I have often felt myself (and described myself) as a Rip van Winkle character – someone who’s been asleep for a long time and wakes up to find the world has changed around him. This is due to my having lived in the isolated Galapagos Islands (aka Japan) for the best part of 30 years.
This has meant (for better or worse) that I never lived in the UK under John Major, Tony Blair, or Gordon Brown, and under David Cameron for one week only. My British cultural life has likewise been circumscribed (not that it was ever up to much in the first place). For example…
Exile on the High Street
Who the hell is Robbie Williams? Or Take That? And who, for that matter, is Simon Cowell? Yes, I can look them upon Wikipedia, but there are no resonances there at all. I cannot associate a single song or catch phrase or even a face, with any of the above.
Sport? I had no idea for a long time of the names of any of the England football team (even the name David Beckham meant nothing to me, even after he was captain). The Premier League started after I left the UK, and I still don’t know the names of the lower divisions, as they used to be.
TV series? Forget it. Not that I’m a great TV watcher, anyway. I have amazed some people by telling them I have never seen a single episode of “Friends”, for example. Films likewise. I recently looked up an actor of whom I had never heard, only to discover she had won an Oscar or two.
So that’s just me, of course. Information on all these things was available, had I cared to look, and I didn’t care to do so. But why should I? Only an expatriate nostalgia and longing for the Old Country would have prompted that sort of research, and I didn’t feel that way about things.
But what really brought it home to me was an exhibition of “the Bergerac years” in Jersey Museum. The UK that I left was being treated as a historical period, and the quaintnesses and differences between then and now were highlighted.
The overall effect was similar to one of having watched the first ten minutes of a film, gone to sleep, and woken up to the final scene, and the credits rolling, showing the names of all the characters I’d missed. It left me with a very peculiar feeling.
And it’s made me realise just how much things have changed in many ways. The attitudes towards sexuality, for example. Those who follow a non-mainstream path are much more readily accepted. Likewise those who are not white, or those who are not male. UK television seems much more diverse and open than it was – in those respects, anyway.
The contrast between then and now is even more marked by my having come back to the UK from a very socially conservative, male-dominated, racially homogenous society, where a non-Japanese on TV is usually either a figure of fun or an entertaining talking monkey (“isn’t (s)he clever to be talking Japanese, and doesn’t she have big breasts?”).
What it means for writing
Living in Japan and being out of touch with British society meant that I couldn’t write contemporary books. I had to go into other times – it was much easier for me to write a novel set in the past than 2000s UK or USA, and so my Sherlock Holmes adventures began.
I could also write semi-fantasy stories such as the Untime series, and alternative history fiction. And of course, “write about what you know” – Japan – which sparked Tales of Old Japanese and At the Sharpe End.
Now I am back in the UK, I am catching up by reading such authors as Ruth Rendell, wo seems to have a pretty good handle on what sort of factors drove British society in the 1990s and 2000s. Recommendations for other writers who might help me catch up are also welcome.
Changes (turn and face the strain)
The press has changed – broadsheets have become tabloids, and the tabloids have become cat litterbox liners (not that they were ever much better). TV – I’m watching more, and some of the programmes I watch are truly excellent. Some are (IMHO) complete garbage, though.
But… though the traffic on the roads is faster and there’s more of it, people seem a little more considerate. People don’t drink and drive – and when I think back to lunchtimes in the office, when people might drive to the pub, have a few pints and then drive back for the afternoon’s “work”, I shudder.
Smoking, of course – people don’t smoke nearly to the extent they used to do.
And of course, food has changed dramatically. Anyone remember Berni Inns, with prawn cocktails, steak (or scampi) and chips and Black Forest gateau? But people are eating more, and they are noticably much larger than they used to be.
I may add more to the list as I go on. Now it’s up to you to tell me what changes the last 30 years have brought to you.