I hope you are all well and enjoying life to the full.
I read your expedition briefing with an almost exiled eye living between London and Stockholm. It’s interesting what you say about the English as I look in on a very complicated culture from the outside here in Sweden. The Swedes see Britain largely as a ‘cool’ place with the Union Flag adorning many items of apparel, goods and brands as if somehow Britain was nothing more than a lifestyle accessory.
There’s no definitive answer to what it is to be English as the picture changes like sand on the shore. A wave comes, washes back into the sea and the sand changes but it is still the same sand on the same seashore, but it will change over time. Some waves are larger than others and the larger waves penetrate further up the beach. So it has been with immigration to the British Isles since time immemorial and particularly since Britain lost its empire. As a modern nation however it has no desire to be a smaller, more humble or less significant place.
What do I know of Leicester or Manchester and its peoples? I have never so much as passed through either City. I recall many summers staying with an uncle and aunt in Aylesbury which was then a large agricultural town with a cattle market in the Midlands. That was as far north as I ever got to as a child and I remember getting there from London by steam train. My uncle got me interested in the outdoors. One day he and I were walking across mudflats in the Thames estuary. Without sight of anything visible he stopped and started digging in the sandy mud with his hands. After ten minutes or so he pulled a Roman amphorae out of the ground. He had great psychic abilities which haunted him most of his life. My uncle was like all our family, brought up in the hardest part of the East End of London. I know very little about my family but expect most of my forebears experience nearly 200 years of poverty, lack of opportunity and terrifying twentieth century warfare.
We English tend to look at our heritage through rose tinted glasses. The London I see today is a very different and strange place compared to the city I knew as a child. Much if it has become a monument to greed and a widening gap between the very rich and the very poor. It has become the new Victorian era with the rich requiring control through its establishments and the poor once again having been humbled by the burden of financial collapse brought about by the greed of overpaid and over-valued city bankers, hedge fund managers and their like. Many working people, and I don’t use the word ‘class’ here, endure the prospect of earning a barely liveable wage. Many of those people who work for just over seven pounds an hour are claiming housing benefit whilst many of the companies that they work for are avoiding paying taxes in the UK and making multi-million pound profits, largely contributed to by the British tax payer in terms of social welfare benefits for their employees. Many of those companies are American, a largely inward looking and violent people driven by fear of others, profit and greed. For some reason the UK believes the US business culture is a good model to follow. The special relationship is really nothing special and largely benefits US rather than being of equal status. The relationship only became special through the reparations owed by Britain to its ally having eventually brought them kicking and screaming into the two largest and most evil conflicts known by man.
England does somehow appear to remain a principled country even though this attribute is often masked by the quest for wealth and privilege, making it a very divided nation still largely united behind an impotent monarchy. A decent education is everything and an Oxbridge one for the elite and a few very bright state school kids opens doors to power, influence and wealth. England missed a great opportunity to change the establishment for good by the recent unification of the collective political elite to put fear amongst the Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence in their recent referendum. An independent Scotland would I believe have resulted in a more just England, Wales and Northern Ireland, even if it had resulted in a painful separation. It would have given us all the chance to re-establish and define our national identities and dispelled the fears spread by right wing anti-European and anti-immigration parties for those that deserve to live or settle in a country based on tolerance, a strong work ethic and a place of potential equal opportunity.
Much of the change in culture in England has not in all fairness been driven by the English. The desire for greed and profit at any cost has largely about by the back door acquisition of UK institutions by foreign investors, largely from the US. As a nation of shopkeepers, anything appears to be for sale to the highest bidder. For example many Londoners in particular, including myself are no longer able to afford to live in what have become the ‘trendy’ areas of once impoverished, brow beaten and bomb damaged city that my parents and grandparents could only wish to get out of.
It is a continuing struggle that makes cultures so important and interesting. Maybe that’s why I find the culture in Stockholm so shallow and smug. It’s all about’ lifestlyle’and latte Pappas here and perhaps Sweden is only beginning to realise it has become almost defenceless to a growing threat, perceived or real, from an old arch enemyacross the Baltic. The farce of the recent incident of a Russian mini-submarine scare in the Stockholm archipelago has perhaps highlighted the lack of understanding amongst the Swedish political elite. Neutrality comes at a price and by not being a member of NATO, Sweden is beginning to feel a very vulnerable indeed at the moment. With a new largely left leaning government comprised of backroom deals and horse trading between the socialists and fringe parties is not what most British would call the creation of a democratic government, but then again neither is the British system of ‘first past the post’. Setting up a fringe party here with no particular agenda or large following is perhaps the easiest way to become a Swedish government minister.
Two world wars changed British society for ever. It does however seem that people are disillusioned with British politics and feel a desire for change and opportunity. They’ve been fed enough political lies, false promises and ideologies that have ended up giving far too many people too little and others far too much. I do not hold communist principles but I do believe in a fair society and I see the worst side of capitalist greed for wealth and power bringing the whole system down. The agrarian society painted by Constable was at least an image of community even if controlled by the landed classes. It was a time before universal suffrage but it somehow paradoxically portrays and encapsulates the essence of England and the English. It has been a community spirit that has pulled the constituent parts of the British Isles though many hardships. Let’s hope that the Scottish referendum was a political wake-up call for better values, my fear however is that the political framework will return to business as usual and the rich will become richer and the political elite will continue to rule with impunity.
Barry Moss (MI’94) former Chairman of the British Chapter since 1998 and has also served two terms as a Board Director of the Explorers Club in New York. He is a veteran of Operation Drake, Operation Raleigh and the reed boat Kota Mama expeditions in South America. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Trustee and Director of the Scientific Exploration Society and a Director of Youth Exploring Science.
I read this with great interest. How beautifully you put things and I agree with so much of what you write.
Walking with Mikael time and again I met very decent, unassuming people struggling to survive in a new, ill fitting culture. US business culture is pervading all areas of life, including local government which then directly affects community life. Square peg, round hole. I felt it so strongly in East London I’ve fled to Northumberland- I’m hoping by the time that someone cottons on to the fact that this style of culture is bad for England and starts to change things, Northumberland will have just bypassed the whole thing.
Interestingly I’m finding British politics engaging for the first time in my life. Bearing in mind I was born in the early 80’s so I’m that generation brought up by the conservatives that was trained by the education system to accept and not question and to go shopping instead. I’m finding it interesting because of UKIP. For the first time there are unpolished speeches and people saying what they actually think (with strong regional accents! ). Granted I don’t agree wtih most of what UKIP actually stands for or says- but they are really stirring things up. I really, really hope that they will end up being a catalyst for a more open debate and English people actually speaking out rather than ‘accepting in silence’ as Mikael quite rightly noted.
On the education front- I’m a teacher- I’m actually finding some very refreshing approaches to education coming out of the free school movement. One school I find so inspiring that I volunteer there one day a week. They spend two days a week learning outdoors- woodland, beach (these are inner city newcastle kids from the poorest area) – and three days in the classroom. I asked the governors of the school what their aims were for the school and children. They said ” To create state school children as confident as public school children, and who question their teachers”. Let’s hope this approach catches on. Here’s to the next generation of English who question and question and question.