I had a real wtf experience on January 2nd. It was a damp day and I was walking back from the shops to my mother’s flat. She lives by herself in a village–a suburban sort of village, on the outskirts of a small port town on the East Anglian coast.
Now, for context, let me explain that the units in my mother’s block of flats are set aside for retirees. it is a form of social housing known in British English as sheltered accomodation. That phrase sounds awful, but these flats are ideal if you are an independent-minded octogenarian. People known as carers visit often to assist with life’s routines. There’s also a specially trained live-in manager, known until recently as the warden. This nomenclature has never seemed to bother my mother, so I try not to let it bother me.
So anyway, it was almost raining. I trudged along. Ahead of me a frail man in a thin jacket was walking with a cane. He halted on the corner by a litter bin, as if waiting to cross the road. Then he bent down and pulled up his trouser leg. I saw surgical tubing taped to his calf. A gush of urine flowed out, pooling on the wet asphalt by his shoes.
Poor old boy. I assumed he was one of my mother’s neighbours, and so walked past with averted gaze. But then, glancing over, I realized he was not an old man at all. At most he was in his fifties. I noticed too–knowing that it was a very English kind of noticing–that his sleeves had ridden up to expose badly inked blue curlicues winding around the slack skin of his arms. He gave me a look that said, don’t look.
I continued on with images of heavily tattooed Scythian mummies in my mind. As it happens, just that morning I’d been reading a book on the history of the Eurasian Steppes by Barry Cunliffe, my favourite archaeologist. But what put these esoteric pictures in my head was not the sight of the man’s decorated arms, it was the patterns made by the icy mist on the windshields of all the parked cars. The frost’s feathery whorls shared a florid kind of intricacy with the ancient marks on skin preserved first by the Altai region’s permafrost, and now by the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. I enjoyed contemplating the comparison, until it struck me that I was doing so to avoid thinking about the man with the catheter shuffling behind me.
Why begin my Brexitland diary with this disturbing story? It seems so bleak, a too apt illustration of the tiny recognitions and misrecognitions that define the English class system in public. An encounter with the reality of bodily decline, as unexpectedly raw as that day’s weather.
I suppose I want to begin here because, of all the instances of misunderstanding that have presented themselves in the ten days since my arrival, this one seems the most suggestive, the most open and undecideable. I could have begun with another story–the tale, say, of my interaction with a stranger on the train up to Durham, where I’ll be living and working for the next three months. At first I thought it was a casual exchange. My six-year old had found a grubby old ticket on the floor and was playing with it. I told her to put it down. When it was time for us to go, the woman sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me she wanted to see me put my rubbish away. I looked at her, uncomprehending, the dropped ticket long forgotten. She looked back at me, her face so blank I was unable to detect the rage and affront she was holding inside her until finally she said to me and my daughter, in a voice of utter contempt, “it’ll do you good to learn some manners.”
I still have no idea why she was so angry. I hope it had nothing to do with the fact that I am white and my daughter is black.
But why start out with even the suspicion of such ugliness, especially as moments like this are a set piece of travelogues based in these islands–I’m thinking of the stories Paul Theroux recounted, in a bemused-but-melancholic tone, after walking around the United Kingdom in 1982. Or the sectarian bile Colm Toibín recorded a few years later, as he walked along the Northern Irish border. There is no shortage of anecdotes illustrating the smallness of the British mind, the pathological sort of Englishness that foams up in muttering resentment, a decrepit despair that seems, often, to transcend divisions of class and creed.
And anyway, I’m not qualified to tell this kind of story. I left England for the United States as a teenager. It has been thirty five years since I last lived here, and I can never be sure my interpretations of social life are correct. When I arrived, I expected that this long absence would have endowed me with some deep longitudinal vision. As it turns out, such maturity remains out of reach. Again and again, it’s the absurd and the incongruous, the inexplicable, that catches my eye. Perhaps this way of seeing is inevitable among repatriated persons. The returning native must adopt a peripheral point of view, looking beyond the standard malaise anglaise in search of something positive, or at least comic, on which to base new attachments.
In that spirit, let’s close this first entry of my Brexitland Diary with the juxtaposition of two images. Together, they seem to suggest an equivalency between the Roast and the British. What comes to mind is the saying the west and the rest, spoken with a funny accent.
It will be difficult, but I’m going to keep these absurdist ethnographic images to a minimum in subsequent entries. They encourage cleverness, which is fatal in a world engulfed with suffering and sadness, with violence and dislocation. Fear and greed are the essence of power today. For circumstances such as these, I do not have any images to share.