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The happy dysfunction of Dover Americans will never create communities like the British

On board a ferry leaving Dover (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

On board a ferry leaving Dover (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


October 16, 2023   6 mins

Three hours after landing at Heathrow, I was in Chaplins, just off Dover’s Market Square, 15 yards from a sign proclaiming: “Here while searching for his Aunt Betsey Trotwood, David Copperfield rested on the doorstep and ate the loaf he had just bought.” I was not eating a loaf, but instead a bland English breakfast, served to me by a kind Czech woman, cooked by a very gruff Romanian man. Surrounding me, were broken Brits.

There was the hunchbacked man with a pork dinner; the woman in a motorised wheelchair eating sticky toffee pudding; and the obese man stuffed into a far-too-small football kit, working on a nut roast and strawberry shake. Outside, in Market Square, the only thing going on was a showdown between two addicts, “John’s a lying cunt” and “Wendy’s a fucking a fat whore”. I started on team John but quickly pivoted to team Wendy, when John insisted he hadn’t punched the guy we all just saw him punch.

I had planned on staying in Dover for two nights, but by the time the police came to take John away, it was clear I’d been fooled by decades of tourist board propaganda. Here was a scrappy, poverty-riddled port town struggling to live up to its historical hype. An essential node in modern life where motorways intersect next to a huge port, allowing us to have the stuff we have.

I thought about giving up on Dover and going to sleep, but first I went to Wetherspoons. There, I met Sandra. Or as she wrote in my phone, Sandra Puta. Since I’ve spent time in Brazil and the Bronx, I recognised this as confirmation of what was already pretty clear — she was for sale, or rent at least.

Sandra had come into the Wetherspoons 20 minutes earlier and methodically worked her way through the tables of men, none of whom wanted the problems she was selling. It was a buyer’s market anyway, since there were plenty of younger, blonder options nearby. Some were accompanied by both their newborns and their mothers, so that the latter could act as impromptu babysitters if their daughters got work. Three generations at one table.

Sandra was originally from Brazil, she told me, but had been making her way through the EU, using refugee status to get what she wanted. She’d arrived in Dover a few months ago, using what she called her “Pussy Passport” to gain a long-term visa, a flat to bring men back to, and the £170-per-week payment offered to victims of human trafficking. She alternated between talking to me and FaceTiming a man who could have been her dealer, her pimp, her boyfriend, or any combination of the above. 

She wasn’t shy about any of this — what she did, or the bullshit she told the bureaucrats. Her honesty was disarming. I’m used to deflection, but she was upfront about everything, including what she currently wanted, which was more money for crack. I made it clear I wasn’t going to help her with that. We talked for about two hours, before I left to get some sleep. The next day, I would begin my week-long walk to Portsmouth. When I woke at 5am, I had over 20 missed calls, because addicts be addicts, no matter how smart, genuine, and interesting they are.

When I planned my trek along England’s South-East coast, I had images of boardwalks crowded with arcades, high streets chock full of fish and chip shops, and town centres of ancient churches and quaint inns above pubs. I wasn’t prepared for how populated the beaches themselves would be. Despite being an island, England isn’t thought of by us Americans as having a beach culture, perhaps because in reality it’s so ingrained — the literal and figurative water everyone swims in. It’s a good attitude, which I prefer to the American one of “let’s invade the beach for a few hours with loads of paraphernalia”. The coast to the British is more about long-term therapy and less about immediate pleasure — it has to be, given the climate.

The result is the British, more than most, want to live close to the coast, even if they don’t ever swim in the water, even if it means giving up a larger house with space. The shoreline, even in the most remote parts, is dotted with trailer parks and clusters of RVs, tents, and vans — some right on the beach, others off in the hills with only a view of the ocean, but all gaining value by their proximity to the sea. Wherever in England there is the right to settle near the coast, people settle; sometimes they even settle where there isn’t the right.

Somewhere between New Romney and Rye, I met Mark, who lives with his furless cat in a van in a squatters’ camp. The pebbled land is owned by “some rich guy in Thailand who doesn’t give a fuck about us”. He claims it is one of the few remaining plots on the southern coast that hasn’t been taken away by “them fuckers in the government, or the rich”. It is a self-policing year-round community of about 100 people — most retired, on the dole, working odd day jobs, or all of the above. I’d seen other squatter communities along my walk, but none as well-organised.

