Brexit

I have always been disproportionately proud of my UK passport, as if it meant something important about me, that I had this exclusive secondary ticket to another life that wasn’t afforded to most of my friends. It didn’t particularly occur to me that the passport was representative of choices made by my parents, and by their parents; or that considering myself special by dint of association with a country not my own was really just an expression of the otherness I felt as a teenager who didn’t fit in well. I just liked it. I liked the colour of it, and the way it stood out from the pile of black passports when we took trips away. I liked the possibility of it. 

I’ve lived in London for the last eight years, and they have been hard years for the UK. I’ll never pretend to be any kind of qualified political commentator, but I’ve watched the UK change. There is much more homelessness in London than there was when I arrived, at least in the central locations where I have worked. Conservatism is more entrenched, the likelihood of liberal majority getting further away with every election. 

And then there is Brexit, this looming slow dreadful tidal wave. The degree of cliche that I represent (privileged, a homeowner purely on the back of parental generosity) was never better represented than the way I received the news of how the vote had fallen: muddy, sequinned, wandering blithely home from 4am Glastonbury festivities. I felt shock, and disappointment, and then I felt pure disdain for the voters who had pushed this exclusionary, backwards agenda over the line. I sat around, covered in glitter, with my clever white friends, and celebrated the fact that for the next four days at least, we could resist impending doom in a liberal bubble, sipping gin, eating loaded fries, feeling superior. I felt so certain that we were bastions of good, educated decision-making, standing strong in the face of ignorance and deceit. 

The last three years were glacial, Brexit-wise. It began to feel like a farce, a cosmic Conservative joke on all of us. But even glaciers move, and the worst part of all of it was the inevitability of the way it eventually, painfully got done. I protested; I didn’t doorstop. I donated, but I didn’t lobby. I was the classic hand-wringer, pale-faced and watchful but uncertain. There was no one to stand behind. I have largely been a Labour voter, and I have been a Corbyn supporter, and it felt like the emptiest and most miserable betrayal to have no one to stand behind, or look to. We all knew it was bad; felt in our bones the loss. So why was there no one directing our formless, apathetic grief? 

I was home at 11pm on January 31st. I’ve been sick for days, a lurgy that’s filled all the spaces in my face with mucus and left me with a cough that shakes my chest like a haunted house. I was in bed when I heard the fireworks go off, in my Labour-voting neighbourhood. They felt like flares, not celebrations. 

But at least I’ve had my face pulled free of my London bubble, my Twitter echo chamber. There’s no denying that something is broken, and that we all had a hand in breaking it, when every clip of every Brexit-voter in Parliament Square featured someone a bit short, a bit old, celebrating how this move represented taking back our borders and our courts from some faceless, menacing entity who is, in their minds, responsible for every taste of poverty and every opportunity lost. The problem, I think, is that the menace is far closer. It lies in the north/south divide and the inequality that becomes harder and harder to deny. But it’s easier to blame a stranger than a neighbour. 

No one can put their finger on what they’ve lost, other than the essential otherness that being European gave us. We associate Europe with exciting alien tastes and adventures; sunlight on cobbled streets and dark wines late at night. Europe is warm seas and close growths of greenery; vineyards and mountains that taper off into the sky. To be European is to be someone who closes their mouth around fish caught that day at midnight among friends, whose glassware is thin and brilliant and whose laugh echoes around a courtyard. Europe was sex and warmth and interesting strangers. Europe was the possibility that you might also be sexy and warm and interesting, rather than someone with blisters and unused potential and an overdraft. 

It makes sense that Brexit took place in January, the longest, coldest, saddest month. In February we are self-made castaways on a proud, grey island. And it’s horrible to admit that the venture proving successful would be a terrible outcome. What if, economic certainty, better trade deals, more local industry? What if, lower unemployment rates, better weather, happier people? What if Boris gets to face down world-wide doubters through the lens, and tell them that they were wrong, and he was right? We were, after all, part of Europe pre-1973, pre-EU. There were holidays to Spain then, there were Spanish tomatoes in our Greek salads served on Holloway Road. If it comes to pass, then will we, this lost liberal crew keening for our maroon passports, find it in ourselves to forgive past wrongs, paper over those historical undemocratic machinations, embrace being British, and admit that if an economic partnership was so essential to our sense of self then perhaps there was something flawed about that sense of self? 

New Zealanders are sometimes mocked for being too patriotic. There’s something slightly too easy to parody about our powerful passion for the things we’re good at, our innate certainty that our tenacious geographic isolation makes us unique. Kiwi battlers. Underdogs. Antipodean Davids brandishing fists at a whole world of Goliaths. The opposite has happened in the UK, where it’s been thrown into sharp relief that (at least among the Remainer camp) pride lay in our associations with others, rather than what it means to be British. Left now with the Union Jack, the blue and gold flag no longer flying, the tenets of Britishness have begun to look like a celebration of division. 

