If only 18-year-old me had known…

I’m typing this on my laptop, sitting in the courtyard of my house in France, at the picnic table under the fig tree*.

Fig tree workspace

I’m listening to my streaming music service on my mobile phone, which is picking the music out of the air and beaming it via Bluetooth to my wireless headphones.

A few minutes ago I was working on my current translation project, about the digitisation of a Belgian city’s administrative processes. My next project is the script for another set of meditation sessions. There’s always something new to do, always clients asking me if I’m available. And I’m making a – very decent, by most people’s standards – living too, from a job I can actually do anywhere. No commuting, no dress code, no office politics.

In a minute I think I’ll go for a walk through the marais, in which case I’ll listen to an audiobook. My current listen is set on a British island not entirely unlike Lindisfarne, and I’ve been toying with the idea of spending the winter somewhere like that – an island connected to the mainland at high tide. As a native of a permanent island, I find places like that very odd and interesting.

Even the cows love the marais

Later this evening, I’ll probably play a computer game to unwind. Either No Man’s Sky, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and really is excellent for relaxation, or Witcher 3, which isn’t so relaxing but is utterly stunning in terms of graphic detail and sheer depth of scenario.

At the weekend, I’m going back to Sweden, via Paris** – a city I’m quite familiar with now, and where, of course, I can talk fluently to any French person I happen to encounter.

Our house in Sweden is near the sea, surrounded by beech woodland, and has a garden larger than a whole block of houses in the UK. On Saturday I’m going to a party in Copenhagen, which involves crossing the Öresund Bridge. We’ll pay the bridge toll via an electronic bleeper attached to the windscreen (or, more probably, as I’m going in my friend Richard’s car, an electronic bleeper that I’ll be holding up to the windscreen, because his one has lost its sticky and normally lives in the glove compartment).

I can’t help thinking 18-year-old me, setting off to university for the first time about this time of year, 33 years ago, would be pretty damned impressed and happy with my life, and the technology*** that allows me to live like this.

Actually, 51-year-old me is, too.


*This makes it sound a lot posher than it is. We’ve been renovating the house, which we bought for the price of a garden shed in the UK, for three years, and we still don’t have ceiling lights, or heating. It’s Normandy, so today’s sunshine is going to be eclipsed by thick cloud for the rest of the week while everyone else in the country is sunbathing. The car’s developed a fault that means you regularly have to leap out and wiggle the battery leads before it’ll start. The sickly stray cat that’s adopted us has just snorted a streak of bloody snot onto the picnic table near my mouse mat, and there’s a disembowelled jackdaw (courtesy of said cat) decomposing in the rubbish bin. But anyway.

**Yes, I’m climate compensating the flights, but I still feel guilty. Then again, I don’t have kids, which by my reckoning puts me well on the side of the angels in terms of carbon emissions over my lifetime.

***And, of course, with the EU, which is what really allows me to live like this. Because in the UK I’d be lucky to be able to afford a flat, never mind two large houses. And – tax avoidance for the super-rich aside – this is the point of Brexit. They want people like me to stay in the UK, trapped in a monolingual economy of insecure jobs and extortionately priced housing.

How to win the British Political War

I’ve dashed this off rather quickly because, although it’s only been brewing in my head for about 48 hours, things in UK politics are changing so rapidly and so insanely that by Thursday the entire country may be under martial law governed by a junta. So it’s not as concise as I’d like, and it should probably be two separate posts.

Still, when the British government are announcing that they might start ignoring the law just because they feel like it, I’m not absolutely sure writing a perfect blog post is terribly important.

[And yes, I know I promised at least a couple more writing exercises, but I’ve been busy, and then travelling, then travelling while sick, and then just sick.]


Comparisons with the English Civil War have abounded ever since the extent of the country’s division over Brexit became clear.

And it’s a tempting correlation. Like the Civil War, Brexit has split the UK along entirely new lines. Rich side with poor, north with south, urban with rural, and family members are almost literally at daggers drawn.

But it’s that “almost literally” that embodies the difference. We’re all furious about it – whichever side we’re on – but none of us are actually going to take up arms and make this a real fighting war.

