One of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish, is an ex-pat Brit who has lived in America for the last 26 years. Due to arcane travel laws related to the HIV virus, he wasn’t able to return to the UK for a holiday until this year when those restrictions were lifted. Having spent 3 weeks back home, he wrote about his impressions for The Sunday Times.
The stops on the train journey from my Sussex home to London are exactly the same, almost a long-forgotten mantra of Englishness to me: Hurst Green, Oxted, Woldingham, Upper Warlingham, Riddlesdown, Sanderstead … The names reassure. And after you’ve lived in America, the sheer depth of each tiny stop, the generations that have lived there or near there for centuries, the overwhelming sense of real place you feel is something I once took easily for granted. Now it has the shock of the old, a sudden remembrance that this little island really does have an identity, a character.
And what is that character? The longer I have been away, the clearer it has become. It is prosaic and pragmatic; comfy and yet rude; resigned, yet not in any way depressed. I left at the crux of the Thatcher struggle, after teen years in the dreary dreadfulness of the 1970s, when this country truly was at war with itself, when the ideological divide was profound, when north was pitted against south and when “society”, far from being “big”, was rumoured to be nonexistent. I come back for a roaring, very British scandal and a culture far calmer, a divide far narrower and an identity much more settled. Everything is different and yet everything is also very much the same. Everyone is grumbling, but, if you will forgive a generalisation based purely on personal impressions, it seems a country that still makes sense; that has come to terms with itself; a country that, unlike my new home, America, is not in the midst of a cold civil war.
So much of this rings true to me. That sense of history and import possessed by even the tiniest village is not something most English people appreciate. It’s just there, like the rain and the Daily Mail and Bruce Forsyth. But when you return after living a long time in a new country, the sense of it is overpowering and you realize with a jolt that it was always an important part your make-up, and that when you left it behind, you left behind a piece of yourself.
And I agree with Andrew that things seem much more settled now. Despite the warnings of friends and family (oh you won’t recognize it here – it’s changed so much and not for the better’ was the common refrain) we actually found Britain much improved on our return last year. While I’m sure some of this is the rose-colored view of a holiday-maker, some of it is the perspective that only time and distance can give.
Humans tend to give much more weight to the negative elements of change – to take for granted those things that have improved while giving extra attention to that which has worsened. So it is that some Brits complain about the increasing number of immigrants to Britain, and what that is doing to the ‘national character,’ without ever stopping to feel grateful for the fabulous influences of those immigrants on food and art and culture. When I left England, eating out meant the local pub, sub-par restaurant or fish and chip shop. Now even the smallest towns offer delicious ethnic options – Indian, Thai, Chinese – and they haven’t replaced British restaurants – rather, they’ve inspired a whole new generation of British cooks, so that the old jokes about awful food genuinely no longer apply.
And it’s not just the food that’s improved. People are generally much more well-off, even during this awful economy, than they were when I left. Foreign holidays are not only for the well-to-do these days. In fact, every time I log onto Facebook it’s to find out that a cousin is on her way to Colorado or an old school friend is headed to Croatia for a quick weekend break.
The arts and cultural events that used to feel as though they only happened in London are now everywhere. Festivals and exhibits and outdoor theatre and farmer’s markets are all part of a thriving and vital culture that bears no relation to the one I left behind.
And yet with all these changes, the national character remains the same. And, as Sullivan points out, the political system still works, while ours has almost completely broken down.
There does seem to me to be a national conversation in a way there sadly isn’t in the US. Various institutions, such as the BBC, ensure it. Nothing in America has the clout or audience of the Today programme, for example. There are no cities with the vibrant, clashing newspapers of London. I begin to see why blogging — endemic in the US — has not been so successful here. The BBC provides the news ballast and the papers add the competitive bias. The crucial niche carved by blogs in the US — the personal writing, the strong opinions — is already occupied here. It’s called the press. And for all its obvious faults, the Beeb remains a cohering cultural presence, like the West End theatre. Not so long ago, I would have been all for abolishing it. Not any more. It adds to Britain’s cultural continuity, and if you have ever been subjected to the screeching, ugly propaganda of Fox News, or the smothering smugness of its liberal rival, MSNBC, you’ll appreciate it some more.
In a few days it is entirely possible that the United States will default on its debt. Unlike Greece or Ireland, this default is not a necessity. It is a manufactured crisis designed to bring President Obama down and restore the Republicans to power. They are literally willing to crash the world economy to achieve that goal.
So you can understand why we find it hard to get too upset about David Cameron’s NHS proposals or the corruption at the heart of the News of the World scandal. It might be bad, but it’s not stark raving mad. Sadly that has become our new standard for acceptable – “is it completely nutty and destructive? No? Well, what are you worrying about then?”
Andrew closes his article with this:
As I wandered again through the Sussex woodlands I retreated to in my boyhood, and imagined the bluebells sweeping like a lush carpet under the freshness of the new spring green, that felt good enough to me. More than good enough. The Great in Britain remains — right in front of you. Sometimes it just takes a little time and distance to recognise it.
I couldn’t agree more.