Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Robin Turner

27th December 2017

As the year draws to a close, we ask our friends and collaborators to look back on the past twelve months and share their significant moments. From Robin Turner:

I’ve found myself struggling with questions of identity more than ever this year, both as an individual and as a British citizen. It’s been hard not to – I’m sure most British readers will have felt the same at some point over the last twelve months, whatever their beliefs. I was born in the U.K. (in Newport, Wales – home of the Chartists and the emergency passport office and not much else) and although I’ve never felt much of an urge to leave the British Isles, I’ve long appreciated the fact that I could if I wanted to. Ever since I left South Wales for London at the age of eighteen, I’ve seen myself as Welsh first and a Londoner second. Britishness has always been an abstract for me. If ever I feel national pride, it’s watching red Wales jerseys pile over the line in Twickenham, or hearing thousands of voices singing the line “Libraries gave us power” in ecstatic unison.

It’s stating the bleeding obvious to say that pride and identity were major drivers of the Brexit vote, yet those buttons were pushed in any way I could understand or get behind. Week after week goes by and we’re told categorically that two plus two equals five and that soon, all this will be over and we’ll be a proud trading nation again. This ‘magical thinking’ part of the Brexit story reached its zenith just before Christmas with the news that the Sun had successfully petitioned for the return of blue passports. This utter nonsense was presented as a major ‘Sun wot won it’ coup. Those blue passports were to be the signifiers of our freedom – freedom from the freedom of movement. The freedom to stay put here in grimy, greasy Britain and to know your place – don’t fucking mock (warning: that links to Daily Mail). Welcome to the idiocracy, God save the Queen – if you believe hard enough, Britannia will be back ruling the waves in no time. Me? I’m down with the broadcaster James O’Brien (more than anyone else the voice of reason in 2017) who put it like this: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about passports or people, some of us just don’t think colour matters.”

Against 2017’s backdrop of febrile nationalism, I moved to Bristol, leaving London for the first time in 27 years. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. If I’m honest, I’ve fallen out of love with the capitol over the last few years. Ever since the city’s glorious Olympic Games packed up, the city had felt unwelcoming, overpriced and pent up; never more so than when trying to traverse it with two kids in tow. The constant white noise panic of 24 hour news made it hard for me to focus and having austerity’s very own Darth Vader as editor of the Standard really wasn’t helping. In the end, London really was just a state of mind and a group of close friends – I never seemed to leave Hackney and the city only really came alive when sat in the pub with mates. With most of my friends having moved on during the last decade, London felt like just a succession of red buses and black taxis and a lifetime of of forcing yourself onto a Central Line train at 8.45am.

One of the final straws was the tent pitched in the doorway of the old Rymans shop on Great Portland Street. It’s a semi-permanent structure now; the police don’t even bother to move it on and I’ve often absentmindedly wondered if it can receive post. Really, that canvas is a dereliction of our collective duty – a symbol of our times that should be presented on the fourth plinth as 2017’s headstone: something we should all be helping with, if only we weren’t so fucking helpless ourselves.

Once the idea of moving out took hold, it felt more and more like London was buckling under the pressure of completely avoidable circumstances. Brexit was driving our family crazy to the point where we seemed to be on a march every other weekend; inequality was everywhere, lazily documented every day in the Standard; homelessness was just another problem that’ll have to wait for another day to be sorted out. Like all those other problems bubbling away on the great parliamentary back burner.

It’s been a few months since we headed west. Often during that time I’ve often questioned what I now was in terms of identity. Though not hugely important in the scheme of things, it’s been a nagging thought all the same. When presented with the choice, I didn’t move back to Wales to reconnect with my roots – I’m near enough but its as close as I ever want to get. Wales voted leave – I wish I could make peace with that but I justcan’t. I’ve lived in London for over half my life; it’s where I’d met lifelong friends and where ideas like the Social and Caught by the River mutated; it’s where I met my partner and where my children were born (in Whitechapel and Homerton respectively, they’re cockneys – that’s indisputable). I’ve moved somewhere new, where I didn’t have a ready pub crawl or a crowd of barflies I could nod to. I’m not yet a Bristolian – I probably never will be one. Maybe I’m one of those people Theresa May caustically dubbed a ‘citizen of nowhere’ – rootless and contemptible, the worst of all worlds according to her 2016 conference speech.

Reality is, this place looks and feels like London did ten years ago, yet with a very distinct, unique atmosphere. It ticks a multitude of boxes: it’s a proudly liberal city with a north/south river divide, a vibrant craft brewing scene, somewhere where booming music emerges from spray painted makeshift bars all the way up the Gloucester Road. There are less furrowed brows, cheaper rent and cultures clashing together on every street corner. It’s given the world Tricky Kid, Brunel, Head, the Arnolfini, the Pop Group, J.K. Rowling, the Green Cross Code Man, Banksy, Beak>, Boycie off Only Fools and Horses, Eats Everything, Cary Grant (RIP), Gravenhurst (RIP), Smith & Mighty and Aardman. Friendly Records, Forever People (RIP), Revolver (RIP). Wiper and True and Lost and Grounded. Vegan food everywhere and a reggae-inspired fish’n’chip shop down the road.

I realise nowhere is perfect – Brexit is still going to happen wherever I go, the blue passport suede denim secret police appear to be unavoidable. Hopefully here I’m a lot less likely to run in to Nigel Farage outside a side street wine bar (as I did in Covent Garden a few months prior to the referendum – glad to say I wasn’t the only one to shout wanker at him).

Down here, away from the aural fog of the capitol, it feels right now like the perfect place to start again as a proud citizen of the world. Yeah, I think I’m going to like it here.


Robin Turner on Caught by the River / on Twitter