…And All The Other Places
Writing about London is always a pleasure, but I feel increasingly bad about not covering the rest of the country.
Here, though, I am at a disadvantage. Nobody in the history of our family, barring my mother’s missing relatives, came from anywhere other than central London, so there were no trips to the family homes of other relatives in Hampshire or Shropshire or Devon or East Anglia. They remained place names on railway boards and advertisement hoardings, or were encountered in novels. The furthest away that anyone resided was an uncle who lived with a nice young man in Earl’s Court, a handful of stops on the District Line.
I fantasised about visiting these places but could not imagine checking into a strange hotel and pottering about by myself even when I had a vehicle (I gave up my car five years ago because I never used it).
By the time I was eighteen our family had visited Brighton and perhaps three other Southern England destinations that could be reached by car in a day with the guarantee of getting us back by nightfall (in summer, so 10pm). When I left home I immediately went to…Europe. At 25 I finally visited Cornwall (one wet weekend) and Norfolk (one wet weekend). To this day I have been to about six of the UK’s 48 counties. Nearly all of these forays have been for work. I imagined the English countryside to be like this.
Rather than this.
I once attempted to picnic in a field and was thrown out of it by a ranting red-faced farmer. I have been to Newcastle once for a few hours and Blackpool (one wet weekend, emetic and grotesque). I have a skewed view of Scotland because every time I’ve been to Glasgow it has been scorchingly hot, and on the few occasions I went to Edinburgh it was snowing hard.
I’ve never been to the Lake District, the New Forest or any other forest for that matter, once to the Cotswolds (horrible, full of braying trust fund creeps and invasive tourist coaches) and twice to Wales (Cardiff only, quite liked it) although I have a vague memory of being driven through fields where there were signs saying ‘Do not get out of your vehicle and touch anything as it may explode and kill you’.
I enjoyed a trip to Manchester but was horrified by the architectural vandalism inflicted by its underfunded council. I went to York for a day and Sheffield overnight and to a disgusting hotel in Nottingham for a festival. I’ve briefly been to Oxford and Cambridge for prestigious literary festivals, but never for recreation. You zoom in, do the job and are zoomed out again by publicists. I did another in Bath, gorgeous (one afternoon, literary festival) but that’s it.
Whereas I’ve been to every country in Europe, over and over. My French is passable, my Spanish rudimentary but I have no idea what people with heavy rural British accents are saying. There was one trip to Dublin to give a talk at the university, loved it, never really got a chance to sober up long enough to appreciate it – but Dublin felt more like a sophisticated European capital so of course it was enjoyable.
I suspect I missed the best of the British countryside, when there were still wooden signposts and carthorses and duckponds and everywhere looked like this.
Whereas in my head they looked like this.
And there were others who agreed with me. Stewart Lee’s monologue about city folk who move to a country village contains a line that goes something like;
‘It’s great, come and visit, we have a one-way system and a Pizza Bella. Please come. Bring coke.’
It was a reciprocal state of affairs, of course. When once we ventured out of London and ordered a drink in a Kent pub, ordering a Bloody Mary, the landlord said, ‘This isn’t a fucking cocktail bar.’ And when rural folks think of where I live – or dare to think about visiting – they imagine something like this.
King’s Cross spent a century with the prefix ‘seedy’ attached to its name, and since its redevelopment is now grudgingly referred to as ‘formerly seedy’. But the neighbourhood I see, now largely devoid of prostitutes if not drug dealers, is this.
Prejudices form quickly and remain. No place deserves to be judged on the evidence of a single visit years ago. The American cliché about the British having bad teeth arose from the UK postings of US airmen in WWII, when there were few dentists operating, and the idea seemed simply bizarre to me growing up.
There are clearly problems with the ‘Other Places’, especially from the government’s disgraceful dismissal of the North. Underfunding by endlessly rezoning vast areas of the country is the sleaziest of tactics. Arts grants were rezoned to reduce expenditure until the North could no longer rely on central government for anything. Yet children who grow up visiting Britain’s local theatres are more likely to have a classical education in theatre than Londoners. London is filled with tourist musicals, while Chekov, Ibsen and Shakespeare tour continually.
The carving up of towns by giant supermarket chains has damaged local economy. For a country with an extraordinary amount of coastline and pasture it appals me that we have hardly any small fish shops or butchers.
The UK’s reduction on the world stage (and America’s) as power devolves toward China and South East Asia may yet prove a good thing. Lockdown has made us think about who we are and why we should care more for each other on the home front, whether we’re from town or country. Never live in a country seeking international attention. It always ends badly.