It’s lunchtime at the Bourne Business Park in Weybridge. I’m here for a training course in a brightly lit and vacuously decorated corporate office, here with a classroom of all men – IT types who are professional but distinctly laddy. Business-like yet some vain shreds of masculinity manage to creep past the curtain. At lunch, the men are standing around an island in the middle of a kitchen area with cold sandwiches sitting beneath their careful scrutiny. Their demeanour is incredibly bizarre to me, but I recognize it because I’ve seen men like that in the IT industry for years. It’s this strange masculine sense of passive-aggressive competition. Strangers to each other, they are stand-offish yet chatty, as though they size each other up, they compare their motor vehicles and talk about all the money they sink into bodywork, into the engines, the disparate parts of a car that can be altered on a whim, and somewhere in the middle of all these humblebrags, the conversation circulates dangerously close to I spent more money than you in a way that made me feel incredibly embarrassed to have witnessed.
I could feel the heat of their gaze as I passed with my colleague. It felt like they were unsure whether to say hello, whether to introduce themselves to us, so they preserve their pride instead and simply resume awkwardly staring at us as they pass. How frustrating it must be to be those men: Unable to welcome people, to be the first person to display any sense of wayward politeness to other men in the vain, remote fear that they might be seen as weak. Instead, their congregation around the lunch food made them all look like factory-made blokes. Blokes by the Bloke Corporation™, in association with Jeremy Clarkson: a default state of British standard man, where standoffish arrogance and empty bragging come before a sense of human earnestness or warmth. I didn’t feel like I was missing out by not being included, instead, I felt like they were the ones missing out with their Clarksonesque bravado.
In a lot of ways, Weybridge illustrates how isolated London is from the rest of the UK. Weybridge, I imagine, is as atypical of the UK as you can get: Leafy suburbs, red-brick housing and quaint bric-a-brac shops, antique family-run stores and the odd café broken up by six-lane motorways, roadside service stations, gas pumps and corporate offices, steel and glass monstrosities that scar the English countryside like broken teeth, an otherworldly comparison between country towns that haven’t joined the year 2019 and corporate England taking a tremendous dump in the countryside. Offices become a fate, a destiny – it’s an endpoint for all the locals that live in the surrounding areas. It’s like our generations mining towns without the hazardous inconvenience of an early grave. Nothing to hope for except a job interview in a business park. A yawning eternity at a desk wearing a tie.
On top of that, monstrous motorways tear up huge swathes of beautiful British woodland, ripping through towns like Weybridge like a power cable leading all the way back to London – a constant reminder of what lies only an hour away. In reality, London is a wonderful city. A flawed, problematic, exciting, culturally diverse city, one where it’s rarely boring and certainly not quite the demonic behemoth that Alan Partridge and his brexiteers fear it is. London lets you get lost in it’s intricate, grimey wonder. Dark streets can give way to rainbow marketplaces, to shops populated with a kaleidoscopic variety of cultural melting pots. In a way, it’s billowing complexity and sheer bustling variety makes you feel connected to the world and enveloped by the constant hum of activity in a way that is both exciting and somewhat intimidating. There is something important, worthwhile and excellent on every street corner in London. But in Weybridge, you’re not connected to anything. All you have is England. It’s Brexit country; men with cold gazes, talking about cars around a lunch island. It’s the feeling that there must be more to life than just insurance and car manufacturers, that there has to be some colour somewhere to make it all seem worthwhile. As a Londoner, the lonely Brexit disconnect feels noticeably more pronounced than ever. You look down the road at London and feel either disgust or wonder. Sometimes, it’s both.
It must be hard to break down that wall. The UK treats London like the epicenter of life itself. Government is situated there. All the cool people live there. Anyone of any cultural worth lives and works there – made their fortunes there. And yet here they were, the sons of Top Gear, of PC Tech magazines. The IT industry’s scattered worker drones left to repopulate the hollowed out tunnels around the UK, the places where people with any hope of “making it” left for London. In that sense, it’s easy to ascribe a certain degree of alienation to London by your proximity to it. Like living in the shadow of a colossus, Weybridge is dwarfed by London’s all-consuming gaze and left abandoned by the corporations that laid their eggs in towns that would otherwise be beautiful English countryside, undamaged by the nihilistic boredom of the corporate world.
I won’t pretend like I understand Brexit. I won’t pretend I know what’s happening or pretend to know how it will all end. In reality, we all currently reside in limbo, one foot in the grave and the other in melodramatic notions of nationalistic integrity. But when you visit a place like Weybridge, it’s easy to understand why it happened. To the men around the lunch island, boredom becomes a way of life. A vapid interest in status symbols and vehicles, the stand-offish pride, the fear of smiling at other men – it all masks the fear in their eyes – it’s a cold, cold life to live. For Brexiteers, London isn’t a hub of activity, a warm welcoming smile to the rest of the world, the place where cultures melt and bleed into one another. It’s a place that sucks up the energy of the rest of the UK, a place that has hollowed out towns just like theirs. To them, immigration isn’t beautiful and they don’t really care how much money it brings to the UK. They hate it so much that they’re willing to let the UK amputate itself in order to get rid of it.
And I don’t say that to excuse that mentality. I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. They should be angry that corporations are so quick to tear apart their towns, that the Tories hollowed out towns of its natural industry and trades, creating vacuums of skill and talent that meant living outside of London feels like a death sentence. They should be angry at the wider forces working against their best interests. It’s hard to know how this all came to pass, whether it’s capitalism, patriarchy, bullying, xenophobia – Somehow, I think the answer lies between all of them. There are so many places to point the blame, so many things we could do but somehow at this late stage of the game, it feels retrograde to drag out the same tired excuses for all of this, so what do we do? Culturally, we’re stuck at a crossroads and it feels like the world might end before any meaningful solution is found.
Armageddon? Funny I should mention that. As the men chatted around the lunch island, BBC news was blaring away on a large TV set behind them. Australian forest fires are out of control, they say. The Amazon was badly scarred after it’s own environmental woes – it looks like an apocalyptic movie. And then there’s the meteorite that’s going to screech dangerously close to our earth, just to remind us all of the fragile knife-edges our existence in the universe dangles on. I was being flippant before but, really, the world might actually end before we fix anything.