Of course, that’s partly because we don’t in fact have arms to fight with. Yes, most of us could muster a pointy stick, but that’s about it. We don’t have swords. We don’t (thank God) have firearms. Any pitchfork you might have hanging around the house is likely to be doing exactly that – suspended on the wall for decoration, the shaft long since well and truly hollowed out by woodworm.

But it isn’t even the lack of weapons that makes it different.

As with most wars, the English Civil War had a range of complex causes, including religious differences – the key reason why the Brexit situation isn’t and never can be the same – but essentially it arose because the people of Britain weren’t apathetic.

These days, we have our toasters and our TVs and our steel-belted radials and although we do say something, we do nothing. We protest, we march, we sign petitions and crowdfund billboards, but we don’t take direct action. We don’t (again, thankfully) start killing our neighbours just because they’re on the other side. Why? Because we might lose our perceived personal freedom. Before the real Civil War, things were different. People already were losing their personal and religious freedom, and their possessions. And they weren’t as distant from death and reality as we are today.

The right wing, with their advanced grasp of the best levers to use on the masses, have long since realised this. So they’re not worried. Particularly as the left are still ineffectually trying to combine their parties, or create new left-wing ones, to beat the Tories and bring this madness to an end.

Which leaves me wondering why nobody’s thought to create a party on the right, to soak up the traditional Tory voters and siphon them away from the loonier, Boris end of the party. To establish a common sense, traditional conservative with a small C approach to the whole Brexit issue.

It’s not like there aren’t plenty of Tories who could be involved. Ken Clarke. Michael Heseltine. Dominic Grieve. John Major. I’ve said and thought many rude things about all of them in the past, but these days they seem to be the only people in British politics talking any kind of sense.

All it would take is a rich backer to support individual candidates in every suitable seat – because there probably isn’t time to form a party as such before the next General Election – who’d all stand on a common platform, with a single name. One Nation Tories, perhaps?

I reckon that would split the Tory vote and lose them more seats than anything else, and perhaps bring some sadly lacking common sense onto the UK’s political landscape. After all, Macron did exactly the same thing in France two years ago. Surely it’s worth a go?

In the village

I remember seeing this prompt and wondering whether to make this piece a follow up to Cloud Dancing (I was rather taken with the character of Layla in that one and I’m pretty sure she’s going to come back at some point). But in the end I went for something a bit more non-fictiony. Thinking about it, I suppose this is, once again, a comment on the stupidity of Brexit.


It’s barely a hamlet; three large roundhouses and a collection of smaller buildings of various types – granaries, a shelter for the pigs and another for the goats although they keep eating it and it makes a lot of extra work. But a sickly goat is an unhappy goat, and unhappy goats give little milk. So they rebuild it every time, and the goats look at them sideways with their strange eyes and both parties know who’s going to win.

It smells of woodsmoke and tanning leather and baked pottery and animal and human dung and food. And sometimes something sharper, like mead or beer.

There are sounds of contentment and minor squabbles and effort from both the human and animal inhabitants, and beyond them the birds and the wind in the trees. It’s not a bad place to live, on the whole.

***

It’s a smallish village, 20 houses around a green and a collection of larger buildings of various types – barns, the church, the inn, the manor house. The lord’s not a bad sort, really – he keeps the peace with an even hand and make sure everyone’s alright, organising things so that widows and orphans find food and shelter and self-respect, and if possible another man to take them on. Because the women work hard and look after the children, but it takes a man to run a holding so he can pay his tithe to his lord.

It smells of woodsmoke and horses and human and animal manure, and on Sundays the incense from the church and every day of good bread baking and the iron being shaped in the smithy.

There are sounds of contentment and minor squabbles and effort from both the human and animal inhabitants, and the tolling of the bell, and beyond that the birds and the wind in the trees. It’s not a bad place to live, on the whole.

***

It’s a big village, almost a small town. Around the old village centre with the church and the green and the pub there are red brick houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, solid characterful dwellings with moss-grown walls and pretty gardens. And beyond them there are the newer houses; poor, cramped things on winding cul-de-sacs infested by cars and with red block paving and trampolines instead of gardens.

Nobody really works in the village any more – there used to be a school, but that shut down years ago and the post office went the same way last September. The church is inhabited by a glass designer from Cambridge who sells his work direct to galleries in London, and nobody from the village has been inside since he moved in five years ago.

