The Cut by Anthony Cartwright – the #Brexit Novel

When Peirene Press announced that it had commissioned a novel about Brexit, I could not resist getting involved and sponsoring it. Publisher Meike Ziervogel found author Anthony Cartwright, whose previous novels, although ostensibly mainly about football, also portrayed a community in decline. This is the ‘diminished community’ of the Black Country, which used to be one of the most industrialised (and therefore also one of the most polluted) areas of England, with coal mining, steelworks, glass factories and brickworks all spewing their bile into the atmosphere. Nowadays pretty much all of these industries have died and it’s become an area of boarded-up shops and high unemployment. A perfect setting, in other words, for the ‘forgotten people’ who voted for Brexit.

Cairo Jukes from Dudley is a former boxer, already a grandfather in his early forties, and supports himself though hourly work cleaning up industrial sites. His daughter Stacey-Ann has been kicked out by her mother after giving birth to a ‘coloured’ baby and now lives with her grandparents. Then Grace Trevithick turns up in their lives: posh, educated, a successful documentary maker trying to capture ‘the mood of the country’ just before the referendum.

As the two near extremes of the spectrum meet, they find out more about each other’s beliefs and ways of life. As they talk and learn to look beyond the convenient stereotypes, they begin to have a dialogue – that element which was so profoundly missing from the frenzied media hollering just before the EU referendum.

All you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. That we’m all stupid. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that. It lets all of you lot off the hook.

‘I doh think they feel like they’ve lost out. They have lost out.’

‘Isn’t that the same thing?’

‘No, thass part of the problem, thinking that it is. We’m sitting in one of the places we’ve lost. You make out like it’s our problem, it’s only about how we feel, but we have lost… It’s a fact. You can prove it… The loss, actual loss. Jobs, houses, security, all them things.’

Cairo and Grace come together in a moment which feels too brief to be a love story, too steeped in misunderstandings and mismatched expectations to allow for a happy ending. But it is not just a coming together of two individuals and of what they symbolise. There are plenty of characters who dispel the notion of a monolithic Brexit voter. For every Tony ‘in his German car and his Leave sticker, in his Italian shirts, with his English attitudes’ and Romanian and Albanian workers, there is also a younger, confused Stacey-Ann who would like to improve her career prospects and feels that ‘it’s not right, all this carrying on about foreigners, people moving on to get a better life’ but at the same time considers ‘you couldn’t think people were better because they were foreign. Some people did, teachers they’d had at school. That’s just another kind of prejudice.’ For every gentle granddad mourning the lost way of life but admitting that some things are far easier nowadays, there is a table of UKIP voters handing out leaflets in an Indian restaurant.

Cartwright has a great eye for revealing details and the often ridiculous contradictions of both positions. My one criticism of the book is that the phonetic reproduction of the local dialect made it a bit hard going at times. Nevertheless, the remarkable achievement here is that the author makes it far easier to empathise with Cairo and his family, even for those of us who were avid Remainers. A timely and important book, showing us that answers are never simple, but that the only way to progress as a society is to remain open and curious about each other. And really listen.

The Curse of Being a Second-Class Citizen

The frustration of EU citizens living in the UK is easy to understand. Many of them have made their lives here, have contributed with work and taxes for many decades, have raised families here and now feel pushed out. However, as Helen de Cruz points out in this article, it is part of a widespread (and now officially endorsed) xenophobia 

Unless, of course, you are very rich, in which case you can arrange a visa or naturalisation deal, not many questions asked about where your money comes from. But for those of us who are neither wealthy nor (some of us until quite recently) EU citizens, it will sound very familiar indeed. We have always been second-class citizens, even in the eyes of EU citizens living here. The Greeks and Spanish looked down with disdain on the newer EU countries, forgetting that when they joined the EU in the 1980s, the French and Germans looked down on them. And that’s just those of us who have the same colour skin and a shared European history. Can you imagine how they felt about those from different continents and with darker skins? As writer and academic Sunny Singh explains in this Twitter thread, it is disingenuous and requires some intellectual acrobatics to pretend that Brexit is not ‘really’ about hatred of pesky immigrants and foreigners. EU citizens are now experiencing this prejudice for themselves and it’s something that they are not used to – or at least, not since the 1950s/60s. But I cannot feel Schadenfreude. I was the second-class citizen who strove to give my children the opportunity to never have to feel inferior, so it makes me sad. And I also believe it’s a dangerous time to allow hateful rhetoric to create divisions between ‘desirable’ and ‘less desirable’ immigrants.

