Brexit Stories

When it comes to spy stories, I usually prefer films over novels, and when I occasionally make an exception, I dip into the worlds of John Le Carré. This time not because it was a spy story, but because it was a Brexit story. Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in 2019, capturing that heady time period after the European Referendum of 2016 but before the withdrawal agreement was signed and enacted upon at the end of 2020.

In this spy caper, one of the main British characters declares, ‘It is my considered opinion, that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.’ Familiar? Yes, it sounds as if paraphrased from the actual comments of many remainers, famous and not-so-famous, the banter in local pubs and in the many rallies and marches at the time. 

So, too are these gems from the mouths of British characters in Le Carré’s novel: ‘The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people.’ And, ‘I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances. Things that were wrong with Europe could be changed from inside Europe.’

One of the Russian-born characters embodies the view from outside the UK when he says, ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?’ ‘Tell me.’ ‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.” 

For me, this spy story was more interesting for its background than for its foreground. It presented a nostalgia of sorts. Not a rose-tinted view of the recent past, which was stressful in its 24/7 argumentative mode while trying to stop the march off the cliff. This nostalgia rests in a time when like-minded people were talking about how this referendum happened and the immediate impact of the results. These were stories told and opinions laid bare that are now well cemented into the past.

What are the stories we are living in now? Some one hundred days ago the transition period ended and Britain officially left the EU. The European Movement has produced a report organised around the personal narratives of ten people whose lives have been affected by Brexit. To no surprise, the mini stories come from a farmer, a small business owner, a fisherman, a professional musician, a teacher, a refugee and an EU citizen trying to gain their ‘settled status’ in the UK, along with a few stories that are less personal, but still poignant – a professor speaking about the recent violence in Northern Ireland and a climate activist and a human rights campaigner both mapping out the current struggles Britain faces going it alone.

I’ve been reading and watching similar stories in the British media, but not as leading stories – these are sometimes stuffed in the middle, reduced to a ‘human interest’ or regional status. Since the beginning of the year – the start of the official Brexit – the pandemic, the riots at the US Capitol, the start of the Biden years and other stories have butted the Brexit fallout from public discourse. This moratorium on Brexit talk has been helped in the UK by politicians of all stripes not willing to enter into this contentious topic again. 

I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for another popular writer of fiction, spy novelist or other, to write the truths of this time. 

European Language Day

Yesterday marked the seventeenth year of European Language Day, first started by the EU and the Council of Europe to promote language diversity across the continent. There are some 200 languages spoken in Europe. If this figure seems a bit high, it’s because it includes some 60 regional and minority languages, such as Manx (the Celtic language spoken on the Isle of Man),  Aragonese (a Romance language spoken in the Pyrenees region of Spain) and Maltese (a Semitic language based on Sicilian Arabic).

I’ve been studying foreign languages since I was about seven and fortunate to be placed in French classes in my primary school – a state school no less. Classes only met once a week, and I can’t say that I learned much as we mostly played games and sang folk and Christmas songs. Yet, there were things that I absorbed then which I still draw from today, retaining the original childhood context like a backdrop to a stage. In addition to French, over the years, I’ve studied Italian (naturally) and Spanish and have dipped into Danish, Korean and Arabic. Much to my shame, I can’t say that I’m fluent in any of these languages, being more of a theoretical English language linguist than a polyglot.

European Language Day is one of these awareness days which is about encouraging people to study European languages and to celebrate the diversity of languages and cultures across Europe. At first glance, this appears innocuous – and perhaps it was five years ago. But with Brexit and the rise of populism, xenophobic rhetoric has been empowered and multiculturalism and world citizenship have been relegated to being little more than liberal snowflake ideas.

Having said this, I’m encouraged by today’s vote in Switzerland to retain free movement between their country and the EU. A welcomed nationalists’ defeat.

I’m also hopeful that interest in foreign languages, and therefore other cultures, will not succumb to populist trends thanks to the Corona Virus. This pandemic has been a boon to language learning apps, such as Duolingo, Babel and my personal favourite Memrise. Although the way governments, as in the UK and the US, have handle the pandemic has sharpened the divide between rich and poor and between competing countries, the lockdown pastime of language learning could in its own subtle ways lead us towards more unity and cultural tolerance.

On that positive note – and arguably a snowdrift of wokeness – bonne soirée, buona serata…

The Queen’s English?

