In Streetly on the way home from Sutton Park, we pass a petrol station with an empty forecourt, all nozzles bedecked with yellow hoods to indicate that they are out of fuel. Triggered in part by self-perpetuating media reports of fuel shortages, by the ongoing post-Brexit haulage and logistics problems, by HGV driver shortages, and by high levels of distrust in government and politicians, those who rely on their cars to get to work descended on petrol stations en masse, panic buying fuel in scenes reminiscent of the toilet paper crisis of March 2020.
“Will someone please think of the teachers”, “will someone please think of the nurses”, “key workers should get priority and be able to jump the queue”, “don’t be selfish and think of others” and other cries mimic every other crisis, shortage and challenge we’ve faced over the course of the past eleven two years under the Conservatives. During the pandemic alone we’ve heard these narratives on everything from face masks, to the use of public transport, to bags of bread flour. However, we are a nation of self-interested idiots or, if you’re feeling generous, desperate folk just trying to get by. The only effective opposition we have is a football player turned children’s poverty activist, the Labour party hell-bent on tearing themselves a new one and sitting on fences rather than taking a kick at an open goal. To the toilet paper aisle we go. To the fuel pumps we go. These crises are borne of fear, frustration, and the absolute failure of state.
The sky is painted in shades of pink, orange, and red, an apocalyptic sunset after a day of torrential rain. It is a fitting backdrop for what feels like a stage play but is sadly real life in this has-been country, riddled with nostalgia for yesteryear, and falling apart at the seams.
Ed joined me for my daily walk around Edgbaston this evening, the dry and dusty streets carpeted with faded blossom petals and fragrant pine needles as this once in a lifetime spring drifts ever on towards summer. Hundreds of metres of fresh bunting and Union Jack flags had appeared overnight, strung out across front gardens, driveways and cars in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe.
Last night at 8pm on the third evening of our semi-lockdown in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a national round of applause for the NHS. I live in a strong Labour seat, so I knew the clapping, whistling and fireworks were genuine and heartfelt. However, we are just a few months out from a general election where large swathes of the population voted for a party who have been carefully – and not so quietly – undermining, underfunding, and undervaluing the same health service they were stood on their doorsteps cheering for. Talk is cheap and easy, but I couldn’t bring myself to take part in an event which had been co-opted by people who refuse to pay a penny more in tax to fund the NHS, as well as the same government which has spent the past ten years destroying the health service they now celebrate.
Living in the centre of the UK’s second largest city, I am forever moaning about air quality, traffic, and noise. In the middle of winter the stench is often unbearable. Thick cloud, which often descends for weeks on end, traps the diesel fumes and makes the city feel very oppressive. Summer is no better, and hot still days in the middle of a heatwave are particularly sticky and acrid. Working from home, I keep the windows closed during the morning and evening rush hours because it coats windowsills, curtains, and no doubt my lungs, too, with a thick layer of diesel dust. The noise I don’t mind so much. After fifteen years in Birmingham I’m used to it and have found ways to drown it out. That said, the constant police sirens, honking of horns as cars drive the wrong way down my one way street, and the hum of idling engines outside my flat during rush hour is a kind of background noise I would be quite happy to do without.
In the same week that we looked back on the liberation of Auschwitz seventy-five years ago, the UK turned its back on the European Project and all it stands for. At 11pm on ‘Brexit Day’ fireworks and jubilant voices carried across the city through the drizzle, yet all I felt was sadness and fear. I cannot believe it has come to this, that racism and bigotry carry more weight in 21st century Britain than multiculturalism and the power of collaboration, that history has taught us nothing.
Born in France to British parents of Italian and Polish heritage, I spent my early childhood in Germany and I identify more as European than anything else. I have always felt uneasy calling myself ‘English’, yet as a result of Vote Leave and the Tories I now also struggle with calling myself ‘British’. I may not be a citizen of the European Union any more, but I will always be European.