A Field Guide to British Democracy — Sophie Atkinson

British democracy is this one talk you go to. It’s being given by a young Virgin Music exec: he’s handsome and has great boots and gives off a heady musk of self-confidence. Even five rows back you can smell it. He’s talking about how they sign new musicians. “Going with your gut only takes you so far – if you’re not sure, take a look at their stats. Facebook likes. Twitter followers. Instagram followers. How many do they have? Are they relevant? Are they a hashtag?”

British democracy is a homeless woman in the park throwing a bottle at your friend’s head. Your group turns on her and she stands her ground and shouts back. You’re scared of her/admire her ability to thrive in the midst of conflict. That evening you see her in a doorway by your flat. The next morning she’s still there. You duck your head and hurry past, though you can feel her watching you.

British democracy is that one week where two different men you know pat you on the head in greeting and a third pronounces you “charmingly naïve”. You resolve to stop smiling so much in the workplace.

British democracy is someone trying to steal your bike and then, presumably in a rage at not being able to get through your lock, cutting your brakes just for the hell of it. You don’t notice until you approach a red light and sail through it, coming centimetres close to being knocked off your bike by cars that honk at you, thinking you’re just being kind of an asshole.

British democracy is a friend working twelve hours a day and getting fired and then finding a new job and then getting fired – cost-cutting. He goes on to find a third job but stops going out/spending any money and takes on extra work outside of the office because even after eight months he’s certain he’ll lose his job again and what’s scarier than not being able to make the rent? Now his life looks like this: work, sleep, work, sleep, work, work, sleep.

British democracy is everybody’s leaving London. In the month after the election, you get emails most days from London-based names: what is it like there? Is it good? Are you having fun? You look like you’re having fun in your photos. They should move too, right? They’re moving. They’ll be there in summer. They’ll meet you for a beer. Do you know how they can find a flat?

British democracy is that stress rash on your collarbone that won’t go away, even though you do Youtube yoga and breathing exercises and eat fruit and vegetables basically daily apart from those very grey days where anything beyond boxsets toast and existentialism seem like too much work.

British democracy is that guy your colleague is seeing’s hand casually, lazily, probably accidentally grazing the curve of your breast as he dances with you at 5am after too much to drink.

British democracy is a Christmas present an old schoolmate bought for you that stays at the back of your cupboard but is hauled out and hastily polished minutes before her arrival. Out of sight, out of mind the rest of the time, though. But you were given it and you’re thankful for it, not in its itness, but it in the abstract: the idea of the present rather than the present itself.

British democracy is “I turned round and she was on the floor. For a second, we wondered if someone had spiked her drinks. Everyone crowded round and I peeled open her eyelids and her eyes were rolling back in her skull so all I could see were the white parts. Does that happen if someone’s dead? I guess not.”

British democracy is the man who lives upstairs blasting techno at 4am on a Tuesday. You’re jolted awake and into a self-righteous rage. You consider battering on his door to tell him to “turn it DOWN, okay?” until you recall running into him on the stairs the previous weekend, when he mentioned he recently lost his job. And really, you’ve been there (who hasn’t?) and no matter how many times the word “funemployment” is used, half in jest, half in jealousy, it doesn’t ever really abate the tedium and the fear of the thing.

British democracy is radio luminary Ira Glass confessing on This American Life that he feels profoundly insecure in his marriage and therefore compelled to win the love of his wife afresh every single day. This sounds like the sort of ultra-specific hell you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and what any compassionate human being should think is you poor guy. You poor, poor sucker. But what you actually think is if someone as velvet-throated and internationally-feted as Ira Glass feels insecure in his love ties, then what hope is there for the rest of us? What if you’re not white, male, adorable and suffering from vocal fry? What then?

British democracy is a bruise on your left arm and a bruise on your right arm and neither of them will go away. You only got one injection and five minutes later, your right arm, your copycat coward arm, has welled up as if in dark sympathy with the left. The bruises start to turn the queasy yellow of rotting fruit. You admire their obstinate ugliness. You wish you could be more like your bruises: it’s so important to be pretty. Summer dresses are now out of the question even though it’s 28 C out and you’re the only person in the city, the world, the universe in scratchy wool jumpers at this temperature.

British democracy is hearing a small, angry voice on the train say “God, why do you always have to make it an emotional issue? I just want to discuss suicide on a purely intellectual basis for once.”

British democracy probably isn’t a piece in which the writer constructs uneasy and somewhat clunky parallels between her state of growing anxiety in the world and her heightened anxiety about politics in the aftermath of the British General Election 2015.

British democracy is the ways we’re fucked and fuck over every day, scalp against the headboard, a restless rhythmic tedium.


Sophie Atkinson is a writer based in Berlin. She feels weird about British politics from a safe distance. @SophEAtkinson

Image: Barbie, Saturday Night, © Chris Marchant, Creative Commons