‘Brexit Day,’ as some are calling it, was just over a week ago. On that day, these signs were stuck on doors of all 15 floors of a residential building in Norwich, in the east of England:

Brexit Day poster

Aside from the blatant racism, which I don’t mean to diminish or trivialise, I have several linguistic points to make. Not in any particular order.

What is the Queen’s English? For the spoken language, which the moron who wrote this poster appears to be obsessed with, the Queen speaks RP (Received Pronunciation). It’s an accent of English with no regional associations. That’s because it’s a ‘social accent’ taught in certain private schools and reinforced in the homes and social circles of the upper classes. It’s an accent that clips its vowels and makes toast sound like taste. Today RP is spoken by roughly 2% of the British population. I suspect that the cretin who wrote this poster does not speak the Queen’s English.

The British Library website has 77 recordings of different accents and dialects of English from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ( I wonder how many of these British-English accents would be fully understood by the imbecile who wrote this poster.

English is not the only native language of Britain. There’s Welsh, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish to name a few. And the flipside of this – Britain is not the only country where English is spoken as a native or official language. If the idiot who wrote this poster wants only people whose ‘mother tongue’ is English to live in Britain, he or she would appear to be perfectly fine with people from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Liberia, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea – among others.

The ignoramus who wrote this poster has a problem with people who speak foreign languages. Don’t get me started. During this week that saw Britain enter another dark age, the polymath George Steiner passed away at the age of 90. Steiner was trilingual, speaking French, German and English, and he once described his mother as ‘a Viennese grande dame who used to begin a sentence in one language and finish it in another without even noticing.’ Brexit hasn’t really happened yet – we’re in a transition period – yet, I’m already feeling nostalgic.

Professor George Steiner


It’s been a week since the UK General Election. I’m not going to blame Corbyn, the People’s Vote, the electoral system or the LibDems for what happened. Instead of seeing this as their loss or folly, I have been struck down by the realisation of the Brexit movement’s victory. I must acknowledge it. The falsehoods and misinformation are immaterial. They out-campaigned us and out-manoeuvred us.

As I try to untangle this, I take little solace in the knowledge that my side may have lost the vote, but we still have won the argument. That kind of thinking helped me through the aftermath of the referendum, but it’s not working now. I say this in all sincerity. I’m not looking to be right. I’m too busy wallowing in my own defeat for that.

Defeat is a monstrous burden to bear. Maybe it’s because the three and a half years of my life engaged in Brexit conversations, delivering leaflets, attending rallies and marches and above all else, wishing it away. I turn once again to Buddhism, the Zen variety this time. In this tradition, and I paraphrase Thomas Merton, when a person feels kicked, crushed and defeated , a spiritual path is the best place to be. I meditate and breath.

But that’s only part of it, since the GE, I live in a world that feels alien to me and this is not an exaggeration. I recall the Reagan/Thatcher years, where I strongly disagreed with the policies of both and had to live with them as a US resident and then a British one. But I could understand then, and especially now, why people voted for them. Both politicians benefitted from the economic boom at the time while the left on both sides of the Atlantic experienced a paucity of leadership. I feel on safe ground saying that if Reagan or Thatcher had behaved in the ways of Trump and Johnson – the bare-faced lies, the racist and sexist remarks, the stirring up of hatred – they would not have been re-elected. This is where it hurts, I’m having to acknowledge that I live in a new world order, where cult-like charlatans rule the most powerful countries on our planet. Historians will be quick to point out that this is not a new world. This is an old world that was around before my lifetime, the interwar years in Germany comes to mind.

So I take inspiration from Michael Tippett, who composed A Child of Our Time in response to the disunity in Europe just before WWII. ‘The world turns on its dark side — it is winter,’ the chorus sings. But we know that after winter the flowers will start to bloom again.m tippett

Not Writing About Brexit

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been writing about Brexit of late. My last Brexit tagged blog was in early May, and you have to go back to March to find Brexit in the title. Unlike a lot of people in the UK, I can’t with hand on heart say that I’m tired of Brexit. The topic is complex and multi-layered. It can be looked at from the standpoints of trade and economics, climate change and the environment, human rights, shared research or cultural exchange. Brexit can be seen as a phenomenon of voter and media manipulation or as the catalyst to end party politics as we’ve know it in Britain. That is, for someone like me who enjoys reading and problem-solving through deconstruction, Brexit has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Writing about it has become another matter altogether. As soon as I get an idea for another Brexit blog, I read about it in a newspaper or magazine or hear that a book has come out with the same thesis. Among my favourite Brexit writers – I think this is a start of a genre – are Andrew Rawnsley, Nick Cohen and Will Hutton from The Observer, Polly Toynbee from The Guardian, Stephanie Baker from Bloomberg News and Steve Richards of The Independent and The New European.

