Think Local (Britain in Lockdown, Part 6)

In late April, I interviewed Chris White, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on St Albans District Council. Chris is also a county councillor. We spoke about the challenges COVID-19 has created for the district and for the council, how the crisis has reshaped working patterns, and why he’s concerned about the future funding of the council. Continue reading “Think Local (Britain in Lockdown, Part 6)”


World, Interrupted (Britain in Lockdown, Part 5)

IMG_20200404_150220It’s been seven weeks since I last slipped the surly bonds of Saint Albans district, a brief walk in the new plantation at Heartwood being the height of my ambition since then. I love watching cities disappear behind me on trains and plains, even on the small stage of England. So I’m getting a bit delirious walking the same leafy avenues, looking out at the same tarmac and streetlights, and seeing the same few people locked in their own boxes. I’m missing hugging my friends, I’m missing the crowds of London, and I’m missing pub gardens like crazy. I’m even missing Thameslink. Okay, no, I lied about that one. Continue reading “World, Interrupted (Britain in Lockdown, Part 5)”

Under the Rainbow (Britain in Lockdown, Part 3)

IMG_20200410_131342April is cruelly sunny right now, giving us the rarest of beasts- a British Easter weekend heavy with blossom and twenty-five degree warmth. After a mild, wet winter, the trees are bending under the weight of flours and wildlife is running amok. In fact, last week I saw a partridge hopping along my silent street, and the foxes and birds are loving their brief vacation from human oppression. Unfortunately, we’re all still in lockdown, with the NHS barely coping with a thousand deaths a day. As a result, we can only head out for exercise, jealously eyeing up the multitude of free-flying birds filling the spring with song.

I’m in two minds about some of the measures the government has imposed to keep people safe. On the one hand, I appreciate the severity of the crisis, and the challenge faced by police who are honestly trying to keep people safe. On the other hand, in Cottonmill this week I walked through an empty park in the lush sunshine, just a stone’s throw from severe social housing with boxy gardens (or none at all). It does seem hard not to give people the simple pleasure of sitting, socially distanced in the sunshine in their neighborhood park. I feel incredibly grateful to be surrounded by beautiful nature, from the coppiced serenity of Leyland Wood, to churchyards shadowed by ivy and the sweeping expanse of Verulamium Park. I’ve never appreciated the green belt1 more than I do right now.

IMG_20200410_140132In one of those little historical ironies, the crisis has confined me in Saint Albans again. Four years ago, I got out of here, after a struggle with insomnia (and, I think, depression) left me unmotivated and sluggish. I love my friends and family, but I wasn’t doing anything- living for weekends at the pub, and working to drink. I promised I wouldn’t come back here and get into old patterns, but after a typhoon blew my plans off course in Japan, I needed to come back and save a little money. So I moved back in with my endlessly supportive parents, and promised myself that it was a short-term thing.

Then, just as I was emerging from a spartan, working winter, the next storm hit. Suddenly, I was grounded in a small cathedral town even more somnolent than usual, all but three of its high street shops shuttered for the spring. As an arrogant student returning from university for Christmases and summers, I complained2 with some exaggeration about living in a quiescent backwater town. I now find myself living for real in the fictionalised town I moaned about, unnerved- fascinated- by its mossed-over silences.

Mixed Messages

Meanwhile, the town thrums along at its new minimal pace. When I go out for my daily exercise, I see small circles of huddled conspirators in front gardens, drinking wine together in the sunshine. The joggers are multiplying, and every now and again you come across traces of an earlier time- the guy walking down the road puffing on a joint, who got a cheer from two stacked lads on bikes. But for the most part, the mood music is subdued, broken only by the conversations of the birds. I’ve never seen London Road as silent as it was this Good Friday.


