The Darkest of Days
On the darkest day, I went in search of light.
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.
As my back straightened out and the pain subsided, I started to wonder if there might be a better setup for lighting our apartment this winter. The overhead lights with daylight LEDs kill all ambience and aren’t that good for reading anyway as they’re not directional, the window light which streams in through our French doors from March through October is weak and fleeting at this time of year, and Ed and I were straining our eyes on a daily basis. I put thoughts of going out and buying new tabletop lamps out of my mind though, because I am bad at making decisions, hate shopping, and I didn’t want to go anywhere near a retail park so close to the holidays. I am deathly allergic to Christmas crowds, and a single bar of Wham or Mariah Carey breaks me out in hives.
On Thursday night at ten minutes to ten, I stood in the kitchen under the bare bulbs of the ceiling lights with my phone in one hand and Ed’s homemade chocolate truffle mix for his work Secret Santa in the other, trying to salvage the mix which had ended up too viscous as a result of a bad recipe. Dispatching Ed to the supermarket down the road to buy a packet of rich tea biscuits, I compulsively refreshed my browser tabs as I waited for the exit poll to be released, and set about deciding on which type of tea to make before settling down to read for the night.
As the clock struck ten and we crumbled broken biscuits into the chocolate mix, rolled the truffles in crushed nuts and packaged them into a mason jar, I refreshed my phone one more time and felt my stomach fall away. The exit poll predicted that the Conservatives were on target to win a majority larger than that with which Margaret Thatcher had taken power forty years ago. The Conservative party, which for the best part of the last three years has been inching to the right to claw back votes lost to the Brexit Party / UKIP and contend with pressure from the far right, Eurosceptic faction within its own ranks. No longer a ‘broad church’, centrist party with socially liberal views, the Conservative party had moved to the right, and won.
Whilst the Labour party had been hampered by accusations of anti-Semitism, the Conservatives with their open Islamophobia, sexism and class based hatred had managed to win over the Labour heartlands unchallenged. In normal times, British politics oscillating between left and right makes very little difference to everyday life and a ‘one-nation’ Conservative government isn’t too different to a ‘new Labour’ government. The Conservatives tend to squeeze public services and privatise institutions to shrink the state, while Labour tends to build more schools and hospitals and spend more on public services, but there’s very little between them when it comes to everyday life and basic civil liberties. You only need look at Tony Blair sharing a stage and message with John Major a week before the election to see this. However, we live in times that are anything but normal. The 2016 referendum on Europe has seen to that. Both the left and the right have become increasingly polarised and, on 12th December 2019, populism and the far right won.
Ed called it quits and went to bed, but I stayed up until midnight to watch the first results come in. When Blyth Valley, a constituency in the North East of England where the mining community had been shafted (no pun intended) by Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s fell to the Conservatives, I turned out the light and tried to catch some sleep. Two hours later I awoke and stayed up until dawn, my phone glowing in the dark as I watched seat after seat turn from red to blue and the heartlands fall. As the constituency map updated and the picture became clearer, university areas from the West Country to the North East shone like lighthouses across a churning, angry sea as even the Black Country and former mining communities voted for Johnson’s Conservatives. Britain had had its second referendum, by proxy, and the result was unequivocal. As a nation, we wanted out. Out of the European Union, and out of the ties that hold our four separate countries together as one United Kingdom.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself sat on an overcrowded local train heading south from Birmingham, surrounded by teenagers. Some were students going home to London for the university holidays with suitcases stuffed full of clothes and presents, while others were locals, young mothers with infant children. Their pushchairs were draped in carrier bags filled with groceries and Christmas shopping, their children bouncing off the walls on full sugar cherry coke and cheetos, sticky orange fingers exploring the scratched up windows of the intercity line. A world apart, what united these young women was that they were all lost in their own little worlds, idly scrolling through their social media feeds, messaging friends and using their front facing cameras to tease their hair and makeup into position. Across the aisle from me, an elderly woman nervously kept watch over her belongings as passengers squeezed on and off the carriage, while a well dressed man in his late forties or early fifties pulled his black fedora down over his face and prepared to sleep.
