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“So, Mr Larkin, you’re a distinguished poet. What are you doing out here in Hull, so far from the centre?”
Philip Larkin, possibly after a short pause: “The centre of what?”
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“So, Dr Williams, where did you get your English?”
William Carlos Williams, possibly after a short pause: “Out of the mouths of Polish mothers!”

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We tend to think – or rather, we have been led to believe – that in every country around the world, almost without exception, all culture flows outward from the capital city, to the poor benighted regions, like ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond. So, if they are lucky, Devon, Cornwall or Northumberland might get a little light from London. Oliver Cromwell founded Durham University (or tried to, at any rate) with this very aim in mind: to bring light to the “dark north”, and to act as a counterweight to Oxford and Cambridge in the south.
This view is appealing: the throbbing metropolis sits at the heart of an industrious, vibrant nation, dispenses peace and goodwill to all, happy farm labourer and mechanic alike. Maidenhead is content once London is humming along. There is just one small problem with this hypothesis: it’s complete nonsense.
Capital cities exist, then and now, primarily to suck the life out of the surrounding regions. After all, London was originally a Roman fort, built using forced labour, and Boudicca very nearly burnt the whole place to the ground. All the best stuff is dragged in, and then goes right down the plughole – with, perhaps, a dry husk spat back out.
In fact, culture flows in the opposite direction. In my part of the world, it’s from the west down to the east, as our friend Mr Zimmerman pointed out some time ago.
As the recent stunning Stonehenge-related discoveries makes clear, the light comes not from the centre, but from the so-called fringes. The stones of Stonehenge were not just quarried in west Wales, they were carefully, laboriously, set up in a circle there, and subsequently moved, lock stock and barrel, to Salisbury plain, presumably by a large, energetic and highly motivated group of people. (How else could it be done, except through the sweat and ingenuity of the people, leaders and followers all?) Moreover, the stones were not stones; or rather, they were (and are) stones, but more than stones. They are (and were) the ancestors. And not just the spirits of the ancestors, but the ancestors themselves. In other words, the most advanced culture in these islands, at that time (five thousand years ago, give or take), had its roots not in the fertile lowlands, but in the wild, untamed uplands – specifically, Orkney, Newgrange and whatever we may choose to call the “Welsh Stonehenge”.
These impressive monuments at these places (and by impressive, I’m talking high-definition TV with surround sound) were what we would now call social hubs: think St Paul’s Cathedral combined with Bayswater Shopping Centre. Moreover, they were not separated, but linked, by the Irish Sea – which was at that time not a barrier but something akin to a ten-lane motorway, connecting all the communities which lived on its margins, by the sea, where the living was easy (at least at that time).
To recap: lowland England got its culture not from its own efforts alone, but from the wild parts to the west and north, beyond the wall, beyond the pale, where the painted people lived. This is where culture resides, has resided, and always will reside, not only in Britain and Ireland, but everywhere. The Native Americans understand. The map of these islands is not only the wrong way round, but upside down and inside out. I’m reminded of that fine Scottish poet Hugh McDiarmid, commenting on the world war then raging away to the south: “I’m the civilisation you’re fighting for.” And where did our friend Hugh spend his later years? Why, Shetland. Sensible man.