Jenny Brown in Brighton
No you cant have a sachet of ketchup for free to go
on your chips. Thats 10p extra
No you cant have ice in your vodka and tonic. The whole
towns out of ice.
No you cant - expect to EVER get to your destination on time
via British Rail
No you cant expect anyone to bag your groceries in
No you cant expect air conditioning in an 90F + working
No you cant open a bank account without showing us
a million pieces of ID, and a 10 year credit check and personalised
letter from your bank manager back home, and anyone whos ever
No you cant expect anyone to ever go out of their way
to be helpful, give you a smile, or say have a nice day!.
This is England 2003
my cozy living room in Vancouver, Canada, I often sit and reminisce
about the good old days of England trips gone by. The fabulous food,
the lovely shops, the pub atmosphere and the gentle countryside. But
in my fantasy world, I somehow never remember the difficulties I encounter
each and every time I come over. So gung-ho am I to return once again
to experience an exciting different culture, I forget the reality that
living in England is in fact, usually going to be hell.
My family has warned me many a time that living somewhere is a lot different
than holidaying there. On a two-week trip, one might readily laugh off
the utter rudeness of a customer service clerk, and gaily shout When
in Rome!. One would fight the temptation to explain to the stony
faced bus driver that in Canada, you couldnt get away with that
kind of treatment, after he says "Jesus Christ" when you plonk
down small change on his silver counter. You are comforted by the knowledge
that youll soon be back home, being fussed over by smiling waiters,
sales clerks, bank tellers and just about anyone you meet on the street.
a lovely 2-week holiday in Hampshire with my folks, I set off for Brighton
- city by the sea, gay capital, funky lanes and cool cafes. I wandered
the neighbourhood I grew up in, breathed in the air, and prepared myself
for the next leg of the journey. The exciting task of finding a job
and moving in to a room I stayed at 2 years ago. My friends friends
ex-husband owned the house. His name was Andy and they had since divorced
and yes I knew he liked to drink, but no problem, I thought.
Things went swimmingly there last time. Aside from having my food eaten
and milk drank constantly. Aside from getting roped into babysitting
their 3 year old when Andy wanted to nip down to the local for half
an hour, that always turned into 2 hours. And to top it all off, I was
down to my last few pounds, and I went and broke and had to replace
their £30 kettle. (Who in their right mind buys a £30 kettle?
Thats $70 for a bloody kettle!).
I guess the first sign that things may go awry, was when I arrived on
the doorstep at our arranged time and the lights were off, and no one
was home. My dad, who was anxious to get going on his hour and a half
drive home at 9:00 at night, frowned. I got hold of Andy via mobile
(I could barely hear him over the noise of the bar he was in), and he
apologised profusely and promised to be there in 5 minutes. Half an
hour later he showed up. More black looks from dad. He gave me a huge
hug like we were long lost pals. Up in the attic room dad surveyed the
bare bed, and thin blind on the window and asked me if I thought I d
be ok. Yeah, hes ok I said bravely. We both looked
at the door with broken latch, and no lock. With much reluctance, dad
left, and I did some unpacking and finally lay on the double bed and
covered myself with the single quilt Andy had found.
As I predicted, I barely saw Andy in the following weeks. My food and
milk were safe, there was a crap kettle that sometimes worked and the
only sign he lived there was his slamming doors and walking into things
any time between 1 and 3 in the morning. But it suddenly dawned on me
that there I was, alone in a house with a drunken man I barely knew.
My friends told me not to worry. But one night, I finally obeyed the
nagging voice in my head and took a pair of scissors to bed.
At at 5:00 that morning there was a rattling at my door. With heart
pounding I lurched upright in bed, grabbed for the scissors and felt
nothing but the cool smooth sheets. I must have knocked them between
the planks of the box spring and in the pitch black I could see nothing.
I frantically pulled out my one earplug. Andy stepped into the room.
"Oh hi jenny". He said, sounding very surprised to see me
there. "How are you doing?"
"What?" I said still fumbling round the bed. "Sorry"
he said. "OK, see you in the morning."
I sat frozen for several minutes, and listened intently to his stumblings
and door slammings downstairs. I realised my friends were right. There
was no reason for my paranoia. He was just a harmless drunk, whod
wandered into the wrong room. Had I in fact found my scissors and gone
into attack mode, I could have been as good as Tony Martin who was jailed
for shooting and killing a burglar. This isnt the States. This
isnt Sleeping with the Enemy, I realised, and Im
not Julia Roberts. In England, it seems, the laws are reversed. Self
defence or not, Id be the one doing time.
Thankfully, it gave me the leverage I wanted to get out of there with
short notice. Having broken the washing machine, I was looking for a
speedy exit, before he discovered it and came looking for repair money.
was offered a job at the Substance Misuse Service. Such a PC and
clinical sounding place, bringing to mind visions of white halls,
crisply dressed nurses and rows of single beds. It turned out to
be a crumbling, decrepit building with a gauntlet of scabby, skeletal
heroin addicts loitering outside.
manoeuvred myself through, and once inside the office manager led me
up some squeaky stairs with a sticky banister (that I kept forgetting
to not touch.) The office was tiny and crammed with four people; had
no air-conditioning and an obnoxious radio station blaring R&B all day
long. The staff seemed to have been there, done that, and gotten the
paint splattered T-shirt and threadbare leggins.
In charge of the nurses (mostly male) was a modern day nurse Hatchett
called Michael. Clad in shirts of lemon and pink pastel, this bitchy
gay Team Leader spoke the queenıs English, and had no time for strung
out patients who missed appointments or became violent. He dished out
the methadone gladly and encouraged them to leave with haste. I set
about the routine of typing up the notes on each patient, horrified
by what I read about the addictıs daily behaviour. They spent between
£20-100 a day on heroin or crack, shooting up several times a day. Most
of them hadnıt worked for years, so shoplifting, prostitution or the
whole of their welfare cheque funded their habit. Half of them had no
address, and described sleeping in alleys, churches, parks or stairwells.
There was nearly always a history of child abuse, and what children
some of them had were in foster homes. They had been in and out of prison
and mental institutions. The hardest to read about was the pregnant
women who still used daily. Although they stated that they were sick
and tired of their lifestyle, most of them had been on the program numerous
times, some relapsing the day after treatment was finished. Deaths caused
by accidental or deliberate overdose are frequent. Considering that
Methadone is supposedly more addictive than heroin, the rate of failure
and the depressing working conditions, it made me wonder the point of
offering such a service at all.
The average shelf life of the staff was 2 years. Their salaries arenıt
above the average nurseıs wage and the secretaries were earning £7.19/hr
(which is slightly higher than the average secretaryıs wage) My job
was extended and ended up lasting a month. As the weeks went by, I also
developed a thicker skin, and eventually nothing I read was shocking.
But unlike the rest, that seemed happy to continue working there, I
breathed a sigh of relief the day I walked out. I didnıt come to England
to save the walking wounded. After a month of toiling in depressing
conditions, it was time to let off steam, and to celebrate in the best
way I know how shopping.
must be getting old.
I couldn't wait to get my fashion fix at Top Shop, one of my all
time favourite chains for trends on the cutting edge. Imagine my
horror when I waltzed into the teen packed shop and was greeted
by a dummy dressed in electric blue leggins (circa 1983) an off
the shoulder flashdance sweater, a thin, low slung belt, legwarmers
and flat pointy shoes! Was this all a dream, had I suddenly leapt
back in time? The only thing that kept me from freaking out totally
was hearing the familiar blare of Beyonce arpegio-ing her way through
her latest #1 on the sound system (actually that was equally as
How did it go so horribly wrong? I turn my back for 2 years, and
suddenly the designers have taken complete liberties with fashion
historyıs tackiest era. (I say that now, but at the time I thought
it was really cool). I mean, come on people, have we really just
run out of ideas?
remember last time I was here how I loved the square toed, clumpy-heeled
shoes, the thick zip up cardigans, the cool below the knee skirts, the
sparkly jewellery. I had expected to something slightly different or
better, but at least something new! I looked round bewildered. Just
more ripped up sweaters, thin dangly earrings, flashes of neon. I fingered
a few price tags. Certainly not 80's prices. £28 for a pair of trousers,
£20 for a T-shirt, £30 for a bomber jacket. I walked over to the shoe
display and picked up a pair of bright yellow flats with bows and polka
dots. I gazed at them in my hand and cringed at the memory of me at
8 years old, begging my step mum to buy me a pair of pointy shoes, and
her refusing, saying they would damage my feet. I didn't care. The only
thing that mattered was looking good. Who cared if I could barely walk.
