Hunstanton, England, is, in my estimation, the single most depressing town on earth. My dad was born and raised in the U.K., which means that I’ve taken many trips across the pond to visit family. Most of those vacations were spent in and around London—a true world city, overflowing with fascinating museums, incredible restaurants, and fit young people in limited-edition sneakers. But I have also decamped to other destinations in the country, like Norwich, Reading, and most memorably, this tiny little beach hamlet that contains the authentic soul of the nation.
We arrived at Hunstanton in the middle of August 2011, when it was about 58 degrees. The slate-gray sky seemed to meld with the pallid beige sand below, and a long stretch of identical, soggy chipperies paneled a destitute boardwalk. Inside, you could find the British—grim, terse, translucent, and suffering from a persistent, generational head cold—amplifying the repellent vibes of the region to a keening, mind-piercing apogee. (Throughout my four days in Hunstanton, I don’t think I saw a single Briton smile. To think they were all on holiday!) After one particularly soggy, uninspired lunch, I decided to pop into a gift shop on the way back to our rented condo, eager for any sort of respite from the bleakness. It was absolutely sinking with racist golliwog trinkets, which, in my estimation, became taboo in roughly 1973.
Ah, yes. The true England. Not a land filled with aureate intrigue and professorial verve. Not a country of esteemed European opulence and genteel estates. Not a realm that puts all of the crude artlessness and gauche excess of the New World to shame. No: For better or worse, this place reminded me of America.
For most of my adult life, England has insulated the world from this horrible truth. The country’s primary diplomats to North America were people like Hugh Grant and Helen Mirren, who spoke the Queen’s English and graciously won all of our trophies and praise. In fiction, the English could be deleterious and cruel, but they always wielded power with cunning aptitude—Cruella de Vil is easily the smartest person in 101 Dalmatians. Same with Emperor Palpatine, Hannibal Lecter, Scar from The Lion King, and so on. But in 2022, the facade cracked wide open. Americans across the country are once again engaging in a hallowed tradition that was lost to our culture sometime after the Revolutionary War: ruthlessly clowning on our former colonial overlords.
May I direct your attention to this TikTok, uploaded in early October, that documents a “day in the life” of a “true Brexit geezer.” The anonymous author, who goes by the username @Edo.Teacher, attacks a blown-out microphone with a sauced, wheezing Cockney accent and narrates a litany of grim English rituals. “Pitch looking lovely today, lads,” he says, as the screen cuts to a muddy wasteland of a soccer field. “Just a bit of banter,” he adds, accompanied by a stock photo of two shirtless men, beset by drooping beer bellies, putting up their fists for a roadside rumble. The TikTok gathered over 250,000 likes, and the comments are lousy with U.K. slander. “U.K. is eastern Europe of the West,” notes one. “Food seems too nice,” says another. The TikTok became a genuine phenomenon on the platform, and today you can find countless uploads documenting other “true Brexit geezers.”
Similarly, another TikTok trend takes aim at the defensiveness of the United Kingdom as their reputation deteriorates abroad. User @VonViddy pioneered a formula in which he posits a seemingly innocuous question, something you can imagine a bemused tourist asking on their first day in England—“Huh, so you guys drive on the other side of the road?”—only to be reprimanded by a horrific eldritch monstrosity, with a mouth full of ingrown teeth, barraging us with lowest-common-denominator anti-American axioms like “WELL, AT LEAST OUR SCHOOLS ARE NOT A SHOOTING GALLERY, MATE!” It’s the sort of clapback that would’ve been supremely damaging a decade ago, but these days, it mostly just sounds like overcompensation.
And then there was the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2022, when news spread that Queen Elizabeth II had died at the age of 96. A decade ago, this would’ve been cause for a pious international mourning period—and it was that, in certain refined circles. But instead, I will remember that day most for its hilarious, unrepentant, galactically offensive tide of shitposting. A tweet that superimposed the Spirit Halloween banner over Buckingham Palace garnered over 341,000 likes. “Pour one out today,” wrote another user, alongside an image of a spilled can of beans. The caustic attitude defied demographics—it unglued itself from meta-ironic internet discourse and became something broadly representative of the general American spirit. At a UFC pay-per-view shortly after the queen’s passing, fans booed through the requisite moment of silence. At long last, national unity.
It’s hard to know why Americans have chosen 2022 to reignite their ancient rivalry with the United Kingdom—or really why that rivalry fell into dormancy in the first place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his modern classic The Sympathizer, made the salient point that North Americans possess an ingrained inferiority complex to English-speaking Europeans, which is a dynamic replicated in countless colonizer/colonized dynamics across the New World. Nate Bethea, an American living in England who hosts the popular Trashfuture podcast, agrees with the fundamentals of that premise. “When you’ve grown up thinking England is all Downton Abbey and Harry Potter, how do you react to the guy in a bucket hat doing a huge line of coke in front of a hooting crowd and then sticking a lit road flare in his ass because England is in the Euro finals?” he says, noting how social media has granted Americans unparalleled access to the dark, sickly heart of English culture—something you’d previously have needed to book a ticket to Hunstanton to witness firsthand.
“With this endless slate of bad news—economy in decline, the social fabric disintegrating, massively increased poverty and misery—and inscrutable cultural stuff, like British people very confidently posting food gore where they’ve mangled spaghetti Bolognese, it highlights the differences between the two countries in a way that doesn’t cast Britain as culturally superior by default,” continues Bethea. “It wouldn’t be a shock to understand that Britain has its equivalent of dickhead rednecks and boorish haters from the suburbs, but when you contrast that with the way Britain is sold to us in the U.S., people realize how much of a gap there is between fiction and reality.”
That assertion is largely correct. Every headline out of the British Isles is more apocalyptic than the last. Remember the world-historic heat wave that literally set the nation on fire? (Despite registering a temperature that would be fairly standard for a July day in Central Texas.) Or what about the hallucinogenic reign of Liz Truss, whose tax-cut program was so laughably ill-conceived that she spent less than two months residing at 11 Downing St.? Over the summer, the man in charge of Britain’s environmental policy advised his citizenry to be “less squeamish” about drinking reprocessed sewage water, as the nation’s energy crisis mounted. Everyone on earth is witnessing the slow decline of civilization, brokered by the Special Relationship.
“I sort of feel like you guys are out of your Trump era while we’re still in our Boris Johnson era, even though he’s not prime minister anymore,” says Jenna Mahale, a writer in London. “The party of deplorables still has the run of the place.”
I appreciate Mahale’s vote of confidence, but I don’t think Americans necessarily believe that they’ve transcended the frailties of the 21st century, or that England is uniquely dystopian compared with this expensive network of strip malls we call home. Instead, I think we’re just happy to have final confirmation that America is not the sole author of this gradual, managed decline, besotted by psychedelic culture wars and insane political conversation. Yes, across the pond—in the land of Downton Abbey and Harry Potter—the miserable blot of Hunstanton hungers for more. You’re in here with us now, my fellow Britons. Misery loves company.