Brexit – The Hairline Fracture

H. and I have just come back from a two-week holiday in Rome.  We left Great Britain, we left the United Kingdom, and have come back to Little England, with everything this implies.  For the first week after the Referendum, the first thought I woke up with every morning was that it had all been a far-fetched, stupid dream.  We would get up, have breakfast, stroll in the blazing Roman sunshine then, once the holiday was over, go back home.  Home.  But as we got up, had breakfast, and read the newspapers and Twitter feed on my iPad, we went for a stroll in the blazing Roman sunshine with icy unease in our hearts.  Home.  Would England still be home? 

I am not a devotee of the European Union as such, but I am a European to the core, and, as a result, I feel that the European Union is the best option in an imperfect system.  I can't claim to be politically all that well informed.  However, when I saw the encouragement Brexit would give the extreme right-wing, anti-immigration, at times xenophobic factions rising throughout Europe, there was only one way for me to vote in the EU Referendum, and that was to Remain a part of the EU. 

My British father (with some Cornish and Welsh) played no part in my growing up.  Other than a blood connection, I had no legal or moral claim to Britain.  When I first moved here from Rome, aged nineteen, this country couldn't have been more alien to me.  Shops closing at 5.30 p.m., electrical appliances sold without plugs, first-class-stamped letters arriving the very next day, people under-dressing, under-eating and understating.  And then there was the language.  Language is not a birthright.  My early childhood at an American school had been followed by nine years in the French education system.  In my first week in England, I went to see Chariots of Fire, and had difficulty following.  Colloquial, non-bookish English, was incomprehensible to me.  Sarcasm, dished out by my landlady with considerably more generosity than food, was something I couldn't see coming until I felt it sting like a paper cut.  People seemed amused, though in a disapproving way, I sensed, by my American accent.  

The first week, I cried a few times.  The second week, I went to evensong at King's, and fell in love with Cambridge, the dramatically changeable East Anglian skies, the flat Fens where the horizon is so low, the land seems to go on for ever and ever.  So I decided to conquer myself a place on this island, and set out to work.  I was determined to be accepted, to be at home here.  Every evening, I sat memorising words from the Oxford Concise Dictionary.  I made myself keep a journal in English only.  I watched how people moved, how they spoke, how they dressed.  I aped their speech, their accent, their cadenza, their tone.  The way it rose and fell.  I swapped my green MaxMara jacket for a gun-metal grey duffle coat, learnt to add milk into my tea, cycle on the left-hand side of the road, and the true intended meaning of the adjective "interesting".  I acted English... until I became English.  

I'll never forget the boundless pride and joy I felt, a few years later, the first time I went to see a Shakespeare play without reading it first, and understood it.  Or when I directed a production of The Duchess of Malfi, and the actors asked me to explain some of the Jacobean language.  Or when I got my first job teaching English as a Foreign Language, at a British Council accredited school, after qualifying at International House.  I write in English, I translate from Italian, French and Russian into English.  People ask me which language I think in.  I laugh.  I don't think in a language but in concepts.  Doesn't everybody? Heavens, if my thoughts needed sentences in order to be formed, I'd be a really slow thinker!

I have lived in this country for over thirty years.  I have loved it and felt at home here.  To the point where I feel entitled to make lovingly sarcastic public remarks about its flaws.  

I feel at home here, except for the odd hiccup, like a needle scratching a record, when somebody, in a shop or at a party, suddenly catches me unaware by asking, "What's your accent?" Then, for a few minutes, I feel as though I am seen as a usurper, as someone who doesn't really have a right to be here, perhaps even not entitled to speak English quite to this standard.  But it's only a few minutes of discomfort.  Then I feel at home again.  My accent is what betrays me.  An accent that has been described as French, Dutch, Irish, American, Russian, but mostly – and unfathomably – as South African.  Perhaps it's the way I clip my consonants.  

Other than the sticky accent issue, I can honestly say that I have never experienced any xenophobia directed at me.  Some might say I've been lucky.  I can only make a judgement based on my personal experience.      

But now, in the light of the xenophobic episodes that have taken place since Brexit won at the Referendum, for the first time in over thirty years I feel anxious.  As someone rightly said, it's not that half the country is racist, it's that the handful of racists so far muzzled by political correctness thinks it now forms half the country and consequently entitled to express its xenophobia without restraint.  Poet George Szirtes wrote a very poignant article in The Guardian, yesterday, which illustrates how I feel.  Unlike him, I am not a refugee.  But I have started from scratch in more than one country, and more than one language.  When I was nine, we moved from Italy to Greece.  A year later, we moved to France.  Six years later, it was back to Italy.  When I was nineteen, I moved to England.  I know what it is to learn a new language, new customs, new gestures, new ways of dressing, new ways of eating, new ways of thinking.  I know what it is to shapeshift in order to survive.  I know what it is to leave everything behind, sometimes through choice, sometimes not, and start from scratch. I do not want to be forced to do it again.  Will I walk into a shop, one of these days, and will someone, upon hearing my accent, say something insulting to me? 

