Camberwell Beauty

The Camberwell Beauty butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) got its name in 1749 when two were spotted near to Cold Harbour Lane in Camberwell. Its rather beautiful, but rare. In 1749 affluent Londoners were flocking to Camberwell for its clean air and wide open spaces. That has changed somewhat and I’d wager that the present urban environment in Camberwell isn’t so conducive to lepidoptera (look it up). Still, the world changes and, if it didn’t, it would be a very dull place.

Camberwell 1749 Camberwell Beauty

Eighteenth Century Camberwell (looks like fun!); The Camberwell Beauty butterfly

Today, there are at least two Britains, probably many, many more. (There are at least two Americas too; but let’s not talk any more about that this week!) And since social scientists love to categorise, and in fact we all do, let’s start with just two – a simple, binary distinction. First, we have the chocolate box ideal – rolling chalky hills, warm beer, Red Admirals in an English country garden, Horlicks, brambling, jam-making, hearty country folk, dog fighting in rural barns… You get the picture, but if not, here’s the Lego-free Daily Mail to help you out (yeah, like Dacre cares about Lego – prosecute the bastard!) For many it is a Britain in need of protection and preservation.

That Britain offers its royal subjects a warm and cosy feeling, and travel agents who market it around the world probably do so because they believe tourists (foreigners, aliens) think all British people live in Downtown Abbey. Is that a good premise for marketing? It’s a view that in many ways depends on the absence of a Theory of Mind, and even chimpanzees can do that. Do you really think Italians believe they live a country where everyone lives in an amphitheatre and eats either spaghetti or pizza? No, it is a caricature. But it probably works for some tourists – those on bus tours following a flag around Trafalgar Square. They’d be better off going to Disneyland. And, for the Brits, it’s a convenient means of internal control for a society to feast, for a while, on its own fat.

Second there is a very different, modern, urban, gritty, and diverse Britain. I say modern, but diversity of sorts has always existed in cities. There has always been immigration, there has always been change. In fact, I believe that while there is an instinctive human wariness of the unfamiliar (outsiders, change) this is balanced by an instinctive curiosity, altruism and openness.

With openness comes opportunity. That’s what attracts immigrants to London: not just the Syrians, the Afghans and Somalis who are fleeing awful conditions (and who contribute so much to our economy and society). It attracts the Russian and Chinese billionaires, the artists and the scientists. I don’t think many of these aspire to become serving staff in Downtown Abbey. And it is equally marketable and arguably, more successfully so, than the non-existent chocolate box ideal.

Since moving to the IoPPN I’d go so far as to say I love modern Camberwell. Of course there are downsides. But the richness of the tapestry inspires. I live in Buckinghamshire, in many ways the opposite, and the countryside is great too. I am lucky to have two worlds. But that countryside is nothing like the chocolate box ideal. That ideal is imagined and to see it as anything more damages just as much as it may appeal as a tourist attraction. We need to remember that. That past is a different country, and so is the future. Clinging on to the non-existent idyll is like sex with your ex: you can forego the hard work in setting up a relationship and kid yourself that the ideal once existed, but in the morning you remember why they became your ex in the first place. And the more you cling on, the more you invest, the further you self-harm and miss the opportunities for real change and growth. You ransom the future to keep the fantasy alive.

AC Boxing Club

Ironically, the Camberwell Beauty butterfly is not a British native. It is an immigrant from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where it breeds, and commutes (migrates) during the summer. A mural of the butterfly adorns the Lynn AC Boxing Club building (formerly a public library and baths) on Wells Way. It is part of the past and part of the future; it is very much a Camberwell Beauty. Oh, and in America it is known as the “Mourning Cloak” butterfly. But as I said, let’s not talk about that this week…

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