It took me three days after the Brexit vote to summon up the courage to phone my aunt in Germany. I had a duty to allow her to talk about it and given that the most insignificant conversation with her lasts an hour, I poured myself a (large) coffee and settled into a comfortable chair.
‘Julchen!’ – her voice rang with warmth and pleasure (she used to be an opera singer). Then, still ringing, it sharpened: ‘What have you done?’ She said ‘you’ in the plural, meaning ‘you British’. But I also heard it in the singular – whichever way we voted, each of us has to take responsibility for the outcome. (Last week I saw a black cab with a sticker on the rear window: ‘Blame me. I voted Leave.’)
In the frenzy of labelling that preceded and followed the referendum it became clear that the labels that attach to me: White, Privileged, Middle Class, Londoner, are those that attach to the villains of the scenario, who never leave the confines of the M25 but stay within the gold-paved streets to quaff champagne for breakfast while opening the country’s doors to marauding foreigners as they heap contempt upon the Hardworking People of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall. And, yes – as with all clichés, there is a grain of truth in the narrative. London is a city of eight million people, most of whom can barely afford their rent let alone champagne, but as I have largely benefited from the trends of the last thirty years, I have to hold up my hands and take what blame may be due to me. Nonetheless, I did not vote to ‘retain the status quo’. I voted to remain in Europe.
Here’s a label: British. I was born in Britain, am a British national, and have, for most of my life, chosen to live on this island. My father is British, all his fathers before him were British, but I am not – at least, not quite. Some nationalities you can sign up for: Canadian, Brazilian, Australian; but you can never sign up to be British – you have to wait it out for a couple of generations. At the very least, both your parents have to be British, and I feel not-quite-British because my mother was German.
More labels: all through my childhood I was called Nazi and Hitler and kids goose-stepped past me in the playground holding fingers over their top lips to indicate Hitlerian moustaches. Nasty little boys told me that I would be ‘sent home’ when the next war came and that my mother, because she was a Nazi, beat my sisters with a whip. A next-door neighbour in the sleepy Devon fishing village where I grew up once appeared on our doorstep, incandescent with rage because my primary-school-aged siblings were playing noisily in our garden, and shouted at my mother: ‘You Nazi! You bloody Nazi! They should have burned you along with the rest of the Jews.’
My mother was two at the end of the war, the baby in a large family of displaced Germans from East Prussia; unwelcome refugees who met with a hostile reception in Bavaria. In the harsh winter of January 1945, when the evacuation order came through, my oldest uncle, aged fourteen, was sitting in a snowy foxhole in charge of an anti-tank gun with which he was supposed to fire upon the advancing Red Army. My grandfather (sensibly) went to the Eastern Front and pulled him out of there so that he could accompany the rest of the family on their flight west. Despite having been too scared to do anything in the foxhole other than cry, Uncle Hubert was upset and humiliated – it was his duty to the Fatherland to stay and try to stop the Russians, to which my grandmother responded by slapping him hard and telling him that his duty henceforth was to help his seven younger siblings to safety.
My aunt Beta, now eighty-three, still has nightmares that the Russians are coming. Throughout her life she has been unable to stand on a station platform without her heart palpitating – this because, whenever she does so, she remembers the cargo trains into which they were crowded. For her entire life she has wondered if these were the same trains that transported Jews to the camps. Now, in old age, she dwells more and more on that time. Stories surface like bubbles. Recently, she told me how, as the children became tired on the long icy trek, they shed, one by one, the suitcases that they were carrying. Several weeks later, when they finally reached the displacement camp, they had only one suitcase left. When they opened it, it contained nothing they could eat, sell or wear. What it contained was unspun wool.
The borders of the homeland which lived on in the memory of my grandparents and older aunts and uncles were redrawn and the towns and villages given Polish names. The gravestones of my grandparents’ loved ones were pulled up and moved to the edges of graveyards. For a long time, German geography books shaded the area in a colour that indicated ‘under Polish administration’. (After 1990 that delusion was put to rest once and for all and the shading disappeared.) My mother grew to adulthood during the aftershock – the years in which Germans began to understand what their insane ideology had unleashed upon the world and upon themselves. Apart from my English grandparents and a couple of great-aunts, all of my many, many relatives were German. Consequently, the narrative that shaped my idea of Europe was that of total, abject loss followed by things only getting better. More than that: Europe, for me, meant family.
