Brexit gave me a very romantic moment this morning. The birds chirped and the bees buzzed and the sun shone upon me as I picked up my phone and proposed to M by text message. ‘You might have to marry me’, I said. He’s not a sentimental man, but I’m sure there were tears in his eyes when he read it. This is a joke I’m making, on this day when there is nothing to laugh about. Ha ha.
I’m crying as I write this.
All my life, I’ve stood on the funny side of things and found something to laugh about. And I have laughed today, but bitterly. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. Bile. Hatred. Division. I’ve laughed, because you don’t just break the habit of a lifetime from one day to the next, but things are being broken all over the place. And today, I don’t know where I stand.
It’s not about the breaking up of a union that, despite the best intentions that I’m sure were present, somewhere, at its inception, was arguably ill-conceived in the first place. What’s broken is this human race, that looks around and sees only difference, that looks around and fails to recognise itself in the humanity of others, that sees otherness wherever it looks. Humanity: the great equaliser, but it’s the lowest common denominator that’s at play today, and it is fear. In all of our equations, X equals humanity divided by fear. We’re broken, and our edges are jagged; we don’t remember how we fit together. We don’t remember that we ever did. From one day to the next, we forget.
It’s too soon to write this. I don’t know how I feel. Something has happened and I want to talk about it, but there really isn’t much to say. Something has happened, yet nothing has happened yet everything has changed yet everything looks the same. The birds are chirping and the bees are buzzing and the sun is shining upon us all, and I cannot connect this feeling inside, the cold dread, the fight-or-flight tingle in my limbs, the bile rising up and turning my jokes bitter, to what I see when look around. I see myself as other, as others now see me; I recognise nothing at all.
I’m crying as I write this, but you don’t break the habit of a lifetime from one day to the next, and I’ve made jokes today. Like, I’ll be a new Anne Frank and hide in an attic and write my memoirs, ha ha. But it’s a bitter laugh, and powerless: it doesn’t connect. How could it, when connection is to recognise ourselves in others, and we have failed to even recognise ourselves? When the immigrants of yesterday are the xenophobes of today and they see neither irony nor danger in this, and memory only serves as ammunition, to justify the bitterness and the jagged edges we’re pointing at each other, something is broken. It shouldn’t surprise me, that I feel disconnected, but I was surprised by the news this morning, and I no longer know where I stand.
Divided Kingdom, you are broken, and you have broken my heart. And I know how little this matters. I know it matters almost not at all. But today, to me and to another 3 million residents of a land that’s shifting beneath our feet, of a kingdom divided, it matters. From one day to the next you have turned us into other and, no matter where each of us stands, there is no funny side to this. Just sides and jagged edges and that dreadful, chilling tingle in our limbs.
Fear is the great equaliser. That’s what the X seventeen million people drew onto their ballot papers and divided a nation equals; that’s what they chose. But what we fail to see is that we are all afraid. And if we recognised ourselves in the fear of others, perhaps we’d remember how little there is to be afraid of, after all. Perhaps we’d remember that we all fit together, and that division has never conquered anything for long. Perhaps we’d see that there has only ever been one side, and it’s the one where we can laugh at ourselves. And not allow the bile to turn us bitter. Despite the Xs that divide us, we still have that choice.
This is the second of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part three, part four, and part five here.
And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.