Forget the headline news from London. To feel the pulse of a nation, you need to explore the provinces. After waiting in line for three hours to get through the United Kingdom Border Agency’s passport control at Heathrow Airport recently, a group of Americans started complaining rather loudly - at which point extra police were drafted. The following day, questions were asked in the House of Commons.
We need more Americans because the whole country is effectively stuck in a queue, and someone should be shouting about it.
Phone calls to government departments go unanswered, roads are closed or restricted because of repairs that take weeks, if not months. Even the economy is going nowhere.
In the fifth-floor restaurant of Beale’s department store in Bournemouth on the sleepy south coast, we queue patiently for egg sandwiches, omelets and cappuccinos while the charming but totally disorganized staff behind the counter flit from one half-completed task to another like forgetful bees, leaving their customers to ponder the futility of life or contemplate infinity. There’s enough time for it.
We exchange raised eyebrows and deep sighs, shake our heads and shuffle our feet, but no one bothers to speak. The body language says it all. The country is going - or indeed, has already gone - to the dogs, and there’s probably nothing we can do about it.
It wasn’t always like this. In Victorian times, Bournemouth was where the rich and famous came to relax or recuperate. According to “Sydenham’s Guide” of 1885, its environment was “of incalculable value to those whom disease, excitement or fatigue place beyond the reach of satisfactory medical treatment in their home.”
Sucked in by the hype, no doubt, Robert Louis Stevenson dragged his consumption-riddled body here in 1884 and promptly dashed off “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Aubrey Beardsley, suffering from the same complaint (there was a lot of it about), arrived in 1896 and rallied sufficiently to sketch 50 famous Art Nouveau drawings in a small guesthouse just off the main square. Numerous European royals followed - most of whom, like Queen Sophia Wilhelmina and King Oscar II, you’ve probably never heard of, though, more interestingly, the Prince of Wales built a hotel for his mistress, Lillie Langtree, here in 1877.
Anyhow, name-dropping apart, the point is, none of them ever queued for a baguette.
No, sir, they would have been waited on by bobbing, frilly-capped servants in Stewart’s, “the first-class hotel patronized by leading members of the aristocracy” before sauntering along Invalids Walk in the Pleasure Gardens or sniffing the balmy air on the prom.
What Queen Sophia would have made of today’s gay bars and seedy sex shops that pepper Bournemouth’s western border, or the string of ratty takeaways, nail salons and tattoo studios to the east, I’m not so sure, but in her day, these areas were home to cabinetmakers, gilders and bell-hangers who were clearly more concerned about manufacturing than their modern, hedonistic counterparts.
Sure, the world has moved on, as indeed it had to. After all, in spite of their refined taste and delicate sensibilities, the smartly dressed patrons of yesteryear were the same people who scrapped welfare benefits completely and sent the unemployed to workhouses. We also have more than 10 times the number of people living in the town now, many of them from abroad, so we’re bound to get in one other’s way.
In short, there’s a new social order, but in Bournemouth, as in England as a whole, we don’t understand it. We were unprepared, not just for globalization, but for every step along the way, from greater democracy and increasing affluence through various technological revolutions to the awesome effects of consumer power. It was alien, it was too fast and too American, for heaven’s sake.
It’s as though the rural characters in a Thomas Hardy novel had been suddenly asked to organize research and development for General Motors. It’s all too much, and we’re angry and confused. That’s why we’ve replaced deference with belligerence and ended up with a nation of untrained and unenthusiastic amateurs. We still celebrate the homegrown and homemade, but can we really plug the balance of payments with Cheddar cheese and a few Savile Row suits? Deep down, I suspect, a lot of English people would be happier chopping wood than working on an assembly line. Don’t get me wrong; we’re as good at pomp and pageantry as ever, but for everything else, you’ll have to join a queue.
To be honest though, I’ve grown accustomed to it and, like many of my contemporaries, accept the fact that pointless indolence is what we English do best. There’s nothing thrusting, go-getting, goal-driven or dynamic around here. Everything’s utterly frightful, but as long as the coffee eventually arrives, and there’s a comfy chair near the window, does it really matter? Who needs another TV or an extra holiday? Frankly, my dear, it’s not worth the effort.
So maybe muddling through is the best option after all. Since we don’t crave economic success, we’ll make the most of failure.
The alternative is to look west. Unless we, the silent sandwich eaters, take our cue from the Airport Americans who dared to demand better, who knows what apocalyptic horrors will visit us? In the meantime, though, we’re biding our time. If we wait long enough, something’s bound to turn up.
Rodger Witt is former editor of Sailing Today.