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Back from the Cliff Edge – But What Have We Learned?

Averted from a ‘no deal’ crash over the Brexit cliff, Peter Jukes wonders whether Britain can now learn some humility like the Earl of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear – a theme explored in the January print edition of Byline Times

Byline Times January 2021 Edition front page illustration by Mark Winter

Back from the Cliff EdgeBut What Have We Learned?

Averted from a ‘no deal’ crash over the Brexit cliff, Peter Jukes explains the Shakespeare-inspired front cover of this month’s Byline Times and wonders whether Britain’s tragic fall from grace will teach us some humility

For over a year, since the first deadline of 31 October 2019, Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave Government has kept us teetering on the cliff edge of sudden, ‘no deal’ exit from the European Union – a potentially ruinous departure from the largest trading bloc in the world, with no arrangements in place for security, tariffs, regulation or citizenship. 

Now that has been avoided at the last minute with a deal, the whole episode reminded many of the end of the 60s heist movie, The Italian Job, with Michael Caine’s team of bullion robbers torn between getting their swag or tipping their escape vehicle off a cliff. 

But there’s an even more resonant precursor of English exceptionalism and pride before a fall: the story of King Lear, dramatised by Shakespeare based on ancient chronicles. 

Planning to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Lear cuts out the one who clearly loves him most, and is then driven to madness when the two remaining daughters diminish his status and try to have him sent to the Dark Ages equivalent of a residential care home.

The old king finally comes to his senses near Dover and reconciles with his good daughter who has returned with support from France. But she is hanged and Lear dies himself, in a fit of grief and distraction. 

There is a subplot in King Lear, which condenses the whole notion of the tragic fall – one which finds relevance in Brexit and Britain’s “world-beating” Coronavirus response.

One of Lear’s most trusted advisors, the Earl of Gloucester, is betrayed by his illegitimate son and then blinded. He also wanders towards Dover, where he attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the now named Shakespeare Cliff, featured on the front cover of January’s print edition of Byline Times (and above).

When he jumps, Gloucester is deceived: he has only fallen a few feet, but is led to believe that he’s fallen hundreds – and somehow survived.

Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

A bit like the character of George Bailey played by James Stewart in Frank Kapra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Gloucester’s jump over a mental cliff-edge, confronting his potential non-being, leads to him to acceptance and forgiveness, both of his own frailties and shortcomings, and the miracle of life. 

Britain has survived – just – a complete crash and fall through its hubris and supremacy. Maybe it can learn, like Gloucester, a little more humility about its place in the world and play a more positive part in the society of nations. 

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