It’s not me; it’s you, Britain.
I first realised it had become a problem pacing up and down the new steely Tottenham Court Road station on a Tuesday night in January, rain whipping outside. It had been a shit day, the people in the company that hired me – that made a point of hiring me – were keeping me at arm’s length, didn’t include me in meetings, cc’s or office drinks and generally put in dramatic pauses, after I tried to ingratiate myself with – admittedly rather awful – jokes.
I was ready to be lapped up by the tube and be spit out at the other end of the red line, face first into a pint. Running towards the escalator, as I peeled the Oyster card out my pocket,whilst trying to untangle the cord of the headphones and looking for my bank card, I called my boyfriend continuing the running commentary on mundane happenings, how petty my line manager and colleagues were being, how much I actually hated their corporate output, that they could stick their office banter and their tea rounds up theirs, but froze when I heard a hesitant voice on the other side “Well, have you at least tried to make friends? Or were you just sitting there with an attitude?” – “Are you fucking kidding me?” is all I managed, yelling louder and louder about how much I hated the UK office culture, the Banter, The Lads, the superficiality, the bullshit, the arrogance of people cussing others by being overly polite, this country and everything that it represents, if they don’t want me why fucking hire me in thefirst place, if I am going to change my personality to blend into this bullshit might as well go home, I’ll fucking leave, I am obviously not managing to integrate, I’m too different, nothing fucking left here anyway mate, this country is shit, leave while I can. Black anger creeping thickly through my veins, shocking manicured commuters and office boys in cheap suits, sweeping across the shiny white floors.
This could have just gone down as a minor manic episode that tested the patience of my boyfriend even further (there is also the face to face he has to deal with.) But the perpetuating news cycle, about triggering article 50, the headlines of families being torn apart because they had filled out a form wrong, of NHS services being cut, the polemics about guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens and Theresa May’s moronic refusal to commit to it first, was fuel to the fire, sparking a toxic and thuggish bullishness: I wanted out and I wanted to punch someone badly – in this instance, the closest English person I could find and – stupidly – the kindest one.
The situation became even more intense when, one night, a minor argument about the washing up turned into a debate about British-EU politics. The cherry-picking demands the UK made of other European States, expecting them to bow to their long lost aspirations of imperial grandness, went against everything I had learned from my German mother, my Italian father and my childhood growing up in Belgium. I was blind with rage and I felt betrayed, my boyfriend didn’t seem to see the threat, the extent of it. Howling that he was behaving like an entitled English white male, who is privileged enough to feel blasé, this inviolable sense of security made me sick to the core. Accusing him of peddling the same appeasement politics that Britain had in the face of the Nazis was, perhaps, the cherry on the cake. It was then I knew it had to stop.
It was bleak and it seemed inescapable. Corbyn had turned out to back Brexit, Theresa May’s bill remained largely unchallenged by MPs for fear of going against ‘the will of the people’. So much so that when the government suffered its first defeat, by a vote in the House of Lords, intended to guarantee the safety of the EU citizens living in the UK, it seemed too little too late. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. But I took the defeat in stride and learned my lesson. I had issues feeling rooted and included. I always have, and can bless the heavens for being with someone who had sensed this long before I did in the argument. Because I wanted to save my relationship and sanity from fucking crumbling in front of my eyes, I parted ways as well. I no longer read the news or take shit jobs. It’s not him; it’s you, Britain.
My girlfriend and I talk about Brexit nearly every day. I hate everything about it. From the smug, self-serving, lying politicians to the overwhelming blanket of pessimism it seems to have draped over all our futures. We live and work as freelancers in London – in what, before June 2016, already felt like quite precarious circumstances; trying to make a decent living, develop our careers and build a future here together. My girlfriend has lived here for years, but the referendum debate and its focus on immigration has really upset her. The Brexit result has made her feel unwelcome in a way I initially found hard to understand.
Sometimes, she and I would talk about what being European means. She grew up in Brussels; her parents are from two other European countries so, being European, is almost more important to her than her German or Italian identities. She is fluent in four languages while I only speak English. I feel European too, but I’ve always lived in the UK, so it was always quite a vague concept. I like the idea of closer relations between the UK and other European countries and people choosing to come here but, if I’m honest, the most important things for me before the vote were being able to live and work on the Continent or go there on holiday, and it was less about solidarity with other countries; which I took for granted.
When my girlfriend and I talked about Europe before the referendum we often used to end up arguing. I could talk about ideas like the freedom of movement and ‘every closer integration’ in quite a detached way but, for her, these were not to be questioned. Often this would start with us watching the news or Question Time; as soon as the Europe referendum was discussed or debated, my girlfriend would invariably end up shouting at the television. It got so bad we stopped watching the news together. I felt, at the time, that she was being over-sensitive but, since the Brexit result, I’ve started to realise what it must have been like for her. It was at this time that my girlfriend started telling me that if Britain chose Brexit she would leave. I’d ask what that meant. Where would she go? Was I to be part of this departure, or was she leaving me too? It upset me, but I didn’t think Brexit would happen.
During the referendum campaign, the debate was inevitably all about how the UK saw itself and where it was going. It touched on interesting questions but also, inevitably, stirred up a bunch of nasty prejudice. This whole narrative includes me because I’m a UK citizen but my girlfriend felt cut out of it. I think she feels like a Londoner because she is part of a community living and working here but, although she pays taxes, she can’t vote. If I’d been forced into a passive position waiting for other people to confirm my right to live in my home, I’d be angry too.
On the night of the referendum, we sat up watching the coverage on the BBC. As it got late, she fell asleep on the sofa and I’d wake her when each town posted its results. It all looked quite close when we went to bed at 3am, but I always felt confident that Remain would win as the alternative just seemed so crazy. I awoke early and looked at the news on my phone. I saw the result and was completely shocked! I woke my girlfriend and told her and the first thing she said was “Right, that’s it. I’m leaving…”. That day in June last year felt bleak despite the beautiful sunshine that shone across the south of England. We spent the day in the park and then at a pub; still in shock. I felt as though we were mourning something. Could we both stay here together? Why has my country voluntarily done this enormous act of self-harm?
In the last year things haven’t really settled. I reluctantly unpeeled the REMAIN poster from my bedroom window; I can still see the marks left on the glass from the tape. My girlfriend and I went to the pro-Europe marches. We still argue about the Brexit news stories which she invariably finds stressful. Whether it’s about the Dutch woman who has lived here for 20 years being told to leave, or the government refusing to guarantee the rights of EU people that live here, I’m usually more optimistic than she is, but somehow these conversations about what is happening or what will happen always turn into arguments.
I want to stay here, but what if my girlfriend decides she doesn’t feel welcome and wants to leave – can I blame her if she feels like that? I don’t want to move to Germany. As a researcher, I can’t move countries and switch languages like she can. I think the UK has made a huge mistake; based on a pack of lies and an over-optimistic idea of how the economics will play out. It’s hard not to feel angry at large swathes of my country that believed and voted on the lies told by the LEAVE campaigners, and also at a few family members who voted in the same way.
As things stand, I’m worried about the future. I don’t know where we are going to live. I don’t think the politicians understand what it’s like for people like my girlfriend who live here as full members of our communities; experiencing the same challenges, but with an additional anxiety that gnaws at their relationships and at their ability to lead normal fulfilling lives.