Mark, and his furless cat. (Chris Arnade)

Many of the beaches I walked along between Dover and Worthing were the sad pebble and concrete beaches that Americans picture when they feel sorry for the British. They are rocky, cold, misty, mercurial — but they are busy, which fits with the rather passive English attitude toward life: people making the best of what they have and accepting things as they are, rather than trying to change them. This is how it is; this is how it’s always been.

These beaches fit what I call the British “Extra Rolo Culture”. When I worked in London in the late Nineties, the buses all had huge ads proudly announcing that a roll of Rolos now came with an extra Rolo. Eight, not seven, baby Rolos per Rolo litter. For me and my banker friends, it came to represent the material sadness of English life, compared to the US. You might have a stagnant GDP, a crumbling empire, rock-filled beaches, soggy and tasteless food, rainy and dreary weather, but don’t despair: here’s an extra Rolo!

At the time my personality was peak Wall Street and I viewed everything in economic terms, and by that measure England is something to be laughed at or pitied. That hasn’t changed in the last three decades; if anything it’s worse. The seaside towns I have walked through are a good example. I’m typing this in a pub where almost nothing works, after spending three nights in three different hotels where almost nothing worked. Where showers are either scalding hot or freezing cold. Where, when the weather turns a bit warmer than usual, people treat ice likes it’s some magical thing that can’t be accessed. Not without offending the Gods. Where everything is small, sad, half-broken and dreary.

Since then, I’ve changed. I get the extra Rolo thing now: it is about moving beyond the material, accepting what you have, which is perfectly fine, and focusing on other things. Sure, you can splurge every now and then, spoil yourself with an eighth Rolo, as a lark, but that’s not the primary point of happiness. From what I’ve seen and heard in my two long walks across England, the English working class is a lot happier, more comfortable in their own skin and content, than the American. They might suffer from many of the same problems, but they seem a lot less angry. 

While there’s a lot of reasons for this, I think the main one is, ironically, that the class system is more calcified. In the US there’s this fantasy that anyone can do anything. The elites peddle this all the time: with enough hard work you can be whatever you want to be. The corollary to that is it’s not ok to be working class. You should always be looking to move on, rather than building your own culture. Divorce your class and be better, you loser!

In the UK, the knowledge that you are stuck in your class is actually freeing. The attitude shifts from constantly trying to distance yourself from your community to contributing to it. Or at least being happy with it. Because fuck the elites and their scorn. I’m never gonna be them, so I’ll be what my dad was and my dad’s dad was. 

The result of this is the British seem like a wind-up toy that bumps over and over into a wall, but with a smile on its face. As a former banker, and an American driven to optimism, my first reaction is to find that annoying. But a decade removed from my banker days, I now see things in less material terms. I believe the biggest contributor to happiness is not having tons of stuff, but knowing your address in the universe of meaning. Knowing who you are, and why you’re here, and what will come once you’re gone. 

The English working class has that. It is eating mushy fish on pebbly beaches, then heading off to the local for a pint of bitter. That’s the difference between Dover and all the places in the US I’ve visited. They both have addicts — both have people like Sandra who are gaming the system — but in Dover, despite all the dysfunction, despite very little working, there is far more happiness than in the Bronx, or West Virginia. 

Chaplins, despite all the visible unhappiness, is a happy place. Everyone that came in knew everyone else, including lying John, and understood them. They knew where they were coming from and what they were going through. Because England, even the “worst” parts, still has a real community, built around a shared history and culture; even if it sometimes gets turned into tourism board silliness, it very much matters. The English know who they are, and are ok with it. That they also got an extra Rolo every now and then is the cherry on the top.


Chris Arnade is an American photographer. He is currently walking round the world.

