Back to England


I regularly travel from Brittany back to Leeds in West Yorkshire. It’s a big, sudden transition from deeply rural present to the city of my childhood. Along the way, as the train reveals the unflattering back sides of town and country, it’s impossible not to reflect upon a country which I can now regard with the unbiased eyes of an outsider.

The first impression, compared to Finistère, is how close most people live to each other: the ranks of terraces and housing estates beyond the window, the fascinating mix of people inside the train.  Then, at train speed, you suddenly exit the suburbs and are instantly in the country. The two are seemingly immiscible, each guarding its advantages from encroachment by the other.

North of Stevenage the countryside has been transformed from a picture into a tractor-friendly diagram of prairie-size fields. Only the occasional smallholding ekes out a welcome and different texture within this sterile jigsaw. Similarly, one of the pleasures of the view from the train are all those allotment sites: from West Byfleet to Wakefield, a vibrant expression of pride and joy. Each time I pass, these plots seem to get better tended and generally more valued. A small sign that England is waking up to her plight.

Because, despite the remarkable decency of just about everyone I meet, my overwhelming response following this journey through England is extreme anxiety for my family and friends who live there. 

England seems unprepared and undefended for the challenges ahead. The years of industrial and imperial superiority seem to have rendered the majority of people there insensate to the implications of recent, enormous changes in the world. I think most people would now recognise that the global economy is a rotten casino. Perhaps it will fall under the weight of its own credit-fuelled absurdity. Or, more likely, the party will roll off Far Eastwards, leaving most of the West nursing the mother of all hangovers.

But with so many people reliant upon the equation that job + mortgage = security, and so few resources, the potential headache for England is more akin to a dire medical emergency. Those conduits for the global economy driven through the fabric of England to facilitate the global economy and its  flows of capital and people are liable to carry back the poison in that system just as swiftly and effectively as they conferred ephemeral gain.

Unlike other ‘advanced’ nations (like France and the US) with massive debts, the UK has little protection if the global economy goes really sour. If the basic provision of food and shelter, as opposed to a new car or conservatory, becomes a salient concern again, the ratio of productive land to population is pitiful and alarming in equal measure. 

I have little idea what can be done. I’m pretty sure though that the forthcoming polling day would be best employed planting beans and ignoring the politicians of every hue who catalysed the transformation of the country and kicked away the final productive props – preferring instead that the nation should be magically levitated on debt and hot air. Perhaps the remedy lies in massively expanding community-based activity epitomised by allotments.

Whatever it is, for all our sakes, please do it now.