Please Mind the Gap Between the Change and the Plateau
Britain on the brink of a breakup. March 29th 2019 we'll be served up Brexit for breakfast. Nearly three years of slow cooking surmounts to cold scrambled eggs, separated on the plate from the rest of Europe with a knife. We'll bleed boiled baked beans, but daffodils will still grow in spring.
Purgatory doesn't have the same pearly white gates as heaven. A plastic arch brandishing ‘UK and EU citizens this way’ (all the rest go somewhere else) greets you at the threshold between Stansted’s grey lino corridor and blue carpet arrivals hall. Here's something you learn about the UK from living abroad: carpet is a British thing, other people don't really get it. Zig zag warren of barriers; not to cross, but to follow in chains of collective inertia. When someone skips ahead in the line with their toddler, our trained response is to quietly seethe. Please ladies and gentlemen, break the order, make a physical mess! Mob mob mob mob MOB! ‘What's your ETA?’ Be prepared, get your passports out and ready. Race the other passengers to the freaky face scanner machines that don't recognise you anymore. ‘Bleep’ red light rejected, off you trot for a little bit of eye contact: ‘Coming from Berlin hey, did you have a nice holiday?’ ‘No I live there, I'm just home for a visit’. The jolly man looks me straight in the face and assesses whether the 15-year-old me on the page is the same person as the 26-year-old me standing right there. That's a teasing philosophical question.
Walking two meandering laps of Regent's Park with a friend, peeing discreetly behind a bush because neither of us have 20p in our pocket for the public loo. We eye up the empty houses with their grand statues on the rooftops mimicking greek gods; the only figures to grace that lush living space. So this is London, empty glossy Georgian homes enjoyed only by white marble, and passersby who admire and feel aspirational and sick when they see no lights on behind the curtains. No one can grow up because they're late 20s and still stuck in suburbia, discussing potholes with their parents. The city orphans skipped off to the sticks because the big smokes gone up in smoke. Dance floor smoke machines spiked with security threats and suspicion. One silly move one drunken night, you put something naughty in your sock and they searched you like a true criminal. Now you're out on the street, set apart from your mates, banned banned banned banned BANNED from pubs and bars and clubs forever because they scanned. They've got your number, they recognise your face. That passport, it's more than your identity, it's you and your mistakes. You can't say ‘sorry, oops!’ I demand my right of freedom to forget in a drunken slumber and move on the next day.
Here's Britain's answer to the question of identity: yes the passport picture of the spotty awkward 15yr old you is still you when you’re 26, and all the mistakes you make you’ll never put behind in the past, because the present should be lived in the shadow of your former self. You were badly misinformed, let's say deceived, and you made the wrong call? Tough. The past is like a foreign country, where you used to like to go on holiday, back when it was cheap and easy. Now you’ve just got this place, with a view of mock Greek statues on roofs in the foreground and crumbling tower blocks ready to ignite in the back.
3 years out of uni and my friend is quitting the corporate life. Grad scheme glamour image down the drain with half drunk specialty tea from the office’s canteen. ‘My colleagues are basic. Think business and marketing degrees from Lincoln. Shit chat. I haven't had any work friends, no one to go to lunch with. I realised I'm in IT managing a bunch of men in India and that's just not me.’ We’re lining up in the members line at the V&A for the Frida Kahlo exhibition. ‘ So I went on my first international business trip to Mumbai. After the initial 5 minutes of excitement at the largeness of the chair and fanciness of the drinks menu, you quickly see that you’re still just stuck sitting on a plane. The hotel was flash but the whole trip I was just fucking miserable. That's how it gets when you climb higher in corporations, it's just more business trips, dinners for one, perpetual loneliness. As soon as I came back I handed in my notice. I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to run a startup in Kenya, get great at surfing in the Philippines and do my yoga teacher training in Thailand. First I have to move back with mum and dad to save.’
Bus from Stoke Newington to Kings Cross, lurching through drizzle, clouds stuck still like stones weighing down the sky. It's the first rain of the unusually hot British summer. In grey it's easy to forget that a powerful sunshine ruled over us even just the day before. The standout passenger, an old cockney geezer, the original Eastender in a long trench and trilby wearing a gritty grooved face. Loves the blondes, hates the blacks, muttering racist slurs so rapid and lost in his disgust that he’s unaware that all his nasty little thoughts are popping out loud. ‘God takin up our seats, get outa here. Disgustin muck’ he snarls looking at the old Jamaican couple sitting down. Quick switch to full smile when the curly haired blonde boy in a pram is pushed onto the bus. ‘Hello angel face hello little man!’ He coos, gripping his cane as the bus turns a sharp corner. Here's a man stranded on a foreign island, trying to conquer by holding tight onto what he knows.
Why am I on this bus? I stayed the night with an old friend in his 868 quid a month per person shared flat. It's nestled just off a high street where flat whites and edgy dangling plant pots and revamped record stores ‘hang out’. We joke about his wokeness in-between the justified extortionate cost of his pad, price of the train, and the classic script of Londoners thirsty Thursday, Uber taking, Tescos finest pizza and Netflix midweek nights rolls on. We grew up in the same town, and this is the way our chit chat flows. ‘Shall I put some music on? Do you want to borrow some clothes? Shall I turn out the light?’ The chance of intimacy killed by politeness.
