A letter from the Land of Cockaigne

Not that I have ever been in the Chill Out Room of some Rave, but this carries the same atmosphere with it, all the way from 1567. It I called The Land of Cockaigne and was painted by Pieter Breugel the Elder. Cockaigne was a mythical land of plenty much written about by poets, and was a reaction to the harshness of peasant life. It is a kind of heaven on earth, a place where nobody has to work, where abbots are beaten by monks, and nun show you their bottoms. It is a place where the sky rains cheeses and where grilled geese fly directly to one’s mouth. The weather is always mild and the wine flows freely; sex is always available and nobody grows old.

However, Breugel has turned the original concept on it head, and shows the end product of gluttony and excess. It seems to be affecting all classes – the man at the front is a labourer, sleeping on what could be a scythe. The man at back has discarded an armoured glove, as if he were a knight. The one on the right, sleeping on some kind of fur cloak, has a book next to him, and papers beneath his head. Maybe he is a lawyer, or a merchant. In these old paintings every object symbolises something; if you had been viewing The Land of Cockaigne as at the time you could easily have read the subtext of these apparently random, scattered objects.

Nothing is as it should be. Everything is at odd angles, and disorderly, from the loosened codpiece of the guy on the right to what appear to be rows of tarts about to slide off a roof. An egg has sprouted little legs and seem to have a knife or spoon poking out of it; a pig wanders around cheerily with slices already cut from his side. It looks like the afternoon after a particularly sumptuous Christmas Dinner. You are fascinated, you are drawn in. You so want to be there too, or to have been there, and yet you don’t. It’s uncomfortable, it’s queasy. It’s – worrying.

It just reminds me of something my sister said when we were having our awkward chat about Brexit. I knew, but until that day in the café she did not, that we had voted on opposite sides in the Referendum. It had reached the stage where I had to tell her. The thing I remember most from our conversation was her reaction to a comment I made. She is seven years younger than me, and I started to say that I actually remembered what it was like before we joined the European Union, and everything seemed to be OK, no one was starving or…

But that’s nostalgia! she gasped, as if it was the dirtiest of dirty words. This bewildered me, and still does. I hadn’t been about to launch into a dreamy chat about the wonder of little steam trains chugging through the green English countryside, or eulogise about a time when wondrous wizards inhabited every cave and gauzy-winged fairies lurked by every burbling stream. I wasn’t even going to say that I was particularly happy in those days, because I wasn’t.

I was just trying to explain that life seemed normal then. Usual. Everyday. We didn’t feel deprived. People didn’t feel that their children and grandchildren’s futures were blighted by our not being in one trade agreement or another. Things seemed to be more or less Under Control. Under Control – isn’t that all any of us long for, now?

I am a sad old person with only her radios and her many cats for company, and so I spent more or less the whole day yesterday, dribbling cats on lap, knitting in hand, listening to politicians tearing themselves and – though they don’t seem to be aware of it – every one of us to bits over this blessed Brexit. Last night I couldn’t sleep, at least not for a while. It was all going round in my head. In the end I got up and wrote pages and pages of notes. Most of them have not found their way into this particular post. Might use them later.

One thing that struck me was my sister and I. For years we have hardly spoken. We belong to different generations and don’t have a lot in common, apart from half our genetic material. And of course a mother with dementia, to whom we are both still tied, emotionally, and for whom we are jointly, legally responsible. In a way it was Mum who tore us apart, unwittingly, after years of – also unwittingly – holding us together.

And after years of this we finally managed to resume negotiations, at least to the extent of meeting for joint visits to the Home, for coffee afterwards, chats, and texts. This Brexit thing probably hasn’t reversed that small amount of  progress but it might have. And for what? In the event our two votes meant nothing since hers cancelled out mine, and vice versa; but even if we had both voted one way, both voted the other or neither had voted at all, the result of the 2016 referendum would have been exactly the same.