As people retreat behind painted wooden front doors, life inside those private realms blossoms. The city centre is deserted, with maybe four shops still open, but the suburbs have a jumpy, millenarian vibe behind the rows of orderly tulips and daffodils. All across the country, kids (and some adults) have been encouraged to draw or collage rainbows, and put them in their windows as a symbol of hope and encouragement for NHS workers. The rainbow as a symbol of hope has Biblical pedigree, of course; God sent it as his covenant to Noah after flooding the whole world and destroying all but eight of its earthly inhabitants. Thus the rainbow stands for hope, but also for catastrophic destruction. It’s a curious choice, but maybe an appropriate one. You’re in the flood, health professionals, but one day you’ll see a rainbow over the sullen sea.

Speaking of professions of faith, I’ve seen more of them than ever before in the streets. On Alexandra Road, a banner proclaims ‘For God So Loved the World…’, leaving the rest of the verse unspoken, implicit. Elsewhere, I’ve seen written professions of faith and religious artwork taped in windows. It’s Easter, and in many parts of the world this would be utterly normal, but in button-down, unspiritual Saint Albans its something of a rarity. But the churches are all closed, and the kids are at home with nothing to do, and people are scared.


There are darker manifestations of that fear, too. Internet apocalypse fan-fiction is metastasizing, and spilling out into the real world. Anti-globalisation (and often anti-semitic) conspiracies about George Soros and martial law have linked hands with paranoia about 5G and vaccines, pulling Bill Gates into their gravitational field along the way. The internet has been clumping fringe groups together for years, building Hydra monsters out of individual strains of kookery, and in the past I’ve typically found it very funny. However, at least twenty 5G masts have been burnt down in the last few weeks, and it’s making it more difficult for emergency services to communicate effectively in some areas. I saw anti-vaxx and anti-5G graffiti on a road bridge and in a railway tunnel today. This shit is a problem.

Three Cheers

I don’t have much more to say at the moment. I thought having more time to write would fizz me up with ideas, but instead I’m slipping into a peaceful, slightly sad stupor. Apparently, so are all the other people I’ve been tapping for information, and so my attempts to chronicle the lockdown are going very slowly. Hopefully I’ll have some stories for you soon from key workers, and from lockdowns around the world, but time feels bent out of shape at the moment.

I’ll leave you with a video from home. In England, as elsewhere, people have been clapping for the NHS workers. Maybe it’s helping morale; maybe it’s just helping the government to paper over the cracks of an underfunded healthcare system. I really don’t know. All I know is, the folks working in our hospitals and clinics deserve a fucking hand.

‘Til next time (and Remain Indoors),
From Your Correspondent in Lockdown.

1- if you’re not British and not familiar, the green belt is the area of exurban land and countryside around the outskirts of London where new building is restricted. With London growing by hundreds of thousands of people each decade, it doesn’t really work anymore, but it’s much loved.

2- to anyone who would listen.

First Fear, then Boredom (Britain in Lockdown, Part 2)

We’ve had one week in lockdown so far. Very soon, I’ll be bringing you an in-depth interview with a virologist, and hopefully some shorter ‘fireside chats’ with some key workers and people affected by the crisis. While I’m dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, I decided to reflect on how life has changed so far. Continue reading “First Fear, then Boredom (Britain in Lockdown, Part 2)”

Infinite Beaches and the End of the Road (Britain in Lockdown, Part 1)

We got sadder as the weekend wore on. Partly it was the sadness of the shuttered shops and empty streets, partly it was the vague sense of guilt that hemmed in our actions, as we tried to work out what we could do without being risk magnifiers for the NHS. Mostly it was the realisation that we were in this for the long haul, that soon we would be bunkered down in different towns, with no plans for summer. The cold wind off the Scottish coast ate into us, and left us lost for words. Continue reading “Infinite Beaches and the End of the Road (Britain in Lockdown, Part 1)”

Spring Back (The Blossom and the Memory)

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts […] there’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you,and here’s some for me.‘- Ophelia, Hamlet

Blossom Blog 4I always knew this would be the difficult time. As winter gives up the ghost, my battered old green coat is finally too warm. There’s an ambient chorus of birdsong outside my  window, and when I walked through the park today, early spring was making its mark on the trees. Mosses were glistening on the damp tree stumps and gaunt paper birches suddenly sprung to life. Around me, I could see cotton-white, fuschia, lemon yellow, warm mulberry purples and brick reds. I used to say spring was my least favourite season, but I think I’m changing my tune. Continue reading “Spring Back (The Blossom and the Memory)”

