A good friend of mine lives in America. He is London born and reared, of Irish parents. He is regularly bewildered by the States and wonders what the country looks like to those outside it. I have often exchanged messages with him during the Trump years or after the latest carnage involving guns.
He believes that the distance from a place often gives clarity. I wonder, so, if there is a clarity from here in Ireland, looking at the UK, that those in the UK might not have. I wonder too if his bewilderment in the States is shared by people who live in the UK. Or, more specifically, England. I wonder if people in England know how England looks to the rest of us.
The last time I was actually in England I met a friend and we walked into a pub. It was just before the pandemic.
Now, this was a pub in a smallish town in Oxfordshire. It wasn’t the inner city streets I’d grown up in where certain pubs always had a certain flavour. It was, you know, rural, sleepy Oxfordshire.
Before we’d even ordered our drinks, whilst we were just standing at the bar, in this fairly ordinary, fairly dull seeming pub, a customer turned to my friend and said, are you gay? Now, it wasn’t, as you can imagine, said in a way that suggested he was just randomly interested in sexuality. Indeed this gent, who was wearing a suit and tie, seemed to bristle with hostility. We had just that moment walked in. I had arrived in England under two hours before. I’d been living in rural, sleepy, Ireland for over twenty years and in all that time had never encountered one slither of hostility whilst in a pub.
Welcome to England, I thought. As an afterthought I should mention that on walking to the pub, in this sleepy, rural town, my first observation had been to say to my friend, you have homeless people here? In small towns like this? England. To think I once knew you.
What does England look like to those of us who no longer live there? Well with my friend in America in mind it looks like a b-movie version of the States. They used to say, didn’t they, that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was England’s Trump. Well, increasingly it seems as if indeed he is England’s Trump and increasingly England is Trump’s America. That’s what it looks like from here. For instance the ‘alternative facts’ brigade that turned out after Johnson’s confidence vote, describing the result as being decisive and conclusive, when it was clearly anything but.
Even suggesting he be applauded for his management of Covid after his mismanagement caused record numbers of deaths.
The insistence on something that is clearly not true. The lavish devotion to a man who is clearly devoid of principle and belief and uninterested in anything outside of his own advancement.
There was even one Tory MP blaming the BBC and suggesting it be defunded. Ah, conspiracy, how are ya?
And then there is Nadine Dorries. If the States has Marjorie Taylor Greene then England has Nadine Dorries. Unhinged seems to attach itself to every appearance Dorries makes. And her utterances bring to English political life the friction and chaotic bent that so characterised the Trump years. What does England look like? It looks bad. It looks like a mean, harsh place, led by deeply unadmirable people. It looks like a place that covers itself in flags and pageantry and distractions as a way of avoiding the truth about itself.
When I message my friend I can only tell him what the States looks like from here full in the knowledge that I’ve never even been to America. What do I know? When I look at England I’m looking at a country I was born in and whose cities I lived in for over thirty years. I have a deep fondness for, if not all aspects of Englishness, then many English things. The music, the literature, the club football. I have so many happy memories of days in England. There are people there I deeply love. I wish England nothing but the best. Well, not the World Cup or anything like that but, you know, in general. But England now? What does old England look like? What are those of us outside England thinking when we look over at Brexit Britain? Honestly? We are thinking, good God, what happened? How did they get it all so wrong?