7 thoughts on “A letter from the Land of Cockaigne

  1. I too remember clearly living in the U.K. before Heath led it into what was then the Common Market.
    Things worked. Not always brilliantly, but things worked.
    I did not want to go in then and have seen nothing to persuade me since that it was a good idea…working in a profession which kept one in touch with E.U. events. Some colleagues agreed, others did not, but discussion was civilised.
    And then came Brexit….and civilised discussion went out of the window. I have been appalled at the level of sheer hatred shown – the dark side of the British character coming to the fore.
    And, on a personal note, I am sick to my back teeth with people whose level of knowledge and intelligence is knee high to that of a gnat ‘explaining’ to me the ‘realities’ of the situation. Luckily at the end of a ‘phone or via the internet rather than face to face as I can stay polite…..

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    1. Hi Helen, I voted against going in in the first place, but never thought we would be given a chance to vote to leave. Then, when we won I was shocked at the reaction from the other side. Growing up, we were told, and believed, that the British were particularly civilised, that as in the national game of cricket, people would be modest in victory, generous in defeat. And that didn’t happen. It was vicious, really hurtful. I have followed the debate ever since, to the point of exhaustion. I have particularly hated the patronising assumption, perpetuated by the BBC I have to say, that if you voted leave you must have been concerned about immigration (I wasn’t), and you must be old (true in my case) and poorly educated (not true) so that you didn’t really understand what you were voting for and if only it had been explained to you, really, really simply… And I hate the guilt thing – my sister used this one on me – you don’t care about the disaster you are bringing on future generations. What disaster, exactly? Should I not have a vote since I’m older, and childless, and therefore less relevant? I fear that we will be victimised for anything that goes wrong after we leave (if we ever do!). My sister asked how I would feel if my niece, who has kidney failure, we unable to get the costly infusions that prevent her body from killing off her donated kidney…

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      1. We seem to have had the same experience!
        As for the guilt thing, pharmaceuticals are available worldwide…different name, same thing, so this bit of Project Fear is especially despicable. I just wish the people who spout this would consider the state of the society with which they seem to content which allows children to live in poverty and the sick and disabled to be deprived of the money they need to live. Or successive governments which have played to E.U. sectorisation by which the I.K. seems to be concerned only with financial services while industries go elsewhere.
        No, of course not…what Land of Cockaigne am I living in?
        Students in my time studied abroad…it wasn’t difficult, you just had to be good. Now Erasmus provides cash to univerities so any bright or not so bright spark can go abroad for a year. Working abroad was possible too…you had to be good enough for an employer to sort out your work permit.
        Were the U.K. to leave the E.U. – which I feel will not come about – the sky will not fall on our heads – though having suffered the arrogance of the ‘explainers’ I can;t help but hope that just a bit of it might fall on theirs. Not enough to kill…just enough to wake them up.

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      2. My feeling is that whatever happens something has simply died in Britain now. I know it has died in me. This more psychological aspect is getting towards all those pages of notes I scribbled in the middle of last night then didn’t use. Will have to write a second post 🙂

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      3. It is that feeling which made me glad to leave in the eighties…there was a wilful breaking with the post war settlement – an encouragement of individual greed leading to people preferring to step over another person ratherthan help them. Not to speak of a growing incompetence in the public services and the professions. We went to France to find a climate better for my husband’s health…and made many friends their among the older generation – well, older then we were then! – but over the years the hypocrisy of egalite liberte fraternite when in fact it was keep your head down or be sanctioned became too much and we legged it for Costa Rica Not a paradise – except for the landscape and wildlife – but the sort of freedom of expression that I remembered when growing up in the U.K. That is changing, of course, as the country joins the OECD with all its boxes to tick, but out in the sticks where we are it will probably last our time.
        I feel heartbroken for what the U.K. was – and furious with those who allowed it to be thrown away for small change for them while the already rich raked it in. And these are the people who try to ‘explain’….
        Words don’t fail me, but the respectable ones don;t come to mind at the moment.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Words fail me too, but for some reason I keep trying to write them. Habit, I suppose. I do envy you your adventurous and colourful life. I’ve just written another post, by the way. But words are still failing me.

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