A small note from a not-so-great-anymore island

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.

A small note from a not-so-great-anymore island 1
This fold-out poster in a local shop managed to look dusty and worn even before the celebrations for the (now deceased) monarch began

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.

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Derelict warehouses, awaiting gentrification

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.

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An (idealised) image of the (idealised) English countryside

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.

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The tail-end of a year with three PMs. Hardly a living soul in sight

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.

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The Haunting of Corporate Britain

30 thoughts on “A small note from a not-so-great-anymore island”

  1. yep, I increasingly wonder: why am I still here… I guess having my own grown-up children here now is a major factor; but the pull to leave is more than obvious, it’s present every single day.

  2. Sadly, I couldn’t agree more. With a remarkably similar story of falling in and out of love with the UK, the wife and I experienced two rather horrifying incidents of blatant racism during our last stay in 2018. (Life-changing events on behalf of the wife keep us from going there ever again).. Incidents of a quality one might expect in the arse end of Saxony, not in London, of all places. Not against us (we tend to blend in quite nicely), but against people diligently giong about their job or simply having a family day out, respectively. Their sin: Not being Anglo-Saxon and apparently not regretting it one bit.
    Over the decades, we had both witnessed unsavoury people muttering awful things about the Jamaican bus driver or the Asian lady at the supermarket checkout under their breath. Yet the unabashedly open display of hate, clearly confident that no-one would intervene, still resonates with us.

  3. @kaiarzheimer yes interesting the view from afar. I no longer remember who it was but I think there was an FT columnist who argued (during the negotiations) that Brexit wouldn’t bring about a collapse but rather the country would become shabbier and more worn out slowly over time. A hollowing out rather than a collapse. I think that’s correct in many places, though of course some (mostly the older demographic) are still doing very well for themselves.


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