars for profit. Helped themselves to other people’s countries, all over the place.
And of course, at the time, every else was just quietly doing the right thing.
Wait another minute.
Weren’t the Russians and Poles exterminating Jews? Didn’t Nazi Germany have a crack at that as well? Weren’t the Spanish wiping out whole civilizations to prove how much Jesus loved them? Weren’t the French subjugating tropical islands? Didn’t the Dutch have a crack a few places no-one else could be bothered annexing? Didn’t the Turks try helping themselves to the world, like the Mongols before them? What about those Austro-Hungarian guys with funny hats?
So where’s the difference between the British and the rest?
Well, for one thing, the British are terribly sorry about it.
That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but compare it to, say, the behaviour of the Japanese after WWII, who have been lying to their population about their chilling atrocities ever since. Or the French, who still insist that it was worth your great-grandfather being buried in a mass grave if it means you can speak French.
So, since arriving here, I have been conscious a great sense of history, but often it seems to be presented apologetically.
Not so at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This is an institution dedicated to art; culture; fashion and architecture. It is possibly the greatest free attraction ever. And it is very proud of all its British heritage – not at the expense of other cultures, but alongside.
It is enormous; and leaks art in all forms, big and small, from every edifice. It has massive installations, like a cast of Trajan’s Column from Rome. In fact, the guys from the V&A went and made casts of a lot of famous public artworks, many of which were then destroyed in World War II.
There are gravestones and sculptures, paintings and jewellery. Of every age and almost inconceivable variety.
It’s not all good. Sadly, some Japanese design studio has been commissioned to make piles of ugly chairs near some of the exhibits. Just in case people don’t think the V&A is ‘modern” enough, they feel the need to add some sincere ugliness.
It’s always a shame when the line of Jackson Pollock – Andy Warhol – Tracy Emin – Every other talentless pseudo-artist you care to name – gets a look-in just so an institution doesn’t look old-fashioned. And they do have some genuinely worthwhile and interesting modern stuff, like for example a David Bowie exhibition is about to launch.
But overall, it has a grandeur, a scale and an audacity that is almost too much to take in.
So, at some stage during your visit, you will need some tea. Even if you don’t, you do, trust me on this.
There is a hall alongside the gardens. In it is cakes. And splendid savories. And an excellent range of teas. Perhaps ten.
Selecting a Darjeeling that was almost certainly Margaret’s Hope, Lady Devotea & I also shared a Cheese, Apple and Celery Scone. The former was delicious; the latter sweet and airy. Delightful.
But the real joy was the environs.
There is an interconnected series of three rooms in which to sit and have your victuals; they range from Victorian to Nouveau/Deco. William Morris wallpapers, fancy chandeliers; and in the one we were in, a series of large and exquisite tiles showing the same woman once a month for a year, to illustrate the weather.
Whilst one wonders why the young lady has chosen to linger by the sea in January in face of a huge rolling storm; it’s a magical piece of work in a magical room in a magical building, and the experience score 99/100.
I’ve only ever known one Queen of England (She is also Queen of Australia, if you were unaware). I wasn’t around when Queen Victoria reigned.
She seems to have bursting with pride about her Empire, and vice versa. The grand monuments and statues of her time positively glow. British culture, British science and engineering, British values. Even the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park – she never got over the death of Albert – seems about a mile high and is covered in gold and ostentatious ornamentation.
There’s just been recognition at last for some of the surviving Gurkhas here, and seeing these often tiny Nepalese men, at maybe 80 years old, talk of how proud they are to be British is a great window into a bygone era.
An era that had brutality and tenderness; deceit and honour; wealth and poverty. Life to be lived, high achievers and the lowest of the low – death during childbirth or of a simple infection was a great leveler during those pre-antibiotic times.
To me, though, amongst all of the sensational items from tiny earrings to giant statues, the collection of teapots – Tudor, Regency, Victorian, Deco – silver, brass, ceramic, plate – tiny, normal sized massive – plain as paper or or richly decorated as a William Morris wallpaper, with trivets and strainers and spoons and tongs and every other bit of paraphernalia you can imagine, one thing stands out.
“The sun never sets on a great cup of tea”, I mused, as we looked up from the central courtyard to see a flight of jets shooting over, trailing red, white and blue smoke to indicate not just the end of the Paralympics, but that there’s still some pride in Old Blighty.