The views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or the British Government. This guest blog post is shared to highlight the life and career opportunities experienced by Marshall Scholars who have studied in the United Kingdom.
In the early 1980s, the song 99 Red Balloons was a big hit in the U.K. By an obscure German band that I never heard of again, it captured some of the mood of the times, and at least in my memory calls forth some of the aspects of life in England in those days.
You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
England in the early 1980s had not yet accelerated into the ultra-sophisticated, expensive, globally branded environment that one sees today, where for example it is far easier to find a latte in Central London that a plain cup of tea. There was an air of very faded elegance in the Brighton/Hove neighborhood from which I commuted to the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex. Our student “bedsits” came equipped with space heaters and you had to insert 10p coins for a few moments of warmth; hot water was only available for a few hours each day, to keep down costs. These were not environmental measures, but economic ones; postwar scrimping and saving lived on in a generally budget conscious population. Daily necessities like wholemeal bread, and “sound” vegetables seemed so inexpensive, but many shoppers took careful note of differences of a few pence. Simplicity seemed a virtue.
99 Red Balloons, floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert, there’s something here from somewhere else
I was struck when I arrived in England by the strongly engrained “Britishness” and very well defined cultural tradition on the one hand, but the great diversity of people living with me, on the other. I was surprised by both. In all aspects of daily life, there was an accepted way to do things, and clarity about the correct behavior. Yet I attended university with a pool of students from all over the world, and in my 30-member MPhil class, I had colleagues from Africa, India, Latin America, Japan and even Fiji. Part of this diversity came from the generosity of British scholarships, and part from the nature of my program in Development Studies. We all had to learn to do things in the tried and true British way, when faced with universal certainty any unanimity of advice; we shared tips on how to adapt. I also had the benefit of friendship from two other Marshall Scholars at Sussex – LoriAnn Thrupp and JanAart Scholte, both of whom were quick adapters! Many habits and customs I retain to this day: I warm the pot when I make my morning tea; I search for a complimentary remark to offer before any criticism; I keep a rain jacket in the saddlebag of my bicycle; and I put my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right. I lost the habit of turning up on time when I lived in Brazil for 5 years!
99 Decision Street, 99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call out the troops now in a hurry
Greenham Common, probably unknown to young people today, was an important place in these years. Women established a peace camp outside the RAF base there, to proteststhe placement of nuclear weapons. In 1982 and 1983, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 miles perimeter of the base, in protest against the decision to site American cruise missiles there. The peace camp became home to women for years, who continued protests until eventually the cruise missiles were returned to the U.S. Social movements, including the anti-nuclear movement and the women’s movement, were hallmarks of this age, and the tactics so different from today – they were very physical, relied on large numbers of participants, were sometimes quite radical and endured for years. There was a sense of challenge to old hierarchies, some of it clearly political, and some less well defined, but certainly angry. This was the age of punks, young people with outrageous green hair, threatening clothes and a nonconformist outlook. Anarchy was considered a good thing by a number of the social movements in this era; change was clearly sought, and achieved in a personal identity, while aiming for more public transformation.
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty, in the dust that was a city
I could find a souvenir, just to prove the world was here
There was no apocalypse, but certainly major change did come to Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a revised political map and economic growth that lasted for many years, and ate away at the high unemployment, anxiety and anger as well no doubt at the 99p bread loaves and piles of Swedes and turnips. The new royal couple inhabit a country with clear challenges, some of them quite familiar to the Marshall Scholars of the 1980s, but a red balloon at their wedding will be a metaphor for happiness and not a threat.
The above blog is Jennifer Adams, former Marshall Scholar and State Department Foreign Service Officer currently based in Beijing.
28 April 2011