Notes from a small island
reflections on a trip back to the UK
An old teaching colleague, who was also from the UK, once said to me that one of the main reasons to take an annual trip back home was to remind yourself why you live here. Thailand gets to us all on occasion and when yet one more customer service center passes us from department to department before hanging up the phone, and when yet one more dish arrives at a restaurant table ten minutes later than our partner’s food, we seriously begin to question whether Thailand’s worth the effort. There’s nothing like a fortnight back in England (or in my case three weeks) to put things back into some sort of perspective.
England really does seem so expensive to me now. OK you expect to pay more for goods than you would in Thailand but this time I really noticed it. I paid almost twelve pounds for four standard-size single-cone ice creams in the village of Henley-in-Arden. It’s three pounds plus for a decent sandwich in Pret-A-Manger (almost five pounds if you have a bottled fruit smoothie to go with it) but for a sheer jaw-dropping, wallet emptying experience, how about five pounds for a large cappuccino and a muffin in Starbucks?
I’ve started off with take-away food and drink as a pricing yardstick because in the last couple of years, no business sector seems to have mushroomed in the UK quite like the take-away food industry. Stand on any busy high street, look around, and you get the impression that literally every other shop dispenses some form of takeaway food to the hungry masses. There are sandwiches, kebabs, trays of chips, baked potatoes with assorted fillings and cheese and onion pasties. In the town of Lichfield, I even came across a sandwich bar selling ‘Irish sandwiches’, with fillings slapped between two chunky slices of soda bread.
My interest was piqued because I wondered what sort of salaries the English were earning these days. How much would you need to make to enable you to toss back a three quid Starbucks coffee on a daily basis, or smoke twenty cigarettes at six pounds a packet? I spent half an hour looking at the job ad cards in the windows of several temping / employment agencies on Birmingham’s busy New Street. To my surprise there were hundreds of positions paying between 15K and 19K a year - most of them it appeared were for jobs involved with looking after the elderly, as you’d expect now that Britain has such an aging population. So that’s a take-home of about 230 pounds a week. The math just didn’t add up. I’d perused the classified ads in the Birmingham Evening Mail the night before and rented accommodation in even the most undesirable areas was nigh on 80 pounds a week. Throw a few Starbucks coffees, a chicken tikka sandwich and a packet of cigarettes into the mix and your immediate thought is how do people manage to put clothes on their back?
I suppose at this point I should give special mention to the enterprising cafe-bar owner near New Street Station, who had customers queuing five deep at 8.30 in the morning to buy his daily special offer – two slices of toast for a pound! That’s two slices of plain white bread, shoved under a grill, for the equivalent of 65 baht. And the three counter staff couldn’t serve people quick enough.
My Uncle Jeff is a smart cookie. An ex-amateur boxer, now in his fifties, he got his foot on the property ladder when he was just 23 and the last thirty years have seen a series of shrewd investments that have enabled him to put two daughters through top universities. Now the kids have well and truly fled the nest, he’s enjoying the spoils of years spent carefully watching the coffers. Always a good man to talk to about all things financial, Jeff explained to me how things have changed over the past few years.
“What you have now is a huge group of people called the stay-at-home twenties, or in some cases well into their thirties. These are people with fairly decent jobs, probably pulling in 20K plus a year, but no hope whatsoever of buying or renting a property and leaving home. So instead they’re still living with parents and still holed up in the same childhood bedroom. It’s not an ideal existence but it does mean the stay-at-home twenties have significant amounts of disposable income. They’ve adopted a live-for-today attitude, and it’s probably why the designer clothes shops and the pubs aren’t struggling when it comes to attracting the younger customers”
I had an afternoon down at Edgbaston cricket ground to watch my beloved Warwickshire for the first time in almost twenty years. The entertainment lasted just short of four hours and cost twenty pounds per person. I’m sorry to keep harping on about money and the cost of things, but back in the early 80’s when my brother, dad and myself used to go to watch Sunday league cricket, admission barely broke a tenner for all three of us. Now if a guy wants to take his two teenage sons to a cricket match and probably enjoy a pint or two, he hasn’t got much change out of hundred pounds when you also key in his petrol and parking.
