The other day, I was in town and saw perhaps the most talked-about and infamous Brexiteer in all of Britain walking out of a toilet.
He looked a bit sad. His shoulders hunched, his shuffle awkward. He looked like his suit jacket was hungry and swallowing him up.
It was the kind of moment where normally, if it hadn’t been him, I might have said something. A polite hello or a smile, at least.
But I had no interest in talking to this man, and what was even stranger, was that I immediately felt a bit sad too. Like I’d caught it.
I thought that was interesting. The fact that my first emotional response to seeing this guy – whose words I’ve found revolting and whose actions have infuriated me – was, above all else, sadness.
Just his very presence did that to me; it was like being in a room with a sad ghost. There were only two of us there, in a corridor I know for a fact was brightly lit but which in my memory is in a hazy gloom.
Now, I have no idea if he was actually sad. He might be permanently delighted at the way everything is going. He might live in a house packed to the rafters with helium balloons and Toby jugs and ace posters of Spitfires.
But maybe I felt sad because here was a British man with power – whose blokey voice had been at the forefront of something I think more and more of us can agree will be damaging to very many of the things we hold dear – and I felt like a British man he’d stolen something from. I didn’t feel powerful in the least. I was just a normal man who was now heading for the toilets, checking his pockets. And maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Somehow we’re going to have to get back to that Britain of 2012
Because remember how proud we were of Britain just six years ago, when the Olympics and the Paralympics were coming to play, and for months beforehand we did what we always do, and we said how rubbish we were going to be at it.
Every taxi driver said traffic was going to be a nightmare and they were going to go to Corfu instead. We mocked the logo, and laughed at the weird mascots. I was doing a daily radio show at the time and someone tried to tell me I wasn’t allowed to say the words “gold” or “Olympics” on air as they were copyrighted or something. It was all going to be a glorious British mess, just like we said it would.
And then we watched the opening ceremony.
And we prepared to cringe.
And within five minutes we were struck by just how inventive, inspiring, inclusive, creative and fiercely artistic we are. How compassionate and caring and good we can be. How we are happy to be the butt of our own jokes, because we are big enough and funny enough to take them.
We were the ugly duckling looking into the water and seeing a swan in a moment where the red, white and blue suddenly took on this incredible, new, modern worth.
That one night sort of made us… nicer. And we were happy, even proud, to show that side of ourselves to the world, because that’s what we are, and that’s what Britain is.
Or it was, in 2012.
The world remembers that Britain, like a glorious summer fling, and they’re going to be very surprised when they notice how much we’ve let ourselves go. How mean we’ve become, and how snide. How our public figures suddenly wear monocles and tweed and go fox hunting and can’t make jokes that don’t make others feel bad.
And somehow we’re going to have to get back to that Britain of 2012, because without ignoring the outrageous inequalities and shameful poverty we also foster, the idea of that Britain is one too good to let go of. The forward-thinking, outward-looking Britain that sees a nourishing pride in the red, white and blue. Not the Britain scribbled on the wall of a toilet by a man looking sad in a corridor, where the red, white and blue is nothing more than Simply Red, White Lightning and Duncan from Blue.
And I have no solution. Obviously I don’t. I’m just a sad man walking into a toilet, hoping that the little-too-sure-of-himself powerful man hasn’t totally ruined it in there.
But it seems to me that if we’re launching Britain 2.0, then there are those that seem to loudly declare that we can only move forward by going backwards. That the Britain of the future will somehow be better if it’s the Britain of the past.
And for the first time, I actually agree with them.
But only if we can all agree to go back six years and six years only, when for just a wonderful and sunny moment we were absolutely sure of our place in the world.
And it was a place a lot better than a corridor outside some toilets that a man who no longer looked entirely sure of himself had only just used.