Musings From A Rainy Isle
The sky is gray again today and there is no flush of wind. The drizzle falls slowly, dampening everything with its drab persistence. Wet leaves blanket the trottoir, though of course no one trots in Britain: people waddle and slump along, barely distinguishable from their American counterparts whose worst traits the British seem so pathetically eager to mimic.
British food was always appalling: bland, stodgy, and unrelentingly unimaginative. But today there’s a McSlop on every High Street to ensure nutrient-free obesity and a Kentucky Fried Cancer just around the corner to ensure everyone can have their fair share of heart disease.
This is, apparently, “progress.”
Nearly every aspect of British life is small and second-rate. Nothing works properly but nobody will ever have the initiative to fix anything. The British are used to things not working properly. “It’s always been that way,” they say, with a kind of defiant pride. Why, after all, should anything work? The British have stumbled and blundered through hundreds of years of history (which they then deftly re-write in order to make it seem less shabby and awful) so why should anything change now?
Remember: these are the people who voted for Brexit because, well, it was such a very British thing to do.
British weather is a consequence of the Gulf Stream, a flow of warm water that keeps the nation from freezing over each winter and ensures the summers are humid even though they are rarely hot. It’s why one can wake at 4am in June and see a bright blue sky but by 9am it is once more cloudy and gray. Only just before last light will some hint of freedom from moisture return to taunt the upturned faces of those who wonder, in a very unBrexity sort of way, whether it would be in fact quite wonderful to have if even for just a few days the vibrant sunshine of the Mediterranean.
The British character is shaped by the dreary weather. British people are used to being damp, and used to things not working because the overall dreariness makes it too difficult to fix anything properly. British people are used to “making do” and complaining endlessly about trivial things but always concluding with a shrug and, “well, mustn’t grumble, I suppose things could always be worse.”
And of course with Brexit, they will.
Whereas US citizens are generally terrified of sexuality, British people are generally terrified of embarrassment. Aside from a few alcohol-addled young people stumbling out of pubs and nightclubs full of cheap chemicals and an entirely unrealistic sense of optimism regarding their pugilistic capabilities, British people don’t “do” conflict. Instead, they invent all manner of nonsensical rules through which they attempt to constrain the actions of others.
What this means is that one can get practically anything one wants in Britain provided one is direct. Instead of the circumlocutory British, “Excuse, me, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d quite like that piece of cheese, if it’s not too much trouble…” one simply says, “I want that piece of cheese. Now.” This works every time.
Deep in the cowering soul of the hapless shop assistant will be a desire to say “no” or to inflict physical harm, but of course being British they will do nothing at all and instead will meekly hand over the item specified. They will then replay the incident endlessly in their minds for years to come, trying but failing to think what they could possibly do differently should the very same incident ever occur again in their lifetime. Which of course, it won’t. And down the pub, all their friends will reliably say, “Oh, how rude!” every time the tale is recounted.
While for nearly the entire time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun, British weather is abysmally dreary and, like in a British sit-com, nothing much happens, ever, it is also true that just occasionally if one is very lucky indeed there will be a day or two in summer when everything suddenly just clicks into place and Britain becomes quite charming.
If one is fortunate enough to be in Bath at such a time, the miniature magnificence of the city’s wonderfully preserved Georgian architecture comes into its own as oblique rays of warm sunlight strike the golden stones from which all the buildings are constructed. Better yet if one is lucky enough to be at the far end of Christ Church Meadow at such a time. Now one may look back through the verdant trees that crowd the banks of the Cherwell and gaze with mute wonder on the buildings of the University and experience the privilege of a view that has not altered in over seven hundred years.
Of course Italy is far, far more splendid both in town and in countryside. Of course France has so much more to offer in nearly every regard. Of course Switzerland with its jagged Alps and sparkling lakes enchants us in a way poor drab Britain never can. And of course the USA has its majesties: the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Yosemite, and all the gems of Utah.
But albeit only very occasionally, Britain, like Keats’ Ode to Autumn, can possess a plangent charm for those whose tastes run to the nostalgia of yesteryear.
It is with this thought I comfort myself as I watch through rain-streaked windows as the trees surrender their leaves of gold and red and the gray skies press heavily and unrelentingly down.
Never do I feel less British than when I am in Britain. My sensibilities are European, though alas my love is for a Europe that has largely ceased to exist. The plague of mindless populism/nationalism that has spewed over the globe since 2016 has corroded the European ideal and today everyone cowers in fear from an imaginary threat and looks to petty national “solutions” to “save” them from their terrors.
The Europe that informs the essence of who I am is crumbling, though the abject stupidity of Brexit has ironically strengthened, albeit only very temporarily, European determination not to be as mindlessly self-harming as the dreary dull British. But the trend is clear: cynical opportunistic rabble-rousing politicians have taken note of the fact that ordinary people are so ignorant and stupid that lying to them in the most blatant manner is the royal road to success. Even the stolid Swiss have their center-right Party that is now blaming the EU for wholly imaginary harms. It is evident that we are in for another lengthy period of horrors, all thanks to our utterly misguided belief in the specious virtues of universal franchise coupled to representative democracy.
It thus may be that never again shall I stand in the Theatre of Dionysus and in my mind imagine the Oresteia being declaimed upon those stones. It may be that never again shall I stand amid the ruins of Herculaneum and ponder the lives of those for whom it was home until that fateful day of 24th August 79 CE when everything suddenly ended under a terrible pyroclastic flow.
While natural disasters occur suddenly and dramatically, human-made disasters creep along, with no one day seeming much different from the last. Ordinary people go about their business, shopping and working and grumbling and attempting hidden affairs with someone from the office or a person they met in the corner shop one felicitous late afternoon. Ordinary people notice nothing until the world falls on top of them, by which time it is far too late.
So it is that our very democratic self-made disaster, our populist/nationalist future, will arrive in dribs and drabs, piecemeal, while ordinary people notice nothing and deny that anything is really changing at all. As de Gaulle said of old age one can also say of such incremental changes, “c’est un naufrage.” One piece of normality at a time detaches from the raft of civilization and is born slowly away by the relentless waves of mindless populism, never to return.
And those on the raft huddle a little closer as the dark waters lap at their feet, and persuade themselves that everything is all right.
Brexit will happen soon now, in a mere matter of weeks, and I shall be here to observe the immediate effects “up close and personal” as people in the US might say, being as they are perpetually in the habit of talking in cliches absorbed from tedious and facile entertainments.
Naturally the British will blame all their self-inflicted woes on the European Union and Boris Alexander de Pfeffer Johnson, consummate Man of the People, good bloke for a laugh, will pretend he has achieved a glorious victory and that the future is bright. Of course, the future for the British is in fact even more gloomy than usual and millions of lives will be even more dreary and small and limited than they were before.
But the British deserve all the misery they are about to receive, and a great deal more, because they voted overwhelmingly for it.
Not with a bang, and not even with a whimper, but merely with a whining complaining endlessly self-deluding complacency shall this stolid little island nation meet its ultimate demise.