The place where there was more paranoia than pride on Brexit day

Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 in west London, on September 13, 2019. - British

Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 in west London, on September 13, 2019. - British Airways has cancelled all its scheduled UK flights for September 27, when company pilots will again strike in a long-running row over pay. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

WILL SELF took his university students on a fieldtrip to Heathrow Airport on the day the UK left the European Union.

The matter was troubling: what should Family Self do to mark Britain's secession from the European Union? As a Brexit agnostic myself, I had little skin in the game - but my youngest, who still lives with me, had different ideas: "Think about it, Dad," he said, as the clock ticked toward 11pm on Thursday January 30: "Big Shop is a sort of microcosm of the EU, and it closes at eleven every evening - so tomorrow the EU will be shut to us at the same time that Big Shop is." I could tell he was troubled by this valedictory congruence - and I know why: 'Big Shop' is our euphemism for the shop around the corner from our flat.

It's run by a couple of Sinhalese cousins and their extended family, while to call it a 'convenience store' is, for once, no sort of misnomer: not only is Big Shop nearby, it also stocks just about anything you could want on its teeming, tightly packed and high-reaching shelves. And not only on its shelves: the ceiling of Big Shop is festooned with dangling commodities - everything from footballs to tyre wrenches to party costumes to magic lanterns to shower fitments, while the wall behind the tills boasts racks holding batteries, packets of rubber bands, marijuana grinders, miniature bottles of rum, whiteboard markers etcetera. It's become something between a game and ritual for either my son or I to muse, wonderingly, "I wonder if they have X in Big Shop?"

So, in terms of anxieties about Britain's future trade policy, he was right on the money: being unable to access Big Shop would be a disaster for our little polity. "So," my percipient child continued, "what you should do is buy some little Union Jacks at Big Shop - the sort people wave at Royal events - and take them on your trip to Heathrow tomorrow. Your students can wave them at people arriving."

"But," I quibbled, "will they have such flags at Big Shop?"

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"Go and find out." He commanded.

They did: two-per-packet for £1.99. Admittedly, they were the sort that you're meant to clip on to your car - but they could be handheld and waved as well. I bought two packets. I take my students at Brunel University to Heathrow every year: it's a half hour there on the bus, and the sheer oddity of visiting a major airport and not going anywhere, never fails to impress upon them… well, the sheer oddity of our own age of mass transportation. Because, as I observe to them: airports such as Heathrow, that make more money from retail outlets and car parking charges than they do from landing fees, are really Big Shops as well.

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Anyway, the airport is a useful teaching aid for discussing many aspects of the human condition - from our herd-like behaviour when en masse, to our collective hysteria when we hear about novel viruses. I always take the students to arrivals as well, and talk to them about how emotionally vulnerable passengers can be coming off a long haul flight - and how we can make them and ourselves feel better by breaking the airport's omerta, welcoming them to Britain, and wishing them a happy day. This year, as directed by my son, I distributed the little Union Jacks to the group, and suggested they welcome the bleary-eyed folk staggering through the electric doors to 'the proud independent nation of Britain'.

This they duly did - and, if Big Shop is a microcosm of the EU, the exercise proved this much: Heathrow Airport is microcosm of a Britain that's mostly paranoid rather than proud: it took security less than five minutes before they turned up, mob-handed. There were five of them, and the senior woman was affable but very firm. She checked my ID and then said: "You have to realise that this is a highly sensitive area, and on this of all days we're being especially vigilant - were you engaged in a protest of some kind?" I negatived that - before explaining to this commanding officer the emotional and psychological character of the exercise. She accepted my explanation - then told us to move on.

It wasn't until we were on the bus heading back to the campus that I realised what she'd been driving at: she'd assumed that when the students welcomed the air passengers to 'the proud independent nation of Britain' they were being ironic. And really, that says it all - all about Britain leaving the EU, because for the security officer to think these youngsters were being ironic, she'd have to utterly dismiss the possibility they were sincere. And all about Britain in itself as well - because let's face it, with far less favourable terms of trade, what does this Big Shop nation of ours have to flog besides the dead horse of its own precious irony?

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