Only a few days ago, I stumbled across the perfect quote for what I was going to write about in this blog – another failed attempt. Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote: ‘The fantasy voted for in 2016 is not the reality of 2019… Democracies are exercises in constant reassessment. The core reason nobody has been able to deliver Brexit is that it makes no sense.’

It’s hard to improve on that.

All I can offer are a few reports gathered from my academic life. I’ve been hearing directly from researchers based at UK universities (many of them not British themselves) who have been excluded from funding applications because Brexit makes them ‘too risky.’ In another case, an academic organisation has changed its plans to have a British university host an international conference over worries that EU27 citizens might need visas to enter the UK. Underlying these examples, as with all changes to our lives brought on by Brexit is a sense of anxiety – sometimes it’s about the unknown, and at other times it’s about losing the good things that we do know have come from our EU membership.

As I struggle to find words to describe this anxiety – a vapid and overused word – I appear to be not writing about Brexit again.

ledby donkeys

Leadership – Part 2

In Leadership – Part 1, I addressed what makes a good leader with, admittedly, a lack of strong real-life examples. But I did offer plenty of examples of people who have been poor leaders, drawing from the political party leaders in the UK at the time of the last general election. It pleases me to finally find an example of good leadership in our present day. I know I’m not the first to say this. All over the world, people have been marvelling at Jacinda Ardern. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, the New Zealand Prime Minister condemned the racist attack for what it was, acted quickly to change gun laws and showed empathy and compassion towards the victims’ families and the Muslim community as a whole.

Above all else, for me at least, she has dealt with these attacks using imagination (another criterion for a good leader) by not following the script written by other presidents and prime ministers in similar situations. She has made it a point to not utter the name of the perpetrator, thereby not giving him his celebrity, not helping to create another hero for the alt-right. Going off script, she has also used the Arabic language, albeit in small ways, at talks about the attack and at funeral services. I know from my own experiences with speaking foreign languages, even a small bit can be taken to heart and warmly received.

I’ve also been struck this past weekend by another example of good leadership, one that I haven’t seen mentioned in the press. Attending the latest march against Brexit – or in support of another referendum, depending on how you look at it – I started to think about how we managed to get here. The ‘here’ isn’t the political mess that is currently dominating British life, already making it culturally and economically poorer (sorry, I digress). The ‘here’ was the physical place, walking down the cordoned-off streets of London, along St James, Whitehall, Trafalgar, winding up at the buildings of Parliament. This ‘here’ was non-violent, at times joyful and funny. Considering the behaviours of the opposition – the hate speech and death threats, the stabbing of an MP during the referendum campaign – matching like with like would have been easy and for many justifiable. But thanks to the leadership of organisations, such as European Movement, Best for Britain and Open Britain, and a handful of politicians, some of whom have broken ranks within their own parties, over a million people in London marched peacefully.March London 23-03-19 b

I say all of this with some reservation. Acting peacefully might give us the moral high ground. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from the referendum result and the goings on between Downing Street and Parliament, that doesn’t preclude gaining the support of voters or altering the behaviours of politicians. There might not be a Leadership – Part 3, but keep your eyes peeled for Morality – Part 1.


Magical Realism, Women Writers and Brexit

I was not not not going to write about Brexit this week. I started out a few days ago writing on Jesmyn Ward’s moving novel Sing Unburied Sing. This was going to be about women writers of magical realism in honour of International Women’s Day – okay, a few days late as that was 8 March, but I was in Italy, where everything runs late.

Ward’s novel is set in post-Hurricane-Katrina Mississippi and is about a culture trapped in poverty that spirals into drug abuse, violence, imprisonment and broken families brought together by older generations raising their grandchildren. This grim narrative is lifted by tender moments between the children and between the grandfather and his grandson and by the writing itself. Often poetic in its descriptions, the story abounds with metaphors that run throughout its telling. I was also carried along in what was otherwise bleak by imaginative scenes that would place this work in the category of magical realism. At least for me. I haven’t seen this novel treated as magical realism in any review.

What is magical realism then? In literature (it’s also found in other art forms) it refers to fiction that is set in the real world, but has some magical or fable-like elements to it. It differs from Sci-Fi and Fantasy by being in a highly plausible world and one that the reader recognises, such as modern-day America. The magical elements in such fiction are understood by the characters to be real – that is not in dreams or hallucinations. Some well-known examples are the novels and short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka and Salmon Rushdie’s’ Midnight’s Children.

