The way I react to problems is that I think I remain pretty cool headed and then, when things calm down a bit, I go to pieces. Probably it’s more like channeling all my angst into control-freaking intellectual analysis, and then realises how useless that is.
I had time to think since this referendum, to think of times past, people and places past, and had time to see the news. The Polish embassy announcing the deatails of threats that their citizens are suffering in Newcastle and London and Cambridge. Banners telling immigrants to “go home”. As someone said on twitter, it’s obviously not true that 52% of the country that voted to leave are racist – but it seems that 100% of racists think that 52% of the country agree with them.
I wrote in a previous blog that Farage’s poster was the nadir of the UK’s xenophobia. I was wrong. So yesterday, in a small calm time, I wept. I wept for the land that I knew, which feels as though it has slipped from my grasp. Temporarily, I am sure, but it is now more distant.
I grew up on the outskirts of Bradford. Our village was pretty monocultural, but the few Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese we knew, were part of our town and comunity. But for me Bradford was a city rich with excitement. A short bus ride and away, and we were in somewhere rich and strange and beautiful.
I had piano lessons from a family friend, who lived in Bradford, a fabulously eccentric old lady, whose house looked like Miss Havisham’s, whose carpets were threadbare, whose furniture was from the Victorian age, and whose piano was a pristine and perfect.
She had lived in her terraced house all her life, born and bred, and to her right and to her left, opposite and back, were Pakistani families. She was frail when I knew her, forgetful and creaky on her limbs, and she was the most looked-after women I have ever known. Her neighbours would come in during our piano lessons and give her food; spicy soups and curries (which, she explained, she used to put in a sieve and pour over with boiling water because they were too spicy for her).
Every white old woman she knew had Indian or Pakistani, Hindi or Muslim neighbours who looked after them. They were normally quite grumpy white old women, but their neighbours didn’t seem to mind. They had a community which they had lost as their families and friends had moved away – and a new community had been given back to them in old age.
Out in the streets, it was full of colour. Brightly coloured Saris, the men all in Achkans, clothing I envied. I remember reading the Pentecost reading from the Acts of the Apostles, and thinking of the scene in the Market in Idle, the part of Bradford my piano teacher lived in, full as it was of colours and smells, noise and bustle.
And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par’thians and Medes and E’lamites and residents of Mesopota’mia, Judea and Cappado’cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg’ia and Pamphyl’ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre’ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
It was beautiful. I can still picture it now, vivid and bright and clear.
I saw the same thing happen when the Poles began to come over in the Noughties. The clothes were western, but the effect was the same – older women and men living alone, or elderly couples, finding new neighbours, new friends, new companionship, feeling safer in their homes, knowing they had friends next door, teaching younger children English, speaking about the Polish friends they had met in the war. I saw hard working immigrants coming here, fixing things, working long hours, with a smile on their faces and beautiful manners. I learnt about their cultures, their lives back home, their hopes and their commitment to working hard for this country, paying their taxes and wanting to become, to belong, I saw them adopting us.
And I felt enriched, and I felt I understood our country better. We have always been a country of immigrants, and when we don’t have any immigrants, we grow stale. We have always been multicultural, and when we become monocultural we become monochrome. I felt as though I had gained a deeper understanding into all the history, the literature and the music I knew. Elgar was the social outsider, Hardy was the same. Delius the German, and Finzi the Italian Jew, we are the stuff of immigration, Irish, Romany, Asian, Black, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Indian and Pakistani, French, German, American, our blood is blessedly impure and all the richer for it. Our country needs to be refreshed and reinvigorated by the grace of the new, of the outsider, of the wayfarer and the traveller.
I felt I knew myself and my country better when I understood that, and I knew just why Nick Griffen and his hoards would never hold sway upon the British. We knew ourselves too well. We did not want to be pure, because pure was not something to be admired and sought for. We are, were and always will be a mongrel nation.
So when I hear Elgar and Delius blaring from tinny speakers as immigrants are told they are the problem, I weep for the Britain which is slipping away. We have always been a land of lost content, but not a land, surely, or borders and barriers and race-hate and closed doors.
I see friends from Europe anxious for their future, as though suddenly we aren’t a Kingdom of immigrants I see suspicion instead of inquiry, I see exclusion where there should be wide open arms.
There are many disenfranchised white British people in this country – as there are first and second and third generation British immigrants. And that needs to be dealt with. By education and training, by community and belonging, by housing and health, by a renewed understanding of our need for one another.
But not by closed borders. Not by barriers. Not by rejection of the other. Because then we will become something we have never been. Something smaller. Something thinner, and duller. Something worse.