Every two years the old country that usually lurks just beneath my psyche rises up to the surface as we journey back to the land of our origin – an imposing and barnacle encrusted island. Going back there evokes more than just myriad memories, it reminds me of what I once was and the life I never fully left behind. Old haunts are revisited, old connections re-established and wherever I go in that land, I can feel my old self stepping behind me in my shadow, or is it the other way around? I don’t know. But the experience never fails to throw into stark relief the marked differences of life in the new country and is a reminder that whether I like it or not, in my mind I still occupy two worlds.
The first thing that hits you as you step through the airport doors is the thinness of the air compared to back in Aus and the feeling that the sky and the sun are higher up and more distant somehow. Then there’s the drive back to the family homestead through the grey streets, familiar and more ‘lived in’ from those back in the new country. There’s rivers and torrents of traffic and the overwhelming feeling that in homes, on the street and in public places space is much more confined – there’s people beavering about everywhere. “When I’m in the crowd, I don’t see anything. My mind goes a blank, in the humid sunshine…” Rubbish and dead leaves fly around the streets in the nagging wind like so much urban tumbleweed.
Shops and pubs are crammed into the high street – I’d forgotten just how shopping-obsessed a nation England has become with literally dozens of supermarkets, from which to choose galaxies of commodities. There’s Asda, J Sainsburys Ltd, Waitrose, the Co-op, Costcutter, Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Marks and Spencer to name a few off the top of my head, in Perth there’s Woolies, Coles, IGA and that’s it – although excitingly Aldi is now crashing in on the party – I always remember Aldi as the toast of alkees everywhere as the source for the cheapest, strongest plastic bottled cider. Looks like it’s trying to go a bit more upmarket these days – but really who gives a fuck? The answer is millions and millions of shopaholics of which I can find myself becoming one; it’s so easy to find yourself excitedly consumed with acute consumerism gawping in wonder at 30 different brands of humus, 15 degrees of cheddar cheese and rows upon rows of packaged sandwiches. You become paralysed with choice and the thought that your life might be somehow vastly improved if you plump for the Aylesbury smoked duck, Polish gherkin and Dorset cranberry sauce Mexican hand-ground flour tortilla wraps for five pounds and ninety eight pence for lunch. “I fall into a trance, at the supermarket. The noise flows me along, as I catch falling cans of baked beans on toast, technology is the most.”
And thank, God, I don’t drink anymore, just deciding on which hand-crafted, micro-brewed, organic ale to choose from the gallery of beer pumps that line most English bar tops these days would be enough to give me head-ache without a drop of the warm, vaguely fizzy stuff passing my lips. As for the vast array of malt whiskies, gins, rums, tequilas etc all readily available on supermarket shelves at liver-shiveringly reasonable prices – it’s little wonder my drinking used to go up exponentially on my return to the old country, when I used to drink. I was the proverbial kid in a sweet shop, pig wallowing in fecal matter etc. Drinking and talking hour upon hour of utter shite, while holed up in the recesses of dimly lit pubs, is a national pastime, so well suited to the national climate and cultural psyche. And if I’m honest, part of me still misses that simple ability to lose yourself in the cocooning embrace of the pub, insulated from the cold and the cold world with good company and comfortably numbed by the booze.
In autumn, there’s a gloomy melancholy in England that’s seductive somehow. The grey stillness punctuated by flashes of vibrant reds and yellows, mirrors the weary friendliness and guarded cheerfulness of many of my fellow old countrymen and women. The colour is all the more striking for the dowdy, drabness that surrounds it. I don’t mean that unkindly, there is something intrinsically down to earth and grounding in the English outlook I know and that still colours the darker, greyer part of my spectrum. The need to escape or at least rise above this dull inertness, though, gives rise to some of the finer aspects of English culture – the singular humour, music and penchant for partying in a very raucous fashion is all informed/driven by the desire to light up the gloom. And it’s also for this reason we’re great story-tellers – we get a lot of practice – in pubs more often than not.
We can laugh at ourselves too, in fact we need to, to loosen the strait-jacket of convention and constraint. So [graphic image coming now] I was sitting down on the toilet on the 12:35 Virgin train headed for London Euston from Birmingham New Street, when I’m slightly taken aback to hear a female BBC-enunciated voice with that jollily English intonation politely telling me, “Please don’t flush down the toilet any sanitary towels, nappies, paper towels, sandwich packaging, that Christmas cardigan your nanny knitted you, hopes, dreams…” Hats off to Richard Branson, respect to anyone who can make me laugh out loud with a passenger information announcement while I’m sat on a kazi hurtling towards the capital – toilet humour with a near off-the-rails twist.
