Brexit And The Birch Tree

 

 

Spring is delivered. The birch, like running cracks against polluted skies, has burst into quivering silk, its leaves busy with allusions to promise fulfilled. In silence it stole its march, though you swore that this year the first timid dusting of green would not yield its explosion without your abetting eye.

So there it is. So there. Above frothing white lilacs and candied knots of apple blossom, the tree smiles. Green and pink and white, all flourishing in harmony. A gift. Imagined, hoped for, but somehow not anticipated.

Brexit is not delivered. The word that has been on Britain's lips for three years offers no prospect. Neither, frankly, does continued membership of the EU. In an age of 'sovereign' democracy and a myriad agendas vying for our allegiance, politics has no answers, nor any grasp of compromise. The 2016 Referendum, though it has been a peg on which to hang a variety of grievances, is symptomatic of a raw disquiet so entrenched that it has rocked and wrecked people's lives. A feral code has taken over.

When the French Revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre, stated: The secret of liberty is to enlighten men, as that of tyranny is to keep them in ignorance, he did not have to reckon, wholesale, with fake news, a legion of disguised tyrannies and the hellish cacophony of modern media which makes every opinionator his own god.

On the face of it, the Referendum result was suicidal. Was any British party fit to navigate such an epic reversal? Few politicians have experience of, or likely memory of, government outside the EU umbrella. But I do recall more congenial times before the EU was hustled in on the back of the European Economic Community. During its two year span, the EEC did bring a radical improvement to our standard of living, albeit there were milk lakes and cereal mountains which we trusted were merely teething problems. What followed, for all its aims of equality and forging a future in the spirit of togetherness, left us encumbered with legislation applying from the North Pole to the Mediterranean, while failing to break the stranglehold of banks, petrochem and insurance companies.

On Margaret Thatcher's watch, the Gordon Gecko Greed is good philosophy let loose all the demons of materialism, facilitated by our membership of the EU, and forced upon us a dependency in all aspects of living, down to the next cappuccino.

The poor are as scandalously poor as ever. The rich, still richer. Healthcare, education and community support, the cornerstones of our national life, are buckling at the seams. Organisations, institutions and groups are clamouring for funds, while the voluntary sector struggles to do what it can to hold things together. The monumental effort of it all is killing the most vulnerable. The EU may have aided the regeneration of some of our cities and landscapes, but whole communities and manufacturing industries have disappeared from these shores, real jobs and authentic ways of being that conferred identity and self-respect. The North has been particularly badly hit.

It's true that advances in technology have been partly responsible for changes in job and career horizons, and that the same technology has also the potential to liberate us from drudgery and to assist in our wellbeing. But what when it is misapplied? What when it becomes a tool for manipulation and destruction by the powerful? What when it fails altogether?

Younger Britons have assumed that 'opportunity' was born with the EU. Who could blame them? Though there have been advantages for some, it has been at the expense of education in the practical skills essential for manufacturing, innovation and export, for living economically in the root meaning of the word, even for sheer survival, and has given rise to generations of hopeless jobseekers. The benefits of the EU have come with aspirations to designer lifestyles that can only be serviced by incalculable debt. The dream has taken us further and further away from our roots as human beings and any consideration for our patch of the planet and those around us.
 


I feel privileged to have been born in a former era when goodwill prevailed and a sense that 'we're all in this together' was genuine. But those former times aren't enshrined in a rose-tinted mist. The winters were cold and ice-ferns formed on the windows at night. Sometimes we sat in school wearing coats, trying to write neatly with gloves on. Sanitation was not all that it might have been. Electricity was by no means a given in our homes. We cooked on open fires, gas stoves, used hay boxes and pressure cookers to save money and conserve energy. Paraffin lamps and candles were still in use. There is nothing like huddling around a coal fire to foster family cohesion when central heating is lacking! We travelled on public transport. We faced virulent epidemics, scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles. There were no antibiotics. The NHS was hardly launched. Yet, in the throes of a midnight delirium, your doctor would arrive at the bedside to administer a fever-cooling injection that could save your life.

After WW2, British children grew up peacefully alongside Poles, Italians, Germans, Americans, Africans, Indians, Norwegians, Hungarians. Worldwide bonds had been formed during the years of conflict. Many were pitched from their native countries, never to return. So we were not insular. Rueful opinions, if we had them, were kept to ourselves. We were ashamed at any lack of hospitality or reluctance to admit that some foreigners came with citizens' rights. There, but for the Grace of God, went we. The Windrush immigrants were sadly disillusioned to find such poverty in this land. Living conditions did not conform to the glamorous vision of a sovereign state.

