The thing about Britain

BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square.
BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in London’s Trafalgar Square.

TOWARDS the end of my second year working for United News and Media, the staff received news that our company was in the final stages of broad economic reforms that would cut right through the Farming Press office at Ipswich.

Signs of this began when an all-staff memorandum indicated that only one bottle of wine was permitted at business lunches, a message met with glee from people like us who worked at the fringes of this multinational company and had no idea we could even put wine on the company tab!

Perhaps it was our new-found business lunch rights that finally tipped the company into financial free-fall? I doubt it, because it turned out the mechanics of change were underway years before my position was ever advertised.

By the end of 1997 the writing was on the wall. With no new employees since I’d started, I was faced with being ‘last on, first off’. So I took stock, decided it was time, for many reasons, to return to Australia, and accepted an offer of voluntary redundancy.

Having lived in a permanent state of debt for five years, my payout would be enough to buy a one-way ticket home and pay off my credit card. It was an easy decision to make.

NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.
NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.

Being part of a folding company was the last in a long list of eye-opening experiences of living in Great Britain’s economy.

The late Baroness Thatcher made no secret of not believing in society, which seemed to stand in the way of her penchant for the free market.

Having landed first in Yorkshire and then South London, I experienced life first-hand in territories where Thatcherism had left its mark on formerly cohesive and supportive communities.

I would later say, with regularity, that everything I learnt about economics and politics I learnt from living in Britain, simply because I joined the ranks of everyday people trying to earn a living in the immediate post-Thatcher years.

Here are some other observations about Britain in the 1990s:-

No-one could afford a day out at the beach. In Australia we call this a human right, but in England day-trippers were faced with whopping public transport costs. Few people I knew could afford cars, but a one way train ticket for the short trip to London from Ipswich was well over twenty pounds for one person. This was solely due to the privatisation of every possible segment of the railways – one company owned the carriage, another the rails, another the station, and they all wanted to profit from ticket sales. A similar journey in Australia still costs far less than half that, twenty years later.

When buying an electrical appliance, the cable cost extra. What better way to gouge a bit of extra profit than to make the mains cable of most electrical appliances a separate item the customer must buy to use the equipment?

The country was full of criminals. Speaking as a citizen of the nation invaded to set up the penal colony of New South Wales, I have to say the common sight of colleagues being marched out of the office by a pair of police officers says a lot about the British criminal disposition as opposed to the Australian. These were never ‘bad’ people, they were just trying to keep their family afloat in the economy. Every single company I worked for contained employees who were on the take, and I don’t just mean the toilet paper.

Many people were closeted. Perhaps it’s a case of like attracting like, but most men I became friends with in England turned out to be gay. From the married father of two to the tough-as-nails London busker, they all came tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out. It was an eye opener about the choices faced by the British male under the infamous Section 28 of Britain’s Local Government Act, which embedded disapproval of gay lifestyle and relationships into the country’s law. For a nation which had decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, this was a mean-spirited regulation which was seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

British food was crap. When you think about the proximity of Britain to the fresh produce of continental Europe, the lack of affordable nutritious food was a terrible side effect of euro-phobia and economic rationalism, and an indictment on the ‘Grocer’s Daughter’ who had contributed to the scarcity. The only ‘fresh’ fruit and veg I saw in my first month were lumpy potatoes, mouldy onions, and bunches of silverbeet, withered and pricey. Most people I knew ate everything out of tins, and ‘boil in the bag’ meals were the norm.

You could still sense the war. People would still queue uncomplainingly for things that were freely available in other western nations. Avoidable diseases were still common in England’s north, and childhood mortality was higher than average.

The tenant paid the council rates, not the landlord. Thatcher’s infamous poll tax was well and truly in place when I became a renter in London, and my Yorkshire flatmates showed me the clever ways their parents taught them to avoid the payment as long as was possible. Often, it was the catalyst for moving house.

No-one answered their front door. Due to avoiding paying the poll tax (see above) and the TV licensing charges (see below), I was always under strict instructions from every flatmate I ever had to never open the door to a knocking visitor in case it was someone coming to collect taxes. I was once fooled by the TV license man when he pretended he was delivering a parcel to the first floor flat I shared in Lewisham. He launched himself through the front door into the foyer, and I had to pretend I was a visiting friend who had no idea if the flat had a television or not. Luckily I had some acting training under my belt.

MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like scanner.
MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like ‘scanner’.

It cost a lot to watch the tele. A hefty annual television license fee comes with the pleasure of tuning in to the BBC, oh, and all the other channels who would appear to be doing quite well already with all the advertising revenue they’re getting from the endless commercials, of course. The jury is still out on whether the mysterious vans driving around Britain’s streets are capable of telling who is receiving a TV signal are real, or some kind of psychological warfare. It’s all very Doctor Who. Another reason to avoid answering the front door (see above).

This list is cursory and might seem glib. But it’s also true. I will always remember many colleagues in Britain who worked long hours for the same very low rate of pay I was on, only they had mouths to feed and backs to clothe. I don’t know how they did it, but most worked with a ready smile and by doing without luxuries that most people in Australia take completely for granted.

But I also recall how few of them thought it was worth getting off their backsides on election day and voting.

By May Day 1997 Tony Blair seemed determined to sweep away two decades of Thatcherism, convincing the nation of the merits of ‘New Labor’. I can remember where I was when I heard the news – working on location in the Yorkshire Dales. Never had I experienced such a sense of palpable hope and imminent change amongst the British as I did across that summer. Princess Diana’s death knocked most of that energy out of the British only a few short months later, but I witnessed the brief smile on the nation’s face.

Ever since I returned home I have been vocal about the P-word. Privatisation has not spread its destructive fingers into every Australian industry, yet. I know what an impact it will have on that day trip to the beach if public transport is ever extensively privatised in a nation where long distances are the norm.

I will be eternally grateful for the support I received to travel overseas in the first place, but ‘travel’ is a great distraction. Living and working in another country, for more than a stint fruit picking, is what I call an education.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The thing about Britain”

  1. Thanks for the glimpse at the underbelly of privatization. Crass capitalism in practice may not be quite as life-negating as communism, but there are no doubt many damaging side effects.

    1. The first casualty in Britain, as I saw it, was morale. It’s a terrible thing to see communities with very little of it, where the most affordable luxuries are booze and cigs.

  2. Oh dear, you’re making my home country sound like something out of the Dark Ages. The eighties were a terrible time though and I agree morale was very low, and the country hugely divided, under Thatcher, though the Brits are an astonishingly stoic lot, as you know. Things have changed a tad since then – our trains may be pricey but they are remarkably efficient, and London Transport is pretty miraculous when you think of the millions travelling on it every day. The food’s a lot better too, though I can’t argue with your thoughts on privatisation.

    1. It might seem like a fine point, but I did write my observations in the past tense. It’s 15 years since I lived in the UK and I know plenty must have changed in that time. Anyway, Patsy, you can’t talk! Readers should check-out Patsy’s book about Australia, The Worst Country in the World just click on her gravatar to find out how to get hold of a copy, it’s a fascinating observation on this country. If you think you know everything there is to know about our history, read it, because I’ll bet it teaches you plenty you don’t!

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