Rule Britannia


Eventually, and more than three months behind schedule, I will write a little series called Forgotten Cities, in which I will try to remember things I meant to say about places I visited this summer that I foolishly never wrote a single word about (I'm looking at you, Copenhagen). Among those places was London, where I saw plays and visited museums and drank tea and only had one significant escalator-related setback. A great success, in other words.

I had come from Scotland where last-minute anti-Brexit campaigning was in full swing. The day of the vote, I didn't think much about it. I was busy seeing Kensington Palace and finding my way to the theatre in a downpour. The next morning, though, seeing as how I was actually in the UK, it seemed only polite to look up the result. I did it for form's sake, really; I assumed I already knew the answer. First, I saw the polling numbers, which I thought must not be THE polling numbers, but were perhaps from some old telephone survey. Then I saw in the Times that David Cameron had resigned.  What?  WHAT?  I had only been asleep eight hours and in the meantime it seemed the whole world had gone topsy turvy.

When I went downstairs, my hostess was literally pale with shock. No one she knew had voted to leave.  It seemed that no one who anyone knew had voted to leave. 

Later that evening, I was bound for the Netherlands.  I got a train from Liverpool Street and made my way to the port at Harwich where I boarded an overnight ferry. The train journey was about and hour and a half long.  Well outside the city, perhaps twenty minutes from the coast, a white-haired couple boarded.  She was in a decidedly British melange of mismatched floral prints, he in a sports jacket. I was relieved to see them. I had been quite nervous that I was in the wrong half of the train that was soon destined to split and go in two different directions (splitting trains always cause me a great deal of anxiety, even, it seems, in countries where instructions are given in my native tongue). This couple looked like they probably knew a thing or two about splitting trains. I asked; they reassured.  We chatted a little. It seemed that they had a house in the Netherlands and made the journey back and forth across the sea with some frequency.

As we drew nearer to our destination, the lady said, jokingly, half to her husband, half to me, "We'll have to see how they treat us now that we're not European anymore."   "Isn't is strange?" I said. I had been having conversations such as this with astonished people all day, so I thought I knew my lines.  "We are British," she said.  "We always were. We always will be."  She went on to say that a truck had driven down the main street of their town that afternoon, blaring "Rule Britannia."  Just as I was formulating a remark on how these moments of nationalistic fervor can be troubling, she continued, "It was lovely." Oh, I thought.  Oh. We are not having the conversation I thought we were  having. 

She sang the opening line, "Rule, Britannia!  Britannia rule the waves!" then paused. "And we will be there again," she said. "This is the first step."

I said nothing, but it was a moment of revelation for me.  OH. This is what is happening at home, I thought. I get it. Everyone I know thinks Donald Trump could never be president that, in fact, he is somewhere on the spectrum from incoherent buffoon to dangerous lunatic.  But, somewhere, in a tidy house in the countryside is a pleasant woman I've never met, wearing a clashing outfit, and dreaming of a Golden Age of America that will never come again and that, indeed, never really existed. It was a time when men were men and women knew their place and white supremacy was unquestioned. To that lady, 2016 is a bewildering, disordered nightmare.  That is the lady who votes for Trump. 

I felt sorry for her, actually, that lady who'd lost pace with history.

That was June.