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Ur refushögen

Categories: Brittiskt allmänt
Thursday, Sep 5, 2019

(Det här är ett utkast till en artikel jag skrev i februari i år, som jag nästan omedelbart la till handlingarna. Främst för att den låter lite för vag, men också för att jag egentligen inte alls var – långt mindre är – övertygad om slutsatsen).

I turned sixty-five on the day of the Brexit referendum. It is a number still just about associated with a pensionable age for men, so inevitably I also thought of it as a kind of eighteen-in-reverse: a stepping in and out of adulthood, the beginning and end of a working, active and reasonably responsible life.

The following morning, blinking my way into that new dawn, it felt as if I were living through those two ages simultaneously: a mixture of apprehension before an unpredictable future and profound consternation that so much of what I had learned to take for granted had been blown away.

And so it has continued since then, except that I have gradually come to project this double-agedness as much on Britain itself, or more specifically on “Brexit England”.

One minute it’s the empty bragadoccio of one’s late teens, the peak of one’s Baron Münchausen years, when it goes without saying you’ve shagged the fittest girl in school and that those trade negotiations will be the easiest in human history. Next minute it’s the sod-it-all OAP bitter about the money and prestige that everyone else has frittered away (basically “since the war”) and who remembers, if not the Blitz, at least The Winter of Discontent in ’79.

As with practically every other EU citizen I have spoken to since that day in 2016, the word “belonging” is the one that turns up most often in my conversation, the one aspect of our lives that has now been most grievously damaged. And the damage is all the more keenly felt because the word carries both the abstract, psychological weight of “home/habit/habitat” and the concrete reality of actually existing family, jobs and friends. I probably need not tell you that both feel equally and vitally important.

For some, the damage is irreparable. I know too many Europeans whose sense of belonging since Brexit has become that Groucho Marx gag about clubs and membership turned inside out: “I know when I’m not wanted”. There is real anger around, because the public conversation contains a measure of real humiliation, not least from the PM with her talk of “queue-jumpers” and “nowheres”. The expatriate’s position can be complicated enough, but those added slights sometimes tip the balance. Plenty have already left, plenty more are preparing to go… what, “home”?

I usually try my best to discourage them, because I honestly don’t think we should leave the English alone with the English. Solidarity demands that we remain with our friends through these dark times. Particularly now that they too have become preoccupied with that particular word, for good and bad. Some have finally begun to ask themselves, What exactly is this England we’re supposed to belong to? Others take a more direct approach, at bus stops, in the pub: “Go home, you don’t belong here!”

You could be forgiven for thinking the latter have a point because, consciously or not, the word that carries the weight isn’t really “you” but “here”. Since the English still haven’t figured out quite what “here” is, only one definition seems available to them so far, albeit a negative one: that we are not part of “here”. That’s why, for all the anxiety-inducing present, a lot of us Euros who are determined to stay fear the future much more, i.e. what England is going to become in the years (rather than the fraught weeks and months) following Brexit.

A softer version will, finally, introduce The Great Betrayal scenario. What the Brexiteers wanted never really seemed to be “Brexit” as such, but rather “losing unfairly” in a “rigged poll” (or variations thereof). This would have given them a stab-in-the-back legend that suits their political psychologies far better than the pesky technicalities of putting their wishes into practice. Winning the referendum deprived them of that martyrdom – hence their truculent inability to take yes for an answer. And upon whom, then, is their blame-placing going to land? My guess is a Citizen of Nowhere somewhere. I hear even tourists have been accosted recently for not speaking English.

But a crash-out Brexit would be even worse. Irrespective of its aftermath – Sunny Uplands or Noxious Scrapheap – control will have been taken back and the British can begin to “make our own laws”. That phrase has always had an ominous ring for me because what you hear underneath it is “licence”, as in “I make my own rules”. Maybe my fears are exaggerrated, I certainly hope so, but long-term I can see a new, swaggering xenophobia as a far more visible weave in the whole cloth, rather than at the frayed edges, primarily through the gradual loss of communal (and possibly legal) restraints. The crash-out will be seen as a triumph – of something no one can quite put their finger on, because it’s mostly visceral feeling.

In my own guts, and in my head, I do understand why Europeans have left, or plan to do so. Less so an oft-quoted reason for it: “This is no longer the country I knew”. On the contrary, I think “Brexit England” is very much the country I knew, with its glorious and troubling complexities. It really depends on which parts of it you know: one that is capable of regressing to the dystopian future I’ve begun to fear, or one that’s able to mobilise its considerable reserves of tolerance, diversity and curiosity, or one that will come up with an uncomfortable mixture of the two. Whichever way it goes I’m pretty sure I will be able to recognize where it came from.  

More than two-and-a-half years later, what survives of the eighteen-year-old in me is grimly fascinated by what’s going to happen, as I grow into this new world. The prospect is both wearily melancholic and, frankly, getting on my nerves. But, having now spent roughly two-thirds of my life here, I have to add to that an acute sense of time passing. It’s simply too late. Sod it all, I’m not going anywhere.

2 Responses to “Ur refushögen”

  1. Fin text!
    Från min ungdom dyker det upp en historia min mamma berättade. Jag tror den är från ungefär 60-talet men är inte säker. Hon var i en mataffär och skulle köpa med sig apelsinmarmelad hem när hon hörde två engelska damer vid sidan av henne diskutera en marmeladburk och den ena damen avfärdar den med “I wouldn’t recommend it dear; it’s foreign.

  2. Underbart! Särskilt som ordet “marmelad” inte ens är engelskt… (Fr -> Pg -> Lat -> Gr, enligt OED)

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