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Laurie Penny | Longreads | June 2020 | 21 minutes (5,360 words)
“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
— Winston Churchill, unpublished memorandum
“Will Mockney for food.”
— Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. III
This is a story about a border war. Specifically, a border war between two nations that happen, at least in theory, to be precisely the same place. One of them is Britain, a small, soggy island whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising, where the government has mangled its response to a global pandemic so badly that it’s making some of us nostalgic for the days when all we did was panic about Brexit. The other is “Britain!” — a magical land of round tables and boy wizards and enchanted swords and moral decency, where the sun never sets on an Empire run by gentlemen, where witty people wear frocks and top hats and decide the fate of nations over tea and biscuits.
One is a real place. The other is a fascinatingly dishonest, selective statement of fact, rather like describing how beautiful the countryside was in the antebellum American South. A truth so incomplete it’s worse than a lie.
Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die. The U.K. is unique among modern states in that we not only buy our own hype, we also sell it overseas at a markup. “Britain always felt like the land where all the stories came from,” an American writer friend told me when I asked why she so often sets her novels in Britain. Over and over, writers and readers of every background — but particularly Americans — tell me that the U.K. has a unique hold on their imaginations.
That hold is highly profitable. Britain was kept out of recession last year by one industry: entertainment. Over the past four years, the motion picture, television, and music industries have grown by almost 50 percent — the service sector, only by 6. So many shows are currently filmed in England that productions struggle to book studio space, and even the new soundstages announced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2018 will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand. As historian Dan Snow pointed out, “[O]ur future prosperity is dependent on turning ourselves into a giant theme park of Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards.”
There is hope: the statues are coming down all over Britain, starting in Bristol on June 7, 2020. Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a monument to slave trader Edward Colston, who is remembered for how he lavished his wealth on the port city and not for the murder of 19,000 men, women and children during the Middle Passage. In Oxford, students demanded the removal of monuments to Cecil Rhodes, the business magnate and “architect of apartheid” who stole vast tracts of Africa driven by his conviction in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons. In Parliament Square, fences have been erected to protect Winston Churchill himself, the colonial administrator and war leader whose devoted acolytes include both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Young Britons are demanding a reckoning with a history of colonial conquest, slave-trading, industrial savagery, and utter refusal to examine its own legacy.
Meanwhile, the economic disaster of a no-deal Brexit is still looming and Britain has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, putting further pressure on an already-struggling National Health Service. Under Boris Johnson’s catastrophic leadership, or lack thereof, there are no signs of changing tactics on either. Fantasy Britain is having a boomtime. Real Britain is in deep, deep trouble.
* * *
I was homesick. That’s my excuse. I had been in Los Angeles for six months, writing for TV shows set in England. I woke up every day 5,000 miles from home, in a city of sweltering tarmac and traffic jams and palm trees, to try and explain how British people speak and think. I fell asleep every night to the radio from home, listening to the logic of xenophobia capture the political mainstream as my country circled the drain. I watched my British friends who are Black or brown or who were born overseas trying to stay brave and hopeful as racism became more and more normalized. I was homesick, and people do silly things when they’re homesick.
So yes, I went to see the Downton Abbey movie.
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Specifically, I went to the Downton Abbey Experience, a special screening where you could spend a few hours in a mocked-up Edwardian drawing room, nibbling on tiny food and pretending to be posh. I was expecting it to be rubbish, forgetting that this was Los Angeles, where talented actors and set dressers can be had on every street corner. I couldn’t help but be a bit charmed by the commitment: the food was terrible, but two of the waiters had concocted an elaborate professional-rivalry backstory, and the accent-work was almost flawless. It really did feel as if you’d stepped, if not into Downton itself, then certainly onto the show’s set. And I finally understood. The way Americans feel about this is the way I feel about Star Trek and schlocky space opera. This is their escape from reality. This is their fandom. Not just Downton Abbey — “Britain.”
