What happened to the Britain I loved?


Blackleaf
#1
For the last 20 years, Brit Joe Bennet has lived in New Zealand - the same size as Britain and Italy but with a population of just 3 million. When he came back to Britain and went on a tour of the country to see how it had changed in 20 years, he was amazed by the "sheer crush" of people.

Here he describes his travels around Britain and the British eccentrics, football fans and the beautiful countryside that he saw.
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What happened to the Britain I loved?
By JOE BENNETT, Daily Mail

7th July 2006


After living abroad for 25 years, this writer returned for a sentimental tour of England. The changes he found left him baffled, wryly amused... and more than a little uneasy.






From the pub window, I saw three old men taking pigeons from wicker crates, fiddling with them, then placing them in other crates. I cannot resist the unusual, so I asked them what they were doing. The men turned out to be retired London dock workers.

In old age, they'd come to live in this quiet Norfolk town because, they told me, mass immigration had changed the way of life in the East End, and because the vandalism in London was 'something chronic'.

The oldest of the dockers, a gap-toothed and broken-fingered comic, had raced pigeons all his life, as had his father and grandfather. His son, however, wasn't interested.

In days gone by, they used to pack the birds off by train to remote locations, where the local stationmaster would release them and then send a wire back to London. A notice would go up in the newsagent's window in Bermondsey to announce the time of the birds' release.

Then it would simply be a business of waiting by the pigeon loft and scanning the London sky.

But those days are long gone. Rural railway stations became rare under the Beeching Cuts and rural stationmasters rarer still. These days, the pigeons travel by truck, and big money has entered the sport. A top bird can now fetch thousands of pounds.

But I liked the old dockers. They gently mocked my ignorance and they laughed a lot, and smoked cigarettes cupped inside their palms. They seemed the last heirs of a certain sort of working-class Englishness.

The landlady of the pub where I was staying was of the same tradition. Fat as a barrel, she stood for no nonsense. When she called time that evening, I was the only customer left.

I drained my glass. She swept a tiny lap-dog from the floor, buried it under her ham-like arm, told me to turn the lights off when I went to bed, and headed towards her quarters.

At the bend in the stairs she stopped and turned. "There's no breakfast," she said, "we've had a death."

This was my first visit to England in years and I was nearing the end of a two-month trip. I had been asked to write a book on how the country had changed since I left in 1979.

I am English, but I have spent most of my working life abroad as a teacher. I'd always had this dream of living in Australia. It started when I used to listen as a boy to Australian Test cricket late at night on the radio under my bedclothes, and I could never shake it off.

'Don't make a scene, dear,' my mother used to tell me, 'it's just not worth it'

I led a peripatetic travelling life for a while, then I saw a teaching job advertised in New Zealand - well, that was pretty close to Australia. Somehow I never made the final step, and for the past 20 years I have lived in the South Island of New Zealand, teaching and writing books.

The South Island is roughly the same size as England. It has a population of just over one million. Inevitably, therefore, the first thing that struck me when I flew back here was the sheer crush of people.

Heathrow does not provide the most enchanting introduction to a country. It's a grim straggle of an airport, its ceilings low, its corridors long, its airconditioning half-hearted and its concourses crammed.

Understandably, the prevailing tone of the people working there is sour and harassed.

At the queue for passport control, I was reminded of my own enduring Englishness. Preoccupied with his mobile phone, an Italian man pushed into the queue ahead of me.

So what did I do? Sleep-deprived and irritable after 30 gruelling hours in planes and airports, I did nothing. Or rather I stared ineffectual daggers into the man's neck, and so did the dozen or so other Brits whom he'd gazumped.

In Spain, the States or New Zealand, someone would have spoken up, but not here. "Don't make a scene, dear," my mother used to tell me, "it's just not worth it."

On my trip around the country, I followed the route taken by the British travel writer H. V. Morton in 1926, a journey that led to perhaps the best-known English travelogue of all time, In Search Of England, which remains in print 80 years on.

Morton went in search of a preindustrial rural England, a land of ancient sturdiness, of bewhiskered yeomen and apple-cheeked milkmaids, of market towns drenched in the past, whose streets still echoed with the ghosts of the Roman legions, of the Christian missionaries, the Saxon invaders, the cathedral builders, and the great Elizabethan adventurers. And by and large, he found it.

On the A4 outside Heathrow on a grey April morning, I didn't. What I found was more traffic than I would have believed possible.