I stayed for a couple of weeks with my brother and sister-in-law in Sutton Coldfield – or ‘The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield’ as the locals prefer it to be known. Both Paul and Yvonne hold down excellent jobs in banking and education, but with free time at such a premium (they have two young and demanding children) much of their shopping and day-to-day business transactions are done on-line. I sat in the living room with them one rainy afternoon as with laptops powered up, they proceeded to order a food delivery from the local Tesco’s (75 pounds plus five pounds delivery charge), tax one of their cars (185 pounds a year) and enter themselves in the Birmingham half-marathon (35 pounds each)
We’re not talking about a particularly rich couple here. Sure they have a fairly comfortable standard of living but they aren’t at the stage where money is no object. But as Paul so eloquently puts it - “things cost what they cost”
If they want to go out for the evening, they think nothing of spending twenty pounds on a babysitter. This is not some professional agency either. We’re talking about a sixteen year old girl who wanders over from the house directly opposite. Factor in the twenty pounds for a cab ride home and you’ve spent forty quid before you’ve even stood at the bar. I used to do a whole month of beer and nightclubs on that sort of cash. I know times have changed but my word, how they’ve changed. You get to the point where the costs of living in the UK or what people have to spend to buy goods and services just doesn’t surprise you anymore.
My favorite “bloody hell, how much!” moment still involves when my wife and I took a train from Wylde Green to Lichfield – a journey of 18 minutes and about four stations in-between. The off-peak fare was eight pounds return for the two of us. Think of how far you could go in a taxi for the 500 baht equivalent. And when we alighted at Lichfield Station to an empty, windswept platform, I looked at my wife and said “obviously the ticket price doesn’t include dinner and a show”
That’s quite enough of these economic woes. Let’s turn our attention to the British weather. It is after all our number one topic of conversation - a national pastime as it were. I’d forgotten how irksome the British weather can be – even when you’re in the middle of a wet, cold spell that includes the longest day of the year and claims to be ‘The English Summer’.
My previous two visits to England had been in October 2006 and April 2005. You know where you are with those months. You know you’ll need gloves, scarves and wooly hats because the terms ‘late Autumn’ and ‘early Spring’ mean just one thing – COLD!
June is a different kettle of fish. In an ideal world you’d pack three suitcases for a trip to the UK at this time of year - one with your light sweaters and jeans for when the temperature goes decidedly chilly, another suitcase with your thermal underwear and padded jackets for those typical early Summer afternoons, and then not forgetting a third suitcase with your t-shirts, shorts and swimwear because you don’t want to be caught out on one of the three days a year when the mercury hits 22 degrees. If you’re unlucky enough – as we were on several occasions – you’ll experience all three climatic scenarios on one day.
We spent a lovely day, the wife and I, picking our way around Oxford (a city I’d never visited before) Although these English towns and cities are quite splendid, nothing can express the frustration the average day-tripper has to go through when it comes to the decision on ‘how to dress for the weather’ because you invariably get it wrong. Wear a t-shirt and you suddenly find yourself freezing to death in a shaded side-street and wishing you’d brought at least another eight layers. Wear a sweater and jacket and the sun burns down from a cloudless blue sky forcing you to remove clothing and walk around cathedrals and cloisters weighed down like a Himalayan Sherpa. At times the constant taking off and putting on makes you feel like an overbooked strippagram. I can see why in colonial times, gentleman of high esteem would perhaps have a personal valet trailing behind, proffering the occasional cardigan if the day turned nippy, but unfortunately I didn’t have such luxuries to call upon so one just tends to grin and bear it.
