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Things could be good

Cynicism and complacency have defined the British spirit for centuries. Rarely have we stopped to consider the possibility that life could be... better?

Lately I have found myself gravitating, more so than usual, towards sensual art. To get through another stark British winter I’ve been drowning myself in Eve Babitz’s passages about ripe Californian strawberries and late-night dining in the rain; Wong Kar-Wai films where crushed cigarettes, beer bottles and ruby lipstick communicate emotion more deliberately than his characters; the world of Frank Ocean’s Blonde made up of sex sweat, acid tabs, and pink and white skies. True, most of these examples have human connection at their core, but it’s the focus on tactile detail – their lust for life, and generous way of showing it – that draws me in. 

A part of this compulsion comes from lack. The UK, right now, is operating on a pleasure deficit. (I should really specify England because the Celtic nations tend to know how to enjoy life a bit more, but they’re constantly immiserated by Westminster policies so, unfortunately, we’re all in this together.) Obviously the pandemic – the fifth character in all our lives now – is partly to blame. The sudden loss of small pleasures had us all creating Google Docs of all the pubs offering take-away services just to remember what having a cold draft lager on a May afternoon felt like. The problem is, those small pleasures haven’t really fully come back. And as we “learn to live with Covid” (subtext: pretending it no longer exists) it seems increasingly apparent that the government has chosen a path so lacking in playfulness and joy and room to live, that I worry they never will.

To an extent, those pleasures were barely there in the first place. The UK is a country of subsistence. It’s built on packet sandwiches, damp housing and burnt high street coffee that, providing you consume enough of it, might earn you a FREE burnt high street coffee once every three weeks(!). It should be a piece of piss to traverse the island because it’s so fucking small, and yet it takes eight hours and hundreds of pounds to get from London to Cornwall. Nightlife, the one thing we’re truly amazing at, should be revered and protected, and yet we consistently create legislation that works against venues. Despite our world-class achievements in the fields of music and getting pissed, the streets of capital cities are filled with rudderless 20-somethings trying to find a pub that doesn’t close at 11pm, or a club open later than 2:30. (Needless to say, there is nothing to do after working hours except drink or see a film, which costs an hour and a half’s wages.) People should have access to reasonably cheap, healthy food considering 70 per cent of the country is made up of farmland, but somehow over a million have minimal access to fresh produce and nine per cent of the population is in food poverty. This is a place where putting the heating on in January requires genuine financial consideration, and yet oat milk and cumin seeds are somehow seen as frivolous millennial indulgences

If nothing else, the inhospitable nature of the UK is demonstrated by our obsession with leaving. Throughout most of 2020, headlines were preoccupied with the question of whether or when people would be able to “go abroad”. The concept of having “their holidays” taken away had people frothing at the mouth on national television, and it’s clear why. Our entire lives have come to depend on it. As long as we can slather our bodies in Piz Buin and scoff a sharing bag of Lays somewhere on the continent for seven to ten days a year, we’ll endure pretty much anything for the other 355. When questioned about this, even by ourselves, the response is usually: “Ah of course it’s shit. It was shit then, and it’s shit now,” which has been the foundation of British nihilism throughout modern history. Rarely have we stopped to consider the possibility that it could very easily… not be.

Presumably, this is because the ridiculous degree of impoverishment we are living under is a blatant political decision. When the government, for example, refuses to fund free school dinners but spends £12m in taxpayer money on a book about the Queen to give to every child in the country, it makes people delusional about the limits of possibility (let’s not even get into Prince Andrew). This silly little place with its silly little rooms of unelected toads in wigs having the final say on whether protest should be made illegal or sex workers should have human rights is so backwards it’s enough to make you want to give up, buy a Boots meal deal and go the fuck home. That’s if you find it repulsive, but there are clearly many who do not. There are even a number of people who would argue that it is, in fact, good, which is a delusion all of its own.

