Grey Britain

In the depths of winter—when it was dark by 3:45 p.m., and had drizzled for three months straight—a few friends assured me that the weather in English spring would be fantastic.  I was skeptical, since typically here “fantastic” weather usually means “you can sort of see the sun through the clouds and it’s not raining too hard.”  Oxford right now is exceptionally beautiful, though.  It’s been so sunny I’ve actually acquired a tan (which, I suppose, doesn’t reflect too well on my exam studying), and the Worcester gardens are poised to explode into bloom at any moment.

Britain, though, is still awfully grey.

In September, I decided I would prepare myself for my move across the Atlantic by buying some British music.  Naturally, I wasn’t much interested in popular British music, but I did buy an album by the cheerily named “Gallows” called Grey Britain. Reading the liner notes, I discovered that the whole production was a concept album about Britain, and how it’s falling apart.  At the time, I could make much sense of it, since my conception of Britain was driven mostly by watching Chevy Chase’s European Vacation and reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. The U.K. was a land of overly cheerful people with funny spellings and free healthcare: what could they possibly be so down about?

Now, though, I have a bit of a better idea what the pessimists are talking about.  The economic downturn hit the U.K. particularly hard, and the recovery has been comparatively slow.  As far as I can tell, every store in town has been engaged in a desperate clearance sale for the last six months.  Even in the super-affluent core of Oxford, the number of boarded up shops is a bit striking; only my Icelandic friend says things are worse in his own country.   On particularly grim winter days, it was hard not to take the sight of people with umbrellas and overcoats walking hunched over from a perpetual drizzle in front of vacant storefronts and turn it into a mental image of national decline.

I consider myself fortunate to be in the U.K. for a general election, if for no other reason than to draw comparisons.  While my own sample set of U.S. elections is pretty limited (I only became vaguely politically aware in 2000), the current campaign here is, to me, most reminiscent of 2004.  Prime Minister Gordon Brown is madly unpopular, but no one is much excited by the alternative: David Cameron, a posh and somewhat slimy Tory.  Still, though, the election discourse here could never happen in the U.S.: the main parties seem to be competing over which will be able to effect the most miserable cuts to social services and impose the most gut-wrenching tax increases.  Even amidst the irrational anger of the American tea parties, there is a sense of optimism and efficacy that feels absent here.  In all my conversations, not a single person I’ve talked to thinks that a new party is actually going to improve anything.

One of the big issues in the campaign is crime and “anti-social behaviour,” a term I can’t quite define but seems, basically, to refer to people being jerks to one another.  I suppose there are signs of “anti-social behaviour” everywhere here: signs in pubs pleading with patrons not to be too disrespectful to the neighbors, a drunken group of middle-aged men hitting on stewardesses on my plane back from Barcelona, or drivers at an intersection shouting “Move, you c***!” at one another.  Just last night, my housemate called the police on a twenty-person, multi-ethnic fight among teenagers right down on our street, which came on the heels of a month where three houses on our street have been burgled and we’ve been egged for no apparent reason.

While these might seem like just a few scattered anecdotes that hardly prove anything about national culture, I’ve run these by a few English friends here and all agreed that they were symptoms of broader problems.  I do wonder, though, to what extent this national malaise is all a matter of perception and history.  Once you start looking for signs of decline, they’re omnipresent, wherever you are: I’m sure I could find rude drunks and feuding teens anywhere in the U.S.  More speculatively, though, I am curious to what extent this current pessimism is embedded in the long, historical arc of Britain from world’s pre-eminent power to marginal player.  And in that case, I can’t help but think that the current British mentality provides a window into America’s future, as we come to grips with our own inexorably decline from being the world’s sole superpower.

In the meantime, though, the sunshine is fantastic and the beer is awfully good.  Cheers, Britain!

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Jukebox: Social Distortion – Sick Boys

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