An Ambivalent Love Letter to Britain
I used to love these Isles; I still love them; I may once again.
In November, I watched the Remembrance Sunday parade in awe. These veterans, uniformed musicians and Army personnel dazzled the thousands of observers through the grey English weather, and lightened up what otherwise would have been a dull Sunday.
By the hundreds or more, they walked through the centre of town in organised formation, obstructing whatever else these streets or common grounds were ordinarily used for — all in service of a higher purpose.
Not one for nationalism in general, I found on this day a serene appreciation for that long-lost sacrifice which the ceremony intended to capture. Half an hour or so later, I joined a remarkably touching two-minute silence in an otherwise ordinary café: everyone sat quietly in thought, careful not to interrupt the moment with a cough or a squeaking chair. The barista stood guard outside the door, to prevent people from entering during the observance of the two-minute silence.
I hadn’t been back to England since before the pandemic, and while I had hoped to spot some marked difference, it largely seemed the same to me (minus, painfully, the loss of my favourite place in London: RIP Timberyard). That the ceremony touched me so was quite fascinating, since I’m neither a veteran nor a Brit; where I come from, we don’t do things like that (and haven’t had sacrifices that prompted them either…). It was clearly not intended for me, but it still embodied that profound sense of respect for what my history professors at British universities so often returned to: the World Wars changed Britain, fundamentally. It was never the same again.
What prompted me, then, to reflect on my own love-hate relationship with the UK was two such society-wide messages from two foreign gentlemen whom I greatly admire: Johan Hakelius, a Swedish columnist, author and Anglophile, scolded the English for their recent behaviour, and Jordan Peterson’s read aloud his love-letter in The Telegraph.
I saw England for the first time on a gloomy evening in September 2013. The cliffs of Dover were less majestic in rain and darkness than they were when I visited years later, in summer and sunshine. I caught a train to London and marvelled at the Swinging City for a few days, before I went north to Glasgow, which would be my home for the next few years.
In the time I have since spent in these mesmerising and underappreciated lands, I’ve seen many of their wonders and even more of their flaws. When I think of Britannia at its best, I see the rolling hills and the pockets of dew collecting in the troughs. I see the brick houses and the perfectly kept gardens. I think of the quaint seaside resorts that nobody knows of, from Devon to Whitley Bay, and the stunningly untouched shores and sea lochs of Scotland’s West Coast.
The hills were romantically portrayed in Joe Wright’s 2005 movie rendition of Pride & Prejudice, and sleepy seaside resorts may even have seemed familiar to Jane Austen herself. Pompous pillars, and majestic sandstone and limestone buildings make one aspire for greatness; the libraries that so spoiled me during my university degrees I will always recall fondly.
I love how deliveries just happen, eerily fast and frequent; how food delivery services, common before the pandemic, just absolutely exploded in recent years. How the cobblestone high streets are filled with pubs, Waterstones, Whittards, and every other nice thing imaginable. The Neobanks and the Fintechs, the experimenting nature of ‘having a go’, the craft beer scene and the mythical regard with which the Scots hold their whisky and its history.
The emotional roller-coaster that is London I often struggled with. It’s astonishing that it has a market or a scene for absolutely everything, but that its inhabitants have somehow just accepted the invasion of people, noise, and crowdedness is beyond me. An acquaintance recently told me that she fell in love with England only once she moved out of London. There’s something to that.
My friends still beholden to London apartments, shared between two or three flatmates, pay individually what my 800 sq ft, 2-bed flat costs me — and mine comes with a mountain view. And heating one’s home in the UK costs a fortune, so people just internalise a sense of indoor-freezing. Never have I been more cold than in the UK — not on the freezing Argentinian steppes nor in -20 degrees Quebecois winter. It seems my squeamishness isn’t exactly echoed by many British women who turn their July-appropriate dress attire into bacardigans in winter evenings; they must have some invisible shield that protects them from single-digit temperatures.
With (northern) European climates but houses adapted for Spain or Australia, Brits’ nemesis isn’t extreme temperatures but the inability to warm up. The only time I can get comfortably warm during winter in England is in the shower.
I live at 65 degrees North — our winters get pretty dark — but never have I felt darkness more pressing than the endless grey and damp I came to intimately associate with my years in Glasgow. For weeks on end, I wouldn’t see the sun; it makes the winter months with the sun hovering around the horizon or entirely covered by mountains, seem blissfully beautiful in contrast.
Recognising the Armistice we honoured in November is also remembering the days when Britain last was a force to be reckoned with. Britannia no longer rules the waves; London is not the hub through which the world’s trade once flowed and its investments were financed; Northern England and Scotland are not the manufacturing centres that epitomised the Industrial Revolution. Britain peaked, globally speaking, at some point before the First World War — and the Remembrance ceremony I emotionally admired are in many ways a remembering of those lost days. My father often jokes that the British people still haven’t graduated from that mentality: they think themselves a global power, yet in in actions, I find “getting by” rather than “global illusions” to be the words unconsciously imprinted into most Brits’ minds.
I have made it a sport to collect evidence of this mentality in everyday British life — things of unfinished nature that I would associate with a developing country, perhaps rural Central America. A broken sink in a major Oxford library toilet, with a hand-written note saying “broken, do not use” — not for a day or two before a plumber could be found, but for weeks and months. A large commuter clock in Newcastle showing the wrong time after the clocks went back in October, only to be slapped with a paper notice stating “Incorrect time displayed” — somebody needed a ladder to put that note there (could that someone not have adjusted the clock too…?), but once the clock was adjusted, the note remained. The soap in the soap dispenser ran out, so we got a plastic bottle with hand soap and put it on top of the soap dispenser. Instead of fixing society’s broken indoor-heating, we all sleep with hot water bottles under our blankets.
Never could I understand the idea behind employing people to blow leaves away from a parking lot, only to have English wind blow them right back. Speaking of leaves, on a train from Manchester last autumn, I saw the oddest of announcements: trains might be delayed, poor traveller, not from snow or wind or harsh elements, but from leaves blowing onto the track(!). After enlisting Google, I found that other countries clean their tracks, explaining why in a decade or more of train travels in European countries I had never even heard of such an excuse. Leave it to the Brits, the inventors of railroads, to mess up the trains…
Brexit broke Britain, but it was already broken from a sluggish post-GFC recovery, low wages or maybe the gig economy. Or perhaps the failure of the Iraq war, Tony Blair’s New Labour, the underinvestment in the North, the decline of manufacturing — whether by policy errors or globalization’s secular decline — the deregulation of the 1980s; the conflicts, oil prices, or the Winter of Discontent; the humiliating IMF bailout; the stop-and-go economy. The only thing that every observer agrees on is that Britain is broken and that others do better.
I’m not so sure. Britain does many things well, the soft cultural and historical ones more so than the hard ones of indoor temperatures and trains. Ironically, having hope for this country marks me as a distinct outsider: Considering Britain’s decline relative to its peers is a quintessential British trait, an honoured tradition that reach back at least to the 1800s.
The title of Duncan Weldon’s 2021 book, thus, is just right: despite its many flaws, British life is one of simply Muddling Through.
Many things to dislike about yous; many more, I believe, to love.