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.
In recent weeks as the northern hemisphere transitions into winter, wrapping Britain in a damp embrace of fog and grey skies, I’ve been struggling to read. Two weekends ago, having contorted myself and my book to fit under the narrow beam of light cast by the little reading lamp on my bedside table, I found myself lying flat on my back on the floor trying to foam roll my spine into oblivion.