As some of you know, I spent the best part of 22 years living in London. This means that I’m possessed with a sort of permanent wistful melancholy, a penchant for a mug of PG tips and the occasional violent outburst at a football match. You can imagine that the cultural baggage one accumulates in the UK is kind of hard to share with someone who doesn’t understand the culture. The English sense of humour is famously puzzling to anyone who hasn’t spent time on the British Isles.
True, it’s hardly as obscure as say being from Botswana, but when I want to reminisce about watching Newsround and Bananaman, I’ve always felt fellow Brits were few and far between in Beirut. Any Beirutis who grew up in the US have it easy, American culture being so ubiquitous that I’m sure even Massai tribesmen in Kenya are aware that Ross and Rachel were on a break. Anyone who grew up in France is also spoilt for choice when it comes to popular culture. Lebanon is a francophone country, and prides itself, sometimes misguidedly, on its links to our ex-colonizers, something of a prolonged Stockholm syndrome. You even get the full bouquet of French terrestrial and satellite TV stations from your neighborhood pirate cable provider. My provider comes in the form of a diminutive Armenian man who seems to have inherited very little from his ancestors beyond one tooth, a stutter, a sweaty disposition and no understanding of what the BBC is.
I can’t complain too much though, because things are much easier than the last time I moved to Beirut in 1997. Back then I had to rely on memory for any attachment to my native London. I had to dig out old VHS tapes of Have I Got News For You, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. Oh, by the by, VHS tapes were those big boxy things we used before DVDs, for you kids out there.
Now I download the latest episodes of QI and Mock The Week on YouTube. I download podcasts from BBC Four, and enjoy the surreal prospect of listening to Germaine Greer discuss post-feminism whilst I’m stuck in traffic behind a pimped-out yellow Honda Civic with two of Lebanon’s finest soldiers whistling at everything in a skirt.
And more recently, I’ve actually been meeting Brits, of the proper kind and the Lebanese kind, like myself. And as they say, once it rains it pours. I went from not knowing a single Brit for years to suddenly being surrounded by people from all corners of the UK. I’m overcome with a very un-English sense of joy when I speak to someone who has a proper English accent, never mind if it’s from Godalming, Somerset or Manchester. So in the last few weeks I’ve been remincing about a childhood spent watching Superted, Neighbours and The Bill. I’ve been recounting tales of meeting Jet, Hunter and John Fashinu at a taping of Big Break’s Christmas special with John Virgo and Jim Davidson. This probably means nothing to most people, but it means the world to me.
I’ve been away from Beirut for a couple of weeks now. I spent a few days in London last week, and it was refreshing to walk around aimlessly on pavements under a gentle drizzle. It was nice to wander into Waterstone’s and ask knowledgeable staff for book recommendations. It was nice to walk past my old school, my old university and my old flat. It was nice to walk into a pub with carpets rendered pungent from years of spilt lager. It was nice to have a conversation with a cabbie “bout all these fecking foreigners”, with a delightful sense of irony and self-awareness.
One particularly chilly day I headed to Canary Wharf for an interview. I boarded the Jubilee Line armed with a well-stocked iPod and a copy of the Financial Times. As the train trundled along, I caught a reflection of myself in the window. I was far paler than I was a week ago, especially in the unforgiving neon light. I looked like a caged corporate slave again, my Windsor knot choking any ambitions of creativity I have been harboring for the past year. My lips were chapped. I looked down at my hands clutching the FT, dried and cracked from the subzero temperatures outside. When I got to my interview, I gave it my all. I was even invited back for a second round, which I’ve politely declined.
I’m afraid London isn’t home anymore. I’m afraid there are ambitions I have for myself in Beirut, I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes a difference. I have role to play in Beirut that surpasses my role as a faceless zombie on the Jubilee Line. Plus its warm in Beirut. And most important of all, I miss it.