I do try to resist the temptation to make fun of other people who take uncomplicated joy in their thing. The British do this a lot, and it’s one of the least edifying parts of the national character. Fandom is fine. Escapism is allowed. No semi-sensitive soul can be expected to live in the real world at all times. But watching the whitewashed, revisionist history of your own country adopted as someone else’s fantasy of choice is actively uncomfortable. It’s like sitting by while a decrepit relative gibbers some antediluvian nonsense about the good old days and watching in horror as everyone applauds and says how charming.
I decided not to be charmed and sulked on an ornamental sofa, angrily eating a chocolate bonbon and resenting everyone else for having fun. This was where I met the only other British person in the room, a nice lady from Buckinghamshire in a fancy dress. What did my new friend think of the event? “I don’t like to complain,” she said, “but I’m sitting here in a ballgown eating bloody bread and jam. Honestly, it’s not worth the money.”
Which was the second-most-British thing anyone said all evening. The most British thing of all had been uttered half an hour earlier, by me, when it dawned on my friend and me that we really should have worn costumes. “It’ll be alright,” I said, “I’ll just take my accent up a bit posher and everyone will be pleased to see us.” Living in a place where all you have to do is say something in your normal accent to be told you’re clever and wonderful is all very well, until you start believing it. This is as true in politics as anywhere else: just showing up and being relentlessly British at people does not constitute sociopolitical strategy. It doesn’t even constitute a personality. I know that there are a lot of British expats who will be cross with me for giving the game away, and chaps, I really am so terribly, terribly sorry. But you and I both know that someday we’ll have to go home, and people won’t automatically be pleased to see us just because we said some words.
I write for TV shows set in Britain, or a fantasy version of it, and American Anglophilia is endlessly fascinating to me, as it is to most British expats. It comes in a few different flavourways (ed.: Normally we’d edit this to the u-less American spelling, but in this particular case it seemed appropriate to let it go). There’s the saccharine faux-nostalgia of Downton fans, the ones who love The Crown and afternoon tea and the actual monarchy. They tend to be more socially conservative, more likely to vaporize into angry drifts of snowflakery at the mere suggestion that there might have been brown people in the trenches of the First World War. But there is also a rich seam of Anglophilia among people who are generally suspicious of nationalism, and television is to blame for most of it. The idea of Britain that many Americans grew up with was Monty Python, Doctor Who, and Blackadder; today it’s Downton, Sherlock, Good Omens, and The Great British Worried-People-Making-Cakes-in-a-Tent Show. And of course, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, which technically take place in Middle-earth and Westeros but, in practice, are set in the version of medieval Britain where all epic fantasy tends to settle — in days of olde when knights were bold and brown people didn’t get speaking roles but dragons were fine.
(No British expat can honestly criticize a franchise like Downton for taking advantage of the North American fascination with Englishness, not unless we can say we’ve never taken advantage of it ourselves. Occasionally we catch one another at it, and it’s deeply embarrassing. Not long ago, waiting for coffee in the morning, I listened aghast as an extremely pretty American lady with her arm around an averagely-attractive Englishman explained that their dog was called something not unlike Sir Humphrey Woofington-Growler. “Because he’s British — my boyfriend, I mean.” Said British boyfriend’s eyes were pinned on the middle distance in the full excruciating knowledge that if he’d given a dog a name like that at home, he’d have got a smack, which would have upset the dog.)
Lavish Britscapist vehicles like Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Belgravia are more popular with Americans than they are at home. Trudging through Finsbury Park in London on a cold morning last Christmas, a poster advertising The Crown had been gleefully tagged “royalist propaganda” by some local hero with a spray can. My American friends were confused when I explained this to them. “Don’t you like your royal family?” They asked. No, I explained. We like Hamilton. The stories we export lay bare the failing heart of Britain’s sense of itself in the world — the assumption that all we have to do, individually or collectively, is show up with a charming accent and say something quaint and doors will open for us, as will wallets, legs, and negotiations for favorable trade deals.
This is a scam that works really well right up until it doesn’t.
