Tuesday, 13 February 2018

"What's the worst Brexit shithole you've been to?"

Asked an old teaching colleague over on the Twitter. I wasn't really able to answer, for a couple of reasons. We haven't been to any towns we have particularly disliked. Some city centres have been too busy or noisy or smelly but that wasn't what she was asking, and these city centres were probably the places most likely to have voted remain, as most of them have significant immigrant populations and large universities. We haven't exactly been looking at EU referendum vote maps to choose where to go either - I feel fairly safe in claiming that I haven't mentioned Brexit at any time previously in this blog.

Admittedly, we haven't been to any towns that we assumed we were going to dislike, either. Although we've been to every county in England, some of them we've done no more than stop to fill up the diesel. Great swathes of the Midlands and the North, to say nothing of the Home Counties, have gone unvisited, especially those towns with names that make them sound awful in the first place. I'm sure you know the ones I mean. Towns that were flattened in 1944 and never properly rebuilt, or where the historic architecture was neglected until it had to be pulled down, or where the one industry that supported all human life was killed off by Thatcher, or where there was never any money to build something nice in the first place. Towns where it's visible that the council just doesn't care, there is no work for anybody, and everybody is angry or bored and has turned to drugs or crime or using the one time in history that the state has asked their opinion on something to mash a self-destruct button with the palm of their non-vaping hand.

But I can't say that I've stopped to think about the politics of the people in any one town. If you were looking for a blog written by somebody who is well-informed on the subject, or has a lot to say about it, you probably won't be reading this one any more. I don't have much of an opinion on Brexit and I can't remember having a single conversation about it during our time on the road. Quite frankly, I couldn't give the tiniest shit which way individual people or towns voted - it's done now. Granted, it was a complete balls-up on every level and at every stage, but I reckon about half the other big decisions in the history of politics probably were too.

I did find myself musing on what my colleague could have meant by asking the question though, and came to this conclusion - she wants to hear about dreadful places where everybody is a bit racist and always blaming the Metropolitan Liberal Elite in London (as well as immigration) for how shitty their lives are, I would guess. Some middle-aged Londoners are desperate for most of the rest of the country to be as crap as is possible, as I suggested once or twice before - otherwise what are they getting in return for those extra decades before the mortgage is paid off? This doesn't sit well with the fact that among all the people I've worked with, nobody has been seen to do more to include everybody, to reach out and welcome in, than this particular colleague. She doesn't seek to divide and classify, but she does have a wicked sense of humour. 

And we all like to assign characters to people we don't know. My family are not immune to this of course, and are just as quick to say, "Here's where the racists live..." when we pass a house with a flagpole in the front garden as we are to say, "Look - it's the murderer's house!" when we pass one that doesn't appear to have been lived in for years.

But I really haven't been travelling the country judging people on appearances or looking for evidence of right-wing politics. Rather, when I saw neat block capitals printed on a wall in a car park in Ipswich declaring - NO POLISH - GO HOME - I had a mental image of my father, having spent fifteen minutes squeezing into one of The Spiral's strangely tapered spaces, looking down at the dusty, dried-out leather of his shoes, sighing, and returning to his car.

There's actually plenty of Polish in Ipswich. And Lithuanians, varnish, Albanians, linseed oil, Kurds and dubbin. It may not be a city, but last week it seemed as global as southeast London. Many of the shops were still open on a darkening Sunday evening, and there were lots of people around. Young E observed that the only ones he had heard speaking English had been some shouty teenagers who had nothing to say and nothing better to do. And he's grown up in Peckham, as a true citizen of Planet Earth, completely separated from the notions of Old Empire and WWII hangover that formed my worldview as an eleven-year-old.

Ipswich actually seemed rather pleasant. It has plenty of shops and pubs and places to eat, has some stunning countryside just down the river, and in Christchurch Park it really has one of the best urban outdoor spaces in the country. Some of the trees are incredible - like with those in Anthony Browne books, you can see loads of scary stuff hidden in the twists and lumps of the branches and trunks. Amidst these ancient sentinels, Yummy Mummies chase children on little scooters and bikes, all radiant beneath their winter woolly hats. If the town where I was born has gained this much innocent charm, our delondonisation process is complete, and Brexit is harmless.

How many times in our travels have we been having a perfectly reasonable and pleasant conversation with somebody and then they’ve decided it’s time to say something racist? Only once. This is pretty damn good going, I think, as I used to hear something virtually every day in South London twenty years ago, even if it was usually from one of a tribe of old men who are surely all dead by now. But while London has moved with the times, the rest of the country has at least been keeping up, I think.

