They didn’t build the Lampton Road shops, Truman Show style, a few hours before I arrived, but they might as well have. Delayed flying out of London for 24 hours due to fog, which was like a final burst of Britishness, I couldn’t face going back into town, having said all my goodbyes to people — and to the place, the whole heaving, rotting, majesty of it. And to my feelings about it, which are, well, “love” “hate” knuckle tatts wouldn’t even begin to describe the contradictory intensity of my emotions about the city (fun fact: six-finger mutants can tattoo “ambivalent” across both hands) . So I went four stops up the Piccadilly line to a flight hotel in Lampton Road. The small shopping strip had two corner stores run by British-Asians, one run by Romanians (“Transylvania”); all three had Romanian and Polish food. An Italian cafe staffed by Polish girls, a Tennessee chicken outlet, with gobbets of deep-fried gristle, a mouldering chemist with half-empty shelves, a hardware store, closed.
Up the road, a batch of shops, all selling knock-off smartphones. There was a fresh fish shop, which had a cabinet of knock-off smartphones. Between them, two charity (i.e. op) shops that had obviously been real shops. Big vacant lot between, a sign “Hotel complex opening 2014”, plants growing over. And even here, 15 kms from the centre of London, people everywhere, kids in six different school uniforms, red buses to and fro, and in the main shopping street, hundreds and hundreds, British Asians double, triple wrapped against the cold, Eastern Europeans in a T-shirt, maybe a light jacket. Bustle, hustle and flow. And everywhere — or do I imagine it, have I imagined it these past two weeks — a sense of torpor, defeat and beaten-downness, such as I have never seen or felt in Britain before. Never before, and I’m a connoisseur of British misery and decay, an afilthianado. So I can screen out all the obvious causes: it’s winter, it’s dark at four in the afternoon, it’s after Christmas, so people had four days holiday and went back to work, everyone’s in debt from the damn thing. Norovirus, which used to be called “winter vomiting sickness”, spreads across whole cities. And so on.
Plus there’s Brexit, victory of which depressed half the population and the immediate failure to return the British Raj and the Beatles depressed the other half. For the latter group, there’s a slow dawning: nothing will change in their daily lives. Maybe the Polski Sklep corner store, which was Mrs Doofus’, then Mr Patel’s, will change hands again, to … who? To what? Will money flow back into the high streets, will wages revive, will affordable housing return, will the fishing industry be revived? Of course not, and in some unspoken way people are beginning to understand that. And there is across the land, a great exhaling, a slump back against the wall, a giving up.
Again, do I imagine this? When you’re travelling through somewhere, dealing with a lot of services, you’re bound to go through a lot of crappiness. In Britain, this is practically an art form. The dominant form of customer relations in the UK was set during the Second World War, when everything was scarce but there was no market to speak of, and the country was an armed camp. Orders are barked. Now, there is not even that. People lack the energy.
People in Britain I think have just, finally, given up. They move slowly through the streets, into the Tube, they are unresponsive in basic situations. The simplest tasks, transferring a phone number, buying a sandwich, seem impossible. People give up halfway through, are almost delighted when something proves impossible. British comedy has identified this characteristic before — the “computer says ‘no'” character from Little Britain — and I’ve lived through it for years. But I have never seen quite the combination of dysfunction and apathy that now graces these islands.
All the stores are chain stores, and they’re all conglomerates — the three major electronics outlets have become one, the behemoth Currys-PCWorld-Carphone Warehouse, essentially a monopoly depot for bubble swag — they’re all losing to Amazon anyway, and really, you could bleed to death in the laptops aisle and no one would notice. The NHS, desperately starved of funds, is grinding to a halt, with a 10-day wait for a GP appointment. But the government is insisting that individual practices move to a seven-day service model because David Cameron promised it in 2012 — even though every study shows that GP use on weekends is much lower. So empty, directed GP surgeries on weekends, crowded waiting rooms on weekdays. Which in turn spreads the norovirus further. Which increases demand for appointments. Which people can’t get. So they go to work sick, anyway. On Southern Rail, the privatised monopoly service for the 10 million people in the south-east London feeder-regions, whose trains are SRO for the whole rush hour, for everyone except those starting at a terminus, 46% of whose services are delayed, 5%, cancelled. The service runs at a huge loss, subsidised by the government, but it distributes 40 million pounds dividends to its shareholders and increased their cash reserves from 120 million pounds to 630 million over the past decade.
Bad news for say, the staff of department store chain British Home Stores who have to get into work every day. Except they don’t. Because last year, after trading for 88 years, BHS collapsed. It had been bought out by retail “guru” Phillip Green for 200 million pounds, and he sold it for 1 pound. Some loss. But, ah, he took 400 million pounds of dividends out of it through all that, and the pension fund for the 11,000 employees had a 571 million pound deficit at the end. Oh, and the dividends are all tax-free. Green’s flagship store Topshop had in 2011 been a target for the occupation group UK Uncut, protesting against corporate tax cheats and their role in the imposition of austerity. But UK Uncut died a year or so later, even if austerity didn’t, its leaders either going into media careers, academia or cultural protest and activism.
