Being English abroad, 2019

My weekend was mostly spent on the French side of border country, experiencing serial incidents of Englishness.


On Saturday we went to a lake and swam. There was a French guy who seemed to be staring at me while I changed out of my swimming trunks. I was doing this under a towel, a manoeuvre which feels very English and always makes me think of cheeky Blackpool seaside postcards. (The French have no word for manoeuvre, of course¹.)

The French guy was actually staring at a cricket, which had been sitting on his knee for several minutes. He explained that he had become emotionally attached to it. Though not physically, since it flew away as soon as he mentioned Boris Johnson.

From 2016 onward, travel abroad for work or pleasure has always involved fielding questions about Brexit, but since the blonde liar succeeded in his childhood wet dream, the questions have become more intense, and sadder.

The Frenchman and his friend both had better English than my French (though none of us were very good). They worked up in the hills above the lake and I think were older than me so officially count as “mature”.

Both were deeply regretful that we Brits, and especially the English, had chosen to weaken ourselves and Europe at a time when democracies need to stand together, and when we face existential challenges – especially the climate crisis – which require transnational action. They also felt that Europe needs an army, because, as they put it, without an army you are not free. They saw the loss of the military strength of the UK from the EU as a major blow. I know the “EU army” trope disturbs and angers many (e.g. VoteLeave and Vladimir Putin) and I don’t know how representative these guys were anyway, but an external view is always interesting. Most of the non-UK people I have spoken to about Brexit have been scientists, so this was a different take from that perspective, too.

The two Frenchmen also expressed faith in the UK as a strong country that would emerge somehow from adversity. I would like to agree, and if we were united I would. But the current division makes us weak, and no blustery Etonian mediocrity is going to “unite” us. The 50% or so of us who believe our future lies with our European neighbours will not rally behind him or his orange friend from across the Atlantic.

If we leave at halloween it will just be the next stage in decades of division and hardship which I can’t see ending well. But I also don’t see how staying in the EU can work if we really have something like 50% of the population implacably opposed. Since Cameron, the previous Etonian mediocrity, infected us with his party’s disease, things look bad.

Enough of this. Back to the cricket. Not the one on the guy’s knee, but the one coming intermittently over mobile data roaming from Headingly. On Sunday I was at a different lake. The picture above was taken moments after Jack Leach’s marvellous single run, and Ben Stokes’ miracle. For the second time this year, the England (and Wales) team has redeemed itself, with a generous helping of luck, but a lot of determination and skill too. And an English guy on a French beach gave a silent¹¹ cheer and jumped for joy.

I’m not giving up yet, neither.

¹ A reference to a happier time when people had to make stuff up if they wanted the president of the USA to look stupid.

¹¹ Still English, you see.

About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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