Despite it all, thoughts of privation did not enter our heads. There were real chances to improve our lot for free in further education and the workplace if we chose. We did not lust after fame, nor live life through our idols. We merely wanted to bring a bit of sparkle and stardust to our own.

There was no shortage of cultural exchange in education or in the arts and sport. We didn't travel as widely, or as regularly, as we do now, but we appreciated and respected the native soil, tended by our ancestors, that had quartered and fed us through two world wars. We were conscious that we owed more than we were owed. We had morale. The dynamics of daily life and co-existence were, for ordinary folk, well in place. The Golden Rule was uniformly acknowledged. We understood what was demanded of us in any capacity in which we served. Live and let live was a maxim written in our DNA. Personal boundaries were sacrosanct and not threatened at every turn and whim by the violence of those who thought differently, nor engrossed by others who strove to make your life their own.

In the game of life there were winners and losers and those estates were not necessarily fixed for ever. Unlike now, when standards have soared, but social mobility has plummeted. At what point does bettering oneself and striving for prosperity become an obsession that consumes who we are, denies others their share, and rapes the earth? Not so many decades ago - looking back, I'm appalled at how abrupt the tipping point - we were aware, if only instinctively, that this life is not all and that it was ours to make good to the best of our ability.

Mr Churchill's vision for a Europe, so united in commerce and ethos that war would be unthinkable, was wonderfully conceived, but has proved strenuous to maintain. Meanwhile, the call to arms goes on in other arenas. What is sad is that it takes a common enemy to unite a nation in goodwill and purpose.

According to Robespierre, Democracy is a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are its own work, does for itself all that it can do properly, and through delegates all that it cannot do for itself.

By this token, as earnest of faith in its beliefs, it falls to the populace to set a example to their elected leaders, topsy-turvy though that may sound.

I believe in the British people and that the core strengths and values of this nation have not yet been destroyed. Beneath all the noise and chaos, I sense a gathering undertow of relief that we are being recalled to the best in our heritage, for the deeps of the psyche are what rule head and heart. Change has already taken place. Since June, 2016, like the birch tree, we have moved on. Reality overtakes the will, even while the mind protests. Before we know it, we have moved into another space and another perspective.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, how we face the challenges in our personal path will determine our future and that of the collective. When altruism and public-spiritedness are unfeigned and we defy the resistance we meet, something miraculous happens that defies logic. The effects begin to multiply as they did with the Lord's loaves and fishes.

We will always be part and parcel of Europe. It's a matter of geography and history. The humanities.
 

 

 

 

 

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No Such Thing As Can't

 

My parents' wedding day

 

For better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health...when Britain joined the EEC (EU) in 1973, a whole mode of living slipped away unnoticed. Until then, attitudes, expectations and material wants had been stuck, broadly-speaking, in the Edwardian era, held in check by two world wars which reshuffled the cards completely.

Today (May 27) is my late parents' wedding anniversary. They were part of the moral and economic struggle to get the nation back on its feet during a decade or more after WW2. Hopeful newly-weds were scrambling to find properties, and I don't know to this day how my parents successfully landed a Georgian cottage when there were around four hundred applicants. The rent was ten shillings a week. That's 50p now, or .73 US dollars! The kitchen was neatly equipped with an ancient Belfast sink and built in 'copper' under which a fire could be lit for boiling laundry. The fireplace had a cast iron cooking range which, I suppose would be the forerunner of the Aga. Improvements were done at the tenant's expense and, although there was gas, it was some years before electricity was installed. One of my earliest memories is of my father reading by the light of a paraffin lamp. By then, he had a good job so they were on the way up, saving hard and aspiring to better things. My mother, who led a reclusive life, was highly skilled at half-forgotten domestic arts and was well-employed in making ends meet. She was a fine tailoress, cook, gardener, decorator, a cushion, curtain, bedspread and rugmaker, with a thousand ways to make do and mend. It was the closest she ever came to happiness, except, maybe, for the day of her marriage.

Whatever the problems and emotional constraints at home, she sent me into the world in beautiful clothes. She could never express affection or give hugs, but I do remember finely-embroidered little dresses made of bone-white parachute silk. She made pinafores edged with emerald bias-binding conjured from shiny blackout poplin, and coats with velvet collars and matching hats, pleated skirts on shoulder straps and cardigans with pretty 'fair isle' borders. Ration books were still in use and her industry with garden vegetables, salting and pickling, and the bottling of fruit, helped to stretch the budget. I remember the tangy-gold plums and glistening garnet damsons lining the pantry shelves and my father bringing home a rabbit he'd run into on his bicycle in the dark. He cycled twelve miles to the office in the summer,  worked long hours, and cycled back. In the winter, the journey was a mix of bike and train. That was before Dr Beeching axed all the branch lines which didn't pay. It certainly put car manufacturers into business! I think there were three, maybe four, families in our village who had cars. One was a taxi service.