As the low sun glinted off buildings and flickered through bare branches, bathing the carriage with a rare 15 minutes of warmth and sunshine, the train rattled through the housing estates and airport, passing the burnt out factories and scrap heaps that connect Birmingham to Coventry. With time on my hands and lots of questions in my head, I tried to come to terms with the election results, wondering silently of my fellow passengers, which way did they vote, if at all, and what do they hope will come of all this? I’ve looked at the demographics of leave vs remain, of young vs old, of Conservative vs Labour, but if I’ve learnt anything these past three years it’s that demographic voting patterns are constantly in flux, and that you can never hope to understand a person or community by such measures alone. Historically, young single parents would vote Labour, while elderly women in twinsets would vote Conservative, but battlelines have shifted, and everything has changed. My Gran who married my Polish refugee grandfather in 1949 voted ‘remain’ in 2016, shortly before her 90th birthday, and if she had lived to see this week’s election I’m sure that she would have voted for the local Liberal Democrat candidate. Meanwhile, I hear young white men at the market each week grumbling about migrants, and I am fairly certain that, if they placed a cross in a box on Thursday it won’t have been for the Labour party but rather for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party.
The political landscape had been redrawn overnight, yet on Friday afternoon life in Britain went on as usual. The homeless sat in underpasses while Christmas crowds bustled in and out of shops and the German Market. NHS workers stood on train platforms, thick black winter coats barely concealing their blue polyester uniforms as they made their way to and from their hospital shifts. Office workers waiting for delayed trains shuffled on board, eyes cast down at their phones, careful not to make eye or physical contact with anyone else, the ultimate social faux pas. The British public are so vitriolic on message boards, social media and below the line, yet we remain tight lipped and enigmatic in public. We don’t talk politics, we don’t talk religion, and we don’t talk money. We don’t talk about anything that matters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem and the reason why we have ended up where we are as the decade fades to a close and Johnson settles back in to his captain’s chair in Number 10.
I haven’t been to Coventry in years, not since Ed was studying at the University of Warwick and living on campus. In his PGCE year he lived in Leamington, and so I bypassed Coventry entirely. I can’t say I’ve missed it. As I walked out of the station building and into the city centre, I was struck by how run down the city is, even with the money that was injected prior to the Olympics in 2012 (Coventry hosted some of the football). An industrial city with car and engine manufacturing at the heart of its economy, Coventry suffered sustained bombing in WW2 and, like Birmingham, was rapidly rebuilt with road infrastructure at the forefront of planning. However, by the 1980s car manufacturing was in decline and Coventry had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK. I remember the pedestrian underpasses before redevelopment ten years ago and how dark, dirty and uninviting they were, and I remember the sixties shopping arcade, with broken lighting and empty windows. The biggest employers in the city are the universities and JLR, a company which has been making headlines for its lay-offs and redundancies as car manufacturing has wound down production in the face of Brexit uncertainty.
‘Tell us what you love most about Coventry’ a large sign on a building site asks commuters and visitors as they cross the road, thankfully above ground now that the underpasses have been filled in. It’s a question I struggled with as I walked to the city centre IKEA to visit their lighting department. I don’t know the city too well, but as with many of the smaller cities and towns in the UK it is grey, prefabricated, and its shopping centre is riddled with units that have sat empty for the best part of ten years. Too many people use cars to get around, because public transport is expensive and not 100% reliable and so Coventry’s roads and shiny new pedestrian walkways, like Birmingham’s, are choked with fumes. The city is desperately in need of new industry, and I am shocked by the number of people of working age out and about during conventional working hours, indicative of factory closures, automation, the gig economy and an above average rate of unemployment. All three of the Coventry constituencies voted Labour in the 2019 General Election, but I suspect that there is a strong divide between ‘town and gown’ when it comes to the vote share. Coventry has two universities, Warwick and Coventry, and the student ranks will have undoubtedly buoyed the left from the winds of change which have swept the country. Without the student population, I’m certain Coventry would also have turned blue on Thursday night.