Moving on, let’s talk about the numerous retail giants that are present on any British high street – Marks and Spencers, WH Smiths, Littlewoods, BHS and Wilkinsons, etc, etc. Nowadays, they all have one thing in common – the customer service is bloody awful! Years ago in these places, you were served by some elderly grandmother-type figure with a blue rinse and spectacles on a chain. She would by and large, be charmingly incompetent but she would deal with you in that wonderfully polite, British manner just as soon as she’d located her glasses and found which key fit the cash register. These days you’re lucky to find a shop assistant at all and even luckier to find one that doesn’t speak with a thick East European accent. Go into any branch of WH Smiths the newsagents and you can virtually guarantee there’ll be a long line of twitchy, irritable customers each holding a newspaper and a packet of chewing gum, and looking nervously at wristwatches while the 2.30 meeting with Peter from accounts moves closer ever closer. It occurred to me that queuing for five minutes (and five minutes is a long time when you just want to pay for your goods and fuck off) has become very much part and parcel of the UK shopping experience. It’s something you’re simply required to do. You stand in line with twenty other customers and you shuffle forward inch-by-inch as that line moves at a speed best described as glacial. And then when you get to the counter clutching your magazine and a few other bits and pieces, a pierced, tattooed twenty-something called Erika or Petra takes your money and asks if you want the items put in a bag. All this is done without even a fleeting second of eye contact. It’s no good moaning about it. These are shop assistants who wouldn’t know the meaning of customer service if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsichord. And their response would probably be “well what the f*** do you expect for minimum wage?”
This asking a customer if they’d like their goods put into a bag has become the norm in the British retail industry. The UK has gone environment-friendly bonkers. Ok let me be the first to say that Thailand could learn a hell of a lot here and I’m all in favor of doing what we can to save the planet, but you have the situation in the UK now where companies who are doing their bit to save resources, eliminate carbon footprints (whatever that is) and make sure that Nicaraguan sewing machinists are paid a fair daily wage are ramming it down your throat at every turn. I’ve got nothing against Marks and Sparks feeling a tad guilty about their factory emissions or Next Clothing grumbling about their Indian textile workers living on less than three rupees a month, but what ever happened to the words ‘discreet’ and ‘subtle’?
Why not put a pile of simple, innocuous gatefold leaflets near the cash register so customers can choose whether they want to read up on what their favorite store is doing to eliminate third-world poverty? Instead – and Marks and Spencers are the worst culprits by far – you have whole walls of retail space festooned with bold-type statements and stark images of a starving workforce. Am I the only one who feels like saying “well it’s your fault for letting things get like that in the first place”. You can actually purchase some very nice items of clothing, you might even look forward to wearing them when you get home – but you can still leave the store feeling like shit.
At all Tesco supermarket checkouts – and I presume other supermarket chains are doing the same – shoppers are awarded points for bringing their own carrier bags. If you’re one of these sooper-dooper environmentalists, you will have already bought the 2.95 eco-friendly, use forever, Hessian shopping bag with the tesco logo emblazoned across it. I’m not sure if these points result in a cash discount or you accumulate the points and eventually exchange them for a 64-piece screwdriver set. Truth I be known I don’t much care but I take my hat off to the British public who are walking out of supermarkets, pockets bulging with fruit and salad stuff and balancing the rest of the weekly shopping on their heads. Ask for a carrier bag and you’ll regret it – as I did when I simply refused to stuff five packets of McVities Chocolate Digestive in my shirt pocket.
“Would you like a carrier bag?”
The world seemed to freeze momentarily. The old couple behind me tutted. The young mother still packing her stuff away in front of me (in her Hessian bag of course) shot me a look as if to say, “do you have no shame?”
I grabbed the items and made sharply for the door. The biscuits were delicious by the way.
By way of a conclusion to this carrier bag saga, the shops at Birmingham International Airport now charge one pence for any plastic bag, regardless of size. I saw quite a brouhaha develop between an Indian sales assistant and a rather thuggish looking Liverpool gentleman, who was before me in the queue, holding a packet of Polo mints and a Daily Mirror. His mood wasn’t helped by having to control a rather badly-behaved toddler who wouldn’t sit in her pushchair. He’d probably just had a shit fortnight in Tenerife as well. To cut a long story short, he wasn’t willing to pay a penny for the carrier bag and between you and me, I’d bet he was willing to go to prison for it. The Indian guy stood there, soaked up thirty seconds of abuse but still wanted the penny. I think the customer eventually told him where to stick his carrier bag and stormed out. Personally I would have just let the company take the penny out of my wages.
