In the late autumn of 2012, in a cold ground-floor room on the South Side of Chicago, I watched Queens Park Rangers record the worst start to a season in Premier League history. The club had recently been saved from a decade of lower-league ignominy thanks to the investment of foreign billionaires who somehow saw in this humble West London institution the possibility of profit and prestige. For as long as I had supported them, QPR had always been the subject of affectionate ridicule: there was something endearingly pathetic about a small, shambolic club muddling on alongside its bigger, richer, more successful neighbors. But the team I watched from Chicago was an altogether different kind of joke—the aspirational upstart that had tried to buy success beyond its station, the one that everyone wanted to see fail. And fail they did. Between August and mid-December—the first four months of my Midwestern exile—QPR’s expensively assembled team didn’t manage a single win in sixteen attempts. Saturday mornings in my new home began to take on a depressing routine. I would scour the underside of the internet before finally settling on a halfway decent stream scrambled from somewhere in the Middle East. Pixelated images of players four thousand miles away would stutter around my computer screen. After ninety minutes of this, QPR would lose. I would close my laptop, frustrated, alone, alienated in Chicago.
I had known that leaving England involved giving up a degree of intimacy with things I cared about. But whatever anxiety I had about moving from London to Chicago had far more to do with the culture I was joining than the one I was leaving behind. America, after all, was the great unknown. Relationships from back home that I cared most about—with family, close friends and my football team—I assumed would take care of themselves. Those ties go deep and transcend distance. But the growing disaffection I was feeling for QPR was an early warning that it wouldn’t be quite so easy to fit my old life into my new world. Fandom in London had always been accompanied by the buzz generated from the atmosphere in the stadium, or by cathartic post-match rants in the pub with friends that helped soften the feeling of righteous outrage at terrible performances and profit-hungry board decisions—the all-too-familiar indignation that your loyalty and support are being rewarded like this. The actual football was almost incidental, which was just as well because the football was often terrible. In Chicago, however, the football was all that was left. Internet streams and match reports, shorn of the palliative experience of fandom, revealed how bad my team was, how little the players representing the club really cared. In London, supporting QPR had provided a sense of meaning and belonging; in Chicago, it was a weekly source of masochism.
As much as you might think that being miles away would make it easy to ignore things from home that cause nothing but frustration, there’s something about the strain of distance that makes your relationship with those things both less fulfilling and more necessary. Maybe this is why it’s so common to find expatriates who love to complain about how much their home countries have changed for the worse since they left. They feel the need to stay connected somehow, but as Zadie Smith pointed out a couple of years ago, “Without the balancing context of everyday life all you have is the news, and news by its nature is generally bad. Quickly you become hysterical. Consequently I can’t tell whether the news coming out of my home is really as bad as it appears to be, or whether objects perceived from three thousand miles away are subject to exaggerations of size and color.” Headlines, polemics about societal decay, bad performances, depressing match reports: they all make you exasperated, but you keep seeking them out because it’s a way of keeping in touch. QPR were making me miserable and distorting my perspective on things I cared deeply about, but I couldn’t under any circumstances stop watching. The irritation felt vital. Hysteria was at least some kind of affection for home.
Most of the Londoners I meet over here are quick to voice the same hysterical complaint: that London is fast becoming a neoliberal dystopia, an already unaffordable city being sold off to a global rentier-elite. It’s a depressing narrative, no doubt exaggerated, and it’s one I find myself wanting to substantiate. Since moving to Chicago I have read more about London than I ever did when I lived there. Books and essays on London’s addiction to surveillance cameras; on the bulldozing of Hackney and Stratford to make way for the 2012 Olympics; on the “regeneration” of Battersea Power Station (described by Will Self as an icon of the mid-century era when “London was a more homogeneous city with curious aspirations towards municipal socialism, which included the idea that the generation of power was a social concern and electricity a common good”) into luxury Art Deco apartments, where the haute bourgeoisie priced out of Chelsea might find refuge south of the river. I’ve read countless articles on the privatization of public space and London’s housing crisis. Recently I read—sympathetically, even—an essay in Vice about how young humanities graduates are descending on London from the provinces and turning it into a safer, duller and ultimately more expensive city. I read these things for the same reason I persist in watching a bad football team each week: because despairing about home is better than disavowing it, and being angry about something you care about is preferable to losing touch with it altogether.