This is, if you like, a cross-section of the everyday impacted crap of the UK. I could quote a hundred other examples and try to bring some order to them, but really, this is how it’s experienced, day in, day out. It’s a country that since the ’80s has been run for the benefit of the well-heeled, and it now seems run for solely for the super-rich. In the vacuum where a social space used to be, the state has put CCTV cameras, 30 million of them. Kids, to preserve a sense of privacy and free space, walk round with hoods up, hands in pockets (summer and winter). So the street is a blank zone of vaguely sinister strangers. Which in turn demands more cameras. The gates on the largely automated Tube don’t work, shops shutter in the middle of the day because the electrics fuse, staff numbers in chains, from supermarkets to coffee shops, are reduced relentlessly, training people to queue — and the profit ratios remain the same.
The real sign, the real sign, that something has cracked is the mood of the immigrants. Even in a society where immigrants are cheated, overworked and abused, there is often an energy and cheerfulness, a basic vitality they bring. They got here, they’re safe, and they’re making far more money than they could at home.
Buuuuuuut of course, not any more. Brexit has happened, so many of them don’t know whether they’re going to be thrown out on short notice. The referendum licensed nasty street abuse directed against millions. But above all, there’s no point being here anymore. The pound has crashed, so the gap has narrowed. Now, many are scratching, just like Brits are, and what’s the point of being in this Blerkstow SE43 four to a room, if you’re not piling anything up? Why work at Tennessee Chicken when Krakow Hospital has held your cardiologist’s residency slot open for you?
Here’s what’s really really grimly funny about Brexit. The only people who really believed in Britain, the only people who actually saw it as a shining possibility, were the EU residents about to be thrown out. For everyone else, the place is flat out of dreams. From 1945 on, the offer was a socialist society of ever-expanding possibility, for you, then your kids. Thatcher simply offered a right version of that, done via stakeholding — buying your council house, shares in British Gas (which you used to own for free). Tony Blair and Cool Britannia offered a very dilute version of that, with not much content (no coincidence that the film Trainspotting came out at the same time). The last shadow of a shadow version of this was David Cameron’s Big Society, a way of selling the final dismantling of the social and enabling state. The culture lost its largest vestiges of democratic access — the art or theatre school with working-class students — and became a hobby of the rich again. The focus of “politics”, after a brief resistance, became cultural and identitarian, the obsessions of that artistic/media class, recruited from the upper strata. When that Gawd failed, there was the omega point: Brexit! Brexit, offering nothing, and thus everything.
Now, after its failure? There is Theresa May, the first UK PM in about half a century to offer no big vision, nothing other than keeping on. A few remarks about new trade deals, and the special relationship, but that’s it. At least she’s honest, and I mean that sincerely. There is a sense in which British politics has finally touched down, found ground again. There is nothing else but what we have. May had no choice but to cut the bullshit, for her party and herself to survive the surprise Brexit vote. But in doing so, she might have created some unexpected political opportunities.
What of the failed revolution in Lampton Road? Well, when I got to the hotel, the lift was malfunctioning — the third such in the last eight hotels. The corner stores were doing a roaring trade in booze, which is everywhere here, the 1.29 pound six packs of Tesco cider, being sold by teetotal Muslims and Hindus to Poles and Romanians, who have adopted the British drinking style of getting, rather than soppy and sleepy, bladdered and aggro. They’re carrying clear bags of date-expired potatoes from the supermarket, and a big can of peanut oil. In the Caffe Venezia next door, an order for a toasted sandwich takes three goes to get right, and I’m not talking about gruyere instead of edam. The first two goes aren’t even sandwiches; it’s like a perp walk for lunch food. The Polish waitress shrugs on the third go, a touch of the Baszyl Fawczlties, food has been brought, on plate. What wrong with food. Come back to the hotel, and — OK, this is not usual — a car has gone through the plate glass window of the front. Drunk driver. The fun part was that the hotel staff ran police tape around the accident, and in doing so, all entrances to the hotel. “Um how do we get back in?” “Donnn arfffk moi! Owmy fpoved ternow?!” yelled the guy with the name of the hotel on his breast pocket.
Later, at Tennessee Chicken, waiting for a fish burger. White tradies in the plastic orange booths eating vast meals, a black guy, stylish shades, tonsured, queue. “Chicken and chips, thanks.” “No chips,” says the Polish cook. “Yeah, I want chips.” “No, no chips. Chips finish.” The guy looks around the shop, which is essentially a few tiles around vast tanks of boiling fat. “Are you seriously telling me THAT YOU HAVE RUN OUR OF CHIPS?????!!!!!!” He looks around, we catch each other’s eye, both try to look away, because we know what’s next. We start laughing. And we cannot stop. It pours out, we can’t stop (yeah, this has happened before, elsewhere, still). Our laughter fills the shop, it seems to go for minutes. The staff are pissed off, the tradies are silent. Ostensibly, it’s a neutral laugh, at the absurdity of life, but they know what it is: a black Brit and a colonial, laughing at the ridiculous idea that everything will be all right once Brussels is out of the picture and that something has not gone deeply wrong, when in the possibly entirely fabricated Lampton Road shops, the chip shop runs out of chips.