Theatre historian and academic Julian Meyrick returns home to London in July and finds the UK gripped in a kind of collective madness as the ticking countdown clock of Brexit gets louder.
So many things have been, are being, and will be written about Brexit, that offering additional thoughts on the subject feels spectacularly redundant, like squirting a water pistol at a tsunami. If Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle, as the journalist Ed Murrow famously remarked, then Boris Johnson’s bombastic claim-making and mildewed classicism sees that verbal army in baffled, semantic defeat.
Following the British news these past two weeks has been an exercise in vertiginous bewilderment, as words mean less and less the more they are used. The normally reliable formula ideas + language + mouth = communication seems to have broken down irretrievably here. What are they on about, those arm-waving, bottle-faced British politicians? What do they want, amidst the thousand factional shards, like panes of glass dropped onto a concrete floor, of what they don’t?
My two-week trip to Britain was a geocoded sample-pack of the present in(s)anity. From London up to Leeds; from Leeds down to Southampton; then to Brighton, Oxford, and back to London for a second helping of sweaty tube travel, and gangs of tourists following telescopic aerials held aloft by their weary leaders like heraldic flags.
London is the cynosure of Bonkers Brexit Britain. Always-already wired, it has reached dizzying heights of surly craziness.
Generally speaking, the further south I went, the madder the mood; the more likely some dolt would take exception to my presence – perhaps I stared too hard at his hedge-like haircut, or stood on an egregious amount of pavement – and threaten to smack me with a can of Old Speckled Hen. It’s not entirely true the south of England is rich at the expense of the north. Multicultural Leeds felt friendly and flourishing. Southampton seemed hard done by and neglected, and in an otherwise picturesque trip along the coast to Brighton I passed regular clusters of funereal terraces, dank washing hanging in postage-stamp backyards.
London is the cynosure of Bonkers Brexit Britain. Always-already wired, it has reached dizzying heights of surly craziness. I was struck – literally – by people runningwildly through the rush hour crowds, elbows going like pistons, faces set like flint. They weren’t joggers, they were escapees, the psychic pressure of being in the city setting these deranged sprinters off as if stung by an electric eel.
For someone raised in southwest London, staying in southeast London was naturally a shock. I was 14 before I went into areas that, if I legged it down the Thames Path, I could have reached in a couple of hours. Now, Kennington feels like Hammersmith used to, Hammersmith like Kensington, and Kensington like Buckingham Palace, a stratospheric spike in house prices following the viral spread of gentrification like pus from a boil.
Since the Peasants Revolt in 1381, when the upper classes tried to force the lower classes to work for next to nothing, the main principle of political order in Britain has been the principle of exclusion. You are defined by what you can keep others out of, be it school, club, or corporate cartel. Otherwise known as the class system, this all-pervasive commitment to hierarchy and separation was not altered one jot by the “Thatcher Revolution” of the 1980s.
I love England, London in particular, the town I grew up in. How did it get to this?
Rather, it’s been monetised, so that increments of social status which were once offensive but economically nugatory (remember “shabby genteel”?) now reflect unequal degrees of gob-smacking material privilege. At the top are the billionaires, of which there are few, at the bottom the broken people, of which there are many, sleeping rough with their dogs, those canine saints, patiently guarding their safety and their souls.
I love England, London in particular, the town I grew up in. How did it get to this? Two reasons suggest themselves. First, the government has entirely run out of ideas. This is not the same as having nothing to say (worse luck), or no important values to preserve. But within the luciferous conniptions of the Conservative Party, nothing like a positive program can be identified. Saying you don’t want to belong to the EU is not, in itself, a platform for meaningful change.
Second, 40 years of putting into pugnacious practice Margaret Thatcher’s dictum “there’s no such thing as society” has produced an atomised country where public policy is seen as essentially a weave of private benefits. The results of the steady destruction of the notion of public value are everywhere, but perhaps the British train system – expensive, complicated, inefficient and falling apart – is its most rheumatic expression. You sow as you reap. It is simply not possible to fan-force a culture of competitive individualism, then expect people to act in the common good (because it doesn’t exist).
Britain deserves better, but the direction in which recovery lies is harder to discern with each bout of flabby Johnsonian grand-standing. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn awaits his moment. As was explained to me by everyone I met, on both Left and Right, there is no chance at all he will be the next British PM. For example, he drinks bat’s blood and eats the flesh of babies, according to my sources. Also, he has terrible dress sense. Yet there he is, a daily reminder of a non-Thatcher political alternative, where tax cuts for corporate executives earning seven figure salaries aren’t the obvious key to successful macro-economic management.
Only time will tell if the Conservatives can slip from the noose they have so adeptly tightened around their necks. For Australians contemplating the smash of Bonkers Brexit Britain, there are some useful take-homes. A chief one concerns the importance of that much-maligned piece of real estate, the middle ground.
This may not lend itself to constructions of rhetorical magnificence, but it is where we meet in all our difference and diversity nonetheless. If it is given away to extremists, it is bloody hard to get back.
Dégustation: Two Weeks in Bonkers Brexit Britain
7 July UK on track to leave the EU on 31 October, but MPs deeply divided about the terms of Brexit, with no majority for one course of action, including a no-deal Brexit.
8 July Fears Britain’s economy has come to a standstill heightened by a report from retailers showing annual consumer spending at its weakest since records began in the mid-1990s.
9 July MPs’ hopes of stopping a no-deal Brexit dealt a blow after the Commons’ Deputy Speaker checks Dominic Grieve’s bid to stop the next PM from shutting down Parliament.
14 July The Brexit Party threatened to wreak havoc in Strasbourg and warn EU bosses they will not “relent” until Britain has left the Union.
15 July David Keighley of media monitoring organisation News-watch, mounts judicial proceedings against the BBC for “continu[ing] to massively under-report the Brexit perspective, and to grossly exaggerate the complexities of ‘no deal’, and more generally, life for the UK outside the EU.”
16 July Following comments by Johnson, the British pound drops to 1.2410 against the dollar, a decline of 7.3%, making it the worst-performing major currency in the world.
18 July British MPs pass a measure to stop the next PM from suspending Parliament and forcing through a no-deal Brexit, undermining Johnson’s hard-line exit strategy.
19 July Businessman Arron Banks & Brexit campaign Leave.EU issue a legal proceedings against Netflix in relation to a doco about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the abuse of personal data.Pro-Brexit Conservative Andrew Bridgen MP explains how big the task in front of Remain-supporting MPs is if they intend to “thwart the will of the British people.”
20 July Giant blimp of Boris Johnson inflated outside the Houses of Parliament.
23 July Johnson becomes Prime Minister-designate of the United Kingdom.