As the plane dipped below the clouds, an endless patchwork quilt of green fields and russet hedges stretched out beneath me. It had been two years since I had seen that familiar vista, thanks to COVID-19. However, with travel restrictions lifted — and my arm triple-jabbed — I was finally returning from expat life in Canada to my home country of the United Kingdom, to spend three months with family.
Perhaps it is because it has been so long since my last visit, but the contrasts between North America and this gray, quirky little island seem more pronounced than ever. Everything is so much smaller, the tendencies for reservation and self-deprecation so much clearer, and even more cups of tea are offered (I clutch one as I write).
I live in British Columbia — a British colony back in the days of Queen Victoria, with her government’s dubious penchant for claiming large chunks of the world. Yet, despite these origins, the differences between this Canadian province and the British Isles are as vast as the murky ocean separating them. Perhaps this island’s very particular culture comes from the hodgepodge of its ancestry: From the Romans to the Vikings, people always loved a good ol’ invasion of this land. Or maybe it’s simply the sense of history: Everywhere I turn there seems to be an ancient stone church, sitting awkwardly among new neighbors — swanky bars and flats. Nip to a pub and there will be a plaque above your head, casually informing you that people have been getting drunk in that establishment since 1552.
Whatever the reason, Great Britain is an obscure place — and one that has inspired some interesting writing — with people grappling to understand the different elements that make up the rather bizarre whole. And so, whilst I am embracing stoicism, marmite, rain, and real ales, I decided it was time for the Great British Reading List.
Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness (Laurie Penny, Longreads, June 2020)
Laurie Penny has also experienced the differences between North America and Great Britain, after spending six months writing TV shows in Los Angeles. However, her understanding of the two cultures by far transcends my own. In this essay, Penny observes the Great British myth cheerfully portrayed abroad, full of “Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards,” versus the reality of a little island, “whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising.” The imaginary version, although “fascinatingly dishonest,” is a hypnotic one, and people around the world cozy up with a cup of tea to watch the reassuringly gentle Downton Abbey, or “The Great British Worried-People-Making-Cakes-in-a-Tent Show.”
Penny carefully picks apart why Brits are happy to let this grand deception continue. From the loss of the Empire to the reality of life in Britain under COVID-19 lockdowns, Brexit, and Boris Johnson, we prefer the fantasy version. Have a read — her take on this phenomenon is jolly good.
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.
A Joyless Trudge? No, Thanks: Why I am Utterly Sick of ‘Going for a Walk’ (Monica Heisey, The Guardian, February 2021)
During my first week back in the U.K. I went to the great British seaside. It was beautiful. It was also freezing. Nevertheless, families were picnicking on the beach, sitting in their North Face jackets under huge umbrellas, stoically munching on cheese and pickle sandwiches while the wind beat a dance on their striped windbreakers. We were one of them. And as the wind turned up a notch into gale force, blowing the ice cream off my Mr. Whippy cone, I recalled Monica Heisey’s article for The Guardian detailing a holiday she went on with three Brits. As a Canadian, this was her first experience of a British holiday, and I very much enjoyed her shock at the pragmatism involved in holidaying “in a country where the ground is soggy and the sky grey at least 60% of the year.”
On Heisey’s holiday they “went on long, aimless walks every single day,” from “a half-hour jaunt on a public footpath across a gated, excrement-riddled field” to “an off-piste ramble through the tall, dry grasses surrounding a stately home.” This is completely normal. My family had begun muttering about “lovely coastal walks” months before we left for our seaside break, and sure enough every day we donned knee-high wellies and marched off to check on what those wind levels were up to on more exposed coastal paths. (On a couple of occasions treating ourselves to a cup of tea halfway round the trudge.)
Heisey nails her critique of British culture, and I found myself chuckling more than once reading this article. So take a look, and remember to always just carry on, “the forecast of heavy thunderstorms be damned.”
I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigor, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”.
Marmalade: A Very British Obsession (Olivia Potts, Longreads, July 2020)
Great Britain is not particularly renowned for splendid cuisine, but there are some classics: the full English breakfast, a roast dinner, a ploughman’s lunch, bangers and mash, a jar of Branston pickle … and marmalade. Full disclosure: I have picked this essay before, for Longreads Best of 2020: Food. However, I still love it, and last week it came to mind when I had the pleasure of going to a shop that was purely dedicated to the wonder of marmalade: Rows upon rows of glinting orange and yellow jars, winking promises of citrus delights at me. Olivia Potts’ piece, all about this condiment of squashed oranges and sugar, is magical — and very British. Only in English does marmalade “connote a citrus-based preserve containing peel,” and Potts takes a deep dive into “why the British love marmalade so much.” The result is a lovely piece full of warmth, humor … and the rather wonderful characters who frequent the World’s Original Marmalade Awards.
I stand back and admire my five-and-a-half jars and… I get it. Of course I do. How could I not? My jelly isn’t quite crystal clear, but it is basketball orange, bright and glowing. I dropped saffron strands into a couple of the jars, stirring last minute, and they hang, suspended in the jelly, perfect threads. It may not be award-winning, but it is the best I have ever made. It really does feel like I’ve potted sunshine, a moment in time.