We are, all of us on this island, originally from another land. Some of our Leave camp politicians seem to have forgotten that their forebears were immigrants or refugees, however many years or centuries ago.  

We had a German exchange student at my college.  One evening, while chatting over coffee in my room, he said, "When you're German and people ask you where you're from, and you say you're German, you sometimes feel as though you should add, 'I'm sorry' because of our history."

My friend, born in the 1960s, was no more responsible for the horrors connected with mid-20th-century Germany than I am for the 52% who voted in favour of Brexit, and yet many of us, rightly or wrongly, feel a share of responsibility in the actions of the countries where our blood – or at least some of our blood – comes from.

My worry now, is that, for the rest of my life, whenever people ask where I come from, I will bow my head and, with a heavy heart, reply, "Britain.  Sorry."

Sorry, my country was the earthquake that caused the hairline fracture that spread into a crack, then a crevasse across Europe, shattering something which, with some reforming, could have been a truly creative, fruitful, and, above all peaceful union of countries.

Scribe Doll

*Please also see:

https://scribedoll.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/the-british-obsession-with-accent/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-eu-referendum-racial-racism-abuse-hate-crime-reported-latest-leave-immigration-a7104191.html

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/26/racist-incidents-feared-to-be-linked-to-brexit-result-reported-in-england-and-wales?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=179242&subid=2346909&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/02/brexit-we-want-out-and-we-want-you-out

Comments 10

 
Rosy Cole on Monday, 04 July 2016 12:32

This is an interesting and unique perspective, so many thanks for sharing it, Katia.

Don't lose heart. Whilst I feel there won't, and now shouldn't, be any attempt at a U-turn, despite that this Referendum was illegal and may have had little to do with canvassing voter opinion on the future of Britain, what I believe the 'hairline fracture' has shown most clearly is a deep dissatisfaction with the consequences of a materialist Western culture which is already seething elsewhere. As to the next steps, here's what Tom Bradby, the political journalist and ITV News presenter says:

https://www.facebook.com/tombradbyitv/posts/1775381216031568

I do believe the British as a whole are a tolerant nation and in areas where social problems generally exist, hysteria is being whipped up by an 'us and them' agenda. As HMTQ once said, there are 'dark forces' about. The horrific murder of the palliative Jo Cox who worked hard to bring communities together - and succeeded! - was a signifier.

'We are, all of us on this island, originally from another land.' So true! Some years back, on the RR site, I posted this fairly tongue-in-cheek piece in response to US comments about Britain at the time of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Unfortunately, I'm unable to link to either of the articles which prompted it.

http://www.pilgrimrose.com/index.php/blogs/528-both-sides-of-the-pond

The thing about the British obsession with accent is partly to do with our being that mixed race. Even now we are still very regional.Dialectical speech and idioms are often not understood by those from other areas. To some extent, the media has homogenised us, but ancestry dies hard. Plus, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish have their own languages by which they strive to stress their culture and identity. My Dad, who was a civil engineer, and dealt with British concerns in the Middle East and elsewhere, often had his West Country accent mistaken for Canadian, or sometimes Irish. He actually quite enjoyed being asked. The thing is, people are interested. They mean it well. They want to include and even admire. And, like all points of contact it is a trivial means of engagement.

So glad you managed to get a relaxing holiday in Rome and hope you're now 'in the pink'! :-)

This is an interesting and unique perspective, so many thanks for sharing it, Katia. Don't lose heart. Whilst I feel there won't, and now shouldn't, be any attempt at a U-turn, despite that this Referendum was illegal and may have had little to do with canvassing voter opinion on the future of Britain, what I believe the 'hairline fracture' has shown most clearly is a deep dissatisfaction with the consequences of a materialist Western culture which is already seething elsewhere. As to the next steps, here's what Tom Bradby, the political journalist and ITV News presenter says: https://www.facebook.com/tombradbyitv/posts/1775381216031568 I do believe the British as a whole are a tolerant nation and in areas where social problems generally exist, hysteria is being whipped up by an 'us and them' agenda. As HMTQ once said, there are 'dark forces' about. The horrific murder of the palliative Jo Cox who worked hard to bring communities together - and succeeded! - was a signifier. [i]'We are, all of us on this island, originally from another land.'[/i] So true! Some years back, on the RR site, I posted this fairly tongue-in-cheek piece in response to US comments about Britain at the time of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Unfortunately, I'm unable to link to either of the articles which prompted it. http://www.pilgrimrose.com/index.php/blogs/528-both-sides-of-the-pond The thing about the British obsession with accent is partly to do with our being that mixed race. Even now we are still very regional.Dialectical speech and idioms are often not understood by those from other areas. To some extent, the media has homogenised us, but ancestry dies hard. Plus, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish have their own languages by which they strive to stress their culture and identity. My Dad, who was a civil engineer, and dealt with British concerns in the Middle East and elsewhere, often had his West Country accent mistaken for Canadian, or sometimes Irish. He actually quite enjoyed being asked. The thing is, people are interested. They mean it well. They want to include and even admire. And, like all points of contact it is a trivial means of engagement. So glad you managed to get a relaxing holiday in Rome and hope you're now 'in the pink'! :-)
Katherine Gregor on Tuesday, 05 July 2016 08:26

