I am determined that this blog will be positive, and although a sounding board and a place to exercise my (current) right to free speech, and right to be critical of others, I will try to maintain that in a positive light. But I believe, as a living breathing human being I must be allowed to be constructively critical about the world around me and the word as I see and live it. Perhaps the last couple of posts hinted towards the negative side, perhaps written by a grumbling expat who has a fairly low opinion of the UK and a high opinion of himself having managed to escape his drudgery and travel and work in exotic locations. But they were not; they were merely honest observations and comment on my recent interactions and experiences in the UK. And also I travel and work in some far from exotic locations. My recent interactions and observations here in Tanzania make those of the UK pale into insignificance. I might share them once I have calmed down a bit.
I love the UK, truly I do, I love England, I love Wales, I’ve quite enjoyed the bits of Scotland that I have seen, and though I have not been to northern Ireland yet, I believe it is lovely. Generally as a collection of small countries at the western edge of Europe I love it.
It was where I was born, where I spent the first 30 years of my life, where I had my first kiss, and where my family and friends live. It’s where I buy my underpants and my Marmite and my beloved Yorkshire Gold tea. And as long as I am alive and not living in the UK I will always have set aside a large part of my heart for her. That doesn’t mean to say that I’m not incredibly disappointed, frustrated or occasionally embarrassed by her either.
And I do love England, I really do, but I love England in a similar way to the way I love Fish and Chips.
I loved the build-up to a visit, more often than not on a Friday night. All day spent at school, stomach rumbling and gurgling at the thought of the evening’s oily, fatty culinary feast. There were always arguments at break over the “best chippy in town”, Carleton Park fisheries being my preferred choice although everyone knew that the best chippy in town was at the bottom of Gillygate, but that was miles away. The sight of the glow through the steamed up windows as you eagerly approached; the door propped open to let out the stream, the delightful smell of bubbling beef dripping (as this is in Yorkshire) filling the night air. The relief when your part of the queue finally inched its way into the warm haven to escape from the cold.
The funny signs written in pink highlighter pen attached to the pristine white tiled walls announcing the sale of mystical items that I was never allowed to sample, curry sauce and, mushy peas, though I was allowed the luxury of dandelion and burdock. The huge stainless steel counter, the “do not touch” hot glass display that we would of course have dares over who could touch it for the longest time whilst we crunched about on the salty floor. The giggling over the phallus like sausages, and the wonder of who actually ate them, there was always four ready prepared, sat like a bizarre battered orgy in all their oily glory. The miraculous transformation of limp white fish doused in runny grey liquid into a crispy and fluffy golden brown capsule of love. The freebies, the scraps (or bits as they were also known) “Do you want scraps with your fish love?” “Absolutely, they’re free and lovely!” The long drive home with the heat from the package warming my knees, the car filling with the smell of vinegar and cholesterol. The race to unwrap the food, like Christmas but a bit greasier, and with rubbish wrapping paper.
Transferred onto a plate (we weren’t posh, it was just easier to eat off a plate in front of the tele) lavishly buttered white bread-bun to make the all-important chip-butty (which really shouldn’t work as it is just carbohydrates inside other carbohydrates separated by a bit of fat, but, oh, does it work.) Chips soggy with vinegar, fish crispy outside, melt in the mouth inner, and a glass of Dandelion and Burdock to cut through the grease.
Resplendent we would recline, my dad and me, bellies full, empty plates at our sides, in time to watch the latest goings on of the Rocket-man or Flash Gordon or Buster Keaton on BBC2 at ten past six (turning over after the news headlines on BBC1 of course). Happy days, happy memories.
But my mind is clouded with nostalgia, or maybe my constitution has changed. I still get a buzz of excitement when I walk into a chippy, I think they must (or at least the few that seem to be remaining) be one of the most consistent aspects of British Life. Fish and Chip shops today look exactly the same, and provide exactly the same products as they did 30 (and many more) years ago. I still love the thrill of peeling away the newspaper and grabbing the first chip before decanting onto a plate.
But I’m afraid, and this is the essence of the story, I could barely finish a Fish supper these days, and that’s even without the chip-butty. It must be 10 years since I last tried. A plate full of fish and chips just leaves me bloated and greasy and a little bit nauseous. And every time I have gone through the process, I love every bit of it up until about the third mouthful and then it is just a labour of love to complete the consumption transaction. I always feel a little disappointed, glad for the experience and the memories, but saddened that my picture-postcard memory of Fish and Chips is somehow different to my current experience and wonder how this has happened without my knowledge. I always think the same thing. Fish and Chips, my old favourite, my old friend, perhaps it would have better if I’d had a smaller portion.
And how does that relate to my apparent negativity of England? Well it doesn’t really; I don’t leave England feeling all greasy and nauseous. But I do leave sometimes a little saddened that my picture-postcard image is now fading, the things I took for granted are no longer there, the fond memories I hold no longer ring true, and that maybe I have changed, or maybe England has changed whilst I was away without anyone realising. And although I am always very excited about every trip I take back. I always leave thinking a smaller portion might have been better.