Year of the Pandemic

Of all the forms the next crisis could have taken- global war in the Middle East or the Baltic, far right takeover, unsustainable debt, climate catastrophe- I really hadn’t expected ‘a somewhat worse version of the flu’. Yet, here we are. My trip to Bratislava just got cancelled by the Slovakian government, which has closed its borders to all but essential foreign travellers. It’s doubly annoying because I booked it spontaneously after a few drinks, and I was revelling in my own freewheeling insouciance. Still, the government’s got bigger things to think about than my holidays. I can’t say I blame them for being afraid. Continue reading “Year of the Pandemic”

Shimaguni Part 2: Prawn Cocktail and the Death of the Union

It seems facile to say that geography is a major determinant of history. Of course it is. Indian trade patterns were pinned to the monsoon winds. While Buddhism spread through the highlands of the Silk Road, acquiring a fondness for mountain retreats, Islam and salt were carried into sub-Saharan Africa on the backs of camels. The ideology of the Abrahamic religions has long been shaped by the desert winds.

However, geography doesn’t just shape the reality of history. It also shapes the stories we tell ourselves, whether or not those stories are true. Of course Britain’s legacy of shimaguni, its ‘island-ness’, made it a great naval power and protected it from centuries of land wars. Yet geography also shaped the psyche of Britain. Sometimes the two strands of geography, physical and psychological, have acted in tandem, but sometimes they have been detached.

Blood Ties

Hurrah for them
Printed in the Daily Mail– and also in the Mirror.

For one thing, the national founding myth of the Second World War is almost unique to Britain. For most countries, the Second World War was an awful, genocidal, degrading bloodbath, but Britain remembers the war (with some justification) as a period of national unity, when people came together to fight against Nazi atrocities and defend Fortress Britain. This is not a complete story. A whole sector of the British press had a sneaking regard for Hitler until about a Planck time before the war started. The Times newspaper were accused of censoring their journalist Norman Ebbut’s reports of Nazi Germany, and Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail literally cheered for Britain’s home-grown fascists on his front pages. The Spectator responded that ‘the Blackshirts, like the Daily Mail, appeal to people unaccustomed to thinking‘.

Very well, Alone
Very Well, Alone- famous British war cartoon.

However, even if the tale of Britain uniting to fight fascism is a partial story, it’s an extremely powerful one. Most countries finished the second world war weary and broken, half-yearning for revolution, with powerful Communist parties and discredited old hierarchies. Italy abolished its king, and hundreds of thousands of Germans and Austrians were purged from government jobs. The French Communist party won 28.2% of the vote. But Britain finished the war with its national identity confirmed, even strengthened. Brits remember a war in which they worked together, suffered together, and preserved their sovereignty. The country has never been as un-European as in those first days after the war, when it settled into the role as America’s right-hand-man, rebuilding the world of democracy and peace, and clinging on to scraps of Empire.

Shimaguni also contributed to Britain’s ongoing relationship with its lost empire. The Second World War was the last attempt1 to build a land empire in Europe: Habsburgs, Bourbons, Bonapartes and Nazis had tried, but that book was finally closed. Britain, however, convinced itself that it was different, again. The great sea empire, boats drawn on by the siren song of ‘Britannia Rules the Waves‘, outlasted the war. Unlike France’s equally hard-lost empire, it still kind of survives, in the spectral form of the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Games race
Commonwealth Games

British politicians still sometimes resurrect the idea of the Commonwealth, as if it were anything at all. What is the Commonwealth? Does anybody know? It’s a wispy, mostly imagined thing. The idea that something other than historical unease ties together England and Scotland, India and Barbados, Namibia and Canada and Kiribati as ‘the Commonwealth’ is a nice idea, but it doesn’t hold much water if you ask me. It talks a big talk on trade and democracy, but as far as I can see it mostly stages cricket matches2. Nonetheless it is often invoked when people talk about Britain’s future after Brexit. Boris and others have suggested that Britain will flourish after Brexit by strengthening ties with the Commonwealth, an idea Australia’s ex-PM Kevin Rudd has enthusiastically endorsed as ‘absolute bollocks‘.