When Morton drove around the country, his bull-nosed two- seater Morris would have turned heads. When I left England in 1979, a BMW turned heads.

But now, tint-windowed, air-conditioned European engineering seemed commonplace.

There are qualities to this country found nowhere else in the world

Of course, this country has become hugely prosperous. It is no longer the land over which dreary Jim Callaghan presided, with the unions camped in Downing Street, inflation rampant and rubbish piling in the streets.

I planned to follow Morton's route by thumb. Back in the Seventies, I hitched the length and breadth of England with ease, as did many of my friends. Most lifts came from bored truck-drivers or former hitch-hikers who had not forgotten their less wealthy youth.

But something has changed. The thread of continuity has snapped. Standing with my thumb aloft in the exhaust-rich air, as vehicles raced by, I felt something I had never felt before when hitching. I felt distrusted. I felt that I was seen, assessed and instantly branded a threat.

I hitched for three days. In that time, I secured not a single lift. Outside Newbury, I gave up, rang an old school friend and borrowed a car. From then on, I had a fine old time.

There are qualities to this country found nowhere else in the world. On the downs of Hampshire, I found larks and flints and turf so springy that my heels bounced.

On the Roseland peninsula of Cornwall, I drove along sunken lanes where the foliage of the trees joined above me to turn the lane into a tunnel of vegetation.


Village of St Mawes, Roseland peninsula, Cornwall.



In Cumbria, I found fells that stretched to the horizon, tawny as a lion's pelt, the soil a veneer over giant bulbs of granite, a land of curlews and huge sky.

And in every little town I found totemic features of Englishness, unchanged since my childhood - the jumbled palimpsest of the architecture, wheeled shopping baskets, pork pies, plastic macs, M&S and pubs.

I have always loved pubs, and above all I have loved English beer and English pubs. Both have been widely imitated around the world, but no one's ever got them right.

At their best, pubs are cosy open homes, neutral territory to which anyone can come, each bringing the rich variety of his experience, his troubles, his joys, his stories and throwing them into the conversational mix.

In pubs on this trip I learned why snakes can't go downstairs (they approach the steps straight, like a billiard cue), how to measure the area of grazing shared by a pair of tethered goats, why foreign aid is futile, what busbies are made of, and who makes bagpipes for the Queen. On many an evening I laughed myself hoarse.



Unique: British pub sign

'Thirty years ago, football was merely popular. Now it's a mania, a commercially-driven obsession'

In a pub on Dartmoor, the barmaid announced that she would like to become Pope.

"But you're a woman, love," said a builder at the bar. "About time they had a woman Pope."

"You don't speak Latin." "I do so."

"Go on then. Say something in Latin." "Paracetamol."

"Paracetamol?" "Yeah, it's medical. Everything medical's Latin, innit."

But I also found ruined pubs, where thugs loaded up on lager, where fruit machines screamed and flashed from every wall, where music rendered conversation impossible and where giant screens drew the attention of every customer. Those screens showed only football.


'Thirty years ago, football was merely popular. Now it's a mania, a commercially-driven obsession'

Thirty years ago, football was merely popular. Now it's a mania, a commercially-driven obsession. In the process, it's lost touch with its origins. For example, while I was in the country, Manchester United was sold to an American billionaire who looks like a troll.

The sale underlined that this famous football club, with its grossly-wealthy, child-like athletes drawn from all over the globe, and its terse and incomprehensible Scottish manager, bears about as much relationship to Manchester as I do. It has become a franchise, an asset to be sold on the open market, a mere brand name.

The epitome of football is a certain Wayne Rooney. You may have heard of him. As far as I can judge from his manner, the lad's a brute. If it were not for his talent with a football, he would be considered an offence against decency and a threat to society.

But because of that talent with a football, he has been elevated to a status once occupied by, among other people, God.

"There's only one Wayne Rooney," sings the congregation that gathers to worship every Saturday. The godhead responds by sinking his divine studs into a Portuguese crotch.

A citizen of almost as much importance in contemporary England is Tony Blair. Perhaps it's the places I went or the people I met, but not once did I hear the Prime Minister's name and a compliment in the same sentence.

Yet while I was in Britain, he won an election with ease. The campaign was the embodiment of phoniness, and was conducted exclusively through media images.

On the rare occasions the pub tellies weren't showing football, they showed Mr Blair, ostensibly canvassing the streets in the old-fashioned way, his jacket held over his shoulder by a finger through the loop, a pose calculated to seem simultaneously manly and casual. His smile was of lighthouse intensity. The whole business was gruesome.

