AT the turn of the century, my mother took me to London to see where she had been born. We caught a train from Liverpool Street Station, where during the war she had commuted to her job in Threadneedle Street. Her childhood home was in a row of terraced houses in Chingford, and in that half-hour journey through the suburbs, I watched her face change. After a few stops we were the only white people in the carriage, and she looked uneasy as a group of exuberant black youths crowded around us.

Chingford was as she remembered, if more gentrified, but neither it, nor the glittering financial heart of London, where her bosses had once rushed in top hats to the stock market floor, remained as it had been. Fifty years earlier, when she boarded the train to Scotland, she had been intensely glad to leave. That sentiment was echoed as our visit ended, and we headed back north, to deepest East Lothian, a place so untouched by urbanisation and multi-culturalism that it would still be recognisable to John Muir, perhaps even to John Knox.

Of course things change in half a century. It would be peculiar and alarming if they did not. And much of London’s reconfiguration and expansion has been not just good but essential. The city my mother grew up in was not that different from Dickens’s day, and no-one needs to be reminded of the dreadful conditions in which many of the population lived then, or the social apartheid that consigned millions to misery. Despite all its problems London – indeed Britain – today is for the most part kinder, broader-minded and more savvy than ever before.

Even in the years since our nostalgic trip, however, it has turned glitzier, more frenetic, more brazenly rich. It is one of the friendliest and most interesting cities I know, yet with each visit it feels less familiar. It has become commonplace to say that London, sophisticated and ethnically diverse as it is, is no more representative of England than New York is of America. Yet, of late, it is not just London that has changed dramatically for those of us who have loved it all our lives, but England too. I find that much more disconcerting.

When my husband was on the Scottish team in the Round Britain Quiz – with not particularly triumphant results, I should disloyally add – we were put up in some of the chintziest hotels the shires had to offer. Had we had been parachuted into these olde-worlde precincts, we could have imagined things almost unchanged since Queen Victoria’s day. But the country I have observed during the latest election hustings, and as the campaigning for Brexit was in full swing, is a far cry from the place George Orwell or John Betjeman like to tease.

Theresa May loves cricket, that quintessenially English sport, but to listen to her speaking about taxation of the super-rich, or lowering immigrant numbers or the threat of home-grown radicalisation is to see how swiftly countries evolve.

The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox a year ago felt like a sudden awakening. It was as if a blindfold had been ripped off, and the reality of the tensions affecting parts of the country made blazingly clear. The land of terraced streets and pocket front lawns, of boozy bank holidays and Salvation Army bands seems, if not a thing of the past, then as old-fashioned as china flying ducks nailed above the piano.

Naturally, much of what has altered is the same in Scotland – decayed town centres, working poverty, lives spent in front of screens with carry-out cartons on our laps – but much is different too. No wonder Westminster regards Northern Ireland and Scotland as “other”. While our society is far from perfect, there is much less inter-racial friction, and instead of bemoaning an influx of immigrants, our leaders know we want and need more of them.

But to drive through less affluent parts of west Yorkshire, or Birmingham, or the Midlands’ motorway heartlands is sobering. Here there are communities that hold themselves aloof and apart. Here, a small but unignorable number of hard-line Muslims refute western values, view women as inferior, scorn the liberal outlook of the country that is their home, and foster disdain for their fellow English.

They in turn repay the insult by regarding not just the zealots but all of the same faith with suspicion, incomprehension or fear. Meanwhile, last summer, fury in Sunderland over misreported immigration levels led to its gung-ho support for Brexit, despite the substantial EU subsidies it receives. Such myopia speaks of a country uncomfortable in its own skin, turning inwards out of resentment, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness.

That feeling is echoed across the postcodes, as Little England shakes its fist. This ugly aspect of patriotism has always existed, but not so long ago it was usually tempered by taciturn tolerance and a possibly grudging but nevertheless strongly felt spirit of laissez-faire.

When JB Priestley travelled around his homeland in 1933, he found much to dismay him in the attitudes of the ruling elite at the expense of the working class. Although the term was derogatory, he wished he could call himself a Little Englander: “That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love.” Yet the political convulsions among his countryfolk this past year suggest that, outwith the metropolis, the nation is pulling in different directions, at a crossroads, and not sure which road to take.

The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London could befall any part of these islands, and we would be dangerously smug to imagine otherwise. But while the self-imposed segregation of a few hardline Islamists has played a part in our current troubles, the new England that one sees emerging is not about religious division, or not wholly. The malaise is deeper than that.

It seems much less sure of its identity, and a great deal more fractious and fractured. While London’s sense of international solidarity grows, the rest of the country is getting less confident or self-assured. At the end of his long journey, Priestley confessed that “not until I am safely back in England do I ever feel that the world is quite sane”. I wonder how many would agree with that now.