This August Bank Holiday weekend will mark a 20th anniversary here in Britain. Yes, you guessed it, it is the anniversary of my permanent arrival in London. It was a strange welcome, because barely a day after I landed at Heathrow Airport, Princess Diana died in Paris and the entire city – the entire country – went quiet.
It isn’t fashionable to admit it now – remembering the weekend the Princess of Wales died in a car crash. (Worshiping Diana is considered a bit suburban, not something sophisticated Londoners would ever admit to.) But I was there. I was staying in a rented flat in Covent Garden and I experienced the silence.
It was my first real experience of culture shock. The UK speaks a similar language to the one I spoke in America. Hell, I even grew up in a region of the States called New England. I was well-experienced with gloomy weather and sarcastic people. I had never experienced anything like this before.
I tried to walk down to Buckingham Palace to look at the flowers. Myself and about a million other people. The Pizza Hut on the Strand had a TV set up in the window and people were gathered around it. (Remember, this was still before mobile phones were ubiquitous.) Change the clothing and make the scene black and white and it could have be America in 1963 or 1969.
The view from Trafalgar Square, all the way down the Mall, was a sea of people. But there was no sound. Green trucks with Harrods written on the side gave out teas and biscuits – for free. And people queued up and took one tea, one biscuit each and walked off. I heard a voice next to me. A father spoke quietly to his son. I only heard it – because it was the only noise in the area.
“Do you know why we are here,” he asked? The boy shook his head. “To pay our respects to the princess.”
No one was crying. No one was yelling ‘Hey Doris, we’re over here!’ No pushing, no shoving. I swear to God, even the birds stops singing. It sounds dramatic, but that is what I remember: thousands of people in the centre of a major capital city, all walking towards a palace, and there was no sound.
It’s funny, British commentators often refer to the death of Princess Diana as the time Britain became ‘over-emotional’ and lost its stiff upper lip. But I never knew what ‘stiff upper lip’ meant until that day, walking down the Mall on a sunny day in September, 1997. I experienced the silence. I appreciated ‘the other’.
Over the years, Britain has become my home – my adopted home. I got married, had a son, a parade of cats, had several jobs and bought three houses (not at the same time). No matter where I went, I was almost universally asked the same three questions that point me out as ‘other’.
Are you Canadian?
Now, I have since been told this is because most Canadians resent being asked if they are American, and out of politeness to their Commonwealth cousins most British people defer to the most northern North American country first.
When I give them the correct answer, the second question comes almost immediately.
Do you own a gun?
(To give my hairdresser credit, she followed this up with, ‘Could you own a gun?’ I said I supposed I could, if I lived in America.)
When are you leaving?
Now, to be fair, this is almost never phrased this way. It usually takes the form of, ‘Are you thinking of moving back?’ ‘Aren’t you homesick? etc.
However, since November 2016, I have been asked a new question. A fourth question, that will always mark me out as an outsider in my adopted country.
Did you…ummmm…did you vote for….?
A wave of relief washes over their faces. I wasn’t one of those Americans. (After all, I had already told them I didn’t own a gun).
But it is how I look at and view and experience my home country and my adopted country that marks me out the most as ‘other’ – as foreign – as ‘immigrant’. And that is my emotional reaction.
I know people in the country who hate Margret Thatcher. Really hate her. With a loathing that borders on irrationality. I don’t particularly love Thatcher – but she doesn’t make my blood boil. But that hate extends to the entire Conservative party. You are Tory? You are scum. No debate, no contest. End of.
This extends to the other side of the coin. Caitlin Moran wrote a column in the Saturday Times on the vitriol she received by saying that she regrets voting for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party precisely because he is leading the party in a manner that will not result in Labour winning chief dog-catcher in Sunderland. “Why don’t you just fuck off and vote Tory then!” was one of the more printable reposes she received, she wrote.
I have found myself gently patting someone on the back who was despondent at the Brexit vote with a sigh: ‘You guys voted for a two-year negotiation with the EU. How sweet…Look what my country did.’
But that is just it. Mention Labour or Conservative or Liberal Democrat and I have a few points of view, but really they are just the names of the various political parties in the UK to me.
Mention the name of the 45th president in the USA and the party that put him there and I can already feel the rage starting to simmer. It’s more than just politics – it’s tribal. And that is the problem.
I’ve been a US Democrat my entire life (I only voted Republican once – the Democrats in Massachusetts can be screwy sometimes). But I actually believe in light-touch regulation and feel that the US tax system radically needs to be reformed. But saying those things out loud would align me with a party in America that I feel is sexist, racist and morally bankrupt.
I read a news piece, from a conservative website, during the US election that called the Democratic National Convention a meeting of ‘atheist, Communists who want to smash the skulls of babies.’ (Not sure what tribe that one is).
When you leave your home town or your country, you get to experience the quirks and differences and culture of the ‘other’ and learn what it is to be ‘other’ yourself.
I don’t have a neat and tidy answer to this tribal issue and the stifling of debate and discussion. France recently elected a man from no established political party – Emmanuel Macron is literally the leader of a party he made up a few months ago. Maybe that is the answer. You can’t hate ‘Tory scum’ if there are no Tories. You can sit down to discuss tax reform, but only if the people across the table don’t have an elephant as their symbol.
I woke up at 3:30 am last November, turned on CNN, and felt like someone had punched me in the gut. It was a completely different world from when when it emerged that W would sit in the White House 17 years ago. It was an actually physical feeling, that I still ache from today. I can find no common ground.
When I look at the US, I don’t know if I would wonder in discovering ‘an other’. But for now, I sit on the other side of the Pond, appreciating the silence.