* * *
It was irritatingly difficult to remain uncharmed by the Downton Abbey movie. I found myself unable to work up a sweat over whether there would be enough lawn chairs for the royal parade, but I rather enjoyed the bit where the Downton house staff, snubbed by the royal servants, decided to respond with kidnapping, poisoning, and fraud. There was also a snide rivalry between butlers, a countess with a secret love child, a disputed inheritance, an attempted royal assassination, a perilous tryst between closeted valets, a princess in an unhappy marriage, and Maggie Smith. It was disgustingly pleasant right up until its shameless closing sequence, where fussy butler Mr. Carson and his sensible housekeeper wife had a conversation about whether the Abbey would last into the next century. Yes, said Mr. Carson, sending us off into the night with the promise that “a hundred years from now, Downton will still be standing.”
And there it is. It’s not a good or noble or even an original lie, but it’s at least told with flair. As the British Empire went ungently into its good night offscreen last century, many great English houses were repurposed, sold, or demolished in part so that families did not have to pay inheritance tax on the properties. Highclere Castle — the estate where Downton Abbey was filmed — is an exception and remains under the stewardship of the Earls of Carnavron, who live on the estate. They can afford to do this because a lucrative show about a lost and largely fictional age of aristocratic gentility happened to be filmed on the grounds. Let me repeat that: the only way the actual Downton Abbey can continue to exist is by renting itself out as a setting for fantasies of a softer world. Which is, in microcosm, the current excuse for a government’s entire plan for a post-Brexit economy. With nowhere left to colonize, we gleefully strip our own history for the shiniest trinkets to sell. The past is a different country, so we’re allowed to invade it, take its stuff, and lie relentlessly about the people who actually live there.
The uncomfortable truth is that America doesn’t love Britain the way we want to be loved. That white-innocence fantasy of rolling lawns and ripped bodices is only palatable (and profitable) because Britain doesn’t have much actual power anymore. Our eccentricities would be far less adorable if we still owned you. If we were still a military-industrial juggernaut on the scale of Russia or China, if we were still really an imperial power rather than just cosplaying as one for cash, would the rest of the world be importing our high-fructose cultural capital in such sugary sackloads?
I don’t think so — and nor does Britain’s current government, the most nationalist and least patriotic in living memory, which has no compunction about turning the country into a laundry for international capital and flogging our major assets to foreign powers. American businesses already have their eyes on the National Health Service, which will inevitably be on the table in those trade deals a post-Brexit British economy desperately needs. In one of its first acts in power, the Johnson administration shoved through a controversial arms deal selling a major defense company to a private American firm, which is somehow not seen as unpatriotic.
This summer, Black Lives Matter protests are boiling around a nation that has never reexamined its imperial legacy because it is convinced it is the protagonist of world history. Conversation around what “British” means remains vaguely distasteful. “Culturally our stories are of plucky underdogs,” historian Snow told me. “But actually our national story was of massive expenditure on the world’s most complex weapon systems and smashing the shit out of less fiscally and technological societies.”
“Nations themselves are narrations,” wrote Edward Said, pioneer of postcolonial studies. Britain’s literary self-mythologizing spans several centuries. During the Raj, teaching English literature to the Indian middle and ruling classes was central to the strategy for enforcing the idea of Britain as morally superior. The image of Britain that persists in the collective global unconsciousness was founded deliberately to make sense of the empire and romanticize it for ordinary British citizens, most of whom had neither a complete understanding of the atrocities nor the voting rights that would make their opinion relevant. Britain wrote and rewrote itself as the protagonist of its own legends, making its barbarism bearable and its cultural dominance natural.
Bad things happen to people who have never heard a story they weren’t the hero of. I try not to be the sort of person who flashes the word “hegemony” around too much, but that’s what this is and always has been: a way of imposing cultural norms long after we, as my history books delicately put it, “lost” the British Empire. The stories are all we have left to make us feel important.
