UK left-right and communism

by Lorenzo Piccoli

Even after a very short stay in the UK I keep on being confused when I have to cross a street, watching compulsively both at my right and left and putting my life at risk.

By the way, I am reading Bryson’s Notes from a small Island which I found in a small independent bookshop in Brighton. I wanted to get through the entire book for a long time, but never had a chance to read it in the original language. Now I can finally confirm that it’s hilarious, and pretty accurate too.

Daniel’s is the most extraordinary place. It has all the features you expect of a provincial department store – low ceilings, tiny obscure departments, frayed carpets held down with strips of electrician’s tape, a sense that this space was once occupied by about eleven different shops and dwellings all with slightly differentelevations – but it has the oddest assortment of things on sale: knicker elastic and collar snaps, buttons and pinking shears, six pieces of Portmeirion china, racks of clothing for very old people, a modest few rolls of carpet with the sort of patterns you get when you rub your eyes too hard, chests of drawers with a handle missing, wardrobes on which one of the doors quietly swings open fifteen seconds after you experimentally shut it. Daniel’s always puts me in mind of what Britain might have been like under Communism.

It has long seemed to me unfortunate – and I’m taking the global view here – that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have managed it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those above the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

Please understand I’m not saying that Britain would have been a happier, better place under Communism, merely that the British would have done it properly. They would have taken it in their stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating. In point of fact, until about 1970 it wouldn’t have made the slightest discernible difference to most people’s lives, and might at least have spared us Robert Maxwell.