Brexit is done. The glacier has melted into the sea. The aftermath has arrived. And I get to face the fact that my passport is no longer so special. Upon arriving in Spain, or France, or Italy, I will join my fellow Kiwis in the Other queue. I’m not different. I’m exactly as Kiwi, or British; interesting or boring; educated or ignorant; engaged or apathetic as I ever was. The change is around me – possibly in who I get to meet, where I get to go, what I get to eat, how much I get to earn – rather than within me. But it’s interesting how much it feels like both.

On having a choice

No one has ever spit on me, and told me to go home. Yanked at my clothing on a bus, informed me I did not belong. My passport is the same colour as yours, the maroon cover tells me I am British, I belong, this is home.

I was born here, but it’s not my home. Having my first home in Fulham, living in Marylebone now, having a British boyfriend: none of these things make me British to anyone but the government, the passport office, the conservatives of this country, all of whom would have me know that I am welcome, and that I can stay.

My home is New Zealand, which is what my other, blacker passport tells me, and my heart confirms. It has its flaws, but for all the failings I found, daily, for years, it’s the place my accent and all the cells in my body ties me to. The wide skies and the growing cities and the water, water everywhere, open seas around every corner.

I moved to London after years of pining for it, a yearning instilled in me by my mother and my movies and my certainty that New Zealand wasn’t quite the right fit. I wanted to be somewhere bigger and older and more full of possibilities; where everyone was a stranger, and strange. I wanted to be closer to other, and much much further than the familiar. I moved away as soon as I could, far, and then further. I settled myself. I was welcomed. It was easy.

The London I moved to was an invention of my own, but the place I found was better, much more swollen with things I never knew I needed – and then peppered, brilliantly, with the brightest sparks from home. A whole melted, mashed, marvellous pot of the unknown, laced always with the things that were hardest to leave, and ultimately refused to be left. Everything is much closer than I could ever have imagined. You can go half a world away and still be closer than ever before, and I did not know that.

The person I have become in London is much like that person who left New Zealand, but older, a lot more humble, more knowledgeable but less clever, and better for it. Blonder, and paler, and with a better palette for beer, too. I own a lot more raincoats. I’m more cautious. I’m more violent. You lose things, and you gain things.

The London I find myself, this new and changing person, in, has changed too. Suddenly, violently, like a personality switch, except that it’s not: it’s my old innocence telling me that. What bubbles up now has been there before, but I didn’t know it, or refused to acknowledge it: this white, well-employed, well-financed adventurer who after all has done nothing all that adventurous, and who has suffered nothing much worse than a round accent mocking. Don’t say “deck” to a British person, maligned fellow New Zealanders. You’ll suffer.

But you won’t suffer like other travellers, immigrants, movers, suffer. You won’t be sworn at, harassed, fired, chagrined. You won’t be sneered at, belittled, bullied.

London has changed and what I have now is a choice. In between shrinking from the racism and choking down the impossible rage, I have the choice to disappear. Waiting for me, a 35 hour plane ride away, is another land which hasn’t made this political decision, that mistake, a historical vote that might be a fuck up, could change the world, has shaken everything.

It’s easy to look at it now with longing eyes, that place where the dollar stands still, where jobs are un-compromised, and where my mother can look at me with eyes I know and tell me things will stay the same. It’ll take me back, no questions asked. It’ll have me.

There are plenty of people plotting their exit, because they can, and most of them are like me: the ones who can stay, if they want, but are choosing to go. The ones who run only because things have become worse, and harder – not because they might die if they stay. Not because running is marginally better than waiting to be chased.

The point of this is that choice is power, bound up with luck.

Alternatives and options are nothing but blessings. So I won’t talk about my choice anymore because I’ve already made it: to be here, to keep changing, to hope that London and England will do the same. Change isn’t always good, and choice isn’t always easy. I could run away, of course I could. I’m here because I ran away; that compulsion isn’t something that ever leaves you, but lies dormant, waiting for things to get difficult. I recognise it as weakness.

I came to London because I needed it. I’ll stay because maybe now it needs me – not the runaway, not the traveller, but the ally. And if I’m not that person yet, then I hope that soon I will be.

 

 

The politics of Glastonbury

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She’s wearing a pink tutu and a leather vest and her eyes are rolled all the way back in her head in a combination of mirth and something chemical. One foot, planted in a boot, planted in the mud, pulling, and the other stuck, deep. Her friends hover around her, working their fingers, working their jaws, a thousand strangers in the dusk, in the rancid reek of muck. A man behind her goes to his knees, yanks her boot free, plants it back on her foot. She thanks him, plods away. He stands, caked, wipes his hands on his shirt. He was already covered in mud. He doesn’t care.