Any online list on authors of magical realism tends to be a rather Y-chromosome affair. The exceptions are the odd book written by women writers, such as Allende’s House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There are plenty of women writers missing from these lists, including Ursula K Le Guin, who tends to be seen only for Fantasy, and Louise Erdrich, who gets lumped into Native American Literature.

Maybe these are just categories of interest to publishers and literary scholars, and ultimately they have nothing to do with enjoying such books. I accept that view. Yet, I wonder if magical realism has become a less-used category of writing because of the way modern readers are viewing the world around them. This is where Brexit reared its head. We live in an age of alternative truths and facticide, where magical thinking has become normalised.

Perhaps there is a danger in writing about magical realism while Parliament was once again voting against the government’s proposed Brexit deal. It appears as if a recurring dream, full of fanciful ideas and characters openly contradicting themselves with speeches of the sort found in Kafka’s The Castle. But we all know that these scenes are not from dreams or hallucinations.Brexit - next steps

Brexit on the Brain

It’s hard not to think about Brexit these days, but harder still not to write about it. With the multitude of issues and possible scenarios, it’s become messy. Hence, I give you some vignettes.

  • The People’s Vote (or second referendum, if you will) seems closer than ever. At least, that’s what a great many politicians and advocacy groups are espousing. With Parliamentarians and the government unable to reach a decision, it would seem wise to turn the decision back to the people.
  • The People’s Vote has never felt further away. The crushing defeat of the Prime Minister’s Brexit Deal, already agreed by the EU, coupled with the inability to oust the PM, boxes weary MPs into a corner of compromise and realpolitik. It also has to be said that poll after poll is showing a swing in favour of remaining in the EU. In order words, a People’s Vote is more than likely going to give us a remain result. And that’s why it won’t happen. There are too many people with money and in positions of power that want Brexit to happen and this is the closest they have ever been. They will do anything to stop a People’s Vote.
  • Ending up with a No Deal Brexit is a misnomer. The no deal is actually a deal. It’s not like trying to buy a new house, ending up without a deal and returning to your own house and life continues as it was before you tried to buy that new house. But with a No Deal Brexit, we are losing something – the house, or possibly just the furniture, or we’ll keep the house, but it gets moved to a bad neighbourhood and gets drastically devalued. I’ll stop the metaphor there – too many Brexit metaphors aloft these days. The point is that we will not return to our lives as they were before – that’s simply not possible.
  • Theresa May insists she’s responding to the wishes of the British people by delivering on Brexit. Of course, we all know that the referendum took place over two years ago and that a great many things have happened since then. We also all know that the Brexit campaign rested on half-truths and some blatant lies, with a dash of fantasy-world negotiations and trade deals. With the realities of Brexit setting in, and poll after poll showing more UK voters want to remain in the EU than want to leave it, how can the PM claim that Brexit is what people want?
  • What has happened to the Liberal Democrats? They have consistently been against Brexit with a party united in this view. Their membership has surged over these past two years and they have made huge gains in local elections and bi-elections. Yet, the national British media gives them scant attention. In recent weeks, I’ve seen Sir Vince Cable (the Lib-Dem leader, in case you’ve understandably forgot) quoted more in the French press than in the British papers. C’est la vie.
  • The PM and other Tories are now saying that 80% of the British people who voted at the last general election voted for parties that promised Brexit in their manifestos. What they are saying is not a lie. Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos promised to deliver on Brexit, and both were vague about what this might entail. But at the last general election Jeremy Corbyn did not win votes on a pro-Brexit platform. He managed to stay away from the topic, focusing on other problems (health care, poverty, fairness), hoping that his supporters were not reading the party manifesto. That was a bet that paid off – while some 70% of Labour voters are against Brexit, they also voted for Corbyn.
  • Some clever number crunchers have calculated that by the middle of January 2019 (about now), if the same people who voted in the referendum in 2016 voted again and even voted the same way, Remain would win. This is because a substantial number of the elderly who voted for Brexit would have died. If you add into this new referendum the young voters who could not vote last time – subtracting out the likelihood that many of them wouldn’t bother to vote, Remain would win by a landslide.
  • One of the concerns raised about a No Deal Brexit or even a bad deal Brexit is the difficulty in getting medicines into the into the UK, for example insulin. Less than 1 percent of insulin used in the UK is made in the UK. Most UK-bought insulin comes from Germany, Denmark and France. Contingency plans and stockpiling are in the works for which I assume Theresa May is thankful. As Type 1 diabetic, she is currently on a regime of four insulin injections per day.
  • Recent weeks have been ‘historical’ – the word worn with overuse. It was indeed historical when the House of Commons voted to hold the government in contempt of Parliament for not revealing the legal advice they received on Brexit. That was a first in British history. It was also historical when the PM’s Brexit deal lost in the House of Commons by a resounding 432 votes to 202 – the largest defeat of a government in over 100 years. I’m reminded of James Joyce’s Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus says,  “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”