Chris_arnade

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Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
8 months ago

Though I don’t think this author is quite right about community formation in the US, nevertheless this a very nice article. And I look forward to more of this kind of rumination on UnHerd – less about immigration and transphobia, more about the human condition.
And yet…! I can’t help but notice this quote:

Because England, even the “worst” parts, still has a real community, built around a shared history and culture

There are numerous parts of England where it doesn’t seem to me that there is a “shared history and culture.” When a majority of the population is immigrant, or first- or second-generation English, how much “shared history and culture” is there?
Now normally that would be no cause for worry, because the English would be busy socializing those immigrants into that shared history and culture, through common entertainments, through education curricula, through the lingua franca of advertising and news reports and so forth.
But in recent decades the English have become ashamed of that shared history and culture, and don’t want to teach it or welcome immigrants into it. It’s as if the English want to escape their history and culture for some New Labour (and now New Tory) fantasy of globalist multiculturalism, where ‘English’ means something so abstract and slippery, so vaguely idealistic, that it can’t possibly unify people in their hearts and souls and stomachs.
The English must stop fleeing from Roast Beef and Warm Ale, from Tudors and Little Dorrits, from Col. Blimp and Spitfires, and embrace that grand assortment of fascinating tragedies, triumphs and oddities that constitute their shared history, in order to preserve the possibilities of community formation the author envisions.

Last edited 8 months ago by Kirk Susong
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

The vast majority of us aren’t ashamed of our history. It’s a mistake to take too much notice of the very small minority of vocal pundits who are. Whilst they might appear to exert undue influence at the moment, they’re a mere blink of an eye in our ancient island history.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I hope/wish that were true. But when the ‘small minority of vocal pundits’ controls the apparatus of social formation – education, media, corp policies, even which historical monuments are allowed to continue existing – they can exercise a profound, out-size effect.
If the British want to reclaim their ‘shared history and culture’ they will have to be pro-active and forceful about it, and rebut the lies and half-truths that have been spread to undermine it.

Jon Shallcross
Jon Shallcross
8 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

There’s a great book by Roger Scruton that discusses just this point at length. Well worth reading: Where We Are: The State of Britain Now

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago

Whether or not this is a fair representation of the UK I’m not sure. But what is certain, the author is spot on about happiness- particularly in this age. Hopefully we are all beginning to see through the ‘embarrassed millionaire’ mindset that has been endemic in US culture. The endless narrative about aspiration and getting ahead, which apart from anything else, is just incoherent. If everyone aspires and gets ahead who exactly is there left to be ahead of? ‘Losers’ becomes a necessary part of the ideal. It wouldn’t work without them. Which then produces a discontented society with the absurd myth that everyone can be a winner. Far better is a culture of acceptance where work and financial success is not the be-all and end-all. A society which can at least provide the basics for everyone and then we can spend more time appreciating the wonders of the natural world rather than destroying them.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Happiness reliably comes from ‘knowing your place’ 
 which is a hell of a lot different from ‘accepting your lot’.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

The idea that we can go back to a predetermined hierarchy based on tradition is unrealistic to put it mildly. Such a view has not been justifiable in most people’s minds for centuries. It was seriously challenged as far back as the English Civil war. What I am recommending is that we do not conceive ‘our lot’ in financial terms alone. Which is what we do – almost unconsciously – at the moment. I am not for a minute recommending absolute equality at all. Just de-emphasizing financial reward. Why don’t we understand aspiration to mean acquiring new skills just for the sake of the enjoyment. I am always puzzled by the assumption in our culture that what we all really seek is to be able to lay next to a swimming pool all day with a cocktail to hand. Alright for a bit no doubt but personally I would feel far more fulfilled if I was great at playing a musical instrument, or a great cook, or very good at a sport.

Andy JS
Andy JS
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I agree completely. I like the idea of very occasionally sitting next to a pool drinking a cocktail on some exotic island – maybe once every five years for a few days – but I wouldn’t like to do it any more often than that, because the novelty would wear off, and you’d get fed up with it. You need the next five years of ordinary life to make the whole thing make some sort of sense. It surprises me how many people don’t seem to realise this.

Last edited 8 months ago by Andy JS
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I really despair at the expression “you can become whatever you want”

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago

Yes agree – although some explaining needed before it is clear why it is deeply misleading.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
8 months ago

Somewhere between New Romney and Rye, I met Mark, who lives with his furless cat in a van in a squatters’ camp. 

I had an image of some pathetic scabby sick feline “cared for” by an incompetent, but it cheered me up a bit to see from the picture that it was in fact one of those expensive “sphynx cats”.
What depressed me was that some traitorous bureaucrat had allowed “Sandra Puta” to settle here and add to our stock of troubles, all at our expense. In a more efficient and proud nation, someone in the “Border Force” (sic.) would be on the phone to an official in Dover this very minute, ordering that Sandra be tracked down and put on a plane back to Brazil. Her phone and cash assets seized to pay back a tiny proportion of the ticket and the misallocated funds.
The problems in this country are rarely on the beaches and cheap bars. They are much higher up, in the Government and sinecured offices.

