Paul Theroux: This was England

“It is the happy, often pompous delusion of the alien that he or she is a witness to an era of significant change. I understand this as a necessary conceit, a survival skill that helps to make the stranger watchful. I lived in England for 18 years, as a pure spectator, from the end of 1971 until the beginning of 1990. I was just an onlooker, gaping at public events that did not involve me. I was a taxpayer, but couldn’t vote; a house owner, but still needed an entry visa; and for quite a while I had to carry an alien identity card.

Having lived for six years in Africa and three in Singapore, I knew how to be an alien. Keep your head down and stay current; save all documents and receipts; take nothing for granted. You are not owed anything. “Nothing personal” is the alien’s motto, because the alien has no security, and no discernible future. I had a family, a wife and small children to protect: I was anxious. “You Yanks,” people sometimes said to me when they heard my accent, as though I needed to be reminded I was an alien. But an alien is reminding himself of that every moment in the foreign country. The alien has to practise cunning to disguise this twitchy state of mind; but insecurity stretches the nerves, heightens the attention and makes the alien remember. Mine wasn’t an era; it was simply 18 years of events. For an alien, life in the foreign country, never completely comprehensible, is always eventful.

Early on, it was a period dominated by smoking. The top deck of the bus was a designated smoking area, people chain-smoked in doctor’s waiting rooms, British Airways allowed pipe smoking at the back of the plane, many movie theatres had smoking sections: an era of blue smoke and fruity coughing. The craze for bar billiards and snooker crested in the 1970s, with a surge of interest in snooker on TV, a show called Pot Black. The single-screen cinemas began to be transformed into bingo halls. Later, when cinemas became scarcer, churches were deconsecrated and gutted so that they could serve secular purposes, bingo among them. This surprised me, and I was shocked when Christian churches were turned into mosques.”

– The Guardian

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/13/paul-theroux-this-was-england

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