Europe Over There

I don’t think the islander mentality is particular to conservatives (big or small ‘C’), and I don’t think I’m exempt from it. In the hippy, radical sixties, British musicians mined their own past for inspiration, they looked across the Atlantic, and they went to India on spiritual soirees, but they barely ever turned to Europe. Given the boundless invention of British music of the era and after, this doesn’t feel like a loss. Being an islander isn’t just about looking inwards! Mainland Europeans, shackled together by dotted lines on a map, tend to look to each other for inspiration; at its best, Britain can crib ideas from all over the world.  Japan has had its own version of this, magpieing systems of government and education from various countries in the 1870s, and shunning the world of its regional neighbours.

beatles ashram

But something happened across the Channel at the end of the century, which Britain was only half aware of. All those national walls gradually loosened into porous lipid membranes, allowing people to cross national borders at ease to travel and work. On paper, Britain experienced a similar transformation, but it didn’t feel the same, because the United Kingdom’s only land border is out of the way of most of the population. However slowly and falteringly, people experienced the fluidity of borders across Europe, and so it was possible to imagine the European Union as ‘Here’, at least some of the time. Britain, separated by the English Channel, always saw it as ‘over there’, a foreign power that made laws of which Britain might approve or disapprove. Europeans increasingly learnt each others’ languages, and above all learnt English, but Brits never returned the compliment.

prawn cocktailOver there, ‘Europe’ (isn’t it weird and revealing that we often refer to the EU as if it was the continent?) tried to ban prawn cocktail crisps, made 107 regulations for pillow dimensions, and fretted about newts, the press said. Boris Johnson was a big part of that Europhobic press. They often lied; the EU never tried to ban prawn cocktail crisps, although Britain did leave an essential flavouring off an agreed list of safe food additives3. However, the European Union really does make thousands of decisions that affect people’s lives, for better or for worse. Other European countries are just as ambivalent about those decisions, but they don’t feel quite the same disconnect from them.The psychological gulf between land borders and open seas probably wasn’t a conscious factor in many people’s Brexit vote, but I think it mattered.

My own view is that it was the boats that did it. The dinghies that cast out from Libya, Syria and Turkey en masse since 2014 might have landed in Greece and Italy, but the image of boats landing in small port towns and overwhelming border patrols couldn’t have been better calculated to stoke islander fears. I honestly don’t think most British people were that worried about Polish Brits serving in coffee shops and Romanian Brits working at IT start-ups. Instead, I think negative feelings about immigration reflected a deeper, primal fear that Europe’s borders might become unmanageable, and the outside would come flooding in. The Spectator fretted that Britain would become the ‘unwitting helper4 of people traffickers. As early as October 2014, the British Conservative Minister Joyce Anelay opposed spending money to rescue wrecked Mediterranean refugees5. Six months later, the inimitable Katie Hopkins wrote her famous column, calling refugees ‘cockroaches6. Most people of all political persuasions rightly condemned Hopkins as a lazy, morally bankrupt jackboot-wannabe, but I feel like the primal fear of invading ‘boat people’ lurks under a lot of British concerns about immigration.

Mediterranean boats

I know many honourable and kind Brexiteers who care about refugees and see themselves as internationalists. I know that they would be horrified and offended to hear me say all this. I want to clarify that I know there are plenty of stupid, self-satisfied Remainers, and plenty of people who voted Remain for irrational or selfish reasons. Likewise, not all Brexiteers voted out of fear, or even cared about immigration in the first place. Moreover, the EU can be inward-looking in its own way, protecting its own members and wary of the wider world. However, I don’t think you can overlook the shimaguni psyche if you’re investigating that night in 2016.