Britain’s cities are getting scary. They really are. I’m not talking about knife attacks on innocent individuals and all those stories that seem to dominate the news headlines, I’m talking about the simple act of walking down a city street and feeling safe. Perhaps I’ve been away too long but in my nightclubbing / pubbing days of the early 80’s you’d occasionally see a couple of guys having a handbags at ten paces after a night on the sauce. Someone would get a slap and then the crowds of onlookers would disperse and the incident would be forgotten in five minutes. Cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield, at 10.30pm, were all about loads of people just out to have a good time. Are those days sadly gone forever? You walk through Birmingham City Center, even in broad daylight with the streets thronged with office workers and shoppers, and there’s this underlying air of tension and aggression. Groups of swarthy Albanians huddled together outside a cheap Wetherspoon’s pub, small gangs of third and fourth generation Asian kids with bags of attitude, chatting happily but all the time looking over each other’s shoulders as though waiting for an opportunity. An opportunity for what I couldn’t tell you. And clusters of young English guys, dressed from head to toe in designer chic and talking into hi-tech mobile phones. Add to that the Big Issue sellers with mongrel dogs on a length of string and the ubiquitous “can you spare any change?” mob and a day out in the city center can be a pretty daunting experience.
I took my wife to a suburb of Birmingham called Erdington, simply because it was an area I hung around in from time to time during my misspent youth. Erdington has never been what you’d describe as classy but I was astonished at just how far it had fallen. The first thing you see as you get off the number 11 bus is a Polish Welfare Organisation – a testimony to an area that now boasts an incredibly high ratio of Polish immigrants. There are Polish guys on every street corner. Shaven-headed and muscular, they hang around in small groups cadging cigarettes and shouting obscenities at the local girls. I dragged my wife down Erdington High Street in record time. The poor girl’s feet barely touched the floor. I wasn’t inclined to browse in any shops. I just wanted out.
As an aside, the number of Polish workers in Birmingham is falling rapidly. A report in the Birmingham Evening Mail stated that now working conditions, job opportunities and salaries are getting much better in Poland, the number of Poles heading home now far exceeds the number of new arrivals. Interesting that.
I realize that I’m straying on to very dangerous territory here but British people are definitely getting – how can I put this? – less attractive. They’re certainly getting heavier, there’s little doubt about that. I’m not sure whether it’s a diminishing access to decent healthcare or beauty products are too pricey but the younger generation seems to be taking far less pride in its appearance. I know I’m an old fogey of 44 and I’m in grave danger of becoming one of those who sits around in his favorite armchair telling anyone who’ll listen about how things were much better ‘in my day’ but what the hell is going on? You’ve got these high-street fashion trends for distressed and disheveled clothing – a look which very few people carry off with any aplomb – and everyone seems content to let it all hang out. By letting it all hang out, I am of course referring to bulges of fat and flabby skin. I sat in a trendy Sutton Coldfield pub with my brother at 8.00pm on a Friday evening. This would be the classic watering hole for the Friday club crowd before they headed off to the bright lights of Broad Street in the Birmingham city center. I sat there nursing my three quid bottle of designer lager and stared around me open-mouthed. Perhaps my hormones aren’t in the same state of frenzy as they were twenty-five years ago but I’ve still got an eye for a good-looking girl (please don’t let the wife read this) and girls did look great too. Nowadays the chunkier the thighs, the flabbier the arms and the fatter the arse, the more a person has to show it off. If the exposed area is tattooed and pierced then that’s better still! Don’t people look in full-length mirrors anymore? I sat in that pub and don’t think I’ve ever felt happier and more relieved that my courtship days are well and truly behind me.
And for all this moaning and groaning, England still has its plusses. Get out of the cities and enjoy the English countryside because for me it’s the best in the world. We spent four days rambling around the Derbyshire Peak District, drinking and eating in the fine pubs around Castleton and browsing the markets of Chesterfield and Matlock. We enjoyed some wonderful days out in Chester, Oxford and Stratford and I thought to myself “it doesn’t get any better than this. This is what I miss about England”
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