The train rattles through the rolling English countryside, trees and hedgerows seaming the endless patchwork of fields. No matter how often I see this, I never cease to be amazed by the variety of shades of green nature has to her palette. Here in the deep south of England, one could be forgiven for thinking nothing much has changed in the past fifty years. A church spire slides past the window, then a dilapidated farm trailer surrounded by horses, and warm memories of childhood holidays bubble up. Once again I find myself pondering the vexed question of how I’ve ended up living in post-Brexit Britain. I watched the local news last night. Two ladies, barely any younger than my mother, were crowing with delight. ‘We’ve taken back our country’. It’s a phrase I’m growing to dislike more with every passing day.
The pace at which the world has changed during my mother’s lifetime has been phenomenal. When my parents were young, the crystal radio set was state-of-the-art. Now iPads and mobile phones are ubiquitous and no-one can remember how things were without them. There’s nothing in this world so inevitable as change, aside from death of course. Oh and taxes, unless you happen to be Google. We don’t like them much either. Taxes I mean, not Google. Lots of people have been liking Google since Thursday 23rd June. It seems they’ve been using it to find out things they might have done well to know sooner. “What is the EU” became a popular UK search, the day after a crucial referendum on whether to leave it.
Dislike of change seems to have clouded more rational considerations around Brexit for some of my generation and that of my parents. I have a sense that what those ladies on the telly really wanted back was their lives in a rose-tinted bygone age, rather than their country. But the problem with the past is it’s not there any more. It shapes our psyche. It moulds our future. We can revisit it with horror or nostalgia. We can run from it, pine for it or reinvent it, but we can’t get it back. And if we could, it wouldn’t be the way we thought it was.
Leaving aside downright lies about £350 million a week of extra spending money for the NHS, a certain sector of the Brexit campaign seems to have been fuelled by yearning for times long gone. Britain’s imperial past, for example – those heady days when Britannia ruled the waves, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. I’m sure they were golden indeed, for a privileged few. Those who hadn’t been press-ganged onto one of Her (or His) Majesty’s ships, driven off the land to work twelve-hour shifts in the mills, hanged for stealing bread or transported to ‘the colonies’ could laugh all the way to the bank. I’m equally sure I wouldn’t want to go back there. For some, the preference is for life in Britain through two European wars. Everyone pulling together. The crime rate plummeting. All those troublesome young men herded to the slaughter, instead of roaming the streets at night. Children sent to live with total strangers, and none of those inconvenient checks to make sure they were placed in safe homes. Running between falling bombs of a night, then emerging from the air raid shelter to find your neighbours looting the rubble of your home. Halcyon days, just so long as you don’t have to live there. And what of those who hanker after the rugged individualism of life without welfare benefits or the NHS? After all, granny could always go to the workhouse if she got too frail to work. And so what if little Johnny died from some minor ailment because his parents were too poor to pay for the medicine? They could always have another child. Or maybe ten. Life was cheap, and there was no reliable contraception back then.
There are those who’d say I don’t love my country. That I’m not patriotic enough, because I refuse to toe the line of my-country-right-or-wrong. I’m not happy to lie down and accept that Brexit is a good idea, so I’m called a ‘sore loser’. In fact, the opposite is true. I love this country deeply. I love her tolerance, her community spirit and her passion for individual liberty – all of them values enshrined in the government’s Life in the UK manual, and under very real threat from Brexit. I’ve worked with one of her unique and poetic languages for many years. When I’m not teaching it, I’m weaving stories or writing poetry with it. My island home is breathtakingly beautiful. I sometimes wonder whether those who seek to peddle hatred in her name have any idea how wonderful she really is. But to love someone doesn’t preclude letting them know when they’re making a terrible mistake. If my friend’s about to leave the house with her skirt caught in her knickers do I love her better by telling her, or by letting her go out and be humiliated in the street?
I’m one of the two people in the country who didn’t watch England’s devastating defeat at the hands of Iceland earlier this week. The other was the friend with whom I’m sharing a caravan at the moment. She hates football. It felt like adding insult to injury, less than a week after the Brexit vote. Iceland? I mean, what’s that all about? The internet was alive with jokes at our expense the following morning. England’s being the only country to exit Europe twice in one week was the gentlest by far. I thought long and hard about it all, following a string of despairing messages from a friend. The England team’s full of pampered millionaires who’ve made a fortune kicking balls around. They think they’re the bee’s knees, and they come from a country that thinks the same way, so no-one’s going to to tell them different. The Icelandic team’s a bunch of passionate amateurs, managed by a part-time dentist. Perhaps it would have done our posh boys good to be reminded that they haven’t actually brought home much bacon of late. England hasn’t won a single major tournament since 1966. I was twelve years old then. I’m sixty-two. Fifty years. Maybe someone should have pointed out that their skirts were caught in their knickers before they left the changing room.
A good few years back, my daughter had a paper round. On her first day out, she came home with a bruised leg and torn trousers. She’d been savaged by the cutest-looking little West Highland terrier you can imagine. Appearances can be deceptive. Just look what a clever buffoon young Boris actually is. I knew the owner of said beast slightly, so I negotiated with her, having strategically withdrawn my threat to take the matter to the police. From that time forward, the paper was to be left at the gate. In an uncharacteristic fit of helpfulness, my husband offered to do the round one week while my daughter was on holiday. I explained in words of one syllable that he must leave the paper at the gate of that particular house, or risk being attacked. He was back ten minutes later, bleeding and outraged. There really was nothing to be said but I told you so.
I’m at one with many Brexiteers on the subject of the political elite in this country. No-one should be allowed through the doors of the House of Commons until they’ve had at least ten years’ experience of life as it is for ordinary people. No, I’m not siding with Nigel Farage’s disgusting display of personal arrogance in the European parliament. The man was a bloody stockbroker, what the hell does he know about how normal people live? Nonetheless, the route so many politicians arrive by – public school, Oxbridge, politics – does nothing to prepare them to understand the world as you and I experience it. The gulf has never been more evident than in the very public suicide attempt by the parliamentary Labour Party this week. While they’d have been best best employed in putting pressure on the Conservatives, they’ve instead focussed their efforts on staging an elaborate coup against Jeremy Corbyn, largely because the bulk of his support comes from ordinary party members. He’s not one of the generic political elite. He’s not ‘one of them’.
Faced with an ignorant and out-of-touch political elite, it’s small wonder so many people these days have lost faith in ‘experts’ – scientists, doctors, economists, people who’ve already been bitten by that cute little dog – the kind of irritating egotists who actually know what they’re talking about. Michael Gove put his finger on the public pulse with depressing accuracy when he declared that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Even the Daily Telegraph lamented the anti-intellectualism of that statement. The truth is, the experts we’ve really had enough of are people like him. Here’s a man who decided he knew all there was to know about education because he once went to school. The experts we’ve had enough of are the ones who pontificate on subjects they know nothing about – the kind of ‘experts’ who tell us there’ll be an extra £350 million a week to spend on the NHS if we leave the EU, when there’s no evidence of any kind to support their assertion. The experts we need in the current crisis are the voices crying in the wilderness. They’re the ones who point out that the nation’s woes have more to do with austerity than the EU, or maybe that the cute little dog has very sharp teeth and is not to be trusted. They’re telling us loud and clear that our skirt’s caught in our knickers right now. We ignore them at our peril.