Shimaguni to the Future

Having been back in the motherland for a few months now, I’ve had the opportunity to test the waters and see how things are changing. I’m not altogether encouraged. A lot of the debate about ongoing trade talks with the EU, from politicians and blokes down the pub alike, seems to show no understanding at all of the motivations of the other side of those talks. The main priorities of the continental bloc are to keep its four freedoms, ensure that standards for manufactured goods are maintained, and to dissuade other countries from leaving the union. The EU doesn’t prize a trade deal with the UK above all other considerations, and I doubt it’ll make any deal that would compromise its core priorities. I would guess it’s highly likely that Britain crashes out of the transitional period with no trade deal in December.

Although I’d rather all of this didn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. The people of England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland have survived worse, and we’ll survive this. However, what won’t survive this- surely, can’t survive this- is the Union. No, not the European Union, the other one.

All this time I’ve been pulling a verbal sleight of hand. I’ve been talking about Britain and the United Kingdom in a unitary way, as if its constituent parts think alike and act alike. This is a lie. When I talk about Britain’s shimaguni attitude, I’m really only talking about England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland are different; Northern Ireland because it has to be, because it knows what borders are, their lethality, their political weaponization. Sooner or later Northern Ireland will realise that it can’t afford a solid border with the European Union, and it will recombine with its southern counterpart. Scotland meanwhile seems to be in the middle of some unicorn transformation, becoming more open, liberal and outward-bound than ever before. It’ll most likely break away by 2030, and then in a nice piece of irony, it’ll take up the burden Ireland has cast off- a troublesome, quarrelsome border with a foreign country.

I respect the outcome of Scotland’s inevitable second referendum, but I worry about England. I worry because I don’t believe the Brexiteer version of events. If we are leaving a continent with a provincial mindset to become global Britain, international-minded and more open than ever, that’s great. But it’s not what I see on the ground. I see a country that’s tightening its definition of Britishness, sending elderly Afro-Caribbean settlers from the fifties home on technicalities. I see a country that’s having a conversation about itself, with itself, in a darkened room. I see a country that is threatening to dismantle its state news provider, muzzle its judiciary, sideline its journalists and tame its civil service. If we’d been paying attention to what happened in Europe, we’d say that the first couple of months since Boris won his majority have worrying parallels in the democratic decay of Poland and Hungary. But we haven’t, so we don’t.

1-   to date, anyway.

2-   I want to make clear that I am opposed to cricket in all its forms, and do not regard this as a positive example of internationalism.

3-   I have a vested interest in the truth, because I love prawn cocktail crisps.



6-   I’m not going to link to Katie’s article, partly because it was a despicable, inhumane heap of shit, and partly because even The Sun was embarrassed by it and took it offline.

Shimaguni Part 1: Island Mindset

IMG_4479Japanese has a word: shimaguni. It means ‘island nation‘. Unremarkable, you might think. Yet bottled in four syllables is a distillation of a supposed national spirit, the adduced explanation for everything that is unique about Japan. Not just island nation, but island mindset, island culture, island existence. You can apparently see shimaguni in the excessive focus on harmony and consensus in Japanese culture, the strange fads, the jumbled up religious loyalties, and the double economic miracle that the country enjoyed in the early 20th Century, then again in the 60s and 70s.   Fervent nationalists will tell you that Japanese simians have more peaceful social orders than mainland monkeys, and that Japanese people love the cherry blossom because they have a unique appreciation of fleeting things. Some will even claim that Japanese people hear music with a different part of the brain than Europeans or the Chinese. Serious-minded academics will swear that Japanese people can communicate heart-to-heart by a kind of telepathy due to their shared values. Who dares suggest that shared values  lead to shared assumptions? It’s hardly magic. Continue reading “Shimaguni Part 1: Island Mindset”

A Pilgrim’s Lack of Progress

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the idea of pilgrimage, as a journey which is undertaken not simply in pursuit of a destination, but in search of meaning within the journey itself. Pilgrimages are inherently spiritual exercises, although not always religious. One person might go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or Walsingham or Lhasa in search of God and healing, while another could return to the faraway village where their immigrant ancestors were born, in search of their roots. Continue reading “A Pilgrim’s Lack of Progress”