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?"


doonster said...

I'm not so sure it's all that bad. There is something of a british mentality to talk our own down which i don't see so much in Europe and there is also the familiarity of exposure that has a native see so much more.

I've live many years in Europe now, and travelled all over. I cannot say from my experience that healthcare, public transport, youth behaviour, attitude to the arts is any much better overall.
There are pockets where it is or appears better and large areas where it's worse.

I find standards in the more rural parts of Europe just as poor as rural parts of Britain. Your Salzburg example isn't really fair, being a town almost totally devoted to the musical arts.

I'm currently visiting London again which has, in my experience and to the praise of my European colleagues, probably the World's best public transport system.

Spend enough time anywhere and you'll get exposed to the faults as well as the fixes. Things always seem much better when exposure is limited.

Mike C. said...

Doonster, I don't know how old you are, or where you're from in Britain, but those things will make a difference. The world looks very different to a strong young person than it does to someone coming to terms with human frailty and mortality. Gender makes a difference, too.

If you've grappled with getting your elderly parents into care and paying for it, or getting young children through state school (coping with bullying, for example), or noisy neighbours, or had up close experience of hospital treatment, etc. your views can change quite quickly, believe me.

Obviously, "Europe" is no more uniformly good than "Britain" is uniformly bad, but it's my observation that something quite important has been broken in Britain's social framework that is not (yet) broken in, say, France. If I knew what it was, I'd dedicate my remaining years to fixing it.

Tim said...

I'm an older American (68) who has lived in the UK, Ireland, and Canada and travelled extensively in Latin America (on business). I have been back in the US for the last 30 years. I believe you are lamenting the "death of civility" as someone more clever than I put it. I believe this is a near-universal phenomenon which has come about partly as a result of demographics (rapidly increasing populations) and the "dumbing down" of education and the death of absolute standards, which have been replaced by "deconstructed", "non-judgmental" measures of achievement and value. The US I grew up in in the 40's and 50's was a much more pleasant place to live than it is today, in many ways, even though the standard of living was much lower in the material sense.

I agree with your sense of loss, and would argue that is not restricted to the UK.

Mike C. said...

Tim -- you mean there's no escape? Let's all move to France, while it's still OK, and agree to pay LOTS of taxes!

I didn't comment on the States (I have a number of readers there, and don't want to offend them -- at least, not yet) but... My partner was in New York and Minneapolis last year and was shocked at the decayed state of the public infrastructure. We stayed in Oakland for a while in 1980, and back then even the grimmer parts where locals would shoot out the streetlamps at night seemed pretty tolerable.