Lunar House, Croydon

It’s not that English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) people are not welcoming individually or in batches, but the UK administration as a whole has not made our lives easy at any step of the way. Think about the humiliations, queues, lack of understanding and incompetence you have sometimes encountered at the Job Centre and multiply it five-fold to get an approximate idea of the frustrations of getting your visa renewed at Lunar House in Croydon (a name that strikes fear in the heart of most of us immigrants or students). The amount of paperwork and official invitations and payments required to get your elderly parents to visit you (and no, they do not want free NHS treatment, as they think that Romanian doctors are vastly superior – or at least those of them still living in Romania, as many of them are working for the NHS). Same applies for other countries: I know many Greeks or Polish friends who go back ‘home’ to get their teeth fixed. Out of the 7 dentists at my local practice, 6 are from an immigrant background (India, South Africa, Vietnam and Greece, in case you are wondering). But you’d better be careful and not stay for too long outside the UK with your medical problems, otherwise you will not qualify for your indefinite leave to remain… Then, because the UK is not in Schengen, even if you have a one-year student visa here, you will still need visas to visit the rest of Europe, often having to prove that you are covered for travel and health insurance, that you have a certain amount per day of spending money, that you have an address where you intend to stay while visiting that country or maybe a letter from a company or conference organiser if you are there on business.

Queues at Lunar House

And of course there are some people (including politicians, who really should know better but cannot resist pandering to the voters) who are blaming immigrants for all of the things which don’t work in their society. There are quite blatant personal attacks in the media and on the street, but even if you haven’t experienced them personally, there is plenty to give you pause for thought. I conducted a sociological experiment during my training courses with a large UK company: in half of the (completely identical) courses I stated I was Romanian, in the other half I emphasised my Britishness. Guess which courses got higher scores in the feedback forms? Then there are the ever-so-subtle, sometimes unintentional questions which give you an insight into a deeply entrenched way of thinking:

‘What a pretty name? What does it mean?’ – why, does Jane or Sheryl mean anything

‘But where are you really from?’ – just because you were born in Watford doesn’t mean you really belong there

‘I thought I detected a trace of an accent there…’ – although they didn’t at all, not until you told them that you were an immigrant

‘What was that language you were speaking with your child?’ – and how dare you speak it in front of us

‘I’d never have thought you were ___, you don’t look/sound/behave like your other compatriots’ – how many of them have you met and got to know

‘No, of course we were not referring to you, you are all right, but all those other ___ should go off home’ – you’re the exception which confirms the rule. but woe betide if you don’t behave!

‘So are you thinking of leaving the country now after Brexit, don’t you feel you are too cosmopolitan for life here?’ – perhaps you should be, you are too exotic and don’t belong

Soon it will be the turn of the British citizens to feel second-class in Europe. My father was a negotiator during the accession of Romania to the EU and he would tell you how hard it is to fight against the combined interests of so many countries. After protecting the interests of Spanish textile industry, Greek fruit farmers, French and British farmers, Swedish and Finnish timber industry, steelworkers everywhere in the EU, there was not much left for Romania to trade. Most of its industries and businesses have been acquired by international owners and so most of the earnings go out of the country. And yet Romanians are still in favour of the EU – because they recognise that the alternative would be worse.

There is a strong likelihood that Ireland or Malta will mop up any of the English-speaking, low-taxation-loving US companies for their European headquarters. If the British negotiators don’t get their act together soon, they will be severely depleted by the EU team – and so a vicious circle of blaming and hatred will start up again.  I’m not sure that the UK can compete with labour in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, which is still cheaper (and more productive), although giving up on any laws to protect workers’ rights might help.