My Life as a Cleaner in London (Michele Kirsch, The Independent, October 2015)
Great Britain may be the home of quaint villages with marmalade shops, but you are also never too far away from a cosmopolitan city. London is a little world all of its own — encircled by the M25, a road known to crush even the most buoyant of souls with its traffic — it is a heady mix of every culture and nationality. There are nine million people squashed into its bustling streets, or rammed into metal tubes down below: Where underground trains rumble through old Victorian tunnels and people remain ever so careful to mind the gap. Michele Kirsch’s article details an engrossing cross-section of this society. As a cleaner, Kirsch has a key into the lives of everyone from students to jazz singers, and though it might look like cleaning, exploring people’s homes “feels a bit Miss Marple-ish.” Her eloquent writing evokes the chaos, loneliness, sadness, and joy of the people to whom she is “East London’s good wife.”
Kirsch’s musings also brought back memories of my own time living in London, from Shoreditch being the “unofficial home of the high-maintenance beard,” to the darker side — the casual racism that can sadly still prevail in a multicultural country. Kirsch notes it when a friend’s 9-year-old son asks her what she does, and to her response that she cleans houses, “he said, ‘I thought you had to be Eastern European to do that. No offense.’”
So take a read for a glimpse into London life — the unique viewpoint and beautiful prose of this essay are worth spending some time with.
As well as working for long-term clients, I do one-off jobs, often frantic pleas to clean up before a move, or before the tidy person gets home. One was a flat off Brick Lane. This was a biohazard job: matted, badly stained carpets, never-been-cleaned fridge and cooker, loo out of Trainspotting. But the guy himself was ebullient, friends with all the neighbours. He just exuded a joie de vivre and genuinely did not see or care that he had been living in a shithole for years. Facing a big, brown dubious stain on his carpet, I asked, “Is this poo, vomit, or curry?” “Possibly all three,” he said, honestly, gleefully. A life well lived. Messily, but happily.
Fences: A Brexit Diary (Zadie Smith, The New York Review, August 2016)
Sadly, the racism touched upon in Kirsch’s essay came crashing to the fore in 2016. I was living in Canada during Brexit, and, absorbed in the echo chamber of friends and family, I considered the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union a mere political blip. As Zadie Smith writes in her incredibly astute and of-the-moment piece, Nigel Farage, one of the main forces behind the Leave campaign, “seemed in the grip of a genuine racial obsession, combined with a determination to fence off Britain from the European mainstream.” It didn’t seem possible to me that this was a sentiment that could win the day. I was wrong.
In truth, the reasons behind Brexit are varied, but the process of the vote did peel back a thin veneer to reveal an ugliness beneath. The week before the referendum, Smith’s Jamaican-born mother had someone run up to her in London and shout “Über Alles Deutschland!” The day after the vote, Smith noted “a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: ‘Well, you’ll all have to go home now!’”
It was not only racial divides that were uncovered: Britain has long been a society dominated by class, with nuanced differences between many invisible, but powerful, lines. From the working class to the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class — reveal where you shop, go to school, or who you socialize with and you can be exposed. In this essay, Smith recognizes both her own middle-class liberal attitude, and the understanding of other viewpoints that this can preclude her from.
Read this essay and understand that the power of this referendum was to magnify “the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate.”
Wealthy London, whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages. We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens.
Cat and Mouse (Phil Hoad, The Atavist Magazine, February 2021)
Britain is a nation of animal lovers: It was the first country in the world to start a welfare charity for animals, and almost one in two households has a pet — 20 million of them being cats and dogs. In the area I am in at the moment it seems this 20 million quota has been filled just with cockapoo dogs named Barney (yes, we have one too). Fifteen percent of Brits even say they love their pet more than they love their partner (a statistic I am not shocked by after my mother informed me she wished to be buried with the cremated remains of her pet duck).
Therefore, it is also of no surprise that Phil Hoad’s fascinating article delving into the world of two pet detectives searching for a cat murderer is set in Britain. In this country, such things as a memorial service for the cat victims, complete with a harpist and a rendition of “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” are acceptable — people understand the passion of the detectives, Tony Jenkins and Boudicca Rising. Their organization, SNARL, has even been supported by British celebrities, including Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, who wrote in The Sun: “I’m not a cat fan by any means—they give me asthma—and I can’t think of anything worse than spending time in the company of an animal-rights person called Boudicca Rising. The case makes my blood boil because I am a dog fan. And if someone poisoned mine, I’d capture him and force him to live for a year with Boudicca Rising.”
This whodunnit at times made me both sad and angry — after all, I too am a British animal lover — but it is a rollercoaster ride and a beautiful read.
Jenkins worried that, too often, the media furor minimized the impact of the killings on pet owners. “I had one police officer who went, ‘Waste of my time—it’s only a cat.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? It’s only a cat?’” Jenkins told me. “Imagine you get married, and your wife gets a cat. You then have a child, and your child at the age of six has grown up with it, adores it, sleeps with it. And one morning your wife gets up, opens the curtains, and there’s your cat with no head, and no fucking tail, and your daughter’s about to go out and play. And you tell me it’s just a fucking cat.”