Thank you for that. I was very interested in Tom Bradby's views, which echo many of my own.
Regarding accents, I beg to differ. From the way I sense it when asked, I'm not all that sure they mean well. They actually interrupt me mid-sentence (which is so rude) to ask about my accent, in the middle of a totally unrelated topic, and won't let go until they've placed me. That makes me inevitably wonder if they're trying to work out whether I'm worth listening to. I don't mind, if I'm asked during a natural gap in the conversation, or if the topic is relevant. What annoys me, is that they don't even take a hint, such as "Oh, it's a long story", or "Oh, I'd rather not go into this right now" – they actually insist. The truth is, if one asked a non-white or non-Anglo-Saxon/Celtic person where they're from, this person would take offence, because they're British. Yet every Tom, Dick and Harry feels entitled to pry into an accent. Sorry, Rosy, perhaps it's a sore point with me. Still, Professor Higgins is right, in that in this country, it's not the way you look or dress, but the moment you open your mouth, that you're pigeon-holed. I just wish I had taken elocution lessons while I was living in London, so that I could totally fit in.

I do appreciate your comment, though. Thank you.

Thank you for that. I was very interested in Tom Bradby's views, which echo many of my own. Regarding accents, I beg to differ. From the way I sense it when asked, I'm not all that sure they mean well. They actually interrupt me mid-sentence (which is so rude) to ask about my accent, in the middle of a totally unrelated topic, and won't let go until they've placed me. That makes me inevitably wonder if they're trying to work out whether I'm worth listening to. I don't mind, if I'm asked during a natural gap in the conversation, or if the topic is relevant. What annoys me, is that they don't even take a hint, such as "Oh, it's a long story", or "Oh, I'd rather not go into this right now" – they actually insist. The truth is, if one asked a non-white or non-Anglo-Saxon/Celtic person where they're from, this person would take offence, because they're British. Yet every Tom, Dick and Harry feels entitled to pry into an accent. Sorry, Rosy, perhaps it's a sore point with me. Still, Professor Higgins is right, in that in this country, it's not the way you look or dress, but the moment you open your mouth, that you're pigeon-holed. I just wish I had taken elocution lessons while I was living in London, so that I could totally fit in. I do appreciate your comment, though. Thank you.
Rosy Cole on Tuesday, 05 July 2016 12:18

Katia, I am sorry you've had this ongoing experience and can see it must have been hard for you to keep adapting to different cultures in a short space of time. But I think it must add a special dimension to your skills as a translator.

If it's any consolation, I've seldom 'fitted in', though the reasons are different. It's not hard to make friends, but I've never liked discussing the personal past, or my writing, in real-time. That makes it difficult for others to pigeonhole you, which is a little unnerving for them. People make so many assumptions about who you are, how you must think and what you must want. The music world was where I had the strongest sense of belonging and where real bonds developed. There was a lot of social life attached - and this is hard to describe - life was lived so intensely in the present and engaged us on an unusual level, that backgrounds did not impinge beyond the briefest facts. The kind of editing produced by focus spilled over into ordinary life. I think, too, that if you're the kind of person who's in earnest about what you do, what you believe, and what you hope to give to and to get from life, that poses a bit of a threat, even if a subliminal one.

I'd very much doubt you need elocution lessons. Just some different company, if such things matter to those whom you meet.

The great thing about getting older is that you cease worrying about 'fitting in'. Long live the Red Hatters! :-)

btw, I smiled at your choosing to abandon your Max Mara, just at the time, in the eighties and nineties, when I was discovering the label, thanks to the EU!