Though the general approach to life was upbeat and the peddled wisdom was that 'there's no such thing as can't', there was what can only be described as a miasmic gloom in the atmosphere. The stench of something terrible lingered in the psyche which I later came to associate with the Holocaust. It tempered the euphoria of victory and must have emanated from Central Europe whose disintegrating cultures led to an exodus into neighbouring lands.

We may have lived in the backwoods with next to no transport, but the upheaval of war brought the world to our doorstep and was the beginning of our multi-cultural society. War hits a close-knit country especially hard and turns the demographic upside down and inside out. At the end of it, fathers came home to children they'd never seen, who viewed them as interlopers. Or fathers didn't come home, which led to many adopted and stepchildren. Evacuees returned to their parents, mostly having formed close bonds with their host families, sometimes stronger than the natural ones. Unwanted youngsters were shipped in their thousands to Australia to populate the country with 'good white stock' and provide hard labour. Allied troops hung around and started new families, else whisked off their English sweethearts to other parts of the globe.

I was too young to understand all this, but its spirit was vibrantly alive in the microcosm of the schoolyard.

The local children, bred from Danish and Huguenot stock, had the varied features and muted colouring of bloodlines mingled with Celtic, Gaelic and Saxon, as did the drawling, good-natured Americans who had the world taped and expected to be liked. Their very nationhood owed its being to the religious purges of the northern hemisphere during recent centuries.  But among this medley were those with a distinct look of exile, the raisin-eyed Jew from Golders Green who fitted anywhere and belonged nowhere but the foothills of Zion, the Italian half-caste whose father had been a POW, the Poles and Romanies with their broad cheekbones and dark and dolorous stare from the camp on the main road out of the village. They throve on rootcrops and their skin was tinged with their native soil.   Sometimes, during lessons, they were lifted on to chairs at the front of the class and encouraged to sing folk-songs in their own thrumming tongue. They sang with confidence and passion of things that were gone, of vintages that would never be repeated and dances whose measure they no longer trod, of costumes banished to the wardrobes of theatre.

I was drawn to the refugees. There was a wholeheartedness about them. They seemed to live on a metaphysical plane, imbuing every act with a tribal significance which kept their identity intact beyond their homeland. I understood the outsider’s plight, though there was no such thing as racial tension, then. The issue had not reared its head. Every child was familiar with the picture of Jesus gathering the youngsters of five Continents about his feet. We knew that the blood under the skin was one colour. Some of our soft toys were golliwogs in those days, and black dolls, which, paradoxically, were banned as un-PC to the next generation.

Then came the era of spending and shopping as a leisure pursuit. Household crafts were largely forgotten. Gypsies no longer knocked on the door to sell pegs and tell fortunes. Nor did the dapper 'man from the Pru' collect weekly insurance premiums.

They started to build motorways in Britain in the late fifties, and open supermarkets, and fit homes with central heating. The wonderful patterns woven by frost on the bedroom window on a winter's morning melted away. No more sitting around the fire as one, listening to the BBC Home Service, or reading quietly to the driven clicking of knitting needles, whilst, in another corner, the broadsheet was shaken pointedly behind which my father had retired to lap his tea in peace.

During those years, people developed a taste for going abroad. Our palate began to change. Air travel became cheaper. My parents never ventured further than the Isle of Wight, but for me there were short school trips to France and holidays on the Continent with the families of friends.

It all sounds so quaint, and barbaric, too! But I think my generation is the most privileged in history. We were linked to all that. Most of us knew we were well off. We rode the tide of economic prosperity in such a way it has followed us through to middle and later years.

If the apocalypse comes soon, if utilities fail and our method of living breaks down, we shall know how to set about re-inventing the world in an eco-friendly way, aided by developments in popular science. It behoves us to pass on our knowledge to our children and grandchildren and support those revivalist movements that are seeking a viable alternative lifestyle.

But our best gift must be the wisdom that there's no such thing as 'can't'.

The Leicestershire village of my first home. King Charles I was said to have taken refuge in this timber-framed cottage during the English Civil Wars. However, in latter years the legend has metamorphosed into one concerning Richard III on the night before the Battle of Bosworth. For many reasons, I think the latter defies credibility and the original is true.

(previously posted at pilgrimrose.com )

 

Footnote: As to the heated debate on the imminent EU Referendum, I devoutly hope voters will realise that the whole issue is bigger than party politics and nationalistic fervour.

Copyright

© Rosy Cole 2010 - 2016

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