I’ve become used to being a second-class citizen everywhere I go, even in Romania (because I have spent too much time abroad and speak with a slight foreign accent).  I am less happy that my children might be viewed as second-class citizens too (their Greek name over here, their British passport over in France or Germany). My sons prefer the English language but can speak three others, they support the German and French football teams, love the Greek sea and the Romanian mountains, want to study in France or Switzerland maybe… What we feel is European and we had been hoping that these meaningless nationalistic affiliations would disappear and we could feel loyalty to our local communities and the larger Europe instead.

2016: A Year of Goodbyes

All I seem able to write lately are non-fiction, personal essays or rants about perceived unfairness. Things I’ve always avoided writing before. I hope normal service will resume soon (poetry, book reviews, writerly stuff).

Goodbye, Mont Blanc!
Goodbye, Mont Blanc!

After an insane 2014, a stagnating cesspool of 2015 (I’m talking personal rather than global troubles here), I was looking forward to 2016. It was going to be a year of starting afresh, making changes, taking control. But 2016 has proved fierce, fearsome and unknowable so far. It has drained me more than it has energised.

It has robbed me of David Bowie and Prince, two of my childhood idols. It has robbed me of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood, whom I got to know and love later. Of course, these are not people I knew personally, but we all feel we know celebrities, just like we feel we know ‘the culture of a country’.

In many ways, the greatest tragedy this year has been that it has robbed me of many of my illusions about and feelings for Britain. For me, it had always been a country that stood out as a beacon of civilisation and civility, fairness and even-handedness, where people talk to each other in moderate tones instead of breaking out into street fights. Over the past few weeks leading up to the referendum, I was beginning to recognise (from the media and the comments in the media) that Brexit had become a real possibility. It did not quite catch me by surprise, but it nevertheless hurt me. It’s not the vote in itself which makes me sad and scared, but the animal it has unleashed, how easily a country (and its people) can change beyond recognition. And yes, I know that there are still plenty of decent people there who are equally bewildered, shocked and hurt by what they see.

This reminds me of a divorce in far too many ways. Which is something else that 2016 is throwing my way, so bear with me as I work through this metaphor:

  1. It’s about emotion rather than rationality. After weighing the pros and cons for far too long, trying to be very rational and fact-based, there comes a time when you lose all common sense. You can only see the things you hate about the other, you cherry pick those arguments and behaviours which prove your point. In other words, you ultimately vote with your gut. And we all look foolish when we react in anger.
  2. There’s no such thing as a clean cut. Perhaps if you are a young couple who’ve been together for a very short while and have no children or joint property, it’s easier to separate. For the rest of us, there are a hundred links, some visible, many invisible, which need to be severed. It’s like cutting off a living organism with profound roots in foreign soil.
  3. You don’t know how much you might be damaging the future generation. Even if you have the best intentions in the world and the most unified approach to parenting, the children will struggle to understand and cope with a divorce. Just imagine what happens when the parents are warring with each other, no one has a clear plan for what happens next and you, the child, are blamed for some of the problems too!
  4. The fault never lies with just one side. It’s tempting to buy into just one side of the story, but the truth always lies somewhere in-between. A marriage seldom falls apart solely through the fault of (the other) person, even though it may be cathartic to believe that for a short while. However, if you continue to believe that, you will never learn from your mistakes and will be an impossible person to live with in your next relationship.
  5. You will feel guilty no matter what. If only I had listened more… If only I had spotted the warning signs earlier and done something about it… If only I could behave more like a grown-up now and not let these emotions get the better of me… If only these children weren’t judging me every day with their eyes…
  6. You will move on, survive and perhaps thrive. You fear for your relationship with your children, your finances, whether you will still have a roof over your head. You go through the motions every day, barely keeping up with the formalities you did not wish for, allowing balls to drop all the time because this kind of juggling isn’t what you wanted to do with your life.

It seems difficult to believe in a period of meltdown, but the hatred won’t last forever in its volatile state as an unstable isotope. You have a choice. You can either allow it to harden into an ice-cold little kernel which will prevent you from ever trusting anyone again. Or you can let it decay, evaporate, blow away like fine dust… and build a more stable isotope to take its place.

Here is a song that has helped me through these last few days in particular, but also for most of the year.

Sia: Unstoppable

 

Goodbye for today, from your Porsche with no brakes and, despite everything, no fear of speaking her mind…