With so few days remaining before I move to the United States I’ve started thinking about things I’ll miss from here, my homeland.
This blog records my opinions of British life as it’s been these past thirty-three years. It’s achingly nostalgic in places and optimistic for the future in others, but I can’t escape but I can’t escape the fact that I’ve spent every year of my life in the same place: a drab collection of islands off mainland Europe from which once arose an empire. We Brits are proud, yet humble. We realise how far our kingdom has fallen, yet remember how it was once the mightiest of nations, spanning continents, conquering peoples, (often in terrible ways) being Great while never being any less small, an afterthought of a landmass if ever there was one. To this day the world speaks our language and our names appear on clothing and roadsigns in places they have no right to be. Britain is the little country that could; in spite of the horrors we’ve committed no other place has accomplished so much while starting with so little.
It strikes me that I know nothing of our origins, which stretch so far back they become shrouded in mythology. Stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur of Camelot are deeply associated with our identity, yet they first appeared in the thirteenth and fifth century respectively. Arthur and Robin’s lives have been elaborated upon with mysticism; they’re as much a part of folklore as they are our history.
And historically, they’re latecomers. Queen Boudica of the Iceni was born mere years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, at around the same time the Romans started their occupation. Iron and bronze age artifacts can still be found in places around the country: there are standing stones and hut circles on Darktmoor that mark the civilization of our ancestors, such as it was. Even Neolithic Britons sculpted the countryside in ways still evident some five to six thousand years later–our moorland was once forest, hacked down for timber in prehistoric times.
Every country has its history, of course, but when strolling among gorse and oaks it’s hard not to feel connected to those indigenous peoples from long ago. Britain’s been invaded and conquered often, but like foreign waves splashing on our shores invaders have only pushed our people further into nooks and clefts, and never swept them away. In corners of Britain people still speak strange languages; walk too far from civilisation and our lush, wild greenery becomes oppressive, reminiscent of forgotten gods.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always lived in areas where these old ways have seeped through, but Britain’s always felt alive to me, as though it’s a place we’ve borrowed which endures our presence peaceably . . . for the moment.
This ragged end of countryside has teeth. All countries consider themselves the centre of the universe; for a time the world quaked beneath our yoke as the invaded became the invaders. We fought across oceans and warred on distant lands. We killed in holy righteousness and stole slaves from their homes. Our uglier periods of history are concealed beneath the poetry of Wordsworth, the plays of Shakespeare, but be in no doubt that we have been as wicked as any people can be.
It’s hard to define the British people. We’re insular, yet welcoming of other cultures. We’re prudes who enjoy a bawdy joke or two. Traditionally our food has been the laughing stock of the world yet some of the today’s best and most beloved chefs come from Britain. Even our humour is a contradiction, with jokes delivered so dryly they become subtle, barely jokes at all.
I wonder what I’ll miss when I’m gone. Ex-pat forums are full of whinging people missing British ways–they’re so whiny and miss so much, I wonder why they moved at all. I worry that when I’m removed from this cosy country for too long I might devolve into one of them, pining for all the comforts of home.
I’ve spent long enough over there to know things are different across the Atlantic. For the most part I like that about America. Sure, there are certain things–their bread, for example–that will make me feel homesick, but if I ever crave British-style bread I’ll bake it for myself rather than whinge ad nauseum about the lack of Hovis overseas.
I like what I’ve seen of American life. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so little of the British way of life–my world view comes as much from television as it does my scant interactions with the British public. I’ll miss our countryside, pir villages and other things I’ve rattled on about too often on this blog, but Britain’s people have done little to endear themselves to me: they’re too dour and surly for even this sad old misanthrope to appreciate.
Last night, taking one last walk around the block for old time’s sake I bumped into a cyclist who’d mistaken me for someone else. Just a kid, he had the slur of a professional drinker. “Sorry, buddy,” he said, and it struck me how strangely comfortable the word ‘buddy’ is with the Plymothian accent, a hangover from US troops visiting Plymouth during the war perhaps–something without which I’d not be here today. “Fought you was someone else,” said the kid. He left down the lane, taking his lackadaisical manner with him and I was glad he was gone, that I’d never have to put up with someone like him again.
A few seconds later I was shocked at my revulsion for someone who hadn’t done me any harm, but in whose accent and manner I found so much to despise. It seems I have old wounds that itch on nights like these.
Family aside I don’t honestly know what I’ll miss about Britain. From the way I’m talking–and from some of the comments from Twitter people–you’d think I was moving to another galaxy, vanishing from this world completely.
It’s terrible, but that’s exactly how I feel. As far as I’m concerned Britain will disappear when I leave–as will I, the lonely British man I’ve been for so long. When visiting the United States Britain’s always felt like a dream: it’s as though I’m asleep over here and wake only when I depart from the plane at Newark. Even though my life here has been a nightmare there are things I miss when I’m awake that I can never quite put my finger upon. I remember so much of what I loved from my childhood but even then it was being choked from me slowly, and pushed to the very corners of my mind.
This time, waking never to fall asleep again, there’s a very real danger Britain as I know it will cease to be completely. Political shifts hobbling national institutions such as the NHS and the BBC are one thing, but what little family I have here are elderly, with only years left in them. After this week I doubt I’ll ever see my grandmother again; I worry the same could be said of my parents, who are in their sixties yet becoming visibly slower with every passing month. The decision to leave them behind has been a difficult one to make, yet make it I must–for my own sake, if not for theirs.
There aren’t many days left now. My belongings are packed, my documents have arrived, a new life in a new country waits for me. It’s hard to believe it.
Everything’s so hard to believe.
But despite the fragile dreams of a mad man leaving home, Britain will soldier on without me.
I don’t know when, or how, or why, but I’ll miss it when I’m gone.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land
– William Blake