Despite being not-quite-British, I was definitely not German. I said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ far too often (to my cousins’ great amusement), and frequently found that, to my British-trained ear, the way that Germans said what they actually thought just sounded rude (they could never understand why the British wouldn’t simply say what they meant). And I could never get to grips with the sheer volume of rules: you could be fined for pretty much anything from crossing the road while the little man was still red to allowing your dog to bark on a Sunday.
On the whole, though, the Germans seemed to have things better sorted out: food for a start. My poor mother, flabbergasted by Nimble bread, baked beans and that sugary cream-substitute that they used to put in cakes, would make fortnightly trips to Exeter to visit the only deli for miles in order to buy unsalted butter and Ukrainian rye bread. When Germans came to visit they were instructed to bring bags of whole almonds, vanilla sugar, marzipan (not that horrible yellow stuff the British put on top of fruit cake, but proper almond paste scented with rose water). Well into the 1990s, German visitors insisted on bringing coffee in their luggage because they simply weren’t prepared to take the risk on ours.
In Germany, communal space was cared for and respected. In Britain, where the Englishman is strictly bounded by the home that is his castle, communal space was always seen as someone else’s responsibility – the council, or committees of volunteers run by enthusiastic chivviers. The reason that Germany was so clean was simple: each individual was responsible for clearing the snow or the dog shit from their patch of pavement; each individual was responsible for cleaning their landing and flight of steps in their apartment building. They demonstrated that they valued communal space by commissioning artists to decorate walls, or display sculptures in squares and the lobbies of buildings, and by placing a well-maintained children’s playground wherever there was room for one.
Then there was education: ours was more fluid and flexible, and seemed freer. But it was also divisive, serving the few at the expense of the many. And when, in the mid-80s, many of my contemporaries were planning to become accountants and investment bankers, discussing starting salaries in K’s, or floundering around with some vague idea of becoming a journalist, while those who didn’t go to university were left to fend for themselves, my cousins were taking up apprenticeships as jewellers, cabinet makers and mechanical engineers, or training to be doctors, nurses and pilots. Many became teachers – an occupation which was well-respected and remunerated, while in Britain it was viewed as a career of last resort. The strictures in their system seemed, in the end, to offer them more freedom to pursue a fulfilling, well paid, socially useful career.
The Germans I knew were greener, more feminist, more egalitarian and more altruistic (they still are). Best of all they were at the centre of Europe. They jumped onto trains or into their cars and simply popped over to Italy or France or Denmark or Poland. Their universities were full of students from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Having learned the lessons of nationalism the hard way, they were enthusiastic internationalists. Their world was outward looking, connected, generous, embracing. It always seemed to me that I could only learn from them.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, I had moved to where the not-quite-British go: London, of course. There, I wasn’t the only person I knew who was a bit something else. I wasn’t the only person I knew who had grown up with more than one language. It was liberating. Still, if London had remained what it was then, simply the capital of the United Kingdom, I would probably have moved on and out into the wider world. We had a government that tacitly supported apartheid in South Africa and prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. We had the class system (I haven’t gone into this – but, while we’re doing labels: too posh for my comprehensive school; not posh enough for proper posh people who had been privately educated). We had Stop and Search, IRA bombs, the Brixton riots, National Front skinheads sporting swastika tattoos on their necks, and rampant homelessness. When the Berlin Wall fell, an East German family came to stay with me – their first ever trip to a Western capital. To mitigate their bedazzlement, I took them under Waterloo Bridge to see cardboard city – the maze of street-dweller shacks past which professionals in suits walked every day on their way to and from work. The East Germans were shocked into silence until finally the mother turned to me and asked: ‘Does Mrs Thatcher know about this?’
