Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Increasingly, I find myself asking "What is wrong with this country?" I've always felt a bit of an outsider -- you couldn't grow up where I grew up with my interests and aptitudes without feeling that way -- but I think that nonetheless I've always unthinkingly bought in to that smug view that Britain, somehow, is at the centre of things. After all, there's a venerable tradition of inclusion in Britain which puts strange, difficult folk like William Blake or Isaac Newton or even Winston Churchill at the centre of the national myth, at least after they're dead; you used to feel there was a place for everybody, including "the awkward squad". But recently I have started to feel less like a bit of an outsider than a visitor from another planet.
I only have to leave these shores for the feeling to be amplified tenfold. It's like waking up from a terrible dream. Clean streets, decent houses, no drunken, loutish behaviour, no feral kids or street gangs, reliable public transport, state of the art health care ... Simple things, to be sure, but we -- as a nation -- seem to have decided to unzip our collective fly and piss all over them. We are an unlovely, loud presence at the fringe of everything that is right about Europe.
I read this week in The Guardian that increasing numbers of British artists are taking up residence in Europe, where to be an artist is regarded as an honourable vocation worthy of public subsidy, rather than as a scam for the work-shy. Pianist Nicolas Hodges, based in Stuttgart, "recently gave a Ligeti recital at Salzburg to a packed 1000-seat hall; in comparison, he says, he would have an audience of around 100 at Huddersfield contemporary music festival." It's hardly surprising people are leaving, is it? After all, no British gallery would ever offer the likes of me an exhibition.
It's a funny feeling, though, falling out of love with your own country. I can't help feeling that it must somehow be my fault ("It's not you, it's me") and perhaps it is. Or at least perhaps it's the fault of our generation, with our over-extended childhoods, our corrosive political cynicism, our covert worship of that falsest of gods, America, and our fear of seriousness masked with irony. We mocked and rejected the stuffy, traditional ways that delivered us the peculiar country we grew up in, but never quite came up with anything adequate to put in their place. We thought the European Project was too earnest and too boring to take seriously. We thought politics was "show business for ugly people." We said, "Don't vote, it only encourages them," and "Whoever you vote for, the government still gets in." We were right, of course, on every count, but that was never going to be enough: no surprise, then, that some ugly people took over our politics.
But I don't really feel responsible for all this mess, whether by neglect or a refusal to participate. I'm just a face in the crowd, 2000 light years from home. Instead, all I can do is shrug and contemplate the queue and the contents of the shopping trolleys in Tesco on a Saturday morning. "Are these my compatriots? Is this what they want? What is wrong with this country?"