Goin’ back to my roots, yeah…

I sank back into the UK like someone who has slashed their wrists drifting down into a nice, warm bath. Scummy grey water, the lights dimming, I was warm and safe and slipping away quietly.

Scooting across London made me feel like an insect skimming the surface of a pond. It was a speedy, slippery trajectory. Liverpool Street station was full of people darting back and forth, cutting across my path and tutting, tripping over my trailing suitcase, a blur of rushing, nervous energy and haste. Stressed pink and white faces surrounded me, so many shades of peaches and cream, or just smug pastiness, and a hundred shades of blond as though someone had laid out a yellow colour chart.

First impressions of the tube surprised me; not that it’s been all that long since my last visit to London, only a year and a half. But the tone of the place has changed. The sense of alienation almost stopped me in my tracks. I felt like a badly behaved and inconvenient child as I was scolded along with the other passengers by a hectoring, somehow intrinsically British tone of voice over the loud speakers. The London Underground Nanny told ‘those passengers entering the platform please move to the left…’ Then, to ‘Mind the doors, please. This train is now departing. Stand clear of the closing doors, please, stand BACK. Stand clear of the doors! This train is departing, stand clear…’ then once aboard, another warned us to ‘please move right the way along the carriages, please use all available space, move right along, let all passengers off the train first.’ One train I took jerked and lurched out of the station, prompting yet another anonymous child-minder to scold us,

‘If you do not desist from trying to force the doors apart while the train is in motion I will remove this train from service.’

Out of the train and inside the underground it was as though I was taking part in one of those old black and white films, slightly speeded up, movement blurred and clockworkish, everything comically manic. Even the escalator was far faster than on the Madrid metro, the steps grabbing you by the soles of the feet and hurtling you down as if to the mouth of Hell, accompanied no longer by the diagonal lines of adverts, but by screens with pictures jumping and dribbling down the sides of the moving stairs after you. There was input and stimulus everywhere you looked, an overwhelming flickering and flashing of images as though the underground city had been re-designed to resemble the set of Blade Runner. What is happening to England? It seemed as though everything in London was designed to agitate, to throw you off balance and panic you. I felt like an ant in the middle of an earthquake. I also live in a capital city, but it is the laid back, cosmopolitan cousin of this one; however do people survive here? It would eat me alive. And what about the provinces? Would they be any better?

La Contessa told me recently, after I confessed to a bout of homesickness,

‘You wouldn’t like the UK any more, believe me. It’s all-out class warfare: it’s the chavs versus the non-chavs, and the non-chavs live in fear of them.’

Over the next few days, far away from London, I kept my eyes and ears on the alert, and conversations with friends appeared to back this up. Words and concepts which hold no resonance for me, but apparently frighten people and feed off their innate prejudices now pepper and season conversation, words like ‘pram face’ and ‘chavtastic’. A new breed seems to have sprung up, a Jeremy Kyle subculture of dole scroungers and indiscriminate breeders who have never worked and never will, hooded and threatening youngsters who ‘know my rights’ and are ready and able to trample all over yours, a culture of blame, entitlement and class hatred. It appears that these days the British live in a two-tier Janus society afraid to look at its other face in the mirror.

One friend to whom I would never have apportioned a blue rinse spoke angrily after two glasses of wine of,

‘Bloody teenage single mothers popping out babies like there’s no tomorrow just to get a council house. They plan it that way, they have no intention of ever working, they expect to scrounge off the state for the rest of their lives. They should sterilize the lot of them, it’s ridiculous.’

Far-fetched as this may sound, this was backed up by my mother. Her neighbour had told her of a single friend of hers, who had eight children and was living on benefits, and every time she needed more money she simply got herself pregnant and had another one. She was currently forty-two, and reckoned she ‘had another one in her yet’, and was currently trying to persuade my mother’s neighbour, a single mother who worked to support herself and her one child, to give up work and have some more kids for the money. As if they weren’t people at all, merely meal tickets.

Another friend with her own business, a shoe shop, told me about a nasty, sneering woman who asserted,

‘You’d better watch that. I could sue you for that,’ when faced with a tiny, up-curled square of carpet in the corner of the premises. She also told me of two young boys running unattended in and out of the shop, kicking a football in and knocking over boxes and shelves of shoes, swearing and spitting, and when she eventually grabbed them, threw them out and told them not to come back, of another customer who warned her,

‘You want to be careful, you know, their mother could come in now and demand an apology or have a go at you for harassing her boys. You shouldn’t have touched them, they could have you for that.’

