That the Brexit victory has led to a steep rise in abuse against those perceived to be foreign is no surprise. The horrendous murder of MP Jo Cox by a Britain First member should, in a civilised country, have put paid to the Leave campaign. It did the opposite. Plucky desire for sovereignty, or fear of the ‘other’?
During my gap year, back in the 1970s, I worked for several months in a factory and then in an airline wash-up, and the levels of racism were shockingly high. A fellow worker, from northern India, became a close friend: through him, I witnessed the challenges faced by an immigrant. When we moved our home to France in 1990, weary of Thatcher, I had a deeper glimpse. Perhaps I was unconsciously echoing my early childhood: born in Paris, arriving in Britain after three years in Calcutta, I found my native country bewildering at first, full of codes and subtleties I didn’t understand. Even the cold felt alien.
No one, I am convinced, is wholly free of prejudice. A human trait, it stems from an evolutionary suspicion of outsiders, of those who are different, even though the millennial experience of being human is one of migration and adjustment, usually to the advantage of the hosts; from the arrival of copper-wielding foreigners in the Bronze Age (welcomed or resisted, the archaeologists are divided) to that of eastern Europeans in our own.
I went to Romania last year, as my new novel features a Romanian character called Cosmina, who works in a Lincolnshire care home. By chance, the daughter of our farming host had had exactly the same job as Cosmina, many years earlier in the UK, despite being a highly qualified nurse. Her experience of England was both positive (working and living conditions) and negative (prejudice). I didn’t adjust the section much, except to incorporate passages describing her home in the beautiful Eastern Carpathian mountains, where horses pull wagons, hay is cut by hand and the soil is chemical-free. Home, after all, is a continual plangent threnody in the often uninterpretable clamour of being an immigrant.
What I did learn in Romania is that there is plenty of internal prejudice, freely expressed: non-Roma Romanians against ‘the gypsies’ (Roma); Hungarian-Romanians against the ‘Romanian’ Romanians, and vice-versa, both claiming to be the original inhabitants. I tried to incorporate these attitudes in the novel.
History and context are vital for understanding complex issues. There was an alarming absence of historical references in the referendum campaigns, along with much else (the failure of the media to press the Brexiteers on their plans post-victory was disastrous). Eruptions of racist violence in Britain’s past range from the horrific massacre of York’s Jews in 1190, to deadly riots against French Huguenots in 1590s London. A multicultural, fast-expanding city fallen on hard times, having welcomed both internal job-seekers like Shakespeare (who found lodgings above a French family) and those fleeing external persecution, it was quickly galvanised to intolerance by malign rhetoric. As Thomas More puts it to the mob, in a passage in Shakespeare’s hand from a multi-authored play, The Book of Sir Thomas More:
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas!
Around my home in France, friends and acquaintances look upon our folie and its ugly consequences with both shock and alarm: a Moroccan cafe owner said he’d thought of us as the most ‘democratic’ and tolerant country in Europe. Being a white European and not a north African, my own experience of intolerance is slight. The frequent reminder that I am ‘Breetish’ remains irritating, but its intention is mostly affectionate – jokey references to my taste in tea or to my apparent love of the Queen, as if everyone in the UK is an Etonian ponce sipping Earl Grey. An ageing soixante-huitard in a Montpellier tram once told my wife, talking in English to a friend she hadn’t seen in fifteen years, to shut up. ‘If you’re in France,’ he railed, ‘speak French.’ But the Cévennes mountains, where we live, has long been a refuge for those escaping oppression, from Huguenot to anti-franquiste to maquisard to Jewish child: large farming families could easily add the latter without attracting attention. Now our village is about to welcome twenty-six Syrians. It’s a good place to be different. I fear the opposite will now be true of Britain.
However, much might go on out of earshot here: dry tinder just requiring a spark. Years ago, my wife organised bilingual carol-singing through the winding streets, and the group of mainly French youngsters visited the café. When they’d left, a Sicilian friend at the bar (also an immigré) reported that our adorable patronne, as friendly as ever when we were there, had addressed the locals thus: ‘I don’t know, we’ll all be speaking English at this rate!” Her sentiment was not one of appreciative expectation.
Photograph © Philippe Rouzet