“The whole object of travel,” wrote Chesterton in The Riddle of the Ivy, “is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land”.
The parochialism of the British newspapers seemed laughable after six months away. They wrote as if the nation’s power and influence were unchanged since 1860, as if it were in a Cold War with the European Union, whose member states were all virtually communist, and as if the entire population of every country outside the OECD were determined to come to Britain to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance, and would if the borders were not kept on a war footing. I had forgotten all that.
I had forgotten, too, that everything here always seems to be broken. The toilet at the airport did not flush; no water came out of the taps, no air came out of the hand dryers. The trains were delayed, as they usually are; several were cancelled, as ever. Every third or fourth shop on the high street had a fading To Let sign in the window. Some big names had gone bust while I had been away. Pawnbrokers were back, although they were not called that anymore.
I got cash from an ATM and stared at it for a moment, nonplussed. Sterling looked like something from a museum: so big, so thick, so conservative in design. No one else’s currency is like that.
It was a five hour journey on four trains to get up north to see my family. Six months earlier, I would never have contemplated it straight after an overnight flight. But it no longer seemed such a big undertaking. In Australia, in New Zealand, in the States, I had routinely spent seven or eight hours on a bus, sometimes day after day. My sense of scale had changed.
For a time, I saw home as a tourist sees it. I noticed the black cabs and red buses; the unarmed policemen; the bluebell woods and the drizzly skies; the thatched cottages and cricket greens; and, less happily, the casual destruction of century-old buildings to make way for disposable office blocks.
The gratuitous thank yous and sorrys seemed quaint now; and it was alarming to see – underneath the civility – a constantly simmering aggression. There is the baffling hostility from shopkeepers who need your custom to stay in business, the tuts and muttered insults in the supermarket aisle if your trolley crosses somebody’s path, the furious faces of the commuting crowd, the people who leap from their cars at the lights and scream obscenities at some other driver, and the virtual certainty of seeing a serious fight if you go out for the evening.
What was wrong with everyone, I wondered. Where was their sense of proportion? Why did they let themselves get so angry over so little? How could someone end up in intensive care because he, or the other guy, spilled a drink?
Seemingly I had set foot on a foreign land.
© Richard Senior 2015