At any one day, one may enter any British pub at any time and note a small crowd of cheery men and women who will happily complain about living and all that comes with it: the council taxes and the clerical positions that is a stop gap between them and their creative gardening career, the endless bills that litter the front doormat and the inevitable decision between buying a holiday to Tenerife or a second hand Citreon. The cost of living is bitterly debated in these small suburban pubs but the outcome is generally the same: ‘be happy with your lot and don’t get above your station.’ Of course such a mentality seems peculiarly British (and middle class and white for that matter too) and therein lies the gist, that the British seem to eternally believe that the grass is greener, more profitable and generally more comfortable on the other side.
But what, might you ask, of the immigrants that now make up a sizable proportion of Britain’s population? Well as far as I can see in our little Lambeth flat, where being white is definitely against the norm, contemporary multiculturalism is by far the oddest thing to be encountered. Particularly within the world’s most endeavoring and brutal imperialistic nations of the modern age there is the sort of inbred and unpleasant suspicion of anybody from any of ‘the colonies.’ And if you think about it, a rather startling proportion of British immigrants hail from countries that were once under Her Majesty's power. That, of course including Australians, who find themselves addressed as ‘you convicts’ more often than not. The interesting thing is that Britain’s modernity is to be owed to these Africans, Australians, Indians and Pakistanis, who potter about in the suburbs with a sort of willful glee. If it was up to the English, Britain would still be teetering about in outside lavatories, using gas street lamps and chowing down jellied eels like they now do fried rice and Fosters pints. More so is progress. Because you see, while those stiff upper lip Etonians and Oxford graduates were busy blowing each other up and writing silly whimsical poetry about the Boer War, the Indians and Africans and Asians and Lebanese and Greeks were busy making England their home and setting up shop. Some of them deservedly making small fortunes in the manner that the British rarely do; that is toiling away without a fuss and understanding the brutal importance of being ‘one’s own boss’ even if that does mean awaking at five o’clock six days of the week to sell white middle class papers to middle class whites.
It endlessly fascinates me that the English appear so utterly terrified to be their own boss. Allow me to continue a stereotype. Though Barry from the Lancashire mines and Crispin from the London merchant bank may feel they are as polar opposite as two men could be without actually living on the Poles (geographically speaking, not the Polish), they share one point which moots all others: ‘fear of owning one’s self.’ Yes, both Barry and Crispin will ceaselessly dream and envisage themselves in a future where they work for no corporation except their own, neither will actually bite the bullet and do it. Indeed Barry might complain loudly to his long suffering wife about his intentions to open his own carpentry shop, and Crispin will provide endless tirades to his Westminster chums about quitting the rat race and set up his stamp collection society but neither will ever do it. No, no, no, too much stands in one’s way in this cruel world. What about their children’s education, or the holiday to Athens, or the cost of living? Such things are for clever clogs, or people on the telly, or Americans or people with disposable incomes and intelligence. Working for the man is like a right of passage, a natural progression of adulthood into the working force and therefore, the British national character of pull your socks up and shut up. Moreover, it would be embarrassing. What would the boys down the pub say? And would Crispin’s Westminster chums desert him in favour of somebody climbing further and more judiciously up the ladder of politics, democracy or law making. Childish dreams, the lot of them, Barry and Crispin will eventually acknowledge. Nothing but flights of fancy that seem charming and hopeful when they were ten, but are now just tatty, embarrassing and frankly rather sad. I have never encountered such a country to be so content to be discontent, as though happiness is the ultimate betrayal of British-ness. One could shout solutions until blue in the face, but the retort will always be the same, “well it’s alright for you, you’re Australian. Us English have been through all the wars, Depression, the three day working week and Thatcher and we’ve got no room to mess about, have we?” as though they personally knitted socks, offered their children to the effort in Flanders and write for Solidarity. Of course, one could point out that Australians have experienced such things in their own provincial way, along with all the problems inherent with being a colony, but it will be pointless, because at least we have sunny weather when we’re toiling in the mines or living in our awkward suburban wastage. And all the Barrys and Crispins would mutter something about the ‘British national character’ and that delicious phrase of ‘well I’ve made my bed now I have to lay in it.’ All of this is utter rot, but one can’t help but suspect that the tenuous cogs on which Britain so precariously spins would be shattered if only the British national character woke the fuck up and remade their beds.
Owning, in Britain (or at least London, which I only have the vaguest of grasps upon) primarily revolves around several things. That is, the cost of living and the cost of class. All the British pomp and grandeur inherited throughout the ages from Kings and Queens and this odd concept of tradition, has left Britain in this bizarre transition between class and classless (if such a thing exists, which of course it doesn’t in any society no matter how Neolithic or sophisticated. Perhaps a more fitting term would be less-class). The politicians would like to have the nation believe that class is a thing of the past, positively pre-historic in the face of cheap cars and H&M and McDonalds, whilst simultaneously reforming the National Health System into a diabolical mess resembling the American health system and demanding the unemployed get up off their lazy arses and do some real work, such as collecting rubbish in front of Buckingham Palace.
Class, of course, being the subject of a thousand Billy Bragg songs and the inspiration for a thousand suburban symphonies of raps and the ‘grimey’ youth and so on, so forth. Class being one’s identity in London, from your postcode to how detached your house is, to where you shop and how you shop, and of course, which school you attended. Schools seem so much more vital (more precisely, their reputation, not your actual experience which is irrelevant in the real world, apparently) in Britain than in Australia. In Australia you are generally sucked in and spat out no matter the tuition fees, the only difference really being the degree of embarrassment of your uniform. But in Britain your school suggests level of sophistication, adeptness, beauty, success and cleverness. Cleverness is of course never measured by which school you attend or of your parents income. The amount of dunderheads that escape the school gates of Eton and Harrow is roughly the same as Brixton Comprehensive or Pontllanfraith High, but only Etonians and Harrowians feel it’s their natural born right to run HSBC or Fleet Street. Class is a subtle reminder of the centuries of distended hierarchy, and has been a hallmark of society since society existed. To say that one day there will be a classless society is like saying one day there will be a quiz show without Noel Edmonds. It simply won’t happen. As long as money exists there will be the haves and have nots, just like as long as an ageing British public exists there will be Noel Edmonds to fill the void. The entire Republic debate (in both Britain and Australia) is basically null, because if anybody believes that doing away with a figurehead like the Queen will make us more free is the most naïve concept I’ve ever heard. We will be no more free as long as the money and industry and racism and the unpleasant inequalities the we humans fiercely promote in one another exist
Walking back from Tescos today, laden with baguettes (quaintly labelled breadsticks in a further pah! to the French disposition) I note the rows and rows of empty, derelict and boarded up shops. Tescos, in its own garish chain-like way, is the only shining beacon amongst the post war brown brick of Lambeth. Looking from the balcony now, I see that Franks Fish and Chips across the road is no more. Neither is Caxton Care Training. Of the row of shops only the Off License, pizza joint and dry cleaners have survived. Every day a solitary figure struggles with a series of folding tables and sells fruit and vegetables, toilet paper and the odd chocolate bar. This sad little figure does little more than further the effect of brown brick, and Lambeth seems ever more the product of the Depression and the Blitz and all those things that seem so long ago and for an age not our own. But the truth is, this man who seems to never sell anything from his foldout table, appears the shining light for owning one's self in this modern age, even if all he owns in the world is a few rotten bananas, stolen DVDs and chewing gum.