The News Where You Are
The arguments around the cancellation of the HS2 link from Birmingham to Manchester, which came on top of the previous news that the links to Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford were no longer part of the plan either, reminded me of what it is like not living in London. If you have never experienced dwelling beyond the circle of the M25, it can be very difficult to understand how frustrating it can be, and how extraordinarily patronising the people who live and work in places where you can use an Oyster Card often are towards those who cannot.
I grew up in Caterham in Surrey, where I lived, for the sake of neatness, for twenty-five years. I then spent four years in Somerset, seven in Edinburgh, six in Leicestershire and nine in Yorkshire – a total of twenty-six years – before returning to London in 2017. Allowing for rounding errors, therefore, 45% of my life has been lived away from the South East and 55% has been lived here, which I think qualifies me to comment on the pros and cons of the political and economic dominance of the area with a reasonable degree of experience.
The latest book I have been reading is called ‘How Britain Ends’ by the journalist and broadcaster Gavin Esler. Although it was only published in 2021, it is nevertheless already significantly out of date, for example when he writes about Queen Elizabeth II still being alive, Boris Johnson being the Prime Minister and Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister in Scotland. Liz Truss, thank goodness, was hardly mentioned and Rishi Sunak not at all – a reminder of how quickly things can change.
Esler provides an interesting analysis of the growth of English nationalism, often as a consequence of an extended period of particularly poor government and bad decisions. He is contemptuous of Brexit and Johnson, which I enjoyed as confirmation bias of my own views, but the style of the book is rather repetitive and I think it could usefully have been about half the length it was, not least if it had been edited more effectively.
There was, however, plenty to pique my interest. For example, when highlighting the frustrations that British exceptionalism – the oft-expressed sentiment that we are the best in the world at almost everything, and the world would be a much better place if only everyone else on the planet recognised and acknowledged how great we are – Esler quotes George Mikes in his book ‘How to be a Brit’, who wrote: ‘It has still never occurred to one single Englishman that not everybody would regard it as a step up, as promotion, to become English.’
Esler makes the point that England is not exceptional in its belief in its own exceptionalism, but in reality it is quite like everywhere else in that it is a work in progress, a nation of constant reinvention and full of contradictions in which, unfortunately, the past is misremembered and regurgitated as heroic myth. This can be harmless enough. But nostalgic pessimism, pining for the past, has the habit of blocking out rational consideration of the present and therefore the realities of the future. The theme song to Dad's Army, written in 1968 and not, as you might think, during the Second World War, was right. Old England isn't done. It has been engaged upon a reinvention of Englishness, and that has created a new and at times problematic attachment to national – that is, English – symbols and emblems.
He goes on to say that in 2020 Boris Johnson promised to ‘level up’ Britain, using HS2 as a key instrument for doing so, pointing out that ‘levelling up’ is a handy little phrase, but without the burden of having any clear meaning – which, for example, included a one-day meeting in February 2020 of the UK cabinet in Sunderland. It was one of those photogenic stunts at which Mr Johnson excelled, although the symbolism was marred by the reality. The then chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, tweeted about his excitement at visiting ‘North England’, a phrase no one in the north of England – or anywhere else for that matter – would ever use about their geographical location.
We are told that the 1801 census showed some 54 per cent of the UK population living in England. (Ireland was excluded from that census.) By 1871, England made up 70 per cent of the population of the UK and in 2011 the figure was 84 per cent. By contrast, the population of Scotland made up 8.4 per cent of the total and that of Wales was just 4.2 per cent. By 2011, the 8.8 million people in Greater London made up 13 per cent of the total UK population – more than the population of Scotland and Wales combined. In 2020, the World Urbanisation Project estimated London’s population at 9.3 million. It is the biggest city in the European Union, twice the size of its nearest rival, Berlin, and almost 10 times as big as England’s second city, Birmingham. No wonder, perhaps, that so much gravitates towards it.
If you have never lived outside London, what follows will mean little or nothing to you. If you have, particularly if you have ever lived in Scotland, I am fairly sure you will enjoy it. There is a rude word at the end, but I think it is worth the minor upset this might cause to revel in the driest of dry humour that James Robertson’s poem ‘The News Where You Are’ brings. I have included the YouTube link as well because it is one of those pieces that needs to be read out loud, particularly by its author.
‘That's all from us. Now it's time for the news where you are. The news where you are comes after the news where we are. The news where we are is the news. It comes first. The news where you are is the news where you are. It comes after. We do not have the news where you are. The news where you are may be news to you, but it is not news to us. The news may be international, national or regional. The news where we are may be international news. The news where you are is never international news. Where you are is not international. The news where you are comes after the international and national news. The news where you are may be national news or regional news. However, national news where you are is not national news where we are. It is the news where you are. If the news where you are is national news, it is only national where you are. The news where we are is national wherever you are.
On Saturdays, there is no news where you are after the news where we are. In fact, there is no news where you are on Saturdays. Any news there is, is not where you are. It is where we are. If there is news where you are, but not where we are, it will wait until Sunday. After the news where you are comes the weather. The weather where you are is not the national weather. The weather where you are comes after the news where you are, and after the weather where you are comes the national weather. Do not confuse the national weather with the weather where you are. The weather where you are comes first, but is lesser weather than the national weather. Extreme weather is news. However, weather that is more extreme where you are than where we are is not news. Weather that is extreme where we are is news, even if extreme weather where we are is only average weather where you are. On average, weather where you are is more extreme than weather where we are. Tough sh*t. Good night.’