A friendly woman in her thirties was talking about how much happier she was in her village in the South Downs than she had been in Suburban South London some years before. "You go there now and it's like Spot the White Person and I'm not racist." There was little aggravated intonation or emphasis in her delivery, and so she seemed genuine - the almost-complete absence of white people in Croydon can be better observed by a self-proclaimed non-racist person than by anybody else. This may be true, because I don't believe that I have ever told anybody that I am not a racist, and on each of the handful of occasions that I have visited Croydon, I've seen fucking hordes of white people milling about. Even she, though, has clearly been advised not to preface racist utterances with, "I'm not racist but..." and has taken to appending the disclaimer smoothly to the opposite end. It made her seem rather more gentle in her opinion - perhaps even to the point where she might begin to wonder why she bothers sharing it.

Meanwhile, the van has also been struggling to stay the pace with 2018. It's impossible to air it on any kind of basis, let alone daily, as when we are home the windows need to be closed to keep the warmth in, and when we are away the windows need to be closed to make sure that nobody else steals our precious family warmth. There is no escape for the moisture in the air, worst of all in the boys' bed over the cab. This is the most compact space with two humans in it who will insist on breathing all night long, the highest space where the hotter air eventually ends up, and the only space with three outside walls and ceiling, and could almost be a patented condensation-catcher. Prolonged periods of cold weather like this one, with all four of us in the van every day, expose the van lifestyle as Not Completely Sustainable. The moisture leads to mould and the boys' pillows end up sopping wet and smelling like granny's attic. We had to throw them away - yet more waste.

A few days earlier we had been visiting London - for a third time on the tour, this time to take some papers to the solicitor. On the day we came to leave, the van wouldn't start. This was no great surprise, as it had been sitting there charging 20000mAH power banks day after day, while I didn't even dare to start the engine in case it cost me a hundred quid. A new battery was only marginally more expensive than the London LEZ charge, of course, but we had to pay that in addition later that day. I wasn't exempted for wrecking my battery with good behaviour. This was the first time I'd noticed the TfL website encouraging me to sign up for an account. "But that's almost as if you WANT me to keep bringing my [supposedly] heavily-polluting vehicle [with an engine the same size as that of the average Saab] into London... and to keep paying you two hundred quid for the privilege!" I shouted at the Internet, which didn't hear me.

Vanny will still be our cheapest and easiest way of visiting London once we are settled in Yorkshire, however (which is one of a number of reasons why I get nervous as M makes louder and louder noises about selling her). We've broken free from the capital's economagnetic field, but we will want to go back pretty regularly. It has been a great place to live, in recent years at least. I have a vivid memory from 1991, standing on the roof of a multi-storey car park in Stratford E15, after a biophysical science tutor had shamefacedly accepted that he was absolutely desperate for students who could start his course the following month. The view was toxic industrial wasteland and housing that showed utter contempt for its occupants. "Look at this shithole," my friend and I said together.

Very few places have changed as radically as Stratford, but the whole world has been evolving with incredible momentum in the twenty five years since. All that time inside the M25 meant I hadn't spent enough time elsewhere to notice that it is changing for the better outside of London too, whether it's the food in Cornwall, or the decreasing likelihood of a country bumpkin complaining about the people in cities who aren't white.

There was a young woman who worked in our neighbourhood in London cleaning the streets - picking up litter with one of those claw things. I think she was probably from Eastern Europe somewhere - maybe she was Polish. She stood out, of course, because the majority of people doing her job are men. I never spoke to her, never asked if she got paid the same as the men did, for example. But I assume she's still doing it, because the streets around our old home are usually fairly tidy. The disgraceful mess at the sides of the country's A roads varies from county to county, which makes it obvious that some councils don't pay anybody to clear this shit up any more. 'Litter' just doesn't do it justice - the recent winds have seen to it that there are miles of road where every single tree and bush wears a bag, and whole, full bin-liners can be seen here and there, carefully placed by somebody who really wanted rid of them, but couldn't think where else to do it.

The scene is made even more grim by the roadkill. The veins and arteries of the nation are clogged not only with thin layers of plastic but with a variety of decaying corpses. I've finally seen more dead foxes than I ever saw live ones in London and I must have seen a hundred dead badgers too - I should organise myself to see one living happily, to exorcise their many ghosts. At one point, I can't remember where, I saw a huge stag lying in a ditch. Such a great beast, you'd think, must have made out a will - 'Leave Me To Rot By The Side Of The Road.'

What a strange way to end a blog post about beautiful England. About how it's getting better, and about how considerate and kind its people are. Mind you, it is just another thing on the web now, which has even more rubbish on it than the A14. Everywhere in this country is a nicer place than the internet.

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