The marketing is slick and constant, nothing works, and it's twice the price it would be back home. And there's some sort of druggy, boozy menace hanging over the streets at night. Blame the binge drinking sprees! Have a happy smashed British Christmas!
We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. 'Spare some change, please? Spare some change?' A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. 'Look at yourself, mate, you've got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you're in, it's a fucking shame on you, man!' He's a winner, the junkie's a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It's dog eat dog.
Hisae and I are staying with friends who live off the Hackney Road. They're expecting us, but when we ring the bell there's no answer. Thank heaven for cell phones, which allow you to change your plans without telling anyone! We don't have one, but they do. So we find a phone box -- it really stinks in there, but at least the phone works -- and call our friends. Ah, they went to a pub across the road! We go in to meet them. It's ferociously loud, a kind of slick-brutal house club with bad 90s acid graphics, threatening bouncers and boom tsssk boom tsssk boom. People float around with a kind of wide-boy gait. Menace and hedonism. We take the key and tell our friends we'll see them back at the flat. Not my scene.
The lift has a sign in it that says 'Please do not use this lift as a toilet'. What do they take us for? Why not say 'You are a cunt, aren't you'? The assumption of guilt. But our hosts later tell us that the lift is used as a toilet. Often. Fuck. Welcome to Britain!
The flat is sordid; toilet paper, debris and detritus everywhere, a bunch of TVs, foul blue spotted carpet. Art students live here, but what's the aesthetic? Maybe some approximation of Corinne Day shitty junkie chic. We switch on TV. There's an awards ceremony; celebrities pay tribute to other celebrities. There's lots of Bono and lots of Robbie Williams. 'Listen to the radio, you will hear the songs you know.' Marketing, innit? Jools Holland drifts around, a bit more bloated than I remember him. There are video clips of people saying how perennially great U2 are. No dissenting opinions at all. A lot of applause.
Our friends return from the pub, extremely drunk, and sit with us, smoking heavily, demolishing a bottle of red wine. It's, like, 3am. I'm too polite to tell them I don't smoke, and they don't seem to notice. Well, it's their house. The conversation is about drugs. E can't believe I've never taken any. I say it's because drugs tend to make everyone act the same way. E illustrates my theory by alternating aggressive questioning with declarations that I'm his best mate in the entire world. Several times he shakes my hand. We're two Celts who gave substantial chunks of our life to London. Why? The girls sit on the folding bed and speak Japanese. They won't stay long now they've got their MAs. I'm tired, but this chat is something we have to do before we can sleep. I try not to cough or seem too self-righteously sober.
The next morning the taps in the bathroom don't seem to work, and neither does the flush in the toilet. Fuck! At least I'm able to shower. I don't think I could bear to be dirty in London. It already feels like a gigantic toilet. Crossed with an advertising agency. An advertising toilet? Why not? Clever marketing idea! Out on the street, I see a bus with an advert on the side that says 'More Glitz! The Brent Cross Centre, feed your addiction'. Feed your addiction? Fuck, you mean become like that junky we saw last night at the filling station? Have drugs and celebrity become metaphors for everything in Britain? Are they marketing heroin yet? Welcome! Fuck!
'Smile, you're on CCTV!' I guess it's to stop people pissing through the letterbox. They did that when I lived in Covent Garden. And not just piss. On Old Street there's blood on the pavement. I remember the sirens we kept hearing last night. I didn't feel safe walking around with my laptop in a bag. The atmosphere didn't feel benign at all, nothing like soft, safe neon nights in Tokyo. Minicab sharks, cars pulling up behind pedestrians. You're in there, protected, and I'm out here, not. I'm just going to have to hope you have a good heart. People in hip hop hooded tops looking hard in kebab shops. It all feels like one of those Streets videos where a bunch of tanked-up British guys end up with blood streaming down their faces. 'Mate, mate, I don't want any trouble, mate.'
