Britain has always possessed a particular solidity, a certain knowledge that aspects of life can be relied upon to remain the same. The weather is likely to be drizzly even when it’s meant to be sunny, people will find endless ways to discuss it even when there’s not a lot to say, and everyone will complain about the Royal Family but then go weak-kneed at the prospect an infant member of the monarchy, or a Royal Wedding.
Last week I visited the UK for work and for a much-rushed diversion to see some friends and family. The trip was fun but also unsettling. After leaving the country seven years ago, it’s beginning to feel like unfamiliar territory, as if the solid damp ground has begun to shift beneath my feet.
Firstly the newspapers were full of speculation about the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, speculating that the nationalists north of the border may just win the vote. I have always felt about British patriotism much as I have about tea; fine – so long as it’s not too strong or too weak, and best accompanied by something sweet and soothing such as the shipping forecast on Radio 4 or a chocolate digestive! So it was very strange to hear that the Union (or at least part of it) which has been around for hundreds of years could – by democratic consent – pass into history. I found myself reacting to the prospect with sadness and confusion, which felt strange and unwarranted since I don’t live in Britain and that it’s unlikely to make much difference to life in London – that part of the UK with which – if at all – I most identify.
And then there is the change to London itself. It could once be depended upon to offer up crumbling public services, a familiar mix of communities – mainly gathered in from parts of the British Commonwealth, and a general urban malaise. But the city has changed – not quite beyond all recognition – but rather like a participant on a makeover show, who has become a snazzier, sexier version of what they once were.
Tube trains not only run with reliable regularity, but they are clean and modern. Stations are unrecognizable; Blackfriars, which was once distinguished by its dirty orange wall tiles and urine scented pedestrian tunnels, is now a gleaming modernist steel and glass structure, resembling a hi-tech haven rather than the commuter hell it once was.
The population also appears to have undergone a major overhaul. The city is more Tower of Babel than Tower of London, with the mix of French, Polish, Arabic, Somali and many other languages co-existing with longer established Jamaican, Indian, Irish and Cockney accents. New areas of the city, once no-go areas have become must see territory – such as Kings Cross, Hackney, and almost anywhere within a few miles of Shoreditch. While in London, I did a double take in reading a newspaper review of the latest in fine dining from – once gastranomically barren – Peckham, along with the growing selection of choice food shops in the area.
None of these changes are ostensibly negative (although the benefits that possible Scottish independence will bring to the Scots is debatable), and many are clearly very good; a tribute to British tolerance, pragmatism and economic far-thinking. But in a deeply personal way, these changes send an ambivalent message, that what was once familiar is now becoming foreign, and that by continuing to live overseas it will become ever more so. It also raises a question about what is home. Is it the place where you come from? Or is it the place or places you have chosen to make your life? And at what point does the place you reside become more home than where you grew up?
Clearly food for thought and future material for ‘Foreigndaze’.