I was sitting in a pub in Suffolk, chatting to the barmaid. She’d just moved back to England after living in the United States for many years. She was enjoying her new life and extolling the pleasures of the small town she lived in now. ‘But,’ she added at the end of the paean, ‘it is very white’. It was said almost apologetically, with little conviction. On the surface, it was as phoney and empty a gesture as when an atheist who finds themselves in a church service says ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayers. But it was also a signal, whose meaning was something like, ‘I may live in a town whose population is 90% white but I’m not a racist, honestly, I’m a Good Person’.
‘Very white’ and ‘too white’ are phrases you hear a lot these days, often from people who’ve decamped from a big city, usually London, to a small town or village. Unlike the barmaid I met, many of them really mean it. Having fled the metropolis to escape the crime, violence, filth, and general unpleasantness that are integral to the contemporary London experience, they arrive in their little English market towns and find them all a little bit, well, dull.
Sure, the people are friendly, the streets are clean, there are no machete gangs, and you can trust the neighbours to take an Amazon or Waitrose delivery for you. But that isn’t enough. One problem is that here, so far from the rumble-tumble of the ‘world city’, you’re confronted with your bland, irredeemable middle-classness. Living in London, for all its downsides, meant that some of that ‘edginess’ and ‘vibrancy’ rubbed off on you and made you, or so you felt, less boring. Now you’ve lost it all.
So you settle in to your new life and your biggest gripe (unless that is, Waitrose doesn’t deliver to your area) is that it’s all too white. Of course, you wouldn’t dream of complaining on one of your holidays that St Lucia, say, is very black, or that Bodrum lacks diversity. That’s different. And whiteness is different — everyone knows that. There’s just too damn much of it. Even the local Indian restaurant isn’t as good as the ones in London, and in any case, you secretly despise the staff for their theatrical deference and inauthentic cuisine.
The only possible excitement that might come along, you think as you sip your Wine Society Malbec, is that these privileged white neighbours of yours might harbour some dark secrets. Might there be a local child abuse ring? Or swingers’ club? Or a pagan cult that sacrifices animals — or even babies — on special occasions? Yes, a bit of indigenous English folk-horror — that would liven things up alright.