Our collective subversiveness is probably why we love a good farce too – and if it besets someone in authority all the better. So, when the British PM Theresa May was racked by a coughing fit throughout her rallying speech to the Tory troops at the recent Conservative Party conference, it was met with much merriment by observers if not delegates, which gave rise to outright hilarity when a bespectacled prankster who had somehow managed to breach security to hand the PM with a blown-up P45 – which in England is the tax form that you receive when you’re given the sack. With exemplary stiff upper lip-ness, Theresa politely took the form, but then pathetically attempted to steal the joke and turn it around by saying she’d like to give a P45 to her political nemesis, Jeremy Corbyn, which was met with desperate, forced laughter by the Tory faithful. It really went Fawlty Towers after that when then felt letters forming the Tory party slogan behind her began to fall off the wall. You couldn’t make it up – as many observers noted in the array of national newspapers you can buy in the UK – that’s certainly something I miss – good analytical newspaper journalism, as well as the pithy, well-crafted tabloids. Newspapers are one area where I heartily approve of consumer choice and Australia really needs to lift its game in this regard in my opinion.
On the other hand, there’s a know-it-all smugness that goes with a lot of liberal, middle class British humour, which I find a bit irritating, identifying more readily with the dry, often bawdy piss-taking that typifies much everyday Aussie humour. I can get my fix of piss-taking merriment when kicking around with my old mates from the UK, where ripping the shit out of each other is an expression of affection, and experience it en masse when attending football matches back in Birmingham. God, after my family that’s probably the biggest thing I miss about the old country – going to football matches. The electric collective energy, the mounting expectation and the explosive riotous joy and mayhem when your team finally scores, the pulsating singing and chanting, the bawdy and partisan humour directed at the opposition, the coveting of shite pies and other overpriced dodgy fare, such as ‘beef tea’, and the endless pouring over the games’ highlights and each individual team members’ performance in the boozer after – it’s all part of the match-day experience that makes football such a national obsession. “And everyone seems just like me, they struggle hard to set themselves free
and they’re waiting for the change.”
You just can’t replicate it in Australia and God knows along with thousands of other Pom, Jock and Irish expats I’ve tried at Perth Glory and while it’s certainly got a lot better in recent years – it still doesn’t come even close.
Talking of food – which we were a couple of paragraphs ago if you recall – one of the few other things I miss from the old country is a good Ruby Murry – more specifically a Brummy balti. Balti was conceived in Birmingham with its plethora of Indian and Asian restaurants – where there is truly exquisite spicy cuisine on offer at ridiculously cheap prices. A balti is essentially a curry cooked and served in a small wok-like pan with a special blend of spices which tends to vary from restaurant to restaurant and is served with a wondrously fluffy nam bread cooked in a clay tandoor oven. The idea is you eat the balti using the nam bread to scoop up the unctuous curry – some curry houses serve nam bread the size of tennis racquets while there are those that are the size of the table and act as a surrogate, edible table cloth. You can get garlic nams, exotic Peshwari nams which are stuffed with nuts and fruit and keema nams stuffed with minced lamb.
Despite the discouraging translation of balti – meaning ‘bucket’ – baltis are outrageously good cuisine, which I spent a good proportion of my adolescence and early adult life scoffing. So for me, a little bit of heaven in the old country on this last trip entailed a balti with family and friends in my native Moseley village followed by a bus ride on the 50 bus down the Alcester Road to Small Heath and a brisk walk (to help the balti go down) to St Andrews, Birmingham City’s ground, to watch the Blues play. Blues even did their bit with a rare win! “Bostin’, our kid!” to use the Brummy vernacular.
And then it was over – as the plane reared up off the run-way and the dark expanse began to sink back to beneath the surface, my thoughts turned once again to the lighter, more spacious terrain awaiting me back in my adopted homeland. But the old country will always be there – my foundation, the clay of my soul – as long as there’s a roar at St Andrews and a sizzle in a balti dish.
Random song lyrics from the Jam’s In the Crowd, featured image courtesy of Ben Sherman.