This reader of the Dish echoes my grandmother’s fears and anxieties (she is from England but lives in America):
I loved your essay on your return to Britain after so long an absence. But I found it wistfully influenced by American optimism. I have had a different experience going back to England. I should admit up front that I am American but lived there for a decade and am married to a Brit. What I think that you got completely wrong was the sense of settled, accepted multiculturalism. Sure, in London you encounter many cultures mixing like you get in other great melting pot cities like New York. However, outside of London there is paranoia and resentment over that multiculturalism.
My husband’s family are almost all in Devon and Cornwall. We visited them last year, and we also visited friends in London and in the North of England. We found that outside of London our family, our friends, the locals at the pub, or the random person you have a conversation with at the grocery store are all under the impression that England is losing its identity as a result of massive numbers of immigrants. In Devon and Cornwall, I did not see a single non-white, non-English looking person the entire two weeks we were there. This is not hyperbole. Outside of London in general, I almost never saw anyone who wasn’t white, yet they have the panicked impression that they are being taken over from within.
There were many conversations among the people we encountered about the immigrant problem the country is having. It gets brought up unprompted and seems to be weighing heavily on their minds. They felt that they were all coming to England because they are “softer” than most other countries in the world and give out the most generous benefits. All immigrants were coming there to sponge off their generosity and they were taking over (despite none living anywhere near them). I pointed out that in America, immigration is what keeps the country a vibrant, innovative nation and the immigrants on the whole come there to build a better life so they are hard working and actually improve our economy. Countries with aging populations who don’t have good immigration have looming economic problems as a result of not being more inclusive.
They would have none of this American nonsense. Financial benefits (which they didn’t believe anyway) would be secondary to the cultural crisis being caused by immigrants who refuse to give up their old culture and become British. They believe they refuse to fit in and that they brought crime to the areas they live in. So, if they don’t ever actually see any immigrants down in Devon and Cornwall, where do they get these very strong, unbending opinions about them? My only conclusion is from the tabloid newspapers
Then we spent time in London and reveled in the diversity and the sense that no matter where you were from, you could be a Londoner. London was far more diverse than Los Angeles (where I now live) and all the more vibrant and interesting for it.
I’m glad you really enjoyed your visit and I agree that the North/South divide seems to have softened and to some extent the class divide has as well. Accents aren’t used against you quite as much (although an American accent will still get you down-graded in standing). I love so many of the same things that you do about the gentleness and world-weary wisdom of the place. Now that you can go back whenever you like, perhaps the rose-tinted glasses will come off a little more or subsequent trips, although that would be a shame.