‘Tis a strange island, shaped like a pregnant woman dipping her toes in the sea, where I happened to be born.
It seems especially strange to me, having lived in voluntary exile abroad for nearly 40 years, and only popping back for short visits to see family and friends every few years. I always leave bemused by recent developments and wondering where this country is headed.
This visit is no exception. Though the climate and countryside is familiar enough, the towns and people wandering the streets are oddly alien. The high street of Maidenhead, my home town, is a commercial wasteland, a windy corridor bordered by charity shops and empty premises, which are now brightly decorated with artwork extolling the town’s merits, compared with white-washed windows on my last visit. Meanwhile the people I pass are speaking Polish, Romanian, Urdu, Hungarian, Russian or Chinese—anything, it seems, but English.
It’s no surprise that prices have spiralled 30-50% in the last few years, such that I’m using £20 notes for most purchases compared with £10 notes on my last trip. Yet the knowledge that most folks have had no pay rise in that time makes me realize that more and more people are being crushed in an economic vice. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, it seems.
I’d heard some grumbles about new Health and Safety regulations, but didn’t realize how much they’ve complicated life. A small example—I wanted to find a barber’s where my brother could get a shave to spruce up for his birthday party, as he can’t shave himself properly. No go—nowhere offers that service now due to insurance complications.
So what services are on offer? Well, for a start there are plenty of postal scams telling you that you’ve won £10 million, but you just need to send £10 to cover administrative costs. Sadly, my Dad’s been sucked into several of these unscrupulous schemes that target the gullible, and every day I’ve been binning a stack of mail coming from Hong Kong, Vanuatu and the USA.
As for pubs—that essential British institution that was once the heart of social life—they are disappearing fast. Most of these atmospheric taverns are being converted into Tesco Express shops or Indian restaurants. At a wild guess, I’d say British pub culture will be dead by 2030.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, and there’s always a straw to clutch onto. Today is a warm, sunny day, Andy Murray’s playing at Wimbledon, and we can sit in the garden until 10pm watching the sun set.
But in truth, I’ll be hugely relieved when I step on that plane at Heathrow and journey back to my home in Thailand. Then I can look back at my photos of family and friends with warmth, and wonder what further strangeness I’ll find when I next set foot in Britain.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.