It’s easy to be cynical about England; it’s a national characteristic often misunderstood - or not understood at all - by citizens of other countries. 

Here’s an example of how easy it is…

My flight home from Amsterdam had been trouble-free.  The tram to the station, the train to the airport, the flight to Newcastle - it had all gone as smoothly as I could have wished.  And then came the final, agonising, last leg of my German Journey that would bring me back home to my front door.

The metro from Newcastle airport was ‘subject to delays due to signal failure’.  I had to wait over half an hour.

On board, people talked VERY LOUDLY into their mobile homes as if nobody else was there.

The up escalator at Central Station wasn’t working and I couldn’t find the lift.  In my state of melancholia and grumpiness, only mechanical elevation will do - but I had to lug my suitcase (which seemed to weigh as much as a medium-sized bungalow) up an endless flight of stairs.

Buses from Central Station to my home run every 6 or 7 minutes.  I waited for 25.

I was back in England.

All that waiting around at the airport and at the station also brought home to me how susceptible the English are to adopt fashion trends wholesale - irrespective of the aesthetic merits of either themselves or the trends in question.

With younger men, it’s those inexplicably fashionable, very long, pointed shoes which curl up at the end and make them look like unemployed clowns.  If the men in question are also wearing those grotesque trousers that are tight around the calves but have crotches to the knee and expose their underwear (and even, on occasion, their arse-tops), the illusion is complete.

On really thin men, the effect of this legwear is truly terrifying.  This is the land where young men compete to look as repulsive as possible. 

With young women, it’s unimaginably worse. 

Pre-pubescent schoolgirls, labouring under mountains of carefully tousled hair, faces caked with lard and wearing shorts so short that they are virtually naked to their ill-concealed genitalia, may be a salacious gift to paedophiles but to everyone else, the overall effect is nightmarish.  Especially as they all do it, without considering that they may be shaped like an upturned aubergine, have legs like telegraph poles or tank traps, and have orange skin.

None of the ‘fashions’ I’ve mentioned seems to have caught on in Europe.  I saw no jeans worn around the arse, no pointed brogues, and no semi-naked young harpies looking utterly miserable.

What they seem to do in Europe - or at least in the places I had visited - was to take a style and adapt it to suit themselves.  Here, there’s a mass compulsion to make ourselves adapt uniformly to the style.

I was back in scruffy, ill-considered, un-stylish England.  I was a grumpy, curmudgeonly old so-and-so watching - and deeply resenting - young people who looked awful enjoying themselves.

I was back in England.

And that’s how easy it is to be cynical.

Fortunately - after a good night’s sleep - it’s just as easy to ‘count your lucky stars’ about this eccentric country.

We haven’t had a revolution since 1649.

We haven’t been invaded - let alone conquered - since 1066.

Our mountains are not too high nor our rivers too long or wide. 

Our summers are not too hot nor our winters too cold.

We get exactly the amount of rain we need to make England extraordinarily green and lush and beautiful.

Inexplicably to many foreigners, our policeman often patrol singly - and without firearms of any kind.  They’re approachable, patient and smile a lot - uniquely, in my experience.

We laugh at ourselves easily and comfortably - as I just did earlier.  We know how not to take ourselves too seriously, we are deeply aware of our imperfections and do not see the need to mask them.

I’m surprised to find myself writing that, for a little country that has given the world so much, we are modest and not smug, diffident and not boastful, self-deprecating and not self-important.

None of this hymn of patriotic praise is critical of, or belittles, the people, history and culture of any other country.  I can't fault the welcome, the warmth or the hospitality I've found all over Europe.

It's just that....well, in my deflated state of mind, it occurred to me that England is wholeheartedly bizarre.  And all the better for it.


And that’s how to make regret and relief cancel each other out.


Unpacking my suitcase at the end of a journey like this is as troublesome as packing it before I go.  It’s like a tagareen shop in there - or, as my Nana used to say, it's like the inside of a dirty parrot’s cage. 

Unwashed clothes compete with maps, books, leaflets, camera, laptop, chargers, old train tickets, bus passes, notebooks, pens, paracetamol, unposted postcards, pebbles, what-nots, souvenirs, gifts, toothbrush, razors, uneaten apple turnovers (‘for the journey’), passport, Marks and Spencers Harvard All Over Body Splash, packet sugar, timetables - and all of them damp and stained by ice tea that has leaked out of the bottle I bought four days ago and forgot I had.

It takes several depressing hours to put everything back where it belongs around the place - and to find new places for new things; to download all the photographs and sort them; to tell everyone - even those who didn’t know I’d been away - that I was home safe and sound.

As soon as my suitcase was empty, its contents slotted back into place and the washing machine crunched and splashed and whirred, I made a cup of coffee, stroked both of the cats (again and again) and retrieved my notebook.  I wanted to start planning my travelogue - what to say and how to say it.

Dismay set in at once.  Some of the things I'd scribbled 'on the hoof' were either indecipherable or impenetrably mysterious, or both.

What, I thought, does 3.25 as Mcbr mean?  Or imp:  don’t forget willow?  Or St M shop splend?  Or man in slips popp?  Or Note!!! Sky!?  What did I mean by Berlin - brown?  Or barns after brick?

I closed my notebook, walked over to the window and looked out into the garden.

Robinson’s German Journey - the new, blockbusting best-seller - would have to wait.

While I’d been away, Spring had arrived…


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1 comment:

Sid said...

I don't think I'm that old, but I can remember when fashion didn't count.
If your shoes kept out the small stones, and the soles of your socks didn't get wet when it rained then the shoes were okay.
Everything had to do a job. You paid cash. If you didn't have the money, you did without. Cardboard took the place of leather.
Darning socks would now be considered a craft.
Many of my 'new' clothes came from Paddy's Market on the Quayside. That was an early version of our charity shops, but the people there where in real need, not just looking for a bargain to sell on, on Ebay.
Strangely enough when I buy clothes they still have to fill a purpose, no matter how strange I may look.