I was listening to a phone-in on Radio Five last week that was discussing the merits of a common retirement fantasy: emigrating to live abroad. Although many of the people calling in seemed to be retirees, the show wasn’t aimed exclusively at them, but I soon tired of smug pensioners calling in from Europe to tell us how wonderful life was in France, Spain, Portugal, wherever. “Good. Effing well stay there”, I barked at the radio. “And don’t come running back here when you need our Health Service”, I added, only to be told by caller after caller that European health care is so much better than our own.
As far as I am concerned, Jeremy Clarkson summed up everything about emigrating that I could possibly want to say:
“In the whole of human history, nobody has ever woken up and thought, ‘I know, I have a wonderful family, lots of money, a great job, and an active social life. I shall therefore move to Australia.’
Australia is where you go when you’ve made a mess of everything. That’s why the 1.3million Brits who live there are known as whingeing Poms. Because they’re all failures.
Another popular destination is Spain, which these days is home to 761,000 Brits.
Are they all brain surgeons? Inventors? Did Sir Christopher Cockerell invent the hovercraft and then move to Porto Banus? No. Spain is where you go when you’ve sold your taxi.”
There are countries in the world that I love visiting and, at the top of the list, is the USA. I’ve been there many times and studied for a year in South Carolina (I know, being a student isn’t actually real life.) But one of my strongest memories of America is of being on a California fly drive holiday and arriving at a hotel after another long day filled with sunshine and open roads. As I settled down for the evening, I put the TV on to the public service station to see they were showing an episode of Morse. It was actually the final episode, The Remorseful Day, and the scene I’d tuned in to had Morse sitting with Lewis, enjoying a pint in an Oxford beer garden as the sun set over the Thames Valley. I instantly was washed over by a feeling of sentimental homesickness, way, way stronger than anything I’d ever experienced before. I suddenly realised, in that single moment, that Britain was always going to be the place for me.
I’ve never been able to forget that time and place and emotion. It was stronger than I can say and has stuck with me over the years. Much as I love America, I’ll not be emigrating there or anywhere else. Okay, I might decide to spend winters, or January to March at least, on an extended holiday somewhere a bit more sunny and warm, but that’s about as far as it (or I) goes.
As the ‘phone-in went on, people who had emigrated and then returned to the UK started to call in with their side of the story. When asked why they’d come back and what they’d missed about Britain, many could only state that it was “the culture”. This was often a much bigger pull than the “family and friends” they’d left behind, but many couldn’t put their finger on what exactly they meant by stating what it was about the “culture” that they missed. I knew what they were getting at though. Culture isn’t a single thing, or a collection of many single things. It’s a blend. If a country could have an emotion then it would be expressed as its culture. And Britain’s culture is, I think, undeniably deep. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Billy Britain saying we’re superior to everyone else, it’s just that our heritage and history is something worth acknowledging as part of who we are. It’s not about pride, but it is what it is, warts and all. As Rudyard Kipling said:
If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
“Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!
I used to think that where you lived could have a big effect on your happiness and well-being but, over the years, I’ve decided that happiness has little to do with a physical place. A metaphysical place though, that’s a different story.
On the whole, I think, if you’re miserable in Britain then you’re probably going to be miserable anywhere else. And, incidentally, being miserable in Britain is infinitely better than being miserable than anywhere else, as Jeremy Clarkson demonstrates. Being miserable is one of our strengths. Ask Morse.