The really great thing about the UK is that visiting it always gives me so many reasons not to regret having left it in the first place.
Of course I often also get to meet up with family or friends, or encounter lovely new people, but such meetings could always take place elsewhere. And after Brexit they may well have to.
But it’s the grime, the pettiness and the sheer 1984-ness of the place that really shocks me every time.
Naturally there are bits that aren’t quite so dystopian. My native Isle of Man isn’t generally too horrible, for example… provided you stick to the unspoilt bits in the middle, rather than the vast swathes of detached luxury executive dwellings in non-vernacular styles and the almost continuous traffic jam of four-wheel drive vehicles on the Island’s tiny roads.
This time, however, I was in south east England – including three days in the hellhole that is London – and I was constantly reminded of Ford Prefect’s words to the Golgafrinchams. “You’re all a load of useless bloody loonies”.
I know, that’s a bit harsh. There are, I’m sure, plenty of nice people in London – indeed, I got to meet up with not only the aforementioned lovely new people at Procopywriters’ Copywriting Conference, but my best friend Nick, who currently has the misfortune of being stuck there for work.
But even nice people can be insane. And as someone who discovered the term “hypersensitivity” with an enormous feeling of relief and recognition, that’s what city dwellers very much seem to be.
I can just about cope with somewhere like Malmö (population 340,000), which even to my eyes is really only a large town. But once an urban area hits the million mark in terms of population, the levels of crazy seem to increase exponentially.
This time I didn’t even manage to get off the plane before the nausea set in. Flight Time, Flybe’s inflight magazine, is a macrocosm of all that’s wrong with the modern world. Aimed, presumably, at the affluent 30-something, there’s a lot of chat about design and branding, including, horrifyingly, with reference to Liverpool, a city I have a great deal of affection for. In the early 1980s it introduced me to the monstrosities of Conservative policies. In the late 1980s when I was at university in Wales, it was my jumping off point for the Isle of Man. And now apparently it’s a place where hipsters can experience world-famous brands.
But the inflight entertainment wasn’t over with Flight Time. Because even the Flybe menu card had something to say about Britain in 2018, being a showcase for the current emetic tendency to describe everything in terms so sycophantic even a member of the Royal family might blush. (Or then again maybe not.)
First we have a posh pot noodle with a “hand-crafted broth”. What does that even mean? Are we expected to believe that there’s a chef somewhere on the plane carefully chopping herbs and reducing stock to make this exquisite offering (which would of course cause third-degree burns if served filled up to the brim like this).
And then there’s that thing – and I’m sure there must be a term for it other than “we’re a bunch of culturless wankers and we’re pretending we still remember what history means” – where everything has to be tied to a particular locale and then drenched in treacle.
I present a delightfully delicious and drinkable beer, with, presumably, the character of an over-priced caravan in an insular, damp and windswept part of the UK mainland where the locals talk with incomprehensible accents. Whatever that tastes like.
And then I got on the train, and the bombardment became audible as well as visual, and still just as pointless. I mean, is it really necessary to tell people at every stop not to forget their stuff and to mind the gap? Does that actually even work? How many people who travel on those trains every day even hear the warnings any more? Or do they think “Ooh, I’m so glad that automated announcement cautioned me against leaving my belongings behind, because otherwise my handbag and all my shopping would still be on the train. Silly me. That’s the fourth time this week I’ve nearly done that”.
But that kind of thing, annoying as it is, pales in comparison with the frankly scary “See it. Say it. Sorted” campaign, which involves both incredibly repetitive announcements and posters, and which made me feel like I was in that sketch off Not the Nine O’Clock News (you know the one). I mean, why not just put up a big poster saying:
“Let’s get rid of these nasty foreigners!”
Every time I encountered this message I felt ashamed, not only to be British, but even to be anywhere near the UK, as if I was condoning it simply by being there.
But the Brits do love a good sign. Especially in Debenhams in Chatham, apparently.
And I for one was very glad they were there. Because I never expect hot water from a hot tap, and I certainly wouldn’t turn the tap off if there wasn’t a sign asking me to. What kind of person would?
But once again, the winner of the “Most pointless instruction” contest was a woman employed by Southend Airport. (Do they do special insensitivity training, I wonder?) Last time, it was someone stridently insisting we “Stay behind the yellow line” as we walked across to the plane, despite the fact that the yellow line ended right where she was pointing at it, leaving us with another 20 metres of tarmac to cover, unaided by lines. “I’m going to be so glad to get back to France”, muttered the smartly dressed and very Received Pronounciation elderly lady walking beside me. “They’re all just so stressed here.”
This time, the instruction was, if anything, even more intended only to bolster the ego of the issuer. It’s also a bit of a conundrum, to my mind. Because one of these bags is a sealed bag for toiletries, and the other, apparently, isn’t, despite a) being equipped with a zip and b) having been used to contain toiletries for travel on a plane many times (as you can tell from the state of it), thereby presumably putting every other passenger on that flight in danger, including people using Southend Airport.
Now, my first thought was that this woman was just being a po-faced jobsworth. Indeed, my second, third and fourth thoughts were exactly the same. But I’ve just discovered that there may be a valid reason for demanding that toiletries are placed in a self-sealing bag. Apparently some security instructions contain this line: “Your plastic bag must also be airtight so that vapour testing can be successfully carried out on the contents”.
But once again, this is just so much bullshit. (In fact it’s just a continuation of the other flight security myths I wrote about a couple of years back.) In the unlikely event that the security check finds something dodgy in my toiletry bag, I’m pretty sure they’re capable of shoving it in their own sealed bag for vapour testing. Or are they saying that they can tell it’s not got holes in just by looking at it? In which case I’m off to join a UK airport security team to get X-ray eye implants. I’m sure they’ll make it easier to spot all those nasty foreigners, for a start.
PS – If you’re one of the nice people sharing my flight back to Caen, sorry it took so long to write this. I did warn you!