I’ve been back in the UK a year now- my longest continuous period in the country of my birth since 2003 when I left for Japan- and many times up til now, with a double whammy today, I’ve been hit with the feeling that- ‘this is not the country I remember.’
Lots of things could potentially explain this.
First I’ll explain what the double whammy was.
We went to nearby Romford to go to the cinema, a little town on the edge of East London (If I say I live in London someone invariably says- “Mate, that is Essex, ha ha,” and if I say I live in Essex, someone says- “Ha ha, mate that’s London!” It’s no bother either way, neither holds any shame for me, just a thing that happens).
I didn’t expect much. A shoddy rundown cinema maybe full of screaming welfare brats, a town-center full of gangs wearing Burberry and baseball caps eyeing up passersby looking to kick off, trash everywhere, blokes aggressively cat-calling ladies, and just a general sense of crappy mean-ness (to mean, paucity, sparseness, ungenerosity of space and spirit).
And that’s not what we found. Nobody eyeballed us or tried to stab us. The cinema, which has reviews on Google which state- ‘disgusting, filthy toilets, awful staff’- was massive like an airport, modern, light-filled, clean, cheap, and surrounded with loads of really appealing chain restaurants.
We ate at a Toby Carvery, for the cheapest price I think we’ve had a proper meal in a chain restaurant yet- and the size and quality of the meat and unlimited veg blew me away.
The town center was lovely, quaint in places, bustling in others, with some historical churches, museums, a lively market, and more shops, pubs and coffee shops than I could shake a stick at. Here are some pictures:
This is the ‘flag’ the Brewery puts up to announce itself. I was impressed. The Brewery is the mall where the cinema is.
Here’s looking back over the mall from the departure lounge, sorry, outside the cinema. Doesn’t it look like an airport?
Inside it is crazy spacious. It just feels generous. Like- ‘Sure, tile this whole bit, why not, we’ve got the space.’
From outside. It’s big and modern-looking.
We ate at the Toby Carvery. This meal cost about 8 pounds, including the soup you can just see at bottom left. I barely finished it, and am only eating again now at 10pm! Serious food. (In case you’re American and don’t know what the things on the lower right are- they’re Yorkshire puddings – now you can Google them).
So what am I talking about, saying it’s different from how I remember? I guess, it’s money. But not only money- more a sense of generosity of space, of quality, and abundance. But not only that either- more a sense from the people who are moving about amongst all this- that this is normal. They want this, they’re aspirational for it, they demand it and so they get it, and they don’t need to fight with anyone to keep it.
I don’t know why this knocks me for six so much, and so regularly. Of course it’s not just this either. It’s also things like:
- Having a garden and house of my own.
- Lovely sunny weather.
- Having money myself to spend on stuff.
- Meeting people who are driven and ambitious.
I suppose it’s true that through my younger days I’d always associated money, generosity of space, abundance, gardens, good weather, aspirational people who take abundance for granted, with the USA. Perhaps I associated the UK with all the negatives I mentioned above: dreary, monotonous, poor, bleak, hopeless, full of people living lives of quiet desperation.
I dunno. Maybe I just saw one side of the UK. Maybe things have changed in 13 years. Maybe I was in the North and this is the South and those areas are just really disparate. Maybe 11 years away have dimmed the positives and accentuated the negatives, or maybe I was predisposed to seeing things in this depressing way as a kid. Maybe also I never had money before, never had a garden, and now I do. I didn’t have a job, career, clear career prospects, or wife before, and now I do. Maybe new tech plays a part- back then the ipod was barely a thing, the internet was still starting out, and my cellphone was a hefty blue brick that also, wowzers, told the time.
It’s weird. If I’d thought the way I’m starting to now about the UK, way back in the past, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite so keen to get out. Back when I was 19 and I went to the USA for 6 months, and when I was 23 and went to Japan for 11 years, it felt like I was seeing nothing in the UK too worth shooting for. Staying seemed sad.
Perhaps that was also wanderlust, a desire for adventure, generally being young, but it was also this sense that the UK was small, and maybe small-minded too. It had the kind of people we saw on ‘Little Britain’, fighting over tuppence and getting their little egos all bent out of shape about tiny perceived slights, because there was nothing bigger to care about. I couldn’t bear to stay and use myself up battling for a few more divots in the earth and a slightly bigger piece of rock candy.
It’s weird. I came back to the UK really not knowing what to expect. I don’t regret leaving in the first place or coming back now, not at all, but now I’m thinking, cautiously, knock on wood, this place is pretty good. It makes me happy, cautiously, while I wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s a wonderful surprise that still baffles me, and I can’t help wondering- was it always this way, and I just didn’t see it?