Post-Brexit Britain of ancient literature clashes with the realities of modern one, a schism wonderfully kept within the walls of German supermarket Lidl, who urges customers to “Buy British”.
It is Spring in Brexit Britain, and the re-birthing of England is in full motion. Don’t be fooled, Brexit is an English thing, so let us kick off with “the most famous English poem”. It is called Daffodils, and was written by William Wordsworth in 1804. Don’t worry if you don’t know it, neither do most Britons. I read in The Telegraph recently (1st of March) that “one in five (Brits) cannot name a single author of literature.” In the land of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, it is all like Winston Churchill – quoted, not read.
I wander’d lonely as a cloud,
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils
Tragic is the morning, so “yong” (that’s olde English) when you are wandering lonely as a cloud, with a bunch of “British” daffodils from Lidl, a German cut-price supermarket chain expanding assertively in Britain, with its “British is Best” and “Buy British” mantra, and wonder what new bull sheisse the morrow brings?
The correct German for “bull shit” is “stiere sheisse”, but bull sheisse is commonly understood, and has the ring of a new-old reality. Britain has been part of the European Union for 44 years, so there is an engrained familiarity. Lidl’s TV advertising campaign has hijacked the great pastoral myth and promotes “British beef” from “British cows” (Scottish) who feed on “British grass” and so the Scottish farmer tells the English young mum reassuringly, does a “British mooo”. I am not making this up.
Patriotism sells. What used to be a harmless cottage industry at village fairs and royal events has been squared by big business and become part of the supermarket wars. They are all at it, and, another new-old reality, the Germans are just immer besser at that game. It is “home grown” all the way from the English Garden by William Mason (1724- 97) to the masses, who most likely voted Leave. One of the most memorable images from the referendum campaign was actually filmed at a Lidl. It was an elderly lady, with a moustache, in a mobility scooter, who cried, “We was great.”
Who cares that Britain’s agriculture is kept going with huge agricultural subsidies from the EU, or that many British farmers face the loss of their livelihoods. They are, in William Wordsworth’s “poesie” (another very old English term), The Last of the Flock. Those patriotic daffodils come at a price.
In the old days, after the Tudors and Elizabethans and their pastoral verse, but before the EU referendum, the stand-up comedian would have gone to work with this. Imagine: the Germans selling the British (read: English) their nationalism at bargain basement prices. Manna from heaven for the troubadour. But you cannot do that now. Everything comes with a red warning light, a danger triangle, and a new no-go area. The BBC informs us that comedy writers feel defeated, like sad clowns chased out of the circus by the lions. That celebrated British sense of humour has lost its mojo.
People are judged on whether they drink “weird flavoured coffee”. In my hood, a graffiti rebel sprayed “Fuck off!” on one coffee outlet. The divisions are within family. Even the search for a new house is now determined by how the area voted.
Since the British voted 52-48% in favour of leaving the EU a new kind of schizophrenia has set in. It is like a personality disorder. The British are deeply divided, but the traditional fault lines of class and race are outdated. It could even be said that the face of racism has changed. It was a multi-racial mob of “scum”, as one MP called them, who hunted an Iranian-Kurdish teenager down a lane in South London recently, and kicked his head in. Multi-racial girls joined in too.
In Born Again Britain, half the population hates the other half, and vice versa – or to sum it up in the words of the novelist Rachel Cusk, half the population thinks the other half is “full of shit”. It is not a difference of political opinion, but a complete dismissal, a vengeful spite of the other’s existence almost. As the pound crashed, the war drumming died down, but crazy prejudice easily turns to violence. People are judged on whether they drink “weird flavoured coffee”. The coffee shop has, literally, become a target of scorn. In my hood, a graffiti rebel sprayed “Fuck off!” on one coffee outlet. The Economist describes this ever-widening schism as being between “the open minded and the closed minded”. As a rule of thumb, there is a generation rift, but that is not uniquely British. Western society shares a growing problem with fast ageing societies and different needs. But the vast majority of 18 to 24-year-olds wanted to Remain, whereas the over sixties voted “out”.
But, then again, not all! There is no hard graph to support a clear picture. The divisions are within the family itself, with children not talking to one parent, or the parents not talking to each other. If it is a quest for “identity” or “I want my country back”, it comes with soul searching. Friends are wondering how the other voted? Even the search for a new house is now determined by how the area voted. I know that, because my Britain has suddenly shrunk. And yet, there are suddenly some surprising possibilities. Who would have thought that Stroud, in the twee Cotswolds, would become a bastion for Remain?
Of course people voted for their own good reasons. Brexit is like risotto, and as many an Italian grandma will tell you, “There are as many risotti as there are cooks.” Those who dream of a new Jerusalem in the form of a thoroughly deregulated Big Singapore see no pending doom. Where once grew wheat, Lidl farmers now grow kale, so why not grow gold bars? The “Remoaners” see it as a “historical mistake” and falling off the cliff edge. The iconic Mini Cooper is now made by BMW, so perhaps it is immer gerade aus to the White Cliff of Dover. Symbolism holds sway.
The German supermarkets seem well prepared for these schisms, catering for both Leave and Remain shoppers. There are lanes offering the phony pastoral and those with Iberico ham and Moroccan salted lemons, and with Spanish and Greek themed promotions and even a German beer fest, I was thinking about this on D-Day, when Prime Minister Theresa May formally notified Brussels of Britain’s intention to leave the EU. She said, “Today is the day for the country to come together”.