R Wright
R Wright
8 months ago

Good piece. More of this sort of thing please.

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
8 months ago

England is not an island, as the writer claims early in this piece, but part of one. He needs to make up his mind about what and who he’s talking about, England/English people or Britain/British people. The two are not interchangeable in the back and forth sense he uses both in this piece. One needn’t be a Scottish or Welsh nationalist to object to this, sadly typical, American inability to understand this fundamental fact about British history and constitutional reality. In fact, what and who he’s writing – otherwise quite well – about is a particular slice of England and of the Englishness there. Both of these are neglected themes and deserve the kind of empathetic attention we see here, rendered interestingly through American eyes but, please sir, I doubt if you would use American and Texan or Californian interchangeably as you do here.

A Scottish reader

Last edited 8 months ago by Derek Bryce
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.
To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.
To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.
To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.
To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.
And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.

I think it’s a little curmudgeonly to expect visitors from another continent to know the difference between a Scot, an Irish, an English, and a Welsh person ;). It’d be like expecting Europeans to know the difference between someone from Minnesota and someone from Wisconsin.
The only thing Americans worry about when in the UK is not being able to understand what you’re saying.

Last edited 8 months ago by Julian Farrows
Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I disagree and, as the author himself states, he lived in the UK for a period of time. Neither is it an intellectual leap for a European to know that the US is made up of individual states. I repeat, he uses England and Britain interchangeably, so he’s either confused or wasn’t paying attention to the basics of his host country’s political organisation when he was living here. Or maybe you’re right and he doesn’t care, in which case readers should take any other insights he produces with an equivalent pinch of salt.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
8 months ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

The description of the whores and pimps is Wetherspoons sounded made up, as if he’d read Paul Theoroux and updated it.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Agreed. Although the writing and essay had it charms, it’s really impossible to compare societies like he does. I have cousins who are blue collar, Trump voters – they know who they are and it’s not that they don’t ‘aspire’ but they just get on with life, with less than most. They work hard in construction, local education, etc. They find great joy in their extended family of which I am on the outer edges because I did ‘aspire & attain’ but they still welcome me. I too am a Trump supporter but have become less welcomed by my ‘high class liberal’ friends when they realized I didn’t goose-step to their creed. I also engage locally with various groups of so-called ‘ordinary people’. They are getting along / I don’t sense despair that they’re not millionaires. Most folks are just trying to get by day to day, working, taking care of families. I do find a difference in humility & kindness at the lower end. I find those who have least are more kind and open-minded. I have had the privilege of living both high and low. I can not say that the writer’s perceptions accurately portray the lower American classes.

Last edited 8 months ago by Cathy Carron
Geoff Wilkes
Geoff Wilkes
8 months ago

I wonder if the writer has children, and if so, where he’s bringing them up.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Wilkes

Good point; or to put it another way, why is he choosing to spend two hours “chatting with Puta” before walking on? What’s he trying to escape from? His rubbish materialist past?

He sounds lost to me; lost to himself, therefore looking for meaning in squalid depictions of orhers and their surroundings. Would i give him my last Rolo? Hmm… he needs it more than most.

Kevin L
Kevin L
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I’ve been following Arnande’s travel adventures for a few years now. He made his name when he went in search of the disaffected people who voted for Trump in 2016 and, ever since, he has been travelling around the world, predominantly in working class areas, and reporting on what he finds. I recommend his blog on Substack. Lots of photos. Lots of stories.
His method is to try to immerse himself an area and get to know the people there, the lost and the lonely and the alienated. He avoids tourist areas and stays in run down places. I was a little amused that he spent every evening in England in a Weatherspoons but pleased that he had some illuminating conversations and met some interesting people. He is always sympathetic, even to the drug addicts and the prostitutes outside the edges of society.
What is he trying to escape from? Hah! Great question! I think of him as in search of something. Why is our world so broken? Why are so many people suffering? And, occasionally, how can so many people be content with their lot when it is so far from what we might have chose for ourselves?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I show him the rollo before scarfing it down. He could add me to the menagerie he appears to be collecting.