The plain truth is that Britain had, until quite recently, the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever known. We don’t have it anymore, and we miss it. Of course we miss it. It made us rich, it made us important, and all the ugly violent parts happened terribly far away and could be ignored with a little rewriting of our history. It continues to this day with tactful omissions from the school syllabus — in 2010, Education Secretary Michael Gove, later one of the chief architects of Brexit, pushed to teach British children a version of the “exciting and appealing” Imperial history that cast their country as heroic. According to one 2016 study, 43 percent of the British public think the Empire “was a good thing.” For most British people, the Empire came to us in pieces, in jingoistic legends and boys’ adventure stories with as many exclamation points as could be crammed on one book cover. The impression I was given as a schoolgirl was that we were jolly decent to let the Empire go, and that we did so because it was all of a sudden pointed out that owning other countries wholesale was a beastly thing to do — of course old boy, you must have your human rights! Really, we were only holding on to them for you.
The last time Britain truly got to think of itself as heroic on the world stage was during the Second World War. The narrative with the most tenacity is the “Blitz Spirit” — of a plucky little island standing firm against impossible odds, pulling together while hell rained down from above, growing victory gardens and sheltering in the stations of the London Underground. Those black-and-white photographs of brave-faced families wrapped in blankets on the train platforms are instantly recognizable: this is who we are as a country. Most Britons don’t know that soldiers from the colonies fought and died on the frontlines in France. Even fewer are aware of the famine that struck India at around the same time, leaving a million dead, or of Britain’s refusal to offer aid, continuing instead to divert supplies to feed the British army as the people of India starved.
What all of this is about, ultimately, is white innocence. That’s the grand narrative that so many of our greatest writers were recruited to burnish, willingly or not. White innocence makes a delicious story, and none of its beneficiaries wants to hear about how that particular sausage gets made.
* * *
Many of the biggest narrative brands of Britain’s fretful post-colonial age are stories of a nation coming to terms with the new and eroding nature of its own power, from James Bond (a story about a slick misogynist hired by the state to kill people) to Doctor Who (which I will defend to the death, but which is very much about the intergalactic importance of cultural capital). We are a nation in decline on the international stage; that’s what happens when a small island ceases to own a third of the earth. Rather than accepting this with any semblance of grace, we have thrown a tantrum that has made us the laughing stock of world politics, the sort of tantrum that only spoiled children and ham-faced, election-stealing oligarchs are allowed to get away with.
In this climate, the more pragmatic among us are seeing that what we actually have to offer the rest of the world boils down to escapism. Fantasy Britain offers an escape for everyone after a hard day under the wheel of late-stage capitalism.
There’s no actual escape, of course. Good luck if you’re a refugee. Since 2012, the conservative government has actively cultivated a “hostile environment” scheme to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants, highlights of which include fast-tracking deportations and vans driving a massive billboard reading “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST” around the most diverse boroughs in London. Seriously. If you want to escape to actual Britain you need at least two million pounds, which is how much it costs for an Investor Visa. Non-millionaires with the wrong documents can and will be put on a plane in handcuffs, even if they’ve lived and worked in Britain for 50 years — like the senior citizens of the Windrush generation who came to Britain from the West Indies as children with their families to help rebuild the nation after the Second World War. In the past five years, hundreds of elderly men and women, many of them unaware they were not legal citizens, have been forcibly deported from Britain to the Caribbean. The subsequent public outcry did almost zero damage to the government’s brand. In 2019, Johnson’s Conservatives won a landslide victory.
“Take your country back.” That was the slogan that Brexit campaigners chose in 2016. Take it back from whom? To where? It was clear that the fictional past that many Brexit nostalgists wanted to reclaim was something not unlike the syrupy storylines of Downton Abbey — quiet, orderly, and mostly white. But to make that story work, British conservatives needed to cast themselves as the plucky underdogs, which is how you get a Brexit Party representative to the European Parliament comparing Brexit to the resistance of “slaves against their owners” and “colonies … against their empires,” or Boris Johnson bloviating in 2018 about Britain’s “colony status” in the EU (although he also believes that it would be good if Britain was still “in charge” of Africa).