France is forcing the EDF to protect households during the fuel crisis. In Britain, small groups of protestors sat in the road while people threatened to run them over

There is something haunting and desperate about the chokehold that white, sallow humans from southern England have over the identity of the UK. In his 2021 docu-series Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, Adam Curtis characterises post-war English society as strange and rudderless. During this period of mass emigration and rapid industrialisation, he suggests many white people entered a state of prolonged philosophical mourning over the loss of the empire; sleepwalking through a kind of ambient identity crisis, confused as to what their “story” now was. Speaking of the Black revolutionary and civil rights activist Michael de Freitas, who emigrated to London from Trinidad in the late-50s, Curtis says: “Having grown up with a picture of a strong and confident homeland at the centre of the Empire, instead, what he found was, what seemed to him, a sad and frightened country.” This feels very much the same now. Misery and spite can be felt in almost every corner of England, lying dormant like a landmine that will go off at the first sight of anyone enjoying themselves outside the parameters of white, middle-class acceptability. 

When asked in an interview why he stayed in England despite this, de Freitas said that “one hoped against hope that what one saw was not right.” A relatable sentiment, particularly from someone who spent their life being told that England was the bountiful centre of the modern world. Some 70 years later, I have no idea how this myth prevails. Something is wrong with the soul of this place that goes so far back it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s look at where we are now.

There is a powerful history of working-class revolt in every nation that makes up the UK, but we are taught very little about it and very rarely celebrate it. Meanwhile Brexit – a political agenda driven by right-wing politicians, aristocrats and landowners – has been consistently referred to as the working class having their voice heard for the first time in decades, which is so far from the truth it would be easy to call a “conspiracy” if it wasn’t so blatantly racist. As a result, our connections to actual working-class history are frayed and obscured, and that has a serious impact on how we act politically today. So far, there has always been just enough security – the NHS, free schooling and, in some nations, free medicine – to placate people. With these public institutions so deprived of funding, though, perhaps something will snap.

When the cost of living in France began to spiral out of control in the late 2010s people torched cars and tagged the Arc de Triomphe with graffiti. Now, France is forcing the EDF to take a £7bn hit to protect households during the fuel crisis. In Britain, small groups of protestors sat in the road while people threatened to run them over, and so now we’re about to start paying £400 a month to cook pasta and go on the computer. Even the French middle-classes will chuck on a high vis vest and get involved in some street violence once in a while, whereas their equivalents in the UK mainly seem to deal with their grievances by bullying marginalised communities on Twitter.

There is this assumption, particularly among the British middle and upper classes, that things exist to serve the individual. The shop better have the thing they want or they’re going to go sicko mode, hospitality workers are punching bags for a bad day, coastal Wales exists exclusively as a holiday destination. There is a lack of real connection to anything, which imbues society with an austere and passionless vibe. Under these conditions, it is very hard to embrace life in all its granular detail – the smell of wet coats inside a bar as the rain drums down onto the pavement – as Eve Babitz does so affectionately. Though that’s not to say we shouldn’t try. In early summer, London feels like the best city on earth. Everyone walks around in open-toe sandals inhaling bus fumes and feeling very Money Supermarket as the sun bounces off the Shard and into their eyes. It is possible to make that feeling, if not the weather, a daily reality. 

There is no reason why we can’t have at least some of the good shit we’re constantly fleeing to find through our holidays every summer. Affordable trains, fresh vegetables, late-night cafés, sandwiches beyond the scope of tinned tuna in plastic wrapping, cheap coffee that doesn’t taste like someone dipped a cup in the River Thames, accommodation that is designed to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. At some point we’ll need to put the mindset that globalisation has instilled – one that dangles £18 flights to Italy in front of our noses while rapidly eroding the quality of life we have at home – into reverse gear, if only for a reason to get up in the morning. Many countries across Europe and the world are experiencing similar socio-economic problems following the 2007 financial crash, but when you can’t even have a decent sandwich about it… well, that is very sad.