It smells of car exhaust and fabric softener and fertiliser.

All you can hear, all day and for much of the night, is cars. They creep along the narrow country roads like turtles, rounded and shiny and completely unsuited to their environment. Most of the trees have long since been cut down to make space for intensive farming, and the birds went with them. It’s like hell on Earth, on the whole.

Adjusting to Brexile

My colleague and prolific writer Allison was kind enough this week to call me a fellow blogger, so I thought it was about time I actually, you know, blogged.

It’s not entirely my fault that I haven’t written anything here recently. I’ve totally run out of inspiration for comments on the lunacy that is Brexit, and have taken to only getting my political news from the wonderful Ian Dunt on Twitter. If he hasn’t said something, or knows someone who’s said it, the chances are I don’t want to hear it. After all, I can’t do anything about the whole insane mess, and because both I and my partner are now – thank you Sweden! – safely out of the danger zone, I’m trying hard to see only the comical aspects, of which there are many. Many many many many.

I’ve also been really busy professionally, translating two books, umpteen thousand words of mindfulness meditation voice-overs and vast quantities of technical specifications for major Stockholm infrastructure projects (once again, thank you Sweden!)

One thing I haven’t done much of is writing, despite the fact that I’m meant to be doing a bit every week, with the invaluable Tim Clare. Here’s a link to his free Couchto80K writing course; the speed he talks during the 123 second pitch alone would have convinced me to sign up for this if I wasn’t already (ostensibly) doing the weekly writing workout.

Anyway, to my shame I haven’t done many of these workouts so far, but in a rare spare 10 minutes a couple of weeks back, I scribbled out something not entirely unpleasing that kind of captures my whole Brexit/exile attitude.

Here it is. And I’ll try to post more often in the future (sorry Allison).


It’s Sunday, and she’s sipping Earl Grey tea on a blocky, utilitarian balcony in a blocky, utilitarian town in a blocky, utilitarian country and wondering how she got here… and where she goes next. The balcony is not her own. The country is, now, by a kind of forced adoption.

When she left her own country she never intended not to go back, much in the same way that she never intended not to go home again when she set off to go to university at the age of 18. But she’s discovered over time that the goalposts shift when you aren’t looking. So her parents split up and sold the house and sent her belongings to her university digs, and the country she was born in effectively did the same, suddenly deciding it didn’t want to be European any more. And she – who’d always thought of herself as European first and foremost – was faced with making herself a country of one, renegotiating her treaties, setting up her own defence budget, adopting environmental targets… creating a unique new member state.

So here she is, watching the seagulls fly past and wondering how so many people can live squeezed together into such a small area and whether one day she’ll ever want to become one of them – or whether that decision too will be forced on her by outside circumstances.

And that makes her feel, momentarily, like a victim – which she never wanted to be and dislikes as a role adopted by others. But it is just a role, she reminds herself, and one she can refuse or find a path around – or through, if necessary. She knows she can do that. She’s done it before. And after a while it’s not even all that scary any more.

She picks up her tea cup again and smiles. On the whole, life isn’t too bad at all.


A People’s Vote! Yay….?

So there’s going to be a vote on whether or not to have another referendum. And that means Brexit’s dead, right? Well, no. Sadly not.

For a start, the referendum bill is quite unlikely to pass in the House of Commons even if Labour do come out in support of it, which is by no means certain.

But let’s ignore that and assume it does, and that we have another referendum on EU membership – a “People’s Vote”.

The big problem with this, as all of us who said Brexit was a totally insane idea right from the start know only too well, is that The People are politically illiterate and couldn’t rub two genuine EU policies together if their lives depended on it.

Many polls (yeah, bias, inaccuracy, whatever, not going to discuss that now) show that a vote might not actually produce a result much different from last time.

So let’s say it’s the same – 52% Leave, 48% Remain. Does that represent more of a mandate to leave than the first time around? Does it, in fact, represent a mandate to leave with no deal – currently the only option on the table?

Clearly not. No more would a 52/48 split the other way represent a clear mandate to remain, after all this time and a second vote.