Katia, I am sorry you've had this ongoing experience and can see it must have been hard for you to keep adapting to different cultures in a short space of time. But I think it must add a special dimension to your skills as a translator. If it's any consolation, I've seldom 'fitted in', though the reasons are different. It's not hard to make friends, but I've never liked discussing the personal past, or my writing, in real-time. That makes it difficult for others to pigeonhole you, which is a little unnerving for them. People make so many assumptions about who you are, how you must think and what you must want. The music world was where I had the strongest sense of belonging and where real bonds developed. There was a lot of social life attached - and this is hard to describe - life was lived so intensely in the present and engaged us on an unusual level, that backgrounds did not impinge beyond the briefest facts. The kind of editing produced by focus spilled over into ordinary life. I think, too, that if you're the kind of person who's in earnest about what you do, what you believe, and what you hope to give to and to get from life, that poses a bit of a threat, even if a subliminal one. I'd very much doubt you need elocution lessons. Just some different company, if such things matter to those whom you meet. The great thing about getting older is that you cease worrying about 'fitting in'. Long live the Red Hatters! :-) btw, I smiled at your choosing to abandon your Max Mara, just at the time, in the eighties and nineties, when I was discovering the label, thanks to the EU!
Katherine Gregor on Wednesday, 06 July 2016 19:44

Interesting, what you say about the music world.
I've felt most comfortable when I worked in the theatre.

Interesting, what you say about the music world. I've felt most comfortable when I worked in the theatre.
Ken Hartke on Tuesday, 05 July 2016 17:00

It must be a flaw in our nature to look for differences between "us" and "them", no matter how trivial, and then make it a stumbling block in our relationship. We have a similar drama going on here in the US. For a while it seemed that there would be an opening up of our acceptance for diversity and even a welcoming of cultural differences -- that didn't last long. I find this slinking and shadowy trend toward intolerance to be uglier than the outright and open hatred we have dealt with in the past. This is death by a thousand cuts.

It must be a flaw in our nature to look for differences between "us" and "them", no matter how trivial, and then make it a stumbling block in our relationship. We have a similar drama going on here in the US. For a while it seemed that there would be an opening up of our acceptance for diversity and even a welcoming of cultural differences -- that didn't last long. I find this slinking and shadowy trend toward intolerance to be uglier than the outright and open hatred we have dealt with in the past. This is death by a thousand cuts.
Katherine Gregor on Wednesday, 06 July 2016 19:45

The trouble is – and I'm stating the obvious – ignorance. People feel threatened by those they don't know.

And politicians take advantage of this...

The trouble is – and I'm stating the obvious – ignorance. People feel threatened by those they don't know. And politicians take advantage of this...
Rosy Cole on Thursday, 07 July 2016 13:30

As a footnote, it may be worth mentioning, Katia - since it does have resonance throughout this whole issue - that I've never thought of myself as British, but as English. London is not representative of the people of the United Kingdom. And, therein, lies a raft of problems and misapprehensions.

I sincerely hope that when Parliament has ratified its glowing endorsement of EU nationals, you will feel welcomed and at ease.

As a footnote, it may be worth mentioning, Katia - since it does have resonance throughout this whole issue - that I've never thought of myself as British, but as English. London is not representative of the people of the United Kingdom. And, therein, lies a raft of problems and misapprehensions. I sincerely hope that when Parliament has ratified its glowing endorsement of EU nationals, you will feel welcomed and at ease.
Katherine Gregor on Thursday, 07 July 2016 14:41

Thank you, Rosy.

Thank you, Rosy.
Anonymous on Sunday, 17 July 2016 16:37

Katia,
As always, your writing unveils such fascinating details about your incredible journey in life and then with consummate ease you connect this with what is happening around you. An eclectic tour-de-force that is a joy to read.

The important sub-text to what you write is that you, along with many others, want to 'fit in' with the British way of life but there are those who wish otherwise.

If ever there was s symbol of what is excellent about possessing various threads to one's heritage you are a shining example and, being Anglo-Irish, I can begin to understand what it is to be familiar with more than one cultural background. Thank you for so gallantly flying the flag of internationalism as you do.

Thank you,
Nicholas Mackey

Katia, As always, your writing unveils such fascinating details about your incredible journey in life and then with consummate ease you connect this with what is happening around you. An eclectic tour-de-force that is a joy to read. The important sub-text to what you write is that you, along with many others, want to 'fit in' with the British way of life but there are those who wish otherwise. If ever there was s symbol of what is excellent about possessing various threads to one's heritage you are a shining example and, being Anglo-Irish, I can begin to understand what it is to be familiar with more than one cultural background. Thank you for so gallantly flying the flag of internationalism as you do. Thank you, Nicholas Mackey
Katherine Gregor on Sunday, 17 July 2016 19:28

Sometimes, fitting in is about survival.

Thank you for your kind comment, Nicholas.

Sometimes, fitting in is about survival. Thank you for your kind comment, Nicholas.
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