I HAVEN’T lived in England since 1999.
I’ve been back, of course, though at times there have been years between a visit.
And, of course, we are only separated by the Irish Sea. But not living in a place does remove you from it in a very fundamental way.
When I left England Tony Blair was only two years into his premiership and I left a country that seemed to have uncovered a newfound peace with itself.
Even as late as 2012 I remember being in London during some of the Olympics and marvelling at this vibrant, multicultural place, full of hope and optimism. The point is, of course, that I wasn’t living there.
I was looking in from Ireland. I was seeing from a distance.
Irish life preoccupied me completely and my viewpoint of England was superficial and shallow.
I’ve only really started to realise that recently.
There was, obviously, Brexit in 2016 when it suddenly seemed like the optimistic place had turned inwards and backwards. Had become shockingly ugly. How ugly I didn’t really know but I think I do now.
If I looked at England to try and get an insight I looked at politics and the ‘big’ things and I would do so again. They matter.
Clearly, though, the apparently trivial things matter too.
For instance, I remember briefly coming across the comedy show Little Britain and thinking it was nasty without being particularly funny but didn’t think that personal judgement signalled much.
I also remember see a little of the much raved about comedy show The Office and thinking it was mean hearted but, you know, sometimes your just out of step with a place aren’t you?
Perhaps, I should have taken a little more notice though.
I’m thinking this now because England increasingly looks like an unlikeable place and two essentially trivial characters have illustrated this even more than Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.
The noughties in England, as I say, more or less passed me by.
I knew who Russell Brand was but I didn’t know him from anything except being famous.
I didn’t know there was a culture whereby the excruciating sexism of the 1970s comedy of my childhood had been replaced by the excruciating boorishly sexualised comedy of the 2000s.
Not that it offended me. It just reminded me of being in the schoolyard and realising that what makes you giggle when your twelve doesn’t make you laugh when your twenty-two.
I wasn’t really aware of Laurence Fox at all either until he became politically ‘active’.
I hadn’t realised that yet another English public schoolboy coming from wealth and privilege could make a living out of claiming to be unable to say the things he was saying.
When both of these men dominated English news headlines for a few weeks recently it seemed like they were symbols of a country lost in its own decline. One had been encouraged by a culture and the other embodied a culture.
It seemed that underneath the superficial optimism and the telegenic charm of the Olympics that England had, all along, remained the culturally mean-spirited place I remembered.
It appeared that beyond Blair’s practiced sensitivity and Cameron’s Blair lite projection that lies about Iraq and lies about Brexit lingered all along.
If the popular culture of England is producing men like Russell Brand and Laurence Fox has anything really changed?
I’ve had up on the wall of everywhere I’ve lived since my student days a little framed picture.
It is a Bernard Manning-type figure stating ‘there were these thick Paddies’ to the backdrop of Irish literary stalwarts, Yeats, Behan, Beckett, Wilde, and others.
You probably know the image. Well it’s not the Irish anymore that are generally the target of English crudity. The targets have changed. It’s the crudity that has remained.
So, my question is this. When I saw what I thought was optimism or hope or flourishing social cohesion and vibrancy, was I wrong?
Do Laurence Fox and Russell Brand point to a darker English reality?
Do they portray an England that had never changed much?
Do they suggest an England that was always seedy, always at war with itself?
Do they say the Olympics was just a passing summer but usually, in the green and pleasant land, this England, usually it’s grey?