The same friend pointed out to me the prevalence of Staffordshire Bull terriers walking alongside their young male owners, off the lead, trained by brutality and abuse into submission, used as canine shields to ward off an incoming knife attack. Ah, Nottingham, once merely the gun-crime capital of the UK, now the knife-crime capital. Dangerous dogs as shields against knife attacks? Are we living in a landscape of Mad Max urban warfare?

‘I may sound over the top’, she conceded, ‘but if you lived here I bet you’d feel the same about it all. You’d hate them too. I’m scared of them, I’m not ashamed to admit it. They come in the shop and I feel uncomfortable, you just never know what they’re going to do next. It’s like they’ve got it in for you.’

I spent a morning in my hometown observing passers by and soaking up the feel of the place. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but this is not the city I grew up in. England, or at least, this part of it, is more a feeling than a place these days- a subdued and depressing feeling: a damp grey green of mould, dark moss and heavy skies, wet concrete and litter mashed into potholed tarmac. Expressions have grown harder and uglier, the city centre has become a burlesque freak show of ratty faces and malformed physiques. It seems as though we are slipping not forward but backward, back into some grimy, gritty Victorian nightmare of ill-nourished offspring and crowds of broken, resentful poor. Indeed there were many more young mothers than I remember, pushing multiple prams, a fag dangling out of the corner of the mouth, and dragging toddlers along with them, slapping them and shouting at them to get here, you, hurry up. I felt so sorry for these little people, the sort of children who may well grow up thinking their name is,

‘Gerroverearyerlittlebastard.’

The sea of prams and miserable faces washed past, – if it wasn’t prams you were side-stepping it was elderlies or the merely fat and lazy cruising along in disabled mopeds.

I wondered where all the people went these days who shopped in the dress-shop boutiques and delicatessens and found them later huddled for safety inside the type of ‘bohemian European’ café where you could sip Tempranillo and feast off tapas, mezze and giant olives, while discussing the latest film at the arts cinema and whether you were going to attend the French wine-tasting evening. Outside was all grey and lifeless, stalking aggression dressed in white sports shoes. The middle classes seemed to have shrunk in stature, creeping along close to the walls and averting their eyes.

It may sound cruel, but I hold onto these things, they keep me sane: the greyness, the lack of the joy and vibrancy here, that wash over me every day as I step out of my front door in Madrid. If I didn’t hold onto these things I would be knocked from my feet by the inevitable waves of insecurity, self-doubt and status anxiety that hit me as soon as I step off the plane into my own country. My peers: strong, intelligent, smart women have become Leviathans while I have been away, every year growing more stable and secure, powerful people with mortgages and second properties, cars, expensive outfits and possessions, well-planned holidays, well-paid jobs, financial and emotional futures, some of them even with partners, one or two of them bringing up children. And me, what have I done with my forty one years? What would have happened if I had not travelled and moved abroad, if I had instead settled, as they have, and pursued a career, something I was perfectly capable of doing but chose not to? In the UK I am followed around and haunted by the other me, the woman who, in one of the many parallel universes, didn’t run away. She jogs alongside and taunts me like a spiteful Jim Bowen in Bullseye, reminding me incessantly, ‘Let’s have a look at what you would have won….’ Perhaps she is a fan of Michael Dibdin and has read ‘Dirty Tricks’ which she loves to quote repeatedly in my ear:

(‘…The only remarkable thing about me was the fact that I was still doing a holiday job at the age of forty. I was just damaged goods, another misfit, another over-educated, under-motivated loser who had missed his chance and drifted into the Sargasso Sea of EFL work.’)

My cold comfort is the knowledge that in order to attain any of these things- the second house, the car, the pay rises and the expensive clothes, all of the things that spell status and success, I would have had to live a life so grey (in my eyes) that it would have killed me softly many years ago. And you cannot live like a sheep forever gazing over the fence at the lush, green Multiverse. In my other life, the one in the sunshine where I have very little except its warm rays, my easy, Mediterranean friendships, and a thousand dinner parties’ worth of anecdotes, at least I didn’t have to slash my wrists and drain myself of my lifeblood, and I am not drowning in a sea of chavs or choked by middle class status anxiety. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. But it is my life, and for that it is remarkable, and it is one which is very much alive and kicking.

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2 Responses to “Goin’ back to my roots, yeah…”

  1. Another wonderful bit of writing! I can really relate to those feelings you describe on going back to the UK, even to Nottingham, as my remaining UK family live there. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing staying in Spain, but when I read your words, and I’m reminded of what it means to live in the UK – of all that nannying (land of rules as I often call it) and the black-and-whiteness of the class system – I’m reminded of why I’m here.
    Nadya

  2. Oh yes,Nottigham,home sweet torture! All of you out there who ever question moving back from Madrid-think again and again and again.

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