Friday 16 November 2007

The land of lost content

A shock headline in my morning paper reveals that a record 0.5 million foreigners settled in the UK last year (not including EU nationals who indicated they would be staying in the country for less than 12 months), while 200,000 Britons left the country. The article concludes that “little research has been done into the reasons for the current exodus of Britons”. Well, at the risk of doing some former polytechnic out of a massive grant to spend a couple of years establishing the bleeding obvious, I can offer an instant explanation. They’re going in search of a vanished England.

As Housman put it:

This is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways were I went

And cannot come again.

Unfortunately, our intrepid travellers all seem to overlook the last line.

Friends who have emigrated to New Zealand and rural France invariably say “it’s just like England used to be”, often citing the 1950s as the golden age they are struggling to recapture (even though most of them were, at most, babes in arms at the time, gurgling happily as they breathed in the toxic fall-out from the Windscale fire).

Of course they aren’t returning to anything of the sort; and, like mass tourists the world over, they are helping to destroy the very culture and communities they profess to admire. But I know what they mean. They are attracted, for example, by the chance to buy food that is grown locally and sold on market stalls and in small shops rather than identikit superstores; and by a slower pace of life where civility and a sense of community still prevail.

The unspeakable but unavoidable truth is also that these other countries appeal because they are less cosmopolitan and “multi-cultural” than contemporary Britain. For similar reasons, 20 years ago I took the less radical step of relocating from London to a part of Northumberland where my family had lived for generations. Here something resembling the ancient life of England still goes on, despite the best efforts of successive Governments to destroy it. I shall be a suspect townie incomer until the day I die, even though, 150 years ago, my great-great-grandfather and two of my great-grandfathers all lived less than a mile from my current home.

Unless, that is, I throw in the towel and emigrate myself. The tightening hand of authoritarianism has made me wonder whether Britain offers any future for a Bloke like me. Unfortunately much of the coming repression is EU-driven, so most of the countries to which I could travel freely would soon prove equally uncongenial.

An exhaustive discussion over lunch the other day concluded that the only viable alternatives for me were the Isle of Man or suicide. My friend advised that topping myself was, as the young say, “a no brainer”. However, I have since received encouraging reports of the quality of the real ale on the island, as well as the tramway and steam railway systems. Could it be the way forward? Or, more to the point, the way back?

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