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It’s also a way of protecting myself from whatever kind of personality lilt might result from too much exposure to America. I’m worried about developing one of those jarring transatlantic accents shared by people who enjoy rootless privilege (East Coast WASPs nostalgic for the Old World, British intellectuals who have been too long in the American academy, Tony Blair) so I listen to BBC podcasts while falling asleep and persevere with idioms I know people won’t understand. But I’m also aware that this cultural defensiveness can very easily curdle into a particularly English brand of anti-Americanism. There’s a long tradition of English writers resorting to dumb generalizations about America. Martin Amis once published a collection of essays on “encounters with America” under the title of The Moronic Inferno, in which he dwelt on the country’s obsession with guns, fame and money. Or take the patrician novelist Edward St. Aubyn, who spent a large chunk of Mother’s Milk mocking American militarism, fast food and “a special kind of tender American obesity; not the hard-won fat of a gourmet, or the juggernaut body of a truck driver, but the apprehensive fat of people who had decided to become their own airbag systems in a dangerous world.” This isn’t just the customary cultural imperialism of the smart-set English sort who heads abroad with pen in hand and prejudice fixed. Something about America shocks English writers out of self-effacement and into cliché. These Americans, with their big drinks and tall buildings and wide waists! Better to disdain the inferno as moronic than to expose yourself to its depths.
In a famous essay Edward Said pointed out that, unlike exiles and refugees, expatriates and émigrés live in other countries voluntarily, confident that they can create a life pretty much anywhere. Moving to America was as much about exposing myself to a new environment as it was about getting away from things I disliked about England, such as its tendency for small-island parochialism and its culture of deference, or the people who sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the rugby. Chance encounters with English strays have tended to reinforce my relief at being away from a society obsessed with identity and class. It’s all the more galling, then, to realize how much I conform to American perceptions of the English “type” who deals with awkwardness by being self-deprecating, who apologizes when trying to be nice, and who supports a doomed sports franchise with a name like Queens Park Rangers.
In short, I’ve never felt more English than when living in Chicago. Maybe this is how everyone feels when they move here; it’s not a city that encourages familiarity, or that screams to you, “Settle down, you belong here!” As Saul Bellow put it, “Chicago was nowhere. It had no setting. It was something released into American space.” The Midwest was proving especially inhospitable in the winter of 2014, deep into the “polar vortex,” when I read James Wood’s essay in the London Review of Books about growing slowly detached from England, having moved across the Atlantic two decades before. Wood wrote about how he had confidently left home seeking “adventures in alienation” only to end up realizing, long after the fact, “how strangely departure would obliterate return.” America would always feel too different, and home had turned into a foreign country in his absence. Inventing an awkward word for his awkward condition, Wood decided that he was “homeloose”: yearning for an England that had disappeared, irritated with the one that had replaced it, and always a little uncomfortable in the America he had moved to. Only three years into my own adventure in alienation, I don’t yet recognize, as Wood does, the impossibility of going home. But it’s unclear which is the more attractive option: accepting my Englishness, the limits of my worldliness, the uncomfortable realization of how much I’ve been shaped by a culture I never overly identified with; or releasing myself into American space, drifting into Wood’s homelooseness.
Recently, I found a bar on the other side of the city where, amazingly, I can watch QPR games with Chicago’s West London diaspora. There’s something comforting about knowing that there are others, and that they each have their own reasons for unconditional loyalty. Despite the company, watching communally in a Midwestern sports bar can be more alienating than watching alone in bed. There’s the distraction of the 65 other televisions broadcasting the games of more popular teams; there’s the discordant background noise of Chicagoans who have decided to support Chelsea, valiantly trying to be hooligans, singing chants in slightly the wrong rhythm, shouting the right expletives but at the wrong time. Basically, the whole scene is very American: something foreign has been adopted, without really being assimilated. A piece of the Old World survives, is being cultivated and performed, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, and in a slightly off-kilter fashion. It’s a barroom bricolage that hovers somewhere between cosmopolitan and kitsch, a fundamentally American kind of pastiche. Or maybe that’s just what an Englishman would say.
Art credit: Alex Chinneck, “A Pound of Flesh for 50p,” 7500 wax bricks, wax windows and doors melted over 45 days 2014 London, UK Image Credit: Chris Tubbs.