When I first arrived in England from Sudan in the mid noughties, slightly bewildered and armed with little cultural preparation apart from a diet of BBC World Service radio, nineteenth century literature and old video tapes of Top of the Pops, the country crashed into me. It was so much to take in. And the thought that my fluency in the English language and passing familiarity with British culture via whatever little media or literature had filtered through was any sort of cushion was immediately laughable. One can be able to name British radio newsreaders but still think that ‘taking the piss’ means to go to the actual loo. That was humbling.
And so I crash-coursed. I binged on Britain 101. I watched back episodes of Only Fools and Horses, Keeping Up Appearances, Monty Python and The Fast Show and Coupling and all of Derek and Clive (on tapes, on a Walkman). As a student, I lived in London council estates and sat in musty pre-smoking ban pubs where you couldn’t get a skinny chip let alone a chunky triple fried one, talking to anyone I could.
The country that unfolded itself before me was not the staid Bush House tones of the BBC but something anarchic, edgy and almost infinitely layered. There was no X Factor, no great Great British Bake-Off. Big Brother had just started and was actually an exciting experiment. It’s mind boggling to think that this was all just over ten years ago. The concept of ‘basic’ didn’t exist, really because the essence of basicness didn’t exist, that is, a derivative unimaginative reproduced pattern of middlebrow tastes and consumption. I arrived in England when having a Starbucks pumpkin latte, if you could find a Starbucks, was a massively exciting indulgence. What do you mean it’s basic? It’s £5.30! And is a coffee that tastes like pumpkin! What sort of pretentious killjoy are you to not appreciate that? Nothing was ‘cheeky’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’ – most things were just a pleasure if you could afford them. It was right after Cool Britannia and before there was such a thing as a Michelin-starred pub.
Just as I settled in and the country became more familiar to me, it began hurtling very fast in a different direction – one where hyper-capitalism fused with a nominal Englishness to create a huge pool of middlebrow culture, and before I knew it, there was a whole other evolution that I had to track. What was unfolding was a culture that seemed increasingly samey, cynical and designed to appeal to the comforting nostalgia of tweeness while also playing it safe and rolling out barely serviceable offerings. What I’m trying to say is, and you can be forgiven for not seeing where I was going with this, I get Theresa May.
I get Theresa May and I get why others get Theresa May. Sure, much of the left sees her as a monster. I am an immigrant who lived under May’s Home Office, you don’t need to tell me. But she is of the country now in a way that makes so much sense if you just look at…