During the general election campaign, an American journalist from the New York Times paid an extensive visit to Britain, and reported back that he found a deeply divided United Kingdom.
Many observations have been made along similar lines – it’s a theme with which we are familiar. But let me look on a brighter side: this very divisive general election also opened my eyes to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Over the course of the campaign, I’ve become more aware of the way other people live, and the particular demands of their geography and history.
Dwelling, as I do, in the south-east of Kent, I haven’t been in the habit of wondering what life is like in Wolverhampton, or Esher, or Clwyd, Lincoln, Wakefield, Stoke-on-Trent, Plymouth, Bolsover, Golders Green, Belfast South or Glasgow Easterhouse.
The focus on constituencies like these, some of which are bound to change hands, some of which are embedded in their traditional allegiances, has better illuminated the map of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for me.
Perhaps I haven’t very often reflected on matters Scottish. Scotland is there: the Highlands are beautiful and the Firth of Forth is a phenomenon and Edinburgh has this famously posh area called Morningside. But the general election made me think a lot harder about Scotland: whether its future is to be part of the United Kingdom or not. The Scots certainly made their presence felt during the election conversations – and not just the politicians either. The airwaves sometimes seem dominated by Scots, from Andrew Marr to Andrew Neil, from Kirsty Wark to Fiona Bruce.
I visited electoral areas like Whitstable – a marginal that is part of Canterbury – and Chingford, near Epping Forest. I wandered down High Streets and absorbed their ambience. I contemplated constituencies like Kensington, once the summum bonum of wealth and privilege, but held in 2017, by the skin of its teeth, by a Labour MP. And Kilburn, which was once so very Irish – the Catholic church at Quex Road was almost wholly Hibernian – is now such a thoroughly multicultural area.
I walked down the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, a deep-dyed Ulster Loyalist redoubt. But it, too, is changing, and gentrification is gradually meeting old working-class life around the shipyards. The memory of the Titanic, proudly built in Belfast, has become totemic, part-heritage, part-re-enacted tragedy. (And the Belfast joke endures: “It was all right when it left here …”)
Politically, the United Kingdom may be a divided society, and yet, I found plenty of harmony, friendliness, cheerfulness, kindness, and even optimism in the face of future uncertainty. There are plenty of reasons to emphasise the positive.
”Get Brexit Done” – Boris Johnson’s slogan for the election – became what they call an “earworm” in my head: that’s to say, I heard it repeated so often in my inner ear, that like an insistent tune, it just wouldn’t go away.
So I turned the earworm to usefulness. When facing the tasks of the day, I said to myself, “Get the shopping done!” Or “Get the bill-paying done!” Or, inevitably at this time of year, “Get the Christmas deadlines done!” Not everyone agreed with the slogan, for sure, and some critics found it superficial – even after Brexit, there’ll be plenty to “get done” – but as an anti-procrastinating prompt, it can be employed quite helpfully.
Churches are a great location for cultural events – in the Middle Ages, the theatre and the concert began in cathedrals. We had a lovely concert in our Deal church last weekend, beautifully performed and for an excellent cause.
Lyric Sounds is a group of 12 friends who perform together – and as soloists – all over the South East of England. They sing everything from opera and oratorio to musicals and, of course, carols. On this occasion they were giving their services for the Catholic charity the Medaille Trust, which provides refuge for victims of modern slavery and trafficking. It was an impressively varied programme, from Strauss and Mozart to Maya Angelou and a New Zealand Christmas Carol.
I’d love to see many more musical performances in churches, all year round.
Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4. Lyric Sounds gives charitable concerts and private functions, and can be contacted at [email protected]