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  • Alex Fear

From Cool Britannia to Shit Britain

I remember as a kid having some vague notion of pride in being British. Without being told explicitly I got this sense that my country was special. That belief was constructed out of things like the Beatles and Monty Python. We were Geri Halliwell singing in a slutty Union Jack dress and Ricky Gervais dancing like a cross between a robot and a monkey. I even remember wanting to buy a Union Jack shirt from the Argos Additions catalogue when I was about thirteen. The first time I left the country for more than a month, I missed the British people, their self-deprecation, sarcasm, and humor.

Then there was 2012, the year the UK hosted the Olympics, the year of the queen's jubilee. That was the first time I became aware of a genuine earnest streak of patriotism in this country. Before that I thought the British people were too cynical and sarcastic to be truly patriotic. A campy Union Jack dress that came up to Geri Halliwell's mid pelvis was the best representation of our national identity. But there were people everywhere waving Union Jack flags with a patriotic fervour that had slid under my radar. I found it disturbing, the self deprecating Brits showing this earnest national pride. People who take such joy in slagging off the British weather turning around and sing Rule Britannia.

I moved to Germany the day the Olympics started. I pretended it was to avoid them, but my friend had offered me a cheap room in Cologne. I started learning German and for the first time felt a bit of shame about how many mainland Europeans spoke English fluently. I'd managed to leave school being able to say 'Ich habe zwei Kaninchen' (I have two rabbits) and 'Ich sehe gern fern' (I like watching television), neither of which were true. It slowly started to dawn on me, like some horrible secret: English people think they're great, but they're actually dicks.


Then I travelled to Palestine, and India, and Egypt, and became aware of the British Empire. I remember an Israeli friend telling me about a moment in her childhood when she realised Israel hadn't always been Israel. I felt the same, becoming aware of my country's past, that England had actually caused poverty, famine, and ethnic tensions on an epic scale. German people are made very aware in history class of their country's past and respond with a more nuanced approach to national pride. Maybe I wasn't paying attention in history class but I don't remember anything other than us being the good guys, defeating the Nazis and celebrating in the streets with tea and scones and Union Jack bunting. When market stall holders in India asked me where I was from I told them Europe. I was embarrassed by what my country had done more than I was proud of John Lennon or Patsy from Ab Fab.

The first time I heard the word 'Brexit' was backstage at a drag show. A drag queen from Rupaul's Drag Race was asking about it. A UK queen shrugged it off as 'stupid' and 'xenophobic'. I've heard this criticism of 'remainers' that we are arrogant. The thoughts I have when someone says they voted leave do make me feel arrogant. I think that person is probably stupid, gullible, or small minded. There's a big difference between the patriotism of somewhere like Palestine, and the patriotism of a prosperous nation like the Britain. It's like the difference between gay pride and straight pride. One is saying I stand by my identity despite oppression, and the other is a gloating person glad to be part of a success story. It's almost as if people's national identity allows them to feel good about themselves!


While I've been writing this I've been travelling from Switzerland back to the UK. I feel embarrassed about showing my passport because of what it represents. I've gone from someone who almost bought a Union Jack shirt to someone who is totally ashamed of their nationality. People who can't accept Brexit have been called sour losers. But in expecting us to be 'good sports' after losing the right to live and work in 28 countries they are asking for a quasi-enlightened degree of acceptance. I hoped I would be more empathetic and accepting by now. But I'm still angry, the way I should be angry about climate change. It's that self-centred anger, when someone else's decision has made your life more difficult. I'm trying to use it as motivation to get better at German and Spanish so I can easier move to mainland Europe and live with my Swiss boyfriend. If I want to leave little Britain now, I have to really want it.


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