I was asked to write down in words about growing up European. There are people who will read this and think I am exaggerating: the idea that Britain might once have been a European country is mad to them, insulting even. But I say it loudly and write it even more so: the country that I was raised in and which I love is European. Anyone who says that I am wrong does not see two sides of a story. Anyone who scorns at this idea does not see the ridicule we are currently in. Anyone who is offended does not see the hurt that I, like many others, feel at this decision for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union at midnight of 31st January, 2020.
It pains me though to talk from the position I am in: one of privilege. I went to an excellent, free grammar school. My grandparents were insistent on the fact that if me or my brother wanted to go on a school trip, there would be money there for it. My parish had links to Germany; I’ve always loved the idea of twinned towns – what a brilliant initiative to make the geographical distance just a little smaller. The inter-rail ticket made me see the world on my own for the first time and ultimately to see myself. I have gotten drunk in most countries in Europe, have sampled local cuisine, and often been welcomed into family homes with warmth and confidence. I have been moulded by Latin and Ancient Greek, which fuel a desire to know more about modern European languages and culture. That my country has once again arrogantly turned its back on international cooperation is a plight I would love to apologise for. But how can I? What can I do to make things better?
I have witnessed racism in the pubs of England. I have seen man do the most outrageous things and not even blink an eye. I have watched as they destroy their bodies through almost back-breaking work and their minds on drug-fuelled nights out. I have received threats from these people. I felt the desire to leave my country because of this sort of environment and now the lid has been taken off and all those foul vapours are floating about, worse than the epidemic of coronavirus. It is a toxic, poisonous energy and the Conservative party, having experimented with fracking to harness natural gas, turned to the media to control this crowd.
Further to the point, it would appear that nationalist tendencies are spreading around the world, causing many societies to regress several decades in terms of gender equality, race relations and environmental policy. When they are tackled on their views, they turn to invective; when they are confronted with something alien, they bully; when they feel they are about to be beaten, they resort to violence. Take as an example the murder of Jo Cox, a mother, an MP, and a Remain supporter who was killed by a far-right sympathiser just one week before the 2016 referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union. Imagine that latent threat of physical violence as people went to the polls.
As for what we can do, there are as many options as there are personalities, but none of them is ideal. The first is to wait it out – go and find the most remote place you can and wait for it all to blow over. The benefit is that you’ll be able to write the novel that speaks to your generation, but you might miss out on some of the fun to be had. The next suggestions is ‘to become the change you want to see in the world’. The idea being that if you want people to think more open-mindedly, then you too must have your mind as clear and porous as limestone. Next, you can always join the violence: shave your hair off, pick up some bricks at the next demonstration and beat up someone up, as you see fit. Another is to say, well, if I can’t beat them, I might as well join them: ’you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.’ Sign up to the party that you think is going to win and be in power for the next few years. But just hope they don’t anything too drastic that might one day have you seeking for deniable plausibility. The list is exhaustive; see where your conscience will take you.
It might seem overwhelming, this sense of duty. It is – it’s supposed to be. How you navigate it is up to you and you might just want to sail past the whole all together. My country men and women have forgotten this and will one day be brutally reminded. But until then, I’m going to stay on the Continent for as long as possible and remember that my country, the one I love, is a European one.