Friday 24th June 2016. The results are out. Britain has voted to leave the European Union.
On holiday in Southern Spain, the following evening I meet a young couple from the UK. The girl stops us. “Are you British? What do you think of Brexit?” Am I British? I suppose I am, although I haven’t lived there for nearly twenty years and there are times when I feel more Italian. How do I feel about Brexit? Anger, fused with sorrow and a profound sense of displacement. I live in Italy. I feel both British and Italian. I’m European, and Britain has voted out.
This summer I go back to the UK, to Yorkshire, the heartland of Northern England. There are the English flags amidst the roses and the rolling hills. ‘Leave’ is painted in huge white letters on a grain silo in East Yorkshire. We want our land back. We want our seas back. We want our country back, whatever that will actually mean. My home town voted out. Sixty six percent people in Wakefield voted to leave – far higher than the national average of almost fifty two percent. Its grey uninspiring town centre reaches out under a greyer and menacing sky. No, it isn’t how I remember it from my childhood. Young mothers with tattoos and cigarettes push children around in pushchairs. Kids gorge themselves on fizzy drinks and junk food. Fruit and vegetables cost more in the supermarkets, but you can always buy-one-get-one-free on the junk. The expressions on their faces read, we’ll have anything back, so long as it’s better than what we have now, which is very little indeed. Childhood poverty is on the increase yet the rich are getting richer. Some live on state benefits. Others have jobs where ends don’t meet and the future is bleaker than the skies. They say London is not Britain but we already knew that here. Money has been invested in the industrial north, huge cars sit on the drives of rural dreams, but you know it’s all still there: stolen goods, drugs, a whole plethora of social problems and all the while the kids are running around playing by the road or hanging around on street corners and outside the off licences. Brexit? Europe? Disillusionment is the byword here, yet there were those who didn’t vote. The Telegraph refers to the continent. There’s Britain, and then there’s the rest of Europe.
Yet it’s not just being British and witnessing Brexit. It’s feeling European and witnessing Europe today. What’s happening outside our front doors – anti-immigration, racism verging on neo-fascism – is happening all over Europe. Both home country and adopted country merge and provoke the same feelings of uncertainty, worry about our children and sometimes repulsion. You can still be in love with your adopted home country and have doubts about whether you want to bring your children up there. You can’t help but notice, and when you comment you are sometimes silenced by a ‘what’s it like in England then?’. What’s it like in the UK, I couldn’t tell you from experience as my experience is here, in Italy. Things are transformed into ‘you’ and ‘them’, but you are them too.
Multi-culturalism always existed somewhat clumsily within the ex-mining communities and industrial mill towns around which I grew up. Yet immigrants became an integral part of our society and lives. Moreover, immigrants stopped being immigrants and became British. Barriers of race and gender were broken down, at least for most. When I left Britain in the late nineties Blur was singing girls can be boys and boys can be girls, Tony Blair was meeting the stars of Britpop and Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst were storming the art world. All this was filtering through. And some of us, the Thatcher’s daughters of state-paid university fees and social mobility, who had been brought up being told about all that girls can do because the world is your oyster, were seeking precisely that. We experimented with freedom, the generation of inter-railers and gap years. Some of us packed our bags and moved abroad. Yet our parents’ generation voted a majority Leave in what felt like the ultimate betrayal. Brexit means Brexit, as Theresa May says, although as and when is not yet clear.
I doubt my children hear that girls can be boys and boys can be girls, and I’m not just talking about gender change. Women, homosexuals, immigrants. It’s the fear of the ‘other’ in what can still be a very masculine society, however subtle this may be. You only have to flick through Facebook to see the appalling levels the people can reach. The other week a French police officer ordered a woman to remove her clothing on a French beach. And we’re apparently living in the 21st century. Human life is still of little value. We guard our own castles and tend our own gardens, becoming lost in our own little worlds.
This summer I watched my children, for it always comes back to the children – children in Nice, children in Syria, children in our schools, children without a school. I watched them run around in three different countries in three different languages, and yes they are very privileged to be able to do so. I watched them move imperceptibly from one culture to another, from one way of living to another, and each time the local personality defined their way of speaking. I believe it’s the greatest gift I will ever be able to give them. It defines who I am.
And of course it’s all laced with a dose of Italian as Italy is where they live. They’ll always be Italian, just as a part of their British-Italian mother will always be British, or maybe English for it’s the detail that feeds nostalgia: purple heather moors, quiet seaside villages, the clouds, the light, the skies. It lulls and seduces just like the Italian lakeside towns and wild mountain peaks. It feeds creativity and reminds you who you are, shapes your sense of home. Day to day reality is something different. Yet writing, art, marks the journey. Each piece is a signpost. This is where I am now at this time. Read it individually and the rest will be missing, just like history must be read as a whole.