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What really won the day, though, was the lie that leaving the EU would leave us with 350 million pounds per week “to spend on the NHS.” Boris Johnson rode up and down the nation on a big red bus emblazoned with that empty promise. The British people may not trust our politicians, but we trust our National Health Service — almost all of us, from across the sociopolitical spectrum, apart from some fringe internet libertarians and diehard neoliberal wingnuts, most of whom, unfortunately, are in power (though they couldn’t get there without promising to protect the NHS).
After the COVID-19 lockdowns end, Brexit is still happening. The actual changes don’t come into effect until 2021, and Boris Johnson, whose empty personal brand is forever yoked to this epic national self-harm project, is clearly hoping to sneak in a bad Brexit deal while the country is still reeling from a global pandemic. Leaving the EU will not make Britain rich again. It will not make us an imperial power again. In fact, the other nations of Europe are now taking the opportunity to reclaim some of the things we borrowed along the way. Greece wants the Parthenon Marbles back, more than two centuries after a British tourist visited Athens and liked them so much he decided to pry them off and ship them home. Spain has made noise that it wants Gibraltar back, and we’ll probably have to give it to them. So far, the only way in which Britain is returning to its days of High Victorian glory is in the sudden re-emergence, in communities ravaged by austerity, of 19th-century diseases of poverty, and now of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Europe, after Johnson’s government pursued a disastrous “herd immunity” strategy that transparently invited the elderly and infirm to sacrifice themselves for the stock market. British kids are not growing up with a sense of national heroism; they are growing up with rickets and scurvy. As a great poet from the colonies once wrote, it’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is for the sneering Eton thugs you inexplicably elected to stop stabbing you in the back.
As it happens, I want my country back, too. I have spent enough time baking under the pitiless California sunshine. I have been to Hot Topic. I’m stuck in the States until the lockdowns end, but want to go back to the soggy, self-deprecating country I grew up in, the country of tolerance and diversity and kind people quietly getting on with things, the land of radio sketch comedy, jacket potatoes, decent bands, and basic decency.
I know that that country, too, is imaginary; just as imaginary as any of the “Rule Britannia” flag-waggery. I don’t believe that Britain is Great in anything but name, but I do believe it can be better. I do not care to be told that I am any less of a patriot because I choose to know my country, or because I can imagine a future where we do more than freeze in the haunted house of our past glories, stuffed with stolen treasures and trapdoors we never open. It’s where I’m from, where my family and friends live, and where I hope to grow old and die. It worries me that we have not even begun to develop the tools to cope with our material reality, one in which we are a rather small rainy island half of whose population currently hates the other.
* * *
Since we’re all talking about myths and revisionist history and the Blitz Spirit, here’s something else that never makes it into the official story.
Those working-class Londoners sheltering in tube stations during World War II? They weren’t supposed to be there. In fact, the British government of the late 1930s built far too few municipal shelters, preferring to leave that to private companies, local government councils, and individuals and when the first bombs first fell, the hardest hit areas were poor, immigrant, and working-class communities in the East End with nowhere to go. Elite clubs and hotels dug out their own bomb shelters, but the London Underground was barricaded. On the second night of the Blitz, with the flimsy, unhygienic East End shelters overflowing, hundreds of people entered the Liverpool Street Station and refused to leave. By the time the government officially changed its position and “allowed” working-class Londoners to take shelter down among the trains, thousands were already doing so — 177,000 people at its most packed.
Eventually it was adopted into the propaganda effort and became part of the official mythos of the Blitz, but the official story leaves out the struggle. It leaves out the part about desperate people, abandoned by their government, in fear of their lives, doing what they had to — and what should have been done from the start — to take care of each other.
