Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Know your enemy

Know your enemy

This week I have been mostly reading local history books about my near neighbour, the Island and Royal Manor of Portland. Portland is the first thing I see from my bedroom window when I roll up the blinds of a morning, except on those far too frequent days when it is shrouded in a thick blanket of damp mist. Then I think: "Good."

Anywhere which boasts a feature called Nicodemus Knob is well worthy of study, but for all its unusual natural and mad-made geography, it’s the social history that has caught me.

Portlanders, you understand, are a breed apart. Literally. Isolated from the mainland until a commercial quarrying took off – and even then a bridge connecting the island to the world was only a relatively recent addition, the Islanders can best be described in one word: “mentallists”. Two, if you care to use the prefix “fucking”. Actually, one gets the impression that there are many rather pleasant islanders. It's just that the mad ones are louder.

Essentially, without the intervention of we Kimberlins, one gets the impression that they’d still be in the middle ages today, inter-marrying between a few dozen families and burning cow dung. But that’s not to say that would be a bad thing. The people are stubborn, tough, weather beaten, and as one Georgian visitor put it “about a foot taller than mainlanders”. The women worked the wind-swept fields while the men worked the quarries and manned fishing boats in famously treacherous seas.

They would risk all to save lives from a wreck in hurricane-force winds, then return straight to the seas to plunder the cargo mercilessly as if it were their birthright. Take, for example, the 1872 wreck of the Royal Adelaide, one of many to hit the Shambles or Chesil Beach in seas that even modern ships would think twice of navigating. Sixty of sixty-nine lives saved through the bravery of Islanders, with four rescuers later dying on the beach from drunkenness and exposure after the ship’s cargo of spirits was salvaged from the waves. Hardly Portland’s finest hour, such episodes gave the island as somewhat undeserved reputation for self-interest, greed and thuggish behaviour.

With caves, coves and beaches round the island, there was many a hiding place for smugglers, and contraband was a way of life on Portland – with even the man employed by the government to put a stop to the practice deeply involved.

Little surprise, then, that the men of Portland became a handy rent-a-mob in any political campaign on the mainland where Dorset maintained the most rotten of rotten boroughs.

A distaste for their local neighbours still exists today – they fought for the Royalist cause in the Civil War, while the rest of the county was staunchly Parliamentarian, and have spent centuries making up for it. There are still Islanders who have “never been to England”, and good God, who would ever wish to leave such a paradise? Well, all of the inmates in the island’s three prisoners wouldn’t say no. And a few of the warders, too.

Their one weakness, I have found out – an irrational fear of rabbits, the “underground mutton”, whose appearance can only mean rock-slide or flooding. A weakness I intend to take advantage of during Duck vs A certain builder, who is not actually a true islander. If only I can find a bunny-sized cannon.

"Come on then, you bastards!"
Robber Rabbit

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