England, My England

‘My’ England has always been a curious mash up, a cocktail of experience, too diverse for The Guardian, too undefinable The Spectator. I’m undoubtedly middle class, born to working class parents who, during a brief period of meritocracy, jumped up a socio-economic level by virtue of grammar school and free university. I grew up in Wales but was sent to an English speaking Welsh comprehensive school. I hated it. I felt decidedly English as a result, though when I finally moved to England at eighteen, I realized that I wasn’t English. English meant the right accent, the right postcode, the right connections. It meant private schools in the South, family money, relatives with creative careers in the arts, or professional jobs in law or politics. This was the England I wanted to be part of, the England of London, the England of the ruling classes, the England of Cambridge University. I was rejected – or ‘pooled’ – at first, which basically means a ‘maybe’ while they wait and sift through the other rejects before deciding if you’ll do. I was the only girl from a Comprehensive school in my English class at college. I was the only girl north of the Watford gap. I was the only girl that did not say ‘barth’. I was the only girl that worked at the local pub at weekends. That feeling of not quite being one thing or the other has always plagued me in life. Perhaps it plagues all of us. Perhaps those mythical creatures exuding bravado and confidence – the jock in the John Hughes movie, the polished Etonian in the Ken Loach – are as conflicted and complex and as fucked up as the rest of us. Is their need to ‘be’ something so sure, so distinct – something definable and unique, something that needs to be different and differentiated – what leads them to be so sure that to be British, to be English – is to be separate?

I grew up in a conservative family, a family of Thatcherites who nonetheless believed in free universal education and healthcare. They despised people on benefits, people on welfare, people living in council flats. They believed Thatcher when she started selling off subsidized housing, applauded her when she closed the mines and embraced the free market economics which have led to the gradual privatization or erasure of every single industry Britain ever claimed. I suppose it never occurred to them – children of blue collar workers – that their new prosperity was due not merely to hard work or innate talent, but to legislation prior to Thatcher which allowed them access to opportunities traditionally denied their class. I grew up thinking like them: that is, thinking Thatcher was right, John Major was a prick, Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and most brown people were OK, aside from the Arabs. Mostly though, I didn’t have much of an opinion. I watched the news, absorbed it via osmosis, switched on to ‘Neighbours’ when I could, and sank, instead, into fiction, which I later studied at university even though politics interested me more. Politics was for clever people. Fiction was some made up shit I could blag my way through.

I came from a miserable, pedantic little town in the Welsh mountains, a town slowly expiring beneath the weight of a dead economy. My school was full of sociopaths who scared the shit out of me, violent kids with explosive anger seething beneath their acne ridden surfaces. I’d come home with gobs of spit and phlegm on my back. Do you shag your sister? You a fowlerlesbian? Fucking freak. There was one black kid in my school. He was adopted. There was a Pakistani family who everyone hated, and a Chinese family who owned the local take out, so most people liked them. My greatest fear was that I was a lesbian and that one day the kids would discover this and drag me out for some kind of public shaming and / or execution on the school playing fields. I used to read Enid Blyton books and beg my parents to send me to private boarding school like Malory Towers or St Clares. My dad was a doctor, back in the days when doctors worked seven days a week for shit pay, and having over-stretched himself on a fine wine collection and multiple foreign holidays to Africa and Thailand (“lovely people”), he couldn’t afford it. Besides, even without grammar schools, Britain’s education system was excellent. Didn’t I prove it by leaving a shitty comprehensive school in Wales, and wending my way to study English Literature at Cambridge University?

I suffered through high school, starving myself because the concentration that this required, the pain that it evoked, drowned out the absolute fear and helplessness I felt at growing up in a small town where everyone seemed gray and miserable and depressed and apocalyptic, just like the weather. I was bolstered by enthusiastic teachers who suffered through the indignities of high school just as we did. I often think of these people, wonder where they found the strength to come in, day after day, only to be asked by some cocky fourteen year old whose balls had barely dropped, if they’d ever watched a dog shag a rabbit.

Cambridge, of course, was where I discovered brilliant and lovely people, people with way more money than me. I concentrated on Postcolonial literature under the guidance of the brilliant, sharp and indomitable Priyamvada Gopal, an immigrant from India, via Cornell University. I think of Jox Cox, who said that university made her realize that it mattered where you were born, how you spoke and who you knew. I knew this back in school. Prima knew too, and she didn’t give a fuck. I aspired to be like her. I would obstinately refuse to befriend the people with obvious advantages, the girl with the famous theater director father, the girl with the famous movie director father, the son of the MP, the seventh in line to the throne…

I don’t remember what it’s like to be outside the EU. I remember instead what it’s like to be half in, half out. Studying at Cambridge, never really feeling like I fit in. I remember the horror and the pushback when the EU proposed the Euro and Britain responded with its typical fear, panic and horror. Don’t invite me to your fucking party, I’m dancing on my own in the corner., We were always cautious friends with the rest of Europe, ready to leap out at a moment’s notice, a mardy teenager who won’t take any shit, a bag pre-packed in the wardrobe.

