This Little Island

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March 30, 2017

Today is the day Britain leaves Europe.

Two vivid memories spring to mind, both from the early 1990s.

The first incident occurred a few weeks after I arrived in London from Canada. My days were spent job-hunting and sightseeing. I had come to London with a few hundred pounds and had found a room for 20 quid a week. My landlady, the impossibly named Lady Drew leant me her typewriter so I could write query letters to publishing houses. The ‘l’, the ‘j’ and the ‘t’ were wonky but this was before computers so you were allowed to send letters to publishers with sentences that looked more like rivers than train tracks.

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Between job interviews I would take advantage of the free museums and galleries. One day in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Field where you could get a cheap cup of tea, I found myself at a long table next to a woman reading the Times. When she came to the end of a section, she folded it and tucked it next to her dirty plate. It was clear to me her newspaper, when she was all finished with it, was headed for the bin. So, I reached over and picked up the section lying under the rim of her plate.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“Um, I thought your were finished,” I said, guiltily putting it back down.

“Doesn’t mean you can have it,” she snapped.

There it was: her newspaper was not for sharing. My dirty paws were to stay off it. She had made it clear. And there was a subtext here: I could tell that my accent hadn’t helped me in my newspaper borrowing. I had been called a ‘pushy American’ by so many cab drivers, newsagents and publishers by now. I knew I wasn’t considered ‘one of them’, and probably never would be.

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Cut to a few years later. I have a great job, I’ve been saving a little, paying taxes, and managed to buy a small flat. In short, I had become the perfect little immigrant. I am in love with London, in love with my work, I have an incredible, diverse and bohemian bunch of friends. Life is good. One Sunday as I walk home through the Portobello Market just as it is closing up, I notice a stall-holder packing up her things. She’s tossing stuff into an old cardboard box in the gutter. It is clear that the items being thrown in the box are unwanted: they’re broken or chipped. In other words, they’re the items she doesn’t think are worth her while packing into her truck to sell at the next market she is headed to.

A small ceramic vase not much taller than a Penguin Classic catches my eye. It is not especially pretty, and might even be cracked, but it is turquoise—my favourite colour. I stop and pick it up. There is that question again: “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Um, I thought you were throwing it away,” I say sounding sort of strangled.

“I am,” she replies.

“So, um, well, I thought maybe I could have it then,” I say.

The woman lunges at me, grabs the vase and smashes it to the ground. I stand for a second stunned by her violence. Then I turn and walk with a lump lodged somewhere between my throat and my heart. I have spent the past 25 years trying to understand this act.

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I’ve never written about these small events. Mainly out of respect for my adopted home. It’s not a good look choosing to live in a foreign country and then moaning about it. “If it’s so crap, then why don’t you leave,” is an annoying refrain, but one that is true nonetheless. So I tend to only mention the positives about life in Britain—or my life in Britain. And the positives do outweigh the negatives.

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But with Brexit (a term I despise for its jaunty, punny elision of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ as if it were the punchline to a racist joke) the genie is out of the bottle. The mean-spirited side of the islanders I live among is out for all to see. The small-minded lack of generosity, the ‘Little England’ mindset of the conservatives who yearn for some lost Eden that never existed is now at the forefront. The horror of it all has been made public. My narrative of coming to this place and being welcomed and finding a home here now has to be rewritten.

The bean counters and bureaucrats have won. I wonder what it would be like to move here now. I got my fair share of “Come here to steal our jobs, then?” from cab drivers the minute they heard my accent. I hate to think of what I would get now. I had one employer way back who threatened to sack me because according to her, I “looked too happy.” She was a young woman but already withered from bitterness. She was allergic to stimulants which meant coffee and tea were banned from the office. One day I brought in some peppermint tea. When she walked into the kitchen and spotted it, she shrieked and called her boyfriend to come and take the contraband stimulant off the premises. I remember her shaking with fury and shouting at me, although I can’t remember now what she said exactly.

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But all this was the forgettable hum in the background of life in one of the greatest cities on earth. When things got too mean or lacklustre or grey or snobby or ironic, there was always Brixton Market, Ridley Road, Chinatown, the Portuguese cafes in Stockwell, the Lisboa on Golborne Road, the Spanish bar on Hanway Street, the Italian Church and its shop on Clerkenwell Road. You get the picture.

Not only is there a glorious diversity in this city, but it was something I always had the sense was wanted, was welcome. Now I am not so sure. The messages out there that my antennae are receiving are coming from the newspaper hoarders and vase smashers: Let’s make Britain so crap that no one will ever want to come here. … Let’s keep everything to ourselves, even the things we don’t really want. … Just because we don’t want it, doesn’t mean anyone else should have it. …

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The future of this tiny island in the North Atlantic will be one of tip-toeing through the shards of broken vases knowing deep in our hearts that we can at least have our own damn newspaper that we bloody well paid for—written in the Queen’s English, full of tits and asses and headlines made up of stupid puns, and no one can ever take that away from us, not even the immigrants.

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Note: for my friends and acquaintances who voted to leave Europe, this is in no way a diatribe against you. It is the misguided campaign, the cynicism and the lies peddled by the politicians that I find inexcusable. The whole project to leave Europe was based on falsities and dishonesty and a small-mindedness.

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