Nobody cares, even though everyone cares. We’ve woken up to rain and hangovers and deflated mattresses, and whispered noises. Out, out, out. We’ve done something historical, or not done it, railed against it, but not loudly enough. 80% of the voters at Glastonbury voted remain, but that wasn’t enough. “He’s resigned.” “We’re out.”

Somebody has stolen £140 out of my backpack, which I left zipped in the tent, but by the door, with the money zipped in the smallest pocket, where everyone would have left it, the first place a person would look, because I was drunk and hungry and because we all do all the same things.

It’s raining and we move the camping chairs inside, in a circle, the Wellington boots kicked on their sides by the door. We are the festival-goers, three days in, three days wrecked. Eating meals in between dancing with pints, gathering beneath green flags flickering with an octopus, a yellow submarine, a walrus, a strawberry. Beatles-themed, you see.

We all live, now, in this muddy blue tent, railing against the guy ropes, sucking against the mud. We break Berocca into drink bottles. Later we’ll mix in vodka. The normal rules don’t apply here. Somewhere, out there, people sit in brick houses, in armchairs, sipping tea, and nodding their heads at their decisions. Get them out, they nod, make them leave.

We’ve left, left the politics behind. Last year there was no signal in this fenced-in silver circle that reeks of soil and silage and shit and throbs with grime, they say, but this year they’ve erected more poles to catch more signal, and this year there are just enough bars for us to know: we’ve left, we’re out, we’re gone. We’d message people on the outside, maybe, but what’s the point? It’s ours to deal with, later. For now, vodka in your Berocca, extra socks in your boots, tissues in your bumbag. I’d rather not have the signal, given the choice. Except for the weather forecast. Rain, obviously.

The people on the stages with the microphones feel a certain kind of responsibility as the clouds open and the crowds are drenched, lifting their hands and securing their hoods, lifting their feet so they don’t get stuck, stuck, stuck. “We’ll weather it together,” they croon, “we’ll fix it together,” between songs. But we’re not together, some of us stuck in the mud, and some of us elevated, and maybe that’s precisely what got us here in the first place.

There’s a girl in the crowd behind us with daisies in her hair, she might be eight years old in her pink raincoat. In the crowd, she looks like she’s floating, standing on a small folding stool, anchored to her spot by her father who clutches her, grinning into Adele’s first verses. He has a spare, and the shortest members of our parties suddenly find themselves up, out, higher, taller, up with the flags and the six foot men. “There’s so much more air up here!” Maybe that’s the point.

The world changes all the time, whether you’re wearing denim shorts and tiger ears, if there’s glitter in your beard and chemicals in your brain, if there’s vodka in your Berocca and if you haven’t sat down in a real chair since you can remember.

Jeremy Corbyn cancels his speech because the world is falling down, and when the world is falling down you don’t go to preach to a festival full of the converted. When the world is falling down, you bear down, go to your knees, form a last foundation. The bones of this festival are tent poles and caravans and canvas, skin and hair, crumbling and crushable, and there’s nothing here that’s worth any kind of permanent salvation. The work to be done is elsewhere, outside, inside marble houses and tall buildings made from old wood. Jeremy Corbyn, I suspect, would much rather be at Glastonbury.

I’m not, we’re not, the only ones who know how lucky we are. In a circus tent filled with children sitting on plastic bags, two tattooed men in black shorts climb each other and a rope, hand on hand, wrapped and clutched, set to fall, or fly. A woman in a red glittered bustier announces them, prancing across the stage, catching the light. Her tights are black and pigtails flick with her words. “I suggest,” she says, “that we just stay here! We voted remain! Why don’t we just remain? Why not?!” She clutches for claps and we do applaud, because we could do that. We could close it off, shut it down, eat pulled pork rolls and falafel until the end of our days. Adele could sing nightly, Coldplay serenade us to sleep. We have tents, sleeping bags. We have toilets. We have each other. Chris Martin, you have me. Beck, are you OK? Do you need some gum?

Sitting in that tent-circle with rain spitting against the plastic, a few hours since the votes were counted and done and everything went, as they say, to shit, they give me – some of them strangers – £10 each, one by one, none holding back until I have in my lap a pile of crushed bills, and all my stolen money back. Someone out there has my neatly folded notes, but he doesn’t have what I have.

We have, for the next couple of days, certainty, because here, behind the silver fence, we know what to expect. Piss-smeared seats and mud-tumbles, £5 sweat-warm beers and rain, rain, rain. Spitting on footpaths and swearing into the sky, bright lights and old smells and base thuds like quick hearts. Arseholes and idiots and awkwardness and theft. Constipation and ugliness.

So much shit. There is so much shit.