I am still confused as to how many continents there are. Is Oceania the same as Australasia? Do North and South America count as two or just one? Is Antarctica a proper continent and not just a frozen phoney? What about the subcontinent of India? Does that count as half, quarter, or some other fraction? What continent does Greenland belong to? And the islands of the mid Atlantic, what about them?
When I was younger the issue was simpler. There were six continents, Africa, America, Asia, Australasia, Europe and Great Britain. There was absolutely no doubt that Britain was separate from Europe geographically and spiritually. In fact, the mainland of Europe was the continent and things that came from it were ‘continental’ and mostly malodorous, quilts and kisses on the hand being exceptions.
In Europe people did peculiar things; they spread chocolate on bread for breakfast and melted cheese in communal pots in the evenings. Or so it was said. Europe was a place of mystery, a patchwork of suspense, and crossing its multifarious internal borders wasn’t likely to be easy. If you had to travel there, a large vulcanite suitcase that could be plastered with triangular destination labels was the minimum requirement. Better not to go at all! The greasy food, cooked in nasty olive oil, was certain to upset your stomach. And there were yodellers.
My great childish dream back then was to build a raft and paddle it to France. There were enough fallen trees in the forest near my home to provide wood for the construction. France seemed an incredibly exotic destination and my enthusiasm was increased rather than diminished when I was told that dinosaurs existed there. They had become extinct everywhere else but still flourished in France. Thus, I couldn’t wait to drag my raft ashore and encounter my first stegosaurus. Other lies that adults told me about France included the assertion that the Eiffel Tower was something that horses jumped over in the Grand National. Having no idea what a ‘Grand National’ was I felt only a vague sense of awe. It was many years before I learned that it is a horse race famous for being dangerous to horses and for the ludicrous hats worn by upper class drunken women who watch it and chortle.
Adults in those days told outrageous untruths as a matter of course. It was an accepted part of life. I grew up in an environment where no one said anything sensible but instead would make the most absurd statements with a straight face. It was an uncle who claimed that France was jammed with dinosaurs. He also informed me that we were living in Australia, not Britain, but that everyone else would try to trick me into thinking it was Britain and that they were all in the joke together and I shouldn’t believe them. The truth of the matter, he added, was that Britain was a fiction, it didn’t exist, or it had sunk beneath the sea, it was a joke or a memory and nothing more. This was Australia and when he was my age, he had made a raft, from twigs, and sailed it around the world and started a successful property business with a gorilla in a jungle.
And he told me that he once pulled the plug out of the bath while he was still in it and got sucked down the hole and ended up at the bottom of the sea where he lived in a gigantic air bubble with a dolphin who taught him dolphin language and how to make crêpes. None of this was said in a joking manner but in a tone of utter seriousness. Everyone was like this. The postman once told me that he lived in a marshmallow house and was terrified of lightning strikes because the heat would alter the flavour of his roof and that people were taxed on the flavours of their roofs, so for him it was a major concern that his tiles weren’t toasted.
One of my favourite absurdities concerned the International Date Line. Because Australia was so many hours in the future, people who lived there (like ourselves) could phone relatives in Europe with the results of football matches, horse races and boxing competitions that hadn’t yet happened, enabling those relatives to make a big profit at the betting shop. These European relatives could then phone America to pass on the same information, enabling friends over there to also make money through betting. However, because of the Date Line it wasn’t possible for America to do any such favours for any countries west of them. In other words, America took but didn’t give, and as a consequence, was building up a large debt to the rest of the world.
One day all the other nations of the world, all those living in a future time relative to America, would form an alliance and invade America and loot all its treasures in retaliation. I am fairly sure it was one of my schoolteachers who told me all this. Even supposedly ‘responsible’ adults liked to be ridiculous in a blasé manner and play jokes on children. I remember one outing to a pond in a park as part of a nature class. We were required to sketch any animals that we might encounter, and, in my mind, I can still see the teacher crouching over a child’s sketch pad and pointing to a duck that was paddling slowly on the water.
“What it that, boy?”
“A duck, sir.”
“No, boy, it’s a fish.”
“But it has a beak and wings, sir!”
“Yes, but it has a tail too. Can’t you see the tail? Fish have tails, don’t they? That means it’s a fish. Draw it exactly as you see it and write the word ‘fish’ under the drawing and tomorrow I will hand your work to the headmaster so he can form a judgment of your educational progress and I am sure the result will interest him.”
That’s how life was in Britain when I was younger. Practical jokes and getting other people into trouble for the purposes of comedy was standard behaviour. If you didn’t tell amusing fabrications then you were regarded as rather odd, dubious even, a spoilsport and also, perhaps, a saboteur or foreigner. I would look at adults in the street and wonder if any of them were French and on familiar terms with dinosaurs.
Then everything changed and the countries and cultures of Europe became much more accessible. Going to Paris, Madrid or Lisbon for a weekend took no more effort than visiting Weymouth, Blackpool or Margate. In fact, it usually took less effort. I began to genuinely feel like a European citizen, something generally considered not feasible for a British fellow, but I am Welsh, not English, and the Welsh, who are the original Britons, are hardly British. To feel European required only my desire and acquiescence, and I had that desire and yes, I was willing to acquiesce. Feeling European wasn’t an option denied to me at that time and I never thought it would be, at least not until plate tectonics reformed the continents and Europe ceased to physically exist.
It sounds ludicrously obvious, but it still apparently needs to be said. Britain isn’t a continent by itself. That was just a childhood myth, similar to the story that if you swallow an apple pip a tree will grow inside you, and in fact I once deliberately swallowed many pips in order to have an orchard in my stomach and never grow hungry. I would only have to jump up and down at mealtimes for the fruit to fall from the branches. Because the fruit was already in my stomach, actually eating it would be unnecessary. It seemed such a wonderful solution that I couldn’t work out why everyone didn’t do it. I supposed that maybe adults didn’t really like convenience. But no, we can’t have trees growing inside us. And sadly, dolphins don’t know how to make crêpes.
Politely we call such things myths. They are deceits, of course. But the world seems to have gone back in time. Travelling abroad is truly difficult again, impossible in many instances. I spend my days bewailing the reversal. I have started wondering if my old plan of building a raft might be my best option of leaving these shores and visiting other lands. There might be dangerous dinosaurs off the coast of France, those long-necked plesiosaurs, but I will take a big detour around them. I will steer by the light of the stars and satisfy my hunger by eating the walls of my marshmallow cabin. Everything will work out fine.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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