In fact, I’ll go even further. I don’t think even a 60/40 split – either way – would be sufficiently clear at this stage for the other side to just go “It’s a fair cop” and stop being furious about the result. And can we realistically expect even that level of clarity from our fellow Brits? I strongly doubt it.

So even if we have a second referendum, with all that entails in terms of vitriol and – above all – even more delay and concomittant cost to the nation in both money and stress, we still won’t be able to achieve a ceasefire.

Because although it’s never been declared, we’ve been enmeshed in civil war for two and a half years now. The Brexit Civil War.

With rare exceptions it may not be being fought physically, but it’s certainly being fought every day across the mental landscape of Britons and anyone else unfortunate enough to live in the war zone. And it’s having consequences just as serious as any physical conflict.

And given that, perhaps… just perhaps… it’s time for all of our politicians to stop trying to score points off each other and actually come together and do something practical to get us out of this situation?*

By all accounts, this is the position the UK was in at the start of the Second World War, with politicians unable to agree as to what stance to take on a whole range of issues. Then we were lucky enough to have someone like Churchill who could unite everyone behind him.

So with just 71 days to go until Britain crashes out of the EU, who’s going to step up and put the country ahead of their career this time? Because it’s certainly not going to be control freak Theresa May** or her enabler Jeremy Corbyn.


*My own preferred option would now be EEA membership, with a plan to review that on, say, a rolling five year basis. No, it’s not perfect, particularly in terms of the gammon-relevant immigration issue, but it’s a whole lot better than anything we’re currently being offered.

**I have much to say about Theresa May, none of it polite, but that’s a subject for another post. As for JC – as a leftie Europhile I can’t remotely begin to express the depths of my disappointment in that man, so I shan’t even try.

Brexit music (a letter)

Dear Brexit,

I know this is probably going to be painful to read, but I just have to tell you how I feel.

I know it’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to be born. You certainly didn’t ask to be given such an ugly name. And everybody hates you. Even your parents don’t want you. So I understand. I really do. And I feel sorry for you.

I’ve tried very hard to explain you to people, and to try to make it so that you can just dissolve back into the ether and leave us all to get on like we did before – a bit unsatisfactorily, true, but at least we didn’t have civil war like we do now. I’ve really tried to release you from this horrible situation.

But I can’t. No matter how many arguments I lay out, no matter how many jokes or cartoons I share, no matter how many headlines or opinions I quote, or even facts – and there have been so many of these, right back from well before you came into existence – nobody’s listening. A large number of British people still think you’re doing just fine. A small, but to me absolutely incomprehensible number of British people think that even if you’re the worst thing ever, they still want you.

And I’m tired of it, Brexit. I’m tired of hating total strangers because they’re unwilling to look the truth in the face. I’m tired of wondering whether people really believe that the British government has any idea what it’s doing, in any respect other than making its friends even more money. I’m totally gutted at the fact that the main opposition party, headed by a man who I truly believed in, also wants to take the country back to the mythical Golden Age of the 1950s, before all these nasty foreigners came along. As a student of history, I can think of any number of reasons why everything was apparently so much better back then. As a student of reality, I can think of any number of reasons why we’re actually doing pretty well today, if only we’d look at what’s around us rather than at what’s headlining in the Daily Mail or on the BBC. But what’s the point?

I still have many people close to me who are going to be negatively affected by you on a massive scale, Brexit, regardless of what you do next. But you know what? I don’t actually care any more. I’m safe from you, by virtue of being very lucky. And I know that’s all very well for me but what about everyone else, but that’s none of my choosing. I didn’t bring you into existence. I’ve fought you every day for three years.

So we’re over, Brexit. Because it’s not about you, it’s about me. You forced me to think about my identity in a whole new way. You made me wonder whether I was actually British. You forced me to choose sides. Well I’ve chosen. And I’m European through and through. And one thing I’ve noticed about Europeans is that they just don’t really care about you. They’re sorry for you, and a little embarrassed, but they carry on with their own lives and worry about stuff that’s really important.

So that’s it. I just can’t do this any more. Don’t ring me. Don’t text me, don’t Tweet. Don’t send me links to clips from Question Time or surveys on YouGov. I’m unfriending anyone who still sees you. I’ve blocked you everywhere I can, and I’m not going to change my mind. Have a nice life. Or don’t. Whatever.

