How Brexit has unleashed something that is both strange and unsettling.
A woman I know – a confident, strong West End restaurant manager – came up to me and told me that her daughter refused to speak Polish to her. My friend is from Krakow, multilingual and happy in what she thought was her new British skin. She has been living in the UK for over a decade, has climbed the corporate ladder and worked hard to maintain her own dual-nationality and that of her child.
So there was always Polish at home – books, cartoons, songs and talking to grandparents on Skype. A baby takes all this in like water and fresh air. The young are natural linguists and thrive on it. But the other day, after nursery, her daughter stopped her from speaking her mother tongue and said that she only wanted to speak English. Nothing else would do. Even when my friend tried to sneak a joke in, or a cartoon, her daughter would balk and be very cross. Polish was off limits. My friend is devastated.
There are two sets of opinion on this.
One is the idea that the little girl is simply adjusting to her environment, not wanting to stand out, trying to fit in and be like everyone else. And it will blow over. When I posted the story on Twitter, one responder assured me that all kids in bi- and multilingual environments go through this, before one day emerging, speaking their two languages fluently and with complete ease.
And then there were the other tweets. And something about them felt right and true. One said: “My partner is Polish; speaks English fluently, is a manager in a tech firm, she has recently been attempting to hide her Polish accent. She senses hostility since Brexit” Another said: “Polish family visit in the summer and the amount of disapproving looks and passive aggression the children receive from older adults in England is shocking.”
At it wasn’t just the Poles. Another said: “I moved here mid nineties, the casual racist/ ignorant comments I used to have to deal with were unbelievable: anything from the ‘thick paddy’ jokes to ‘does Ireland even have electricity?’ Or the ‘you Catholics breed like rabbits’ shite and it’s started again.”
There is an image that has been floating around on Twitter, taken in the House of Commons chamber at the height of the drama last week, as MPs and their speaker attempt to get to grips with the enormity of Brexit. It is such a striking image that it made me tweet something I have never said before: “I have lived in #London (I wish to stress ‘London’) almost as long as the country in which I was born, raised and attended university. But now….I am in a strange land.”
Again, the response was revealing. Others said the same. A born and bred Londoner, family here for centuries, assured me that Britain feels strange to him too. But what he feels is not quite what I mean.
Brexit has unleashed something strange, something that seems primal, as if all that I understood to be British was just a façade, a covering, a kind of lie. That this thing called ‘British’ may be the most ephemeral of things is something I have never faced. And it is shocking and unsettling.
When I came to London in the mid 1980s, there were loads of Americans speaking in the ugliest accent on earth: ‘mid Atlantic’. This monstrosity begins with flattening the a; being precise with consonants and, above all, lowering the voice.
The BBC had a pronunciation unit in those days and if you were on their air and American, you were always pulled up for the ‘a’s and the consonants. Some folks took that to heart. There are fewer things uglier than a New York City accent mixed with received pronunciation. And yet, even in the midst of being corrected by some zealous radio producer, there was never the sense of ‘other’ that there is now. And while I know about ‘No Blacks; No Irish: No Dogs’, Brexit is not only an exit from the EU, but an exit from a pact… the idea of Britain.
This idea was always essentially bogus, like all national dreams of superiority, but yet there was a striving in this idea. The UK had a decency that was very different from France, very different from the US.
The British, I always felt, do not like bullies, and you may say that Brexit is defeating a bully. The EU is big and all-encompassing. But a woman in a hijab pushing her daughter in a stroller on Oxford Street is not a monolith. You can see many of these women now walking with men – maybe brothers and fathers – as they do their shopping.
I find myself rehearsing in my mind what I would do if I saw one of these mothers being harassed in the street. I am training for it actually, learning where to get to a man who is attacking a woman. Learning how to surprise him and spirit the woman and me away quickly before he regains his senses after I have winded him.
The pro-Brexit march last month meant high-alert in my neighbourhood. There were helicopters overhead in the day and, at night, drunken guys roamed around and sang. And I thought of my friend, the Polish restaurant manager. Being an attractive woman, would they try to engage her, then hearing her voice, harm her? This is how febrile it is.
The members of the European Research Group have been sounding increasingly desperate and bellicose. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s response to the idea that Britain might face a long extension to Brexit was that the country should make life “as difficult as possible” for the EU. He suggested: “We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes”.
His words reminded of the comments of Tory peer Chris Patten, who has known Rees-Mogg since R-M was eight. “It is all very well having those views and being thought to be rather an eccentric but interesting lad when you are eight. But having the same views when you are 48 raises, I think, one or two eyebrows.”
The question: has Britain always been this way and I have just never known? Is it something passing? Or, whether we leave the EU or not, is something broken? Something that can never be fixed again.