A girl from school’s mum is on the train back to Cambridge, she lives in America and feels she's growing apart from Britain because ‘when the state ignore the interests of the population the people are merely fodder.’ An intellectual with a speech up her sleeve about the tragedy of research cuts and how the refugees are housed in windowless huts. And what will happen to her? Maybe they will have to sell their second home and ‘gosh’ loose their base in Cambridge, because of the visas. Sometimes when you hear the perspectives on Brexit (common as muck topic for the common people), it seems like everyone has collected their favourite phrases, picked up very quotable quotes from the newspaper, and so they say it without thinking or feeling so much anymore. Chatting about Brexit is just the thing you to, it's as part of the day as unwrapping your cheese sandwich at your desk, and exchanging pitter pattering chats with your colleagues about the weather. Talking about Brexit puts you on energy saving mode.
Stomping around a National Trust estate with my brother on a crisp Sunday in August. The farm has a ‘daily activity schedule’: 11am ‘meet the rabbits’ ‘12am donkey grooming’ ‘1pm feed the pigs’. A little boy comes over to us in the cafe with an open palm offering berries he’s collected: ‘this is for you, but I have to keep this one in my pocket for my daddy’. After a gentle stroll and mooch around the farmyard, inquiring about the pigs’ lifespan and the cost of a horse, my brother and I hit the pub. 3 rounds of Shithead, two packets of salt and vinegar crisps, 2 glasses of red wine, a coffee, and a serve of chips. The pub has deep red walls, Faulty Towers episodes playing in the toilet, local dogs snoozing on the floor. It feels like being on set of a screenplay set in Britain, broadcast in Germany. Teenagers from the village working their weekend job are messing up the orders and joking around, winding up the girls and calling each other ‘twat’. We extend the drive home and take the car for a little spin, switching between Heart and Kiss FM, trying to avoid the drooling double glazing ads, trying to find a decent, recognisable tune.
‘Watch out, slippery platform.’ If the posters in Britain aren't trying to sell you something crap like two minute aromatic microwaveable rice, they're trying to scare the shit out of you. I started taking note of the slogans brandished in public spaces: ‘If you suspect anything: See it, say it, sort it.’ ‘Take a break it's good for your mental health.’ ‘The 6 signs of an eating disorder.’ ‘Look behind you, check your stool doesn't have blood, you could have cancer’. ‘This is a passenger safety announcement. You are advised to carry a bottle of water with you at all times during the heatwave’. ‘The past may not have worked out but there's always hope for the future’. ‘Divorce’ is written in capital bold and a fat middle aged man is leaping excitedly forward in this advertisement for a solicitors practice. The only light public announcement during my weekend back home came over the tannoy as the train pulled into Kings Cross: ‘we are now approaching platform 9 ¾, *pause* only kidding we are coming into platform 8 haha’. Britain’s dementors swapped their black capes for chinos and boating shoes, still the same faceless, spineless, must be fantastical with that level of grossness! Hiding, driving 4x4 with blacked out windows, cruising around the streets, doing the school run.
Newsflash from the Guardian: boys match girls for first time in GCSE results after the new system was introduced. Big hurrah! So they somehow squeezed even more war stories and Wilfred Owen and on and on charged the 500 into that crusty old curriculum? I did my GCSEs exactly 10 years ago and I can still recite the trite war poems because ‘boys like war’ so let's try and bump up their average grades by feeding them rhymes about bombs and blood and weapons and all that gut wrenching glory. Sorry boys. Do we think so low of you that you're incapable of consuming and thinking and writing something half coherent about anything but outdated propaganda? Tories etch away their picture of the final supper club party, where 12 old boys lean back in their chairs, chomping on a piggy from daddy’s estate. Every man has his own personalised silver napkin holder brandishing his family crest, and instead of Jesus robes they wear old university rowing blazer, rugby shirt, or even a school tie. Little tributes to the good old times, when they weren't fat and the only things retreating were ladies, not hairlines.
Thinking back to that Thursday in June: 6am in his white sheets, the coziness, our closeness, pulled back and strewn across the bed. ‘NO! ITS A YES. WE’RE LEAVING THE EU! I can't believe it. Holy shit! What is happening? FUCK.’ I sat up, my alertness set alight by his panic. He started scrolling down his phone, feeding his disbelief with news articles, and then moving on to the next stage of collective grief: hitting Twitter to scavenge for jokes. After about half an hour of ‘oh no, God I can't believe it’s’ I fell back asleep. In intense moments like finding out about Brexit, I don't feel a mad rush of emotion. When I say ‘oh holy fuck!’ I feel i’m pushing what would naturally be an ‘oh jeez!’ Shock kills my feeling and then dread seeps in gradually. I felt I had to overdo my reaction a bit that morning in the bed with my campaigning, trade unionist, academic, activist love. ‘You just fell back asleep!’ This sure sign of inertia cracked something of the glowing, muse like image he’d hung on his wall of me. The political is personal, it's you exposed in your underpants, feeling hot shame for not being able to show how much you care in the crucial change of state moment: from sleep to wake, past to present, red passport to blue, troubled human to ecstatic emoji.