The Last Anti-Brexit March

I only uploaded one photo on Twitter and Facebook this time. It’s one of me looking half-awake on an early morning train to London, wearing my People’s Vote t-shirt, holding a sign that says, ‘Ely for Europe.’ There was no point in uploading my other photos from the march in London on Saturday as my pictures looked, well, very much like everyone else’s – thick crowds, placards, flags and silly hats, splashes of blue and gold.

David and I ended up joining the march near Piccadilly, where the police decided to extend the front of the march to deal with the massive turnout – half a million more than expected. Our tranche of the march started rather quietly – no songs, chants or horns. David commented that it was like a funeral march. That seems appropriate as this would probably be the last time anti-brexit protesters are going to come together like this in London. With the government’s withdrawal agreement with Brussels coming to some sort of denouement, the next phase will go back to parliament. Activist will be busy writing to their MPs en masse instead of organising a protest march. Of course, there will be other marches related to and in part resulting from Brexit in the future – anti-austerity, workers’ rights, jobs, saving our NHS and so on. Based on what Brexit has already done to this country, the future looks bleak.

As we reached Trafalgar Square, protesters taking the official short version of the march started to filter in. We were in a logjam. But it was chaotic, loud and invigorating. It was a thing of beauty. The spirit of the movement came back into my being.

But it only lasted a few hours. On the train heading back home to Ely, I was feeling nostalgic about the Britain that is being lost and about my time as an anti-Brexit activist as if it were some point in the distant past. I went to my phone and noted that we had clocked over 15,000 steps that day. I thumbed through my photos, already reminiscing, and found one taken by accident as I was jumping up trying to get a shot of the crowds in Parliament Square. It’s a photo of shadows across a patch of empty pavement. It doesn’t represent in any way the excitement and sense of purpose I experienced during the march. But it was taken there and managed to capture the feeling I’m left as the time between the march and the present grows wider.

Brexit:  The next steps for this activist

Working with grassroots organisations like Ely for Europe and the European Movement is one way of tackling a problem like Brexit. It’s helped me to become better informed on the issues and to participate in the protest against the inanity that is Brexit. While I’ve had the honour and pleasure of Co-Chairing Ely for Europe over the past two years, I’m now stepping down from my chairing post. I’ll still be involved with the group and on their committee. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of volunteering it’s that the helm has to be passed around from time to time to keep others involved and to ensure the group doesn’t become a clique.

So, what now? In a matter of weeks, the big decisions concerning Brexit will be made, whether it’s how we’re going to leave the EU or if battle-weary politicians seek to save face by implementing a people’s vote. Much of this will be in parliament’s hands. This leaves me with the feeling that a lot of my work has been done on the Brexit front.

I’ve been getting more involved with local politics and the workings of the local councils – in Ely, we have city, district and county levels. I’ve been somewhat involved in the past, but stayed on the fringes. My willingness to plunge in – if I’m not mixing my metaphors – has come from a sense of hopelessness at the national level. In Britain, our politicians have let us down. They aggressively spout forth on the ‘will of the people’ but seem blind to the majority of polls and surveys over the past two years showing that most people in Britain do not wish to leave the European Union. Before that, there were austerity measures and the growing gap between rich and poor. Anyone who has been following British politics will tell you that these ills are entangled in party politics and not in the best interest of the country. That is, we’re not talking about competing ideologies – we’re talking power games.

Last night I was having drinks with friends from America and South Africa. International travellers, broadsheet readers – yes, I know, the chattering classes. Our consensus:  Britain was turning into another Italy. The political sway of Nigel Farage, the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, the bumbling incompetence of Boris Johnson and Therese May are paralleled by Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini and so on. Britain, like Italy, has become a laughing stock. But what makes Italy work, and has kept it working since the war despite political chaos at the top, has been local governments and concerned citizens. With that thought in mind, I take my next steps.