Is their past our prologue?

Reading Jenni Russell’s grim assessment of Britain in the time of Brexit (http://nyti.ms/2eWE4aj) I couldn’t help reflecting on how much the things she describes remind me of when I was a student there in 1992 — 93. Have a look at her piece, excerpted above; mine is below.

27 March 1993, Cambridge

Although being an American in England is probably one of the least foreign cultural experiences an expatriate could find, it is still amazingly different — and, to me, unsettling. The pervasive class consciousness, the social hierarchy, the sense of. “why bother?”, the lack of initiative, the constant “can’t-do” attitudes — these are things that seem to come up nearly every day.

This seems to be a particularly troubled time in England. The Independent newspaper recently included a special five-page section called “What’s gone wrong?” examining a spreading sense of despair in Britain. A recent poll shows that half the people here wish they could emigrate. The monarchy is in trouble (you probably heard); less than 3 percent of the people here attend the Church of England regularly and there was a deeply bitter falling out over women priests (favorite headline: “Vicars In Knickers”); the pound is in the tank and 80 percent of the voters think John Major is a lousy prime minister.

From Martin Jacques’ column in the Sunday Times of 28 Feb 93: “One is loath to make apocalyptic judgments, but it would seem that, at the beginning of the 1990s, Britain is experiencing a crisis of historic proportions … we tend to ignore it because the decline has been borne so stoically. There has been nothing like the trauma that the Americans experienced in Vietnam, or the French in Algeria, or the Russians with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this sense of reserve should not be allowed to conceal the agony or disorientation of the experience … We have never found a way of displaying our grief, of drawing a line, of making a new start. We remain a country that has lost its past and never found a future…. The problem is that we have never learnt how to make a fundamental change. We are too steeped in continuity. We are too hierarchal and deferential, a society which has not engendered sufficient points of authority, creativity, energy and initiative. Unless we find some way of tackling this legacy, then we will continue to decline as an increasingly fraught and unhappy society.”

A columnist quoted in the Guardian last week. used a different approach to make a similar point: “The England cricket team — failing, morally shifty, globally insignificant, distracted by irrelevant attention to demeanor, run by discredited leaders insolently continuing in office — may not be a credit to the nation, but is a perfect reflection of it.” Yet another recent column in the Independent talked of young people who have left the country, noting “Most of them left because Britain had worn them down with its depressing outlook and warped priorities.” There have been separate magazine covers this year on the failure of Britain’s industrial estate and on why the monarchy must end.

The final words of the editorial in the Independent package about what’s wrong: “If we feel utter despair, it is because we see no new promise. All our gods have failed.”

Brits are known to be naturally reserved and emotionally cool; imagine what they are like with their social system crashing in around them. We have made a lot of good friends here, many of whom I hope will be friends for the rest of my life. Not a one of them is British.

Much of this is probably exacerbated by living in Cambridge, a place that takes itself very seriously, indeed. One is constantly reminded that this was the university where Newton figured out gravity, where the atom was split and the double helix identified. At the very first lecture at Scott Polar, our course director told us “Cambridge is an institution that has been here for 700 years, and it will not change for you.” (He also said “If you are not a very different person in June than you are now, then we shall have failed you.” He could hardly have guessed how far I would come…)

Undergrads here get automatic overdraft protection on their bank accounts; the colleges employ. women to clean up after them, known as “bedders” (for “bed-makers”); Cambridge awards a BA degree after three years (each just 24 weeks long) AND an automatic masters (MA) degree accrues two years after graduation. That’s right: an MA from Cambridge means nothing, but don’t tell these people that. They run the country.

There are 22 people in the cabinet in London; 16 of them are “Oxbridge,” that is, graduates either of Oxford or Cambridge. (Mostly Cambridge, since you asked.) The stain of privilege is everywhere here.

Watching (and experiencing) all this has reinforced for me how potent a force culture is. It makes me acutely aware of how strong a sense of community I feel in Anchorage, and how powerfully I identify with the American virtues of egalitarianism, opportunity and initiative. During the Clinton inaugural, the papers here were full of snide commentaries about what a vulgar, show-biz spectacle it was, but one writer (a Brit, Neal Ascherson) seemed to see through that. He said something to the effect that “while all public ceremonies in the US are fertility rites, in Britain they are all ancestor worship.” That seems very true to me: for all our rambunctious (yes, and sometimes vulgar) energy, the US still looks forward. Over here, they are always looking back.

The sense of hierarchy, class consciousness and tradition seems suffocating.

It damn sure suffocates me.

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