Is This Really Britain After Dark?
João Magueijo has lived in Britain for 25 years.
The Portuguese author’s comic take on the country, ‘Undercooked Beef’, about how awful the British are, seems to have ruffled a lot of feathers. But literature is peppered with writers criticising the countries they’ve either adopted or left. Most famously, John Osbourne’s vitriolic letter back to Britain, written in 1961 from the vantage point of his French residence, caused a national outcry.
The main thing about such writings is that they should be funny and contain at least a grain of truth in their observations. What most writers ignore is that Britain’s flaws are all about class. Nobody is now prepared to consider themselves working class, as if there was shame in it; there certainly never used to be. Class is about knowledge, education and the ability to know what to do. Merely demonising – as in the photograph of ‘Broken Britain’ that has been used to illustrate nearly every single article on the topic – fails to address the issue. The Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz spent five years taking pictures of Cardiff after dark and painted a vision of hell on earth (mind you, if hell exists it most probably looks like Cardiff).
To me, the problem is shared by most small towns – an over-reliance on cheap bars which transform town centres at night into no-go zones – is the fault of inept local councils and outdated licensing laws. But I’m also optimistic that in time the problems will fade, partly because of fast-changing attitudes among the young. Peer pressure created as much by the internet as anything else, is pushing a great many young people toward determined self-improvement. For proof you only have to look at application rates for technical colleges, the falling crime rate and dropping drugs figures.
Britain – and London – were never 24 hour places. Outside of London is used to be impossible to get so much as a cup of coffee after 9:30pm. Flexible working and opening hours and faster communications have changed all that forever. From September next year London Underground goes 24 hour at the weekend (inevitably their union is already warning of disasters waiting to happen). Altered licensing laws did not lead to catastrophe, as many predicted.
In the 21st century, the city will triumph. Already more than 50% of the earth’s population lives in urban centres, and as rural workers flock to cities around the world, this is predicted to rise to over 75% by 2050. Cities will be 24 hour places because they’ll need to be.
And yet, it’s easier than ever to find yourself in deserted countryside around Britain after dark – this is because of the exodus from villages to urban societies. The garden-district concept of living space promoted in the post-war years, first in the USA and then in the UK, is failing because it is uneconomical for towns to grow laterally; the dream of ‘a car in every garage’ started to unravel when it became expensive to provide healthcare and services over wide distances. It’s easier to care for dense societies. Barcelona is frequently hailed as a model city because it has grown inwards, filling once derelict spots in the city and allowing utilities to improve everything from street cleaning to drainage and lighting.
But all this could mean that while cities become non-stop machines for the generation of revenue, the countryside will become ever more depopulated and dark. Where we want to live is still determined by where we work, and until that changes, the divide will remain.