Last year when my plane touched down at Heathrow coming back from Uganda I was met with a wonderful scene to welcome me back to old blighty. Queuing to enter the terminal building, what the British do best, an elegant determined woman pushed to the front of queue – sacrilege! One chap next to me notices that I have clocked this queue jumping outrage and chips in with the comment, “fucking French huh”.
What a welcome back to the UK – baseless xenophobic queue based hatred all performed to the backdrop tinny Christmas carols under a smattering of drizzle!
This year I was a smidgen disappointed to find no Christmas carols on repeat but delighted to make it out of the airport without witnessing any casual racism.
Once back in the hills and valleys of the ‘West Country’ though I took little time to head out for a walk. Thinking that this is what made the UK amazing I walked with uncharacteristic clear skies and meek winter sunshine hitting the frost covered ground. I was in a buoyed mood striding across farmer’s fields and down hidden valleys following bubbling brooks.
This mood was lifted further though with what truly makes the Great Britain great. With every dog walker passed a friendly ‘good morning’ was chirped followed by a compulsive observation of the uncharacteristically good weather: “wonderful day for it” or “you couldn’t ask for a better day” before then swiftly apologising for their dog who would be eagerly sniffing my trouser legs.
These small interactions last less than a few seconds but make up an integral part of the DNA of British culture.
Warmed by the simple pleasant jollity of rural British life I stopped in the open fire warmth of a local pub – the Woolpack in Slad – where I had arranged to meet family.
Sat sipping local real ales on slightly uncomfortable wooden furniture (why is that both pubs and churches consider it a virtue to have furniture that in other walks of life would be considered completely unfit for purpose?) I watched dogs curl up on the floor close to their owner muddy wellington boots. With a low warm afternoon winter sun breaking through the window I sat back with family around me and listened to the impromptu piano/saxophone performance that only added to the ambiance.
Outside, after a hearty pub lunch, we strode up Swift’s Hill which enjoys some of the finest views in the region down over the Slad Valley across the market town of Stroud and out to the Severn Valley and across to the Black Mountains in Wales. A few clouds clung to the horizon to exaggerate the sunset as wonderful pinks and oranges were thrown over the fields and footpaths.
It felt like the weather was welcoming me back to the UK, giving me 24 hours of pleasure before it inevitably resumed in the monotony of drizzle that everyone seems to perpetually believe might stop at any moment but so rarely does.
Walking back over the fields I make a decision to call into another pub on the way home. Instead of live piano/saxophone renditions, this pub instead has the unmistakable sound of football coming from the TV screens. Excited to be able to watch my national sport with my fellow countrymen I step in and order my pint of warm frothing ale.
Looking for a place to sit I approach a stranger with the prerequisite of “excuse me, I am terribly sorry, but would you mind if I possibly took a seat” motioning towards one of five empty seats surrounding him. Smiling warmly the man looks up from his Daily Telegraph with impeccable replicable manners and says, “Please, it would be an honour”.
How wonderful is that – being told it would be an honour for me to sit next to him.
Buoyed by these little interactions I sit happily watching Arsenal score four goals with the return of their star striker – Giroud. In an unspoken acknowledgment I suggest to the man next to me through nothing more than eye contact that I was happy, that I was delighted to be back in the UK and that in that moment I could think of nothing I would rather be doing.
Responding to this the man next to me commented in a perfect middle England accent, “Typical isn’t it”. “What’s that?” I responded. “The fucking French keeping such an English institution like Arsenal afloat” he sneered.