Then, in the 1990s, something happened. Britain too became more outward looking, connected, generous, embracing. The world came to us. Suddenly, everyone was bilingual and a bit something else. It was exhilarating. Everything became more vibrant. The food became edible, and then delicious. The public spaces were transformed into venues where people from all over the planet gathered to exchange ideas, perform, play music, dance. We were not just living in a world city – we were living in the world city. My family became even more international: I married a Canadian, one of my sisters married a British Indian, the other set up home with a Pole. We forgot about being too foreign and too posh. We forgot about the schoolyard insults. The men with the swastika tattoos disappeared from central London – we forgot to wonder where they might have gone. We forgot that for city dwellers nothing can move fast enough, but that, for others, rapid change can be bewildering and excluding, and that to look around and not be able to find a role for yourself in the place you call home is distressing and ultimately enraging. Hearing twenty languages on the bus is not exciting, but Babel; seeing glass buildings pierce the London skyline while your town disintegrates is not the march of time but an insult. We were mystified when Brexiters said things like: ‘Things were better when I was younger.’ Better – really? They couldn’t be serious. We missed the subtext, which was: ‘Where am I? I don’t recognise this place.’
I cried in the days after the referendum. I am not, generally, a crier, but when my husband Scott came back from travels on 24 June, he found me weeping into my tea. ‘I feel,’ I sobbed, ‘as though someone has died.’ Scott was bewildered. Coming from a country that has maintained perfectly civilised relations with other countries while providing peace, prosperity, diversity and security for its citizens without ceding any sovereignty whatsoever, he has always been slightly bemused by the UK’s membership of the European Union. His vote to Remain was purely practical.
No one had died. But something had. A nerve had been severed – that connection to our cousin countries. The EU, like all families, was a flawed institution, but still, it was family. In my head, I kept hearing the words of Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘Second Fig’:
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining castle built upon the sand!
I think that some of my tears were for the death of our idea of London – our beautiful multicultural internationalist shining castle. The country descended into a storm of label-flinging: Muslim, Immigrant, East European, Chav, Corbynista, Blairite, Urban Elite, Left Behind, Left-wing, Right-wing, Tory, Liberal. All delivered with mind-boggling, triumphant invective, often anonymously via the Internet, as if by saying something vehemently enough you can reduce the complexity of an individual or group of individuals to a single word.
Rightly, Brexiters are angry about the label ‘Xenophobe’, but I hazard to guess that most would not object to ‘Patriot’ – something that has always seemed to me utterly irrational: to rely solely on the accident of the geography of your birth for your sense of self. I am proud to live in a country that has the rule of law, universal education and health care, a public welfare system, diversity, and thriving creativity. But these are not birth rights, they are values which have been hard fought for by Leavers and Remainers and immigrants alike, which cannot be taken for granted and require eternal vigilance, and which we share with other nations (most of which are to be found in Europe). There are other things about this country of which I am not proud: the legacy of the Iraq war, the rise in social inequality, the erosion of public services, the burying of our heads in the sand over climate change. It doesn’t seem to me that these are challenges best addressed by devoting the next decade of our resources to disentangling ourselves from our international commitments.
But enough – it has been a month and as people keep saying, we are where we are. I need to phone my aunt again. Since I last spoke to her we have had Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Ansbach, Normandy and the Turkish coup attempt. During the same period, while we weren’t paying attention, among the hundreds of civilians killed globally in daily acts of terrorism, over two hundred people died in a bomb attack on a shopping mall in Baghdad, and in Pakistan, Amjad Sabri was murdered for his ‘blasphemous’ music. So, here’s a label that I don’t mind owning: Human. These events affect us all, whether or not ‘we have our borders back’. My aunt will want to talk about them. She is frightened. Her nightmares, which she thought belonged to her past – the madness of ideology, the mass movement of peoples, the tightening grip of Russia – all now seem to belong to the future.
That story that she told me – the one about the suitcase of unspun wool – I don’t actually believe it. My grandmother was a woman of matchless thrift and practicality. She would have known exactly what was in each suitcase. But the story, like all narratives, is true in what it came to symbolise to its narrator. The eleven-year-old girl, my aunt, remembers her own terror, the absolute destruction of her entire world, and a single suitcase. She remembers the faces of her mother and aunts as they open the suitcase and find the wool. They take a deep breath, appraise the situation, pause for a second . . . and then they take up the wool and start to spin. They set to work, because that is all, and it is everything, that they can do.
Photograph © Rin Johnson