Try as I might, I don’t understand why people who stand to lose so much from a Conservative government and hard exit from the European Union have voted to put the party in power. Towns and cities like Coventry have already suffered as a result of Brexit, and we haven’t even left yet. Nor can I grasp why communities who suffered at the hands of Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s have forgotten or forgiven so quickly, or why they can’t be tempted by the Labour party’s manifesto which promises them so much in the way of renewal and regeneration. The answer to our problems surely lies in investing in our public services, and in increasing opportunities for the areas and communities that have been left behind after the recession which began in 2008. Leaving the European Union will not solve the struggles of daily life in modern day Britain, it’s a distraction. It’s not going to lead to job creation for those ‘born and bred’ in Britain, and nor is it going to free up money for investment in our NHS, contrary to claims painted on the side of a bus in 2016. The problems in our society are not caused by the relatively small number of Polish and Romanian nationals who have made lives for themselves in the UK over the past decade, but rather by the incumbent government’s refusal to invest in the country during that period of time. Ironically, one of the biggest investors in our regions has been the European Union. On recent visits to both Cornwall and Cumbria, strongly Vote Leave counties, I spotted sign after sign celebrating EU investment, yet voters have turned their backs in droves.
Walking through Coventry, I saw a scene I encounter all too often in British towns and cities outside of London. Thursday’s election result was harrowing, but it didn’t come as a surprise. I have lived in Birmingham for fifteen years and I have seen the decay and desperation unfold in real time across the Midlands. I had hoped that the Conservatives would achieve, at best, a modest majority, though I hoped for another hung parliament, to enable us to continue a more pluralistic and inclusive form of dialogue, but it seems that it was not to be. As the dust settles, we need to come together again, to talk to each other, and to gain an understanding of why so many English people are so angry as to do this to themselves. Voting for the Conservatives ‘because things can’t get any worse’ is such a negative approach to political engagement. I had hoped that more people would be taken in by Labour’s manifesto of hope and change, but I fear for the direction the country will take now that the electorate has made its choice and the opposition has been vaporised overnight.
On the train home from IKEA, one lamp in a shoulder bag at my feet and the other box resting on my lap, a woman in her forties sat opposite me, trying to entertain a hyperactive, bored four year old on a long journey home from London to Liverpool. The passengers behind her and across the aisle rolled their eyes as the little boy raised his voice and wriggled his way beneath seats, turning their music up and eventually passing comment on the woman’s parenting style. As it turned out the woman was not the boy’s mother, but his grandmother. Her daughter, the boy’s mother and no more than twenty herself, stood by the door with a buggy trying to entertain the little boy’s younger brother.
“Who is the BEST boy” the grandmother asked the little boy. “Jacob is, and who is the BEST Nanny? I am!”
The train back to Birmingham was busy, and the grandmother soon got into an argument with the woman sat behind her. The little boy was milling around every which way and trying to force his way through the passengers gathered in the doorway to reach his mother, breaching carriage etiquette and the complex, unwritten rules of personal space and public transport he was too young to understand.
“He’s four. He’s bored. I’m trying my best. Please, I really am trying my best” the grandmother said, leaning over the seats.
Normally I’m a bit of a misanthrope, and I’m guilty of turning my music up and closing my eyes to cope on overcrowded trains filled with noisy children just like the next person, but yesterday my fatigue and frustration got the better of me, and helped to soften my edges. The grandmother really was trying her best. We all are, despite the pressures of everyday life. When the little boy knocked my knee she apologised, but I just smiled and told her not to worry about it. I could see that her grandson had probably eaten too much sugar and had ants in his pants and no hope of sitting still for the last 90 minutes of the journey home. I felt a strong sense of empathy, because I could see how exhausted she was too. With a strong Liverpudlian accent and as a young grandmother, I suspected it was bitