England breaks my heart. It’s been eight and a half years since our last visit. We’ve flown here for a family funeral and into an emotional hail storm that I didn’t anticipate.
We drive from the airport, past derelict pubs and shuttered-up shops. “For Lease” signs are everywhere. There are rows of back to back houses, chippies, and Indian-owned corner shops. In the past eight years, a monstrous Ikea has arisen in the centre of the town. My husband frowns when he sees it. There used to be shops and houses there he says.
My brother in law weeps for his dead wife. The family close rank around him and all that matters is the passing of a sister, a mother, and a wife. Our lives, for a week, are lived in two rooms of her house; the living room and the kitchen where my other sister in laws are on twenty-four-hour cooking duty for the hordes of people that come to visit. There are rituals to be observed —all strange to me but oddly comforting.
And outside, England trundles on. The country is in crisis from Brexit, but on the upside, they’re waiting for the birth of a new Princess or Prince. I read a copy of The Sun which is full of soapie star scandals and Home Counties whimsy. The Page 3 girl is long gone but other than that and the new generation of D grade celebs the newspaper is the same. (Thanks Uncle Rupert)
We wander round Bury for a few hours. It’s mid-spring and the shops are full of summer clothes, people carry daffodils and talk about upcoming holidays. I have forgotten how close we are to Europe here. We wander through the main shopping strip and notice half a dozen charity shops, takeaway food joints and phone shops. Where is everything else I wonder? We are pointed in the direction of a new mall full of all the High-Street brands but very little soul. Call me ungrateful but I prefer the down at heel back streets where at least I’m reminded of where I am. Unfortunately, the market is not operating today. ‘Shame,’ says a man we chat to in a café. ‘It’s the best market in the north.’
We go to Manchester for the day to meet friends. There are signs of worker bees everywhere – the symbol of Manchester. A tribute to the working men and women and the spirit of their city. We are puzzled by this symbol – my husband doesn’t remember it growing up. Someone tells us the bee symbol evolved after the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert. This city still feels like an industrial heartland. The reminders are everywhere that this was once a great centre of commerce. The old warehouses and factories that are now apartments. There are countless cafes, boutiques, and bars. The Northern Quarter is buzzing with life and there’s an air of optimism. Summer is coming, and people sit in beer gardens.
I find myself slipping into the rhythm of the family. I’m still the outsider but they make sure I’m across all the funeral rituals, explaining what I must do, my role as one of the sister in laws. We sit with a nephew and watch the final two episodes of Game of Thrones, and forge a new bond. At the same time, I’m leaning into England, relearning how things work, where things belong and going with the flow.
We listen to family gossip, and through this, we begin to get a feel of what’s gripping the nation. They worry about jobs and rising prices and tend to look back at the old days. There’s concern voiced about too many immigrants coming to this country—which is ironic as these people are first-generation immigrants. There’s uncertainty and a little bit of fear. Their England as they know it is changing.
England is a country in mourning for its past glory. There’s evidence everywhere of past wealth and affluence. Manchester is a city coming to grips with its future, much like the rest of Britain and much like my family. A couple of the younger generation are toying with the idea of emigrating to Australia but are daunted by the distance.
Yet, at times the beauty of the place takes my breath away. Driving down the hill into Marple with a checkerboard of green fields and dry stone walls and ponies. Looking at the Pennines, sharp and grey after a shower of rain. I notice St George flags in windows and wonder at this new patriotic England. Was it always like this?
On our last full day, we drive to a local look-out point. I take a photo of two brothers who live 10,0000 miles apart. They look awkwardly happy to be together. Below us is the sprawl of the Manchester suburbs And as I look into the distance the blue and yellow Ikea sign glints in the afternoon sun. It’s a beacon; it’s where the family is.