Virgin cola, Virgin property, Virgin trains! Clever marketing! Entrepreneurial Britain! They don't work too well, though, these Virgin trains. 'Due to late arrival of the incoming train, the 2.20 Virgin train to Glasgow Central is delayed. Please wait in the concourse for platform information.' I browse at WHSmiths. Subscription gift packs to FHM and Maxim hang on hooks. They look a bit like lingerie. Marketing! Slick! The girls in bikinis don't interest me at all. I must be a homosexual, or a glitz dissident of some sort. The Times and the Independent have both gone tabloid, wow! There's a photo of Tony Blair in a year-end review. He looks all leonine and smug. For the first time, I really think of Blair as Big Brother (that's Big Brother from Orwell's '1984', not Big Brother from Big Brother, 2004. You know, the TV show where the TV watches people). Blair presides over all this. The marketing, the violence. British troops in Iraq, a bouncer hired to police someone else's pub. The gap between the rich and the poor getting bigger, and the sympathy getting smaller. Questions raised in the house about Blair's free family holidays in a chateau owned by tobacco baron Alain Dominique Perrin, CEO of Richemont, which owns cigarette brands Dunhill and Cartier and has a 21% stake in British American Tobacco. Blair, unlike the Scottish government, doesn't impose a full public smoking ban.
A billboard (I don't know what it's advertising) shows Britain floating mid-Atlantic, far from Europe. The slats rotate, display another image.
M&S food snacks for the train. Not much change from a tenner. Nicely presented though. Thai this, Mexican that. Global, slick, shrink-wrapped. There's nowhere to throw the plastic wrapping after you eat the stuff because presumably terrorists would use the bins for bombs. Somebody hates us. Hates our capitalist freedom. Wants to gas us in the underground. Because of Blair backing America. What else could he do? Be Schroeder?
Ah, at last, they've assigned a platform. Better late than never. On the train, the sound system feeds back painfully. An announcement comes on. 'Due to a problem with the microwave there will be no hot food on the journey.' Later, there's another about the doors. Apparently you have to press a button to open the doors when the train's at a station, then wait a while. While you're waiting, don't pull any levers at head-level, because those set off emergency alarms.
In the toilet I squoosh thick green liquid soap onto my hands, only to find there's no water. All these slick buttons and Star Trek sliding doors, and the water doesn't work. Fuck! I wipe off the soap with a dry towel. Yuk. You could complain, but then there'd be no end of it. You'd be like that girl on the bus last night. 'That's not the principle, the principle is I paid for a service and I'm getting something worse.' Placate the consumer, strap the passenger in. 'Customers are advised that, for your comfort and security, CCTV is operating throughout the train'. Wow! Even in the toilet? Did they pick up that there was no water?
Mobile phones. They allow you to change arrangements without telling anyone, and they allow you to tell everyone about your life. 'We're on the train... is mum there?' The mother is RP, Standard English, quite posh, but her kids speak with glottal stops. Tony Blair does that too, to show he's a bit populist. It's an important life skill. Practice those glottal stops! They cover up class distinctions that do, nevertheless, still exist. The widening gulf between have and have-not, drug addict and shopaholic. The new RP has glottal stops. Even Prince William and Prince Harry speak this way. To show they're like us. In spirit, anyway. You wouldn't want them to be spiritually different from us, would you, just because they're extremely wealthy? I mean, here in Britain we're already spiritually one with the wealthy. We just don't have their money.
'Cointreau-versial' billboard. A pretty girl sips Cointreau. It's a posh drink, innit? Some Hoxton Situationist has stuck on a sticker bubble which makes the posh rich girl say 'You - are - not - us'. Subversive, or obvious? The rich are not the poor. Less and less every day. But everyone wants to pretend they're a victor, not a victim. Everyone buys into the bling bling thing.
The kids in the next seat just said 'Bling bling!' The phrase is everywhere in Britain, an R&B-rap-pop fashion as widely adopted as the flash white sportsgear people wear on British streets, minus all the gold, silver and diamonds that stars like J-Lo and Britney accessorize it with. I open the Virgin Trains magazine. (Wow, marketing! Trains never used to have in flight consumer magazines! Then again, they once had basic services like running water and hot food.) There's an article about shopping in Birmingham. It begins 'Diamonds, platinum and all things bling lie ten minutes from the city centre in Birmingham's jewellery quarter...' Later in the journey, bored, I open the new tabloid Times and there it is in the financial section. 'Bling bling: fashion designer John Zhao shows off his crystal encrusted iPod'. Britain speaks fluent bling bling. Britain, from top to bottom, embraces the showy materialism, the 'I won, you lost' mindset of hip hop and R&B videos. Bling bling, I win!
Someone just farted. On the train. A Virgin customer. We're not citizens, we're customers. Virgin isn't the government. Well, not yet. 'Welcome to Britain!' hisses the foul smell as it snakes around, invisible to the CCTV cameras.