The morality and manner that Mr Blair represents are of multi-cultural Cool Britannia modernity. I met no one who openly shared his vision. Yet more traditional philosophies are clearly on the retreat.

In Tavistock, on the day after St George's Day, I witnessed a Boy Scout parade.

The language in Britain is worse than I remember and the young are more insolent

The Lady Mayor and other worthies had turned out to watch, but the parade was half-hearted. The Scouts marched without conviction, and saluted with what looked like embarrassment. Their toggles drooped.

Meanwhile, a knot of other young things had gathered in a corner of the square, the lads dressed like thugs-in-embryo, the girls like slappers. They swore and they sneered. Those who had gathered to watch the parade pretended they did not exist.

But when the whole business had ended and the small crowd dissipated, the foul-mouthed urchins emerged from their corner to reclaim the territory they felt was rightfully theirs. In ten years' time, I doubt there'll be a Boy Scout Parade in Tavistock on the day after St George's Day.

Yes, Britain has changed since I left. On a bench on Choristers Green in Salisbury, I saw two lesbians snogging. That would never have happened in my day.

Above them rose the cathedral spire, 300ft of stone carved with magnificent endeavour, its flanks heaped with spirelet after spirelet, like 13th-century bling.

In the formidably pretty Lake District, I was appalled by the synthetic cultural tourism of the Wordsworth industry. The poet's cottage now has a coach park the size of 50 cottages and the sugary town of Ambleside is impossibly choked with traffic.

Just tens of miles south, I came across the forlorn fish-and-chipperies, souvenir shops and penny arcades of Morecambe, two steps, it seemed to me, from abandonment. A tea room that could accommodate 100 people was seating no one and in a pub nearby I received an effusive greeting from a six-year-old girl and a six-stone Rottweiler.

The pub was busy with the sort of men who might swing their boot through the window of the Winter Gardens. Two of them were next to me, their elbows on the bar. Every other word they uttered began with an 'f' or a 'c'.

The language in Britain is worse than I remember and the young are more insolent. Crime, vandalism and immigration - these are what sent those pigeon fanciers away from London.

But there are things I would return to England for again and again. One day I had the cavernous cathedral at Winchester to myself, but for a single cleric who clipclopped past me in a surplice on his way to attend to some candles.

I liked the way my cough echoed beneath the ancient roof, was magnified and then swallowed. I liked the uneven medieval floor tiles, the calming temperature, the nave as wide as a motorway, the dwarfing waste of space between me and the ceiling.

During my trip, I was reminded that rain is England's signature note. England is no wetter, I suspect, than Normandy, say, or nothern Germany, yet none of these places is as synonymous with rain as England.

The English do not celebrate their rain. There are no postcards available of a wet day in Truro, or of a drenched Big Ben. The postcards are all sparkly with sunshine. Yet the English delight in bemoaning their climate - it suits the national trait of self-deprecation, of muddling along despite mild adversity.

I was reassured that this uniquely English note of making do, getting by, being grateful for small mercies and knowing there are others worse off, is as strong as ever. It's an attitude expressed by that defining phrase, 'musn't grumble'.

Not all the changes are for the better, but oddly I was quite encouraged by what I saw. England is clearly more prosperous than it was when I left, and it's cleaner, too.

It is easy to forget how filthy London was in 1979. Back then, the life expectancy for someone who fell into the Thames was measured in minutes. Today, I gather, there are fish.

England may have too many cars and too many people, but the place endures. England's all right, I reckon. There may not be so many bewhiskered yeomen and apple-cheeked milk-maids, but I met a lot of good people who made me laugh.

What I'm really sad about is that no one hitch-hikes any more.

Musn't Grumble: An Accidental Return To England, by Joe Bennett, is published by Simon and Schuster, £11.99.


dailymail.co.uk
 
gopher
No Party Affiliation
+1
#2  Top Rated Post
I cannot answer the writer's issues because I have never lived in the UK. One thing's for sure - it never was Paradise or some elysian field. The fact is that it invaded India and other parts of the world killing mercilously along the way. In fact Queen Victoria's campaign of dope peddling during the Opium Wars caused the death of untold numbers of people. The Crown's efforts during Gandhi's peaceful campaign weren't exactly benign.

So while the writer may bemoan the change in England's landscape, he should remember that it is responsible for changing the landscape throughout the world - often in ways that were not approved by the locals.
 

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