I left England when I was 21 years old. Even though I loved Cambridge, even though I knew London was way more cosmopolitan, multicultural, diverse and interesting than the town in Wales that I grew up in, I knew that I didn’t really belong, and that someone would figure that out and humiliate me. Wales was a reality way more than the passionate, educated privileged bunch I identified with – people who had never outwardly rejected me, but people who I did not sound like, who I did not know, who were not one of five children born to a working class family from Liverpool in a small hospital on the border of Wales and England.

For reasons I can’t even decipher myself, I’ve spent much of the last sixteen years in the States. I feel like I know the States better, now, than I ever knew England, a country I only lived in for three years. England and Wales are very different, despite sharing the same common suspicion of brown people. I’ve become intimately acquainted with poverty in the States in a way I never knew in England. I’ve been dropped off by friends at a downtown Los Angeles hospital without health insurance, with MRSA, and emerged with several thousand dollars of debt and a Vicodin as proof. I’ve lined up for hours, month after month, at the Department of Social Services to ask where my food stamps are, why my cash benefits didn’t load onto the little EBT card they give you. I’ve figured out how to use WIC checks and make a meal out of tuna, skippy and cornflakes. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on useless court cases. I use emojis when utilizing irony in order to avoid offense, and use ‘cunt’ only in the derogatory sense, and not as a term of endearment.

America is a place I live, but it’s not home. I’m too different. Too mouthy. Too common, Too blunt. Not British enough, perhaps, not in that Downton way Americans appreciate. Every day something new horrifies me, not least that even though I’m dirt poor, I scorn MediCal and still pay eighty bucks a month for Obamacare, convinced that the lack of choice free healthcare provides will detrimentally affect some aspect of my life irrevocably, way more than the $960 a year I’d save by going on it. My pathetic benefits – all $320 dollars a month that can only be spent on fresh and cold prepared foods, and the $569 of cash aid – are regulated by the government absolutely. Because I received cash aid when my son was very small, they found my ex husband and now skim his wages to cover the costs they spent on keeping me and my son alive for a few months. Is it because America and its horrific peculiarities has gnawed itself into my soul like a worm that I find myself full circle, trying to grapple with the idea of a healthcare system free at the point of entry, a healthcare system so good, that even rich people prefer it over BUPA? I own a flat in London. I rented it out to an Italian guy, a young dude in his late twenties with aspirations to be a musician. He got housing benefits because he claimed his son was disabled, and living with him. The three year old kid wasn’t disabled, and was living with his ex girlfriend back in Italy. When I tried to terminate his lease so that I could move home after his two years was up, I had Camden council on my back for weeks telling me he had a legal right to stay and I was a conservative cunt for wanting him out. These are the horror stories Brexits like to tell each other to reaffirm and excuse their racism and xenophobia. Back in America, I am a single mother on foodstamps and cash aid and CalWorks. I am the horror story that Republicans like to tell each other to reaffirm their bigotry. If only I was brown and a muslim, but I guess you can’t have it all.

Britain is a peculiar country, but I’ve only known 37 years of it being peculiar within the EU, giving me the right and the freedom to travel and work all over Europe. I worked in France for several years and cruised around the Riviera without much thought. The idea that this has gone – I mean, gone, absolutely, back to work permits and visas and stamps and interrogations – terrifies me. Will my best friend, a Polish girl whose been here for twenty years and has two kids with her Northern Irish partner, have to pack up and go, or revert back to being an illegal nanny? I think of my time as an illegal here in the US, working shit jobs for no money, reduced to the bottom of the pile. I’d watch the day laborers on the corner of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn get picked up for work every day, the men on one side, the women on the other. I’d be off to work at the stripclub, the only place that would employ a Cambridge educated Welsh girl with the wrong accent, and the wrong connections, born in the wrong place.

What I’m trying to say is fogged by wine and an imminent move, tiredness, a sick child, and the kind of hollow, horrific sadness that only happens when someone, or something, dies unexpectedly, leaving you bereft, adrift and alone. I’m trying to say that I am here, experiencing the true horrors of America, the most fucked up, racist, free market fuck up of a Capitalist piece of shit country there is. I’m here, surviving, getting by, fixed in amber by sunshine and a court case, always thinking longingly of England and Wales, when I might go back, where I might live, how I might fit back in after so long away. But there’s no going back. It doesn’t exist anymore.

The people who voted out are the miserable fuckers I grew up with, curmudgeons sitting in their crappy pebbledash homes watching Britain’s Got Talent drinking endless cups of tea moaning about the fucking weather, too busy staring with venom at Sharon to pack up and move to fucking Alicante and have a better, cheaper life while they had the opportunity. They’re working in shit dead end jobs and begrudging Sharon who gets way more on benefits than they get working 40 hours a week at Lunn Poly. I don’t know why they listen to people like Thatcher, and Cameron, and Farage, but they do, they always have, they always will, even with their disability cut, their pensions cut, their child support out the window, the interest rates rising, the pound plummeting. They’ll pat themselves on the back: job well done. Turn on the TV, reach for a biccy. They still have premium bonds instead of ISA’s, and they shop at Marks and Spencers, and they’ll savor their two weeks in Lanzarote but never think of making it longer. They’re my people, these fuckers who have screwed it up for us and the children we are raising. I left them because I wanted something better, never really appreciating what I had.

Britain, America. Same same. Same same.

Ruth Fowler was born in Wales and lives between Los Angeles and London. You can find out more about her at ruthfowler.net or Venmo her at @ruth-iorio