I have spent the month picking up bits and pieces in all sorts of ways and means. I have visited the capital often, first to pick up a suitcase of clothes that Guy from the Muppets brought over from Abidjan. I talked with Mike about writing and editing articles on Africa, then started working as an occasional and freelance editor at the World Economics Journal (also worldeconomics.com), travelling twice a week to Clapham Junction, then walking ten minutes to the modern chic splendour of Battersea reach. I have met old friends Debbie, Lionel Z, and Fionnuala in their natural habitats. In Sussex I have seen my GP and started to undergo some overdue dentistry. I have also driven around the immediate neighbourhood of Hassocks, Ditchling and Hurstpierpoint picking up small pieces of pre-paid second-hand furniture that allowed me and Alli to pack away our clothes and live in a degree of domestic order in the annex of the great house of the in-laws.
One Saturday I went to Brighton with Jessie and Gwen to lunch at the Pond, which has an imaginative menu including the Baby Bao, a Taiwanese steamed bun. Gwen and I also tramped to a cramped shop selling African food, which did not look nearly as good as it did in Abidjan (I miss the Abidjani food markets already). I noticed that Brighton’s London Road seems a lot further down at heel than it did four years ago – I hesitate to say ‘austere’: the word has lost its original meaning in just 20 years. It used to have ascetic and abstinent elements but now means government policies that aggravate poverty for those already poor, so we’ll need that word more in the next few years.
I went with brother-in-law Nick and his son George to the local cinema in Burgess Hill to see the film 1917, which I enjoyed as much for its controlled understatement as for its very different perspective on war in the twentieth century (war as communications chaos). I hope there will be many more glory-free films on the subject. Coincidentally I have recently been reading some modern German novels about war, and find them to have this same glory-stripped quality (eg An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans and To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann)
One Sunday, Alli and I joined up with Jessie and Jurrat, and Ella and Sam to meet cousins Diane and Brendan at the Red Lion in Barnes for a family natter over a roast. Everyone’s plates were liberally piled with roast meat, veg, Yorkshire pudding or pork crackling. My plate, however, appeared more as a child’s portion or some sort of a taste-test, placed carefully on less than a third of the plate, of what was described as ‘cauliflower steak’. I had a clean plate before the others had even finished their first mouthfuls of crackling. I must admit however that the sticky toffee pudding was more satisfactory.
Proto-Brexitland is very different from the Great Britain Alli and I left sixteen years ago. While the most serious and damaging changes resulting directly from the Brexit disaster are yet to happen, there is already a purpuric new political stage revealing a country caught short by dissociative identity disorder. Few seem to know what to do or where to go except nothing and backwards. It reminds me illustratively of the HMS Judea on its stricken way to Bangkok in Joseph Conrad’s brilliant tale ‘Youth’, an unintended and prescient allegory of Britain as it labours on in its own expectoration, puff-steaming to disaster, the cruel sea lapping ever further above the plimsoll line of a ship not only in denial but on fire. More immediately, the image of hundreds of emotional MEPs singing Auld Lang Syne in the European Parliament’s hemicycle, contrasted with a scattering of deranged old men and women scornfully waving plastic union jacks in the far corner, will be difficult to erase.
Notwithstanding, I have experienced the ineffable insights and emotions that will surely remain: a misty morning on Ditchling Common; the trim prim residential avenues of Putney; Brighton’s sublimely disengaged and ultra-cool North Laine; the incomparable South Downs; Father Thames easing slowly through London with the missionary mien of an old seaman, lowering his lidded eyes in reverse salute by Westminster Bridge; Surrey’s rolling hollow lanes curling around swollen streams. Dry January has stopped me from adding real ale, country pubs and liquid lunches authentically to the list just yet, but there are many other reasons why I am pleased to be back in England, at least for now. While I cannot bring myself to read the mainstream press, I find it extraordinary to hear English spoken around me all day long, and it’s worthy of the great Vivian Stanshall’s words: “How nice to be in England, now that England’s here! I stand upright in my wheelbarrow, and pretend I’m Boadicea”
I also declare that I find myself militantly on the side of the patriots against the nationalists, and in that sense I am becoming Orwellian.
Yours coming up for air,