 

Jane

10 years later

23.06.2026

Dear Leave voter,

Well, it’s been ten years since you voted to take Britain out of the EU, and I wonder: how do you feel about that choice now?

Because I remember watching the results come in on the night and hearing how “traditional Labour voters just aren’t feeling like the current system is working for them”. And thinking, every time, that that was about the saddest thing I’d ever heard. To me it beggared belief that someone in Sunderland could imagine that their ills had been visited upon them by the EU rather than the consistent and cynical asset stripping of the country by the Conservative party. That people in South Wales – the biggest recipient of EU spending per head in the country – could believe that they’d be better off without that funding was something I simply couldn’t understand. But you presumably could, because you voted to leave.

So, what was it that you understood? Because I pictured a number of pretty dire things happening, and as I watched those results come in I simply felt utter, utter despair.

going2

But presumably you foresaw the unprecedented run on the pound that happened during the first two weeks after the Leave result. And you were sanguine about that because you’d also predicted the apparent economic upturn that then lasted for the remainder of that first year. During that period there was much talk about how much more cash the UK would have for things like the NHS, and that resulted in a small consumer-led boom.

And then the things that all of us on the Remain side could quite clearly see coming did indeed start to become manifest. Negative economic news began to be the norm. Nissan and the other car manufacturers withdrew from the UK. Why would they stay when there was no longer any market advantage to being in the country?

The City of London, which was, after all, a major driver of the UK economy, lost its position as the most important financial market in the world when the Brexit negotiations failed to secure the “passporting” rights it had previously had under the EU, and after about five years Frankfurt had completely taken over, with a concomitant nosedive in the financial sector.

Food became more expensive as EU subsidies were lost and some of the labour to cheaply pick the crops disappeared back across the Channel. Many farmers even went bankrupt in that horrible period before those hideously expensive internal subsidies were set up.

The EU did – as it had made clear it would – penalise the UK in every possible way during those leave negotiations. The single market became a thing of the past, and the markets that had previously been available to small and medium-sized businesses were no longer there. So yet more companies went to the wall, with yet more jobs lost. And yes, some companies managed to negotiate new markets in places like China. But even the Chinese preferred to deal with a larger economic bloc.

Overall, you see, I’d say that things became much worse for the ordinary Brit. The manufacturing industry disappeared completely; the removal of EU labour laws meant still more zero hour contracts and pitifully-remunerated jobs; housing became still more of a luxury, and even today, the UK has higher food prices than anywhere on mainland Europe. And the NHS that you were so worried about? Smashed up and sold off to Tory chums of the Tory government. Now you need expensive private health insurance to give you even minimal cover for hospital visits, and with wages being lower in real terms than they were before the referendum many people simply can’t afford that.

But you couldn’t see that coming, could you?

And one more thing that you apparently couldn’t see coming… the number of refugees and immigrants changed not at all. The immigrants already in the country had to be allowed to stay, and the UK continued to be a Mecca for ill-educated, low-paid foreigners to fill those jobs that no British person could afford to do. The only thing that changed was the ethnic make up of the immigrants; now they’re more likely to come from Thailand than from Poland. Consequently there are far more non-Christian, non-white faces behind hotel reception counters and serving in shops. Of course first there were what became known as the Refugee Wars, in which the French took a very gleeful attitude to simply waving refugees across the Channel – after all, why would they bother to stop them in France, inside the borders of the EU? But I’m not sure I believe that story that the French set up special trains from Nice and Marseille straight to Calais. Or that canny Frogs were doing a roaring trade in leaving old but well-insured boats handily positioned along the north French coast.

But then I’m out here, looking in. Just like I was before the referendum. I thought that the EU was the way to go, and I’ve done what I needed to do to make sure I stayed out here. And from here, the UK looks like even more of a sinkhole of exploitative employment practices and unbelievable gaps between rich and poor.

And yet that’s not quite what you wanted, is it?

If I remember correctly, you kept wittering on about taking the country back.

About making Britain great again.

About a return to the days of the Empire.

Only, after ten years, I’m wondering exactly when you’re going to start on that?

Because at the moment you seem to be struggling just to survive.

gone

 

 

 

 

 

 

.