A Journey Through England

As travel restrictions have eased over the past 12 months, I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunity to visit family and friends overseas.

Late last year, I spent a month in the UK, and it was a trip of very mixed experiences. It was the first time I had been back in nearly 4 years, the longest period of time I have ever been away from the country of my birth.

It’s nearly 30 years since I left London to live and work abroad, and even though I am still “from” the UK, I don’t really consider myself to be “of” it. Despite family ties and social links, with each visit back I feel less and less connected to the place. As a result, I tend to experience my time there as a visitor, rather than a returning expat.

This sense of dislocation has become especially evident since Brexit, and the quagmire that is UK domestic politics. Not only does the political environment feel quite alienating, the profile of the political leadership is almost unrecognisable: last time I was back, Theresa May was still Prime Minister; when I arrived in early November, Rishi Sunak was in the second week of his Premiership.

Luckily, the rolling programme of public sector strikes and other industrial unrest had limited impact on my own travel schedule, even though it has become almost impossible to plan train journeys too far ahead thanks to unreliable timetables and complex booking systems. Fortunately, the grocery shortages evident during the UK winter had yet to take hold, and before I left Australia, I had managed to lock in a favourable exchange rate to offset the effect of inflation.

I spent most of the time in the Peak District, but also visited Manchester, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, London and Kent – a north-west to south-east trajectory. The Dark Peak was my base, and I really appreciate the scenery in and around the town of Glossop, where I stayed – but for a town that used to boast one of the highest number of pubs per capita, quite a few local hostelries were only open from Thursday to Sunday, probably a consequence of Covid, energy costs and broader inflation?

Manchester itself was a dispiriting experience – the city centre (Piccadilly Gardens) resembled a zombie theme park, and there was a palpable sense of anger and an all-pervading threat of violence in the air. Maybe I was there on a bad day, but the overall mood was definitely “off”. By contrast, Sheffield city centre, which I’d not visited since the early 1990s, felt welcoming and had a much more positive vibe.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by my weekend in Milton Keynes. Its reputation, as a planned New Town, for being soulless and devoid of personality is probably undeserved. Yes, it helps if you know how to navigate the network of roundabouts and ring roads (anyone familiar with Canberra would have sense of déjà vu), but I can definitely see the attraction, especially for families, with its acres of space and many recreational activities. If necessary, it’s possible to commute to London, plus there are nearby country parks and village pubs to frequent on the weekends.

Despite my familiarity with the geography and fabric of London, I now see it through the eyes of a tourist. Even though the overall layout remains the same, the constant changes in the built landscape can disorient the infrequent visitor. Because I no longer rely on it every day for work, I actually think London’s public transport has improved, but I’m sure it would only take a strike on the underground, or the wrong type of leaves on the train tracks at Clapham Junction to disabuse me of this situation. While London has always existed in an economic bubble in relation to the rest of the country, it probably wouldn’t take much to undermine the city’s renewed self-confidence as it tries to navigate a post-Brexit role in international banking, finance, trade and commerce.

Judging by a financial services conference I attended, compared to the same conference 4 years ago, there was a lot more focus on regulation as the UK (and the City in particular) disentangles itself from the EU – and as in many other areas, there is confusion about the transition process: understanding which rules continue unaffected; the scope and impact of any interim arrangements; and the anticipation of totally new measures yet to come into force.

Of course, the worst of petty British bureaucracy probably doesn’t even need the headache of Brexit to tie itself in knots. One small example I witnessed: in a country pub, I was told at the bar that I could not be served soy milk with my tea, and that the barman risked losing his license if he complied with my request – but oat milk was OK; and bizarrely, dishes that contained soy and served in the pub restaurant were also available. Go figure. I still can’t work out whether this was a quirk of local licensing laws, a capricious whim of the hotelier, or just a cranky member of staff.

My final port of call was the outer London suburbia of north-west Kent. Close enough to the London bubble to be popular with commuters, it’s also where I spent much of my childhood and teenage years. I wouldn’t say that familiarity breeds contempt, but it gets increasingly hard to feel any nostalgia for the place. Whenever I go back, it naturally feels much smaller (physically, socially, culturally) than when I was growing up there. Fortunately, when I caught up with a bunch of high school friends (all of whom have long since moved away from the area), there was a “very comfortable familiarity”, as one of our group described it afterwards: “not overly nostalgic but warm and generous. It’s the kind of thing I might have disdained when younger but I really enjoy it.” There speaks the wisdom of age(ing).

There’s no doubt a great deal I should be grateful for having been born in the UK, and probably a lot more that I take for granted as a result when I am there: walks in the country, spending some quality time with close family, good pub meals, excellent art exhibitions, even the inter-city train journeys through “England’s green and pleasant land” (no irony intended). All of which make the many varied and minor disappointments even harder to accept – I somehow expect better of the place, even after all this time away.

Next week: Hong Kong – Then and Now


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