Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 10 March 2024

What on earth has happened to the Land of Hope and Glory?

WHEN I came to Europe from the United States in 2015 to walk the Camino (the 500-mile ancient pilgrimage route through northern Spain), I had the good fortune to fall in with a group of genial Brits. I was planning to visit the UK after my pilgrimage to finish a novel and explore the world left behind by my grandfather. He was born a pauper in London in 1878 and went to America in 1903 to make his fortune and eventually send my father to Columbia University. As my new friends and I walked together, I wistfully described my vision of what life in the Land of Hope and Glory must be like, which they quickly dispelled as a delusion shared by most Americans: a strange amalgam of J R R Tolkien, A A. Milne and Winston Churchill. ‘That England no longer exists,’ they said. ‘Except maybe in the Cotswolds,’ one of them added, hopefully. When I mused about how lovely it would be one day to meet a nice English woman – a schoolteacher or church-secretary type, perhaps – and settle down, their alarm intensified. ‘My God, man! Have you read no vintage British crime fiction? They are the ones who usually commit murder most foul!’

So much for preconceived notions. I did meet many charming and kind people in a land brimming with the history of Western civilisation, but the Britain I encountered is indeed very different to the one of my idealised imagination. This first became apparent at a garden party in London when I found myself chatting with a school guidance counsellor. ‘So, how are kids doing these days?’ I asked, intending only to make polite conversation and fully expecting to hear the kind of optimism that usually accompanies stories about children. But no, this woman told me that all was far from well and that kids in general were actually quite depressed: ‘Who could blame them when the world will end before they reach our age?’ I was certain I was hearing some of that famous British dry wit. Not wanting to be caught out, I said nothing as I looked half-smirkingly at the woman and waited for her to break out into laughter. But she didn’t. She was talking about climate change, and she was deadly serious. I nervously excused myself to grab another drink before Armageddon.

I would have dismissed my experience at the garden party to the admixture of gin and melancholy, except that I began to have similar encounters everywhere. BBC Radio 4 daily sounded the same depressingly uniform tone of alarm over mankind’s bleak future. Even as American media were reporting historic levels of snowfall that were closing roads to ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains, one BBC reporter managed to find a community in Finland (or was it Iceland?) whose snowfall was (temporarily as it turned out) less than expected. With glum sobriety and absolute authority she informed listeners that this snowless wasteland was the Earth’s inevitable fate.

A ray of optimism shone through at one dinner party in Greenwich when the hostess announced that it would be another sixty years before all crops would cease to grow upon the face of the earth – at least allowing enough time, I secretly rejoiced, for the aforementioned guidance counsellor’s students to reach middle age.

But hope was short-lived. Sitting in a pew at St Luke’s Church in Charlton Village on Scout Sunday, I heard the vicar tell a squirming knot of terrified Beavers the woeful news, recently announced by the (then) Prince of Wales, that the world very well might end before their eighteenth birthdays.

If apocalypticism is the new religion of Britain, the NHS surely is its God against whom no blasphemy may be spoken. I learned this the hard way. You may recall that the parents of the terminally ill infant Charlie Gard had privately raised millions of pounds to pay for a new treatment that had been tried with success by a highly respected specialist at Columbia Hospital in New York. When I read that their child was being held hostage by the NHS and the European Court of Human Rights in Brussels, I lamented this sad fact in a post on my Facebook page. If a court in Montreal presumed to tell an American family that they couldn’t use their own money to seek treatment for their dying child at one of the premier medical research universities in the world, the Jefferson Memorial would spontaneously combust and there would be pitchforks and torches in the streets of Washington, DC.

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