This failure is the closest thing to the staggering lack of leadership that Britain, like America, has displayed during the weeks and months of the coronavirus crisis. As I write, more than 42,000 British citizens have died, many in our struggling NHS hospitals and countless more in care homes. On the same January day that the Brexit treaty was signed, Boris Johnson missed the first emergency meeting of COBRA, the government’s effort to determine a response to rumors of a new and horrifying pandemic. Johnson went on to miss four subsequent meetings, choosing instead to go on holiday with his fiancée to celebrate Brexit as a personal win. As vital weeks were squandered and the infection reached British shores, it emerged that the country was singularly underprepared. Stocks of protective equipment had been massively depleted because, with everyone’s attention on Brexit, nobody had bothered to consider that we might have to deal with a crisis not of our own making. Worse still, the National Health Service was chronically underfunded and hemorrhaging staff, as migrant doctors, nurses, and medical professionals from EU countries fled a failing institution in a hostile culture. In the years following the Brexit referendum, over 10,000 European medical staff have reportedly left the NHS.
Over 10 years of wildly unnecessary cuts to public services, successive Tory governments deliberately invoked the Blitz Spirit, promoting their economic reforms with the unfortunate slogan “we’re all in this together” — as if austerity were an external enemy rather than a deliberate and disastrous choice imposed on the working poor by politicians who have never known the price of a pint of milk or the value of public education. Today, it is perhaps a signal of the intellectual drought in British politics that the slogan “We’re all in this together” has been recycled to flog the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Their other slogan — plastered resentfully on podiums after a decade of decimating the health service — is “Protect the NHS.” The National Health Service is perhaps the last thing that truly unites every fractured shard of the British political psyche, and the Tories hate that, but 10 years of gutting hospitals, scrapping social care schemes, and blaming it all on the very immigrants who come from overseas to care for us when we are sick has not made the British love socialized medicine any less. Every Thursday night across Britain, since the lockdowns began, the whole country comes out to applaud the healthcare workers who are risking their lives every day to fight on the front lines of the pandemic. The mumbling rent-a-toffs the Tories shove up on stage to explain the latest hopelessly ineffectual lockdown strategy have no choice but to clap along. Because, as the murals mushrooming up around the country attest, the best stories Britain tells about itself have never been about Queen and Country and Glory — they’ve always been the ones where the broke, brave, messed-up millions of ordinary people who live here pull together, help each other, and behave with basic human decency.
* * *
I’m not arguing for us all to stop telling stories about Britain. For one thing, people aren’t going to stop, and for another, stories by and about British people are currently keeping my friends employed, my rent paid, and my home country from sliding into recession. And there are plenty that are still worth telling: if you want to shove your nose against the shop window of everything actually good about British culture, watch The Great British Bake-off. If you like your escapism with a slice of sex and cursing and corsets, and why wouldn’t you, curl up with the criminally underrated Harlots, which does an excellent job of portraying an actually diverse London and also has Liv Tyler as a trembly lesbian heiress in a silly wig. And if you want to watch a twee, transporting period drama with decent politics, I cannot more heartily recommend Call the Midwife, which also features biscuit-eating nuns and an appropriate amount of propaganda about how the National Health Service is the best thing about Britain.
I was supposed to be home by now. Instead, I’m in quarantine in California, watching my home country implode into proto-oligarchic incoherence in the middle of a global pandemic and worrying about my friends and loved ones in London. Meanwhile, my American friends are detoxing from the rolling panic-attack of the news by rewatching Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Belgravia. The British film industry is already gearing up to reopen, and the country will need to lean on its cultural capital more than ever.
But there is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Mosley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.
There is a country of the imagination called Britain where there will never be borders, where down the dark lane, behind a door in the wall, David Bowie drinks gin with Elizabeth Tudor and Doctor Who trades quips with Oscar Wilde and there are always hot crumpets for tea. This idea of Englishness is lovely, and soothing, and it makes sense, and we have to be done with it now. If Britain is going to remain the world’s collective imaginative sandbox, we can do better than this calcified refusal to cope with the contradictions of the past. We can liberate the territory of the imagination. We can remember what is actually good about Britain — which has always been different from what was “great.”
* * *
Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.