Don Denton: Little bit of Britain Missing

“Victoria: Booming With A British Air.” So reads the headline on a travel story from a 1990 issue of the Seattle Times.

Where has that Britishness gone? And why? Are we too modern to embrace our inner Brit?

I lived on the Lower Mainland and in Alberta before moving to the Island nearly eight years ago. As a non-resident I was always presented with the idea of Victoria as a little piece of old England.

It’s a phrase that’s still trotted out in almost every travel article you read on our city.

The reality, of course, is that the powers that be and even most residents have turned their backs on this self-perpetuating reputation.

I find it both odd and somewhat self-defeating for a city to walk away from those factors and features that make it different from any other place, especially in these days of commodification and chain restaurants and shops.

Think about what happens when you return from a vacation. Do you come back from Portland raving about the Starbucks there or a local café? Do you come back from New York telling everyone what a cool Gap store you visited or do you talk about the funky used clothing store you came across?

In a time when tourism is down and budgets are tight for promotion, why wouldn’t a city take advantage of and embrace a positive and unique reputation that already exists?

Walking away from your existing reputation isn’t confined to Victoria, however.

I lived in Calgary for 14 years, and, during my time there, I saw a gradual erosion of those things that gave Calgary its identity as Cowtown.

One event that sticks in my mind was the removal of the fiddler who played old country-and-western tunes at Flames hockey games, and the ushers who were dressed in cowboy hats and western vests. The fiddler disappeared and we were instead given generic arena rock. The ushers? They remained, but in drab, forgettable uniforms.

Some people felt Calgary’s western rep was out of date and embarrassing, but the reality is those local traditions and reputations were what made the city unique.

Victoria too, at one time had more things “English.” We had Victorian Days, where local residents dressed in Victorian-era clothing, we had a Changing of the Guard ceremony, and the Olde England Inn/Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.

Why did Victoria move away from that? Perhaps more important, what did we replace it with?

We still have a few things that seem English, such as our two British candy shops, the doubledecker buses and the Royal in many of our names (i.e. Royal B.C. Museum).

We know we’re not really British, but why not take advantage of the existing reputation? Why not have an English festival? Bring in some Coronation Street soap stars. Have a few bobbies over to wander the streets. Host a high tea and English country garden competition. Let’s install red phone boxes around the city, even if they’re not used in England anymore.

It was a positive sign to see the first ever tweed bike ride a few weeks back. A tongue-in-cheek nod, but still a reference to Victoria’s English reputation. Let’s create and promote other such events.

So, dust off those stiff upper lips everyone. Let’s all grab our bowlers, our black brollys (every Victoria home is well stocked with those), cut the crusts off our sandwiches and enjoy a spot of tea.

Let Victoria become Victorian again, at least for the tourists’ sake.

Don Denton is photo supervisor for Black Press South Island.

ddenton@vicnews.com

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