Who cared if I wore micro minis and a boob tube (with a flat chest)
in the middle of winter, I would look fabulous, and just like all my
girlfriends who were dressed identically.
So I guess I wonıt be going back this time and dazzling my friends with
my latest haute couture purchases. I guess I'll have to stick with Canadian
fashion that will be months behind England's trends. I have plenty of
'basics' to choose from in my wardrobe back home and I refuse to throw
out my clumpy wedgies and thick zip up cardies. And itıs comforting
to know that though it may not be as cutting edge, you can get away
with wearing the same items for several years, before thereıs a major
change. I guess when the style of your childhood is suddenly at the
forefront of fashion and you are gagging at the tackiness of it, itıs
a sure sign that old age has set in.
bitching about England would be complete without mentioning British
Rail the epitome of bad English customer service. The service
thats famous for delaying or cancelling trains for a variety
of sometimes even contradictory reasons, at whim. Some include:
1. A leaf on the track
2. Strong winds
3. The onset of rain
4. Too hot
5. Too cold
6. Signalling malfunction
7. Awaiting another piece of train
8. A broken down train
9. And my favourite one of all waiting for a driver.
spring to mind of a man finishing up a pint down at the pub in his own
sweet time, and then ambling off to the station to start his shift.
Meanwhile, everyones sitting or pacing, fuming and looking at
their watches every minute hoping in vain that they might still catch
their connecting train, and not have to add another hour and a half
onto their journey if they miss it, and have to transfer another 4 times.
Thats if they can be bothered giving you a reason at all. Half
the time they just keep you sitting there in silence punctuated by a
few revs of the engine that make you think, youre about to start
going somewhere, but you never actually do.
I went for a week arriving at Three Bridges in time to catch a scheduled
train to Brighton that just never appeared, the whole week. No explanation.
I even asked someone who worked there once if they knew why, and they
didnt. Youre just expected to sit and wait for the next
one and that was usually delayed.
I have sat on an immobile train numerous times in a silent rage, jumping
up every few moments to look out the window at a red faced platform
man, marching up and down looking confused, and irritated by anyone
asking them a question. I have noticed that the people around me dont
seem surprised to sit motionless for 20 minutes at a time, giving only
the occasional sigh. I hear the passive aggressive crack of newspapers,
see frantic silent texting and furrowed brows, but no angry swearing,
no emotional outbursts at all.
It makes me wonder, as I gaze down at my £17 return ticket from
Brighton to Lymington Town (which includes 1/3 off because of my £20
network card), what exactly are the exorbitant prices we pay going towards
anyway? Staff wages? Track maintenance? Toilet cleaning services? A
PA system thats audible? A reliable food trolley service on long
Compare it to Vancouver. You pay $2 that lasts about an hour and a half.
You can transfer to any train, any bus for that entire time, that will
take you as far as it goes within that zone, and theres actually
friendly staff dressed in blue hiking jackets that are happy to answer
any questions, assist old ladies and push wheelchairs.
My advice is, if youre planning a journey and you look up www.britishrail.com
and punch in your travel times, or phone a helpful customer service
person, the safest bet is to tack on another hour or two, and pack a
sandwich. Dont tell anyone to wait up for you, hold dinner, or
bake a cake, because theres no guarantee youll be arriving
in time for anything, any time soon.
Although I'm anxious to get back to the comforts of home, I'm sure I'll
feel the same culture shock that I did here after being away for three
months. I might feel myself pining for the atmosphere of the ancient
pubs and warm beer as I sit in the pristine bars back hope with the
ice-cold aircon and faux brass rails. My hope is that the troubled times
will fade from my memory and I'll find my way back to the fantasy of
England as a quaint and quirky country I once used to visit.
© Jenny Brown August 18th 2003
all rights reserved