I’ve been back in England this week, trying to remember what it is that I always seem to miss about it when I’m not here. It’s been two years since my last visit, and every time I return people seem to be paler, drunker, and fatter and, especially in London, speaking a lazy, guttural dialect called ‘yob-gob’. You think that there are more paving stones jutting out to trip you up than ever before, but really it’s just because I’m clumsier. And all that litter was there before as well. And people saying ‘fuck’ every second word too? The word’s just not as effective as it was in my day.
Speaking of litter, I was standing at a bus stop in Wandsworth at about five o’clock last Sunday when two men in yellow jackets staggered over with trolley and brushes to clean up the rubbish that was swirling around the pavement in the afternoon breeze. One of them gave up immediately, sat down against a wall, and fell asleep. His colleague was more industrious, though not much more productive, and spent the next 15 minutes chasing the dancing crisp packets in a circle. They were, to our cruel amusement, much faster than him.
As we sat on the top deck of the bus looking down at them (in more way than one), his colleague stirred. My wife, who understands little about British drinking culture, thought they were both on drugs. My guess was that they’d been in the pub since midday. “Now that he’s awake, he’ll be wanting a fag,” I said of the first sweeper as he yawned and reached into his jacket pocket. One long fumble later, he managed to extract a cigarette while watching his team mate continue his Sisyphean ordeal. They might still be there.
“It would be so pretentious living in London with you,” she observed the next day on the Tube from Tooting Bec to King’s Cross. I’d been complaining because I forgot to buy a paper, and I go spare with boredom on public transport if I’ve nothing to read. Then I pointed out that I couldn’t understand how so many other people sit there staring into space with nothing to do for half an hour. And then I probably complained about a few thousand other things too.
Books seem set to become historical artefacts in Britain. There’s the odd, fat Danielle Steel or John Grisham being read, some fraud-enriching self-help books, and the odd rare work that might require more than two minutes of hard concentration, but the majority of other readers are flicking through those crap free papers people thrust at you near the Tube entrances. I can’t honestly remember if it was any different when I last lived here 13 years ago. My head was too immersed in a pretentious book to notice. Or I was slumped unconscious from too much drink.