For a change, something more personal.
In the early 2000s, I lived in the UK for a few years. For reasons that are not entirely clear, I was already an anglophile when I arrived, and over time, I became even more fond of the country and its inhabitants.
Even then, I found the level of consumerism striking and the scale of social problems disconcerting, at least by my continental European standards. In many other ways, this was a remarkably open, friendly, dynamic, and sometimes even progressive society. During Blair’s second term, the Cool Britannia slogan was still just about believable.
I left during the dying years of the New(-ish) Labour regime, but continued to visit frequently. Like many others, I was disappointed (to say the least) by the coalition government. That, of course, turned out to be a relatively happy interlude: like many others, I was even more appalled and outraged by the Leave campaign and the outcome of the Brexit referendum.
A series of life events and then the pandemic put a preliminary end to my visits. Although I kept watching from afar, it took me six years or so to return to these shores, and even then, I arrived in a city that I had last visited in the 1980s (yes, I’m even older than I look).
To make up for the hiatus, I have spent several interesting weeks of 2022 in England: the days before the Jubilee, the summer of the Commonwealth Games (largely ignored by the rest of the world) and finally a good chunk of the Christmas/New Year period during this (alleged?) winter of discontent.
An even bigger problem is that the health system (traditionally in a state of crisis during the winter) is now so overstretched that it is coming apart at the seams. Food bank use it at an all time high, and the country looks even more downtrodden than in previous years.
Obviously, much has changed. When we went to the beach this summer, ours were the only foreign voices: a first. Many, if not most, of the Europeans are gone. So are the Polish corners shops, the Lithuanian delicatessen, and even the CEE-themed aisles in the big supermarkets. Other aisles are closed off or understocked: French cheese, Italian pasta or Spanish sausages, once readily available, have reverted to the status of luxury items. So have fruit and veg, apparently.
During a recent strike of nurses and ambulance drivers, the government has asked the population to refrain from potentially hazardous activities. That’s rather difficult when you work in a factory or drive a forklift for a living. Meanwhile, people still buy too much stuff, go to the gym, drink their lattes in pseudo-Italian chain coffee shops.
Unfortunately, I have no great political, economic, or social insights into any of this to offer. I have no keen observations to report, apart from this: everything here has a strange, transitory feel to it. But perhaps that is just the new year and the remnants of a collective hangover. And so, instead of an attempt to come up with a half clever closing sentence, I finish with another picture.