Last edited 8 months ago by Bret Larson
Neil Cheshire
Neil Cheshire
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The segment about ‘Sandra Puta’ is a journalistic rarity – honest reporting of the devious activity of an ‘asylum seeker’.

Last edited 8 months ago by Neil Cheshire
Cynthia W.
Cynthia W.
8 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Wilkes

He left his family.

Liam F
Liam F
8 months ago

Interesting and well written, with a Bill Bryson style wit. Be interested to know if Chris is going to publish any photos of his travels.

Andy JS
Andy JS
8 months ago
Reply to  Liam F

I like the picture of the furless cat.

Leejon 0
Leejon 0
8 months ago

This piece seems to encapsulate the why we snigger at those tourists who think of themselves as travellers engaging (fleetingly) with other cultures. Weekend publishing must take what it can get I suppose.

Andy JS
Andy JS
8 months ago
Reply to  Leejon 0

Of course most people can’t afford to travel for more than a few days, and unless we expect them to stay at home their whole lives, by definition it means that when they do travel it’ll be pretty superficial precisely because they can only do it for a short time. So I’ve always found that criticism to be slightly unfair, because only the wealthy can afford to spend a long time abroad.

Last edited 8 months ago by Andy JS
Andrew H
Andrew H
8 months ago

I’ve got a few quibbles with some of this but it’s a good read and I’d like to see more of his journey on Unherd.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
8 months ago

“I believe the biggest contributor to happiness is not having tons of stuff, but knowing your address in the universe of meaning.” Nice line.
I think arguing over whether we’re talking about England or Britain (as some commenters seem to do) rather misses the point. There are many different ‘Englands’ and if you restrict yourself, as the author has done, to just one of them – the run-down south coast seaside towns – then you will get a very one-sided perspective. If he walked around some of the northern ex-industrial cities or rural East Anglia he might come to a very different conclusion.
As a Londoner, I have taken refuge in one of the few parts of the country that is not “something to be laughed at or pitied” and where I still recognise some of values of shared history and culture that made us a great nation. On my rare visits I barely recognise the city of my birth. Apart from a few architectural landmarks, I could be anywhere in the world. That’s what an overdose of multiculturalism can do.

Last edited 8 months ago by Rocky Martiano
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

I would quibble “knowing your home address”. Because gulag 3 doesn’t sound like a source of happiness.

Belinda Shaw
Belinda Shaw
8 months ago

Thank you for this. I come from a very depressed working-class town in England (of course I got out, my family were obsessed with education) and I recognise the “make the best of it” attitude described here. And this kindness and social solidarity isn’t just in the white English community, contrary to some other comments – some of the newest immigrants from Muslim or African backgrounds, demonstrate the highest levels of neighbourliness in poor communities. Example, during the pandemic, my elderly relatives were checked on, shopped for, and made to feel less alone by local Syrian refugees who are in no way embraced by the white working class community there.

Adam M
Adam M
8 months ago

Quite a touching piece about an ‘Anywhere’ discovering the lowly lives of the ‘Somewheres’. As someone who spent a lot of my childhood on the south coast, this makes me quite nostalgic. It’s a little snapshot of a disappearing time. I’d happily read a longer article about the full journey to Portsmouth. Maybe you could rename this piece ‘The road to Clarence pier’.

Carol Hayden
Carol Hayden
8 months ago

This article is interesting as a particular window on a part of Britain but tends toward the stereotype of ‘left behind’ coastal areas much beloved by the London based media. The scenes depicted are recognisable but not illustrative of most of the working class in such areas. I live on the south coast. There are families enjoying barbecues on the beach in our increasingly hot summers, windsurfers, paddle boarders, sailing 
.
And plenty of restaurants

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
8 months ago

Canny American members of the commentariat are belatedly embracing “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” (or, as I prefer to put it, “When in Jonestown …). This one’s in the UK, so he whinges and moans and gets to sell the result to Unherd because we lap it up.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
8 months ago

What a really nice article. Very well observed too I think. As an expat Brit, I feel the same way as his 90’s banker did and sometimes (maybe even always) forget how good the other stuff is. Just getting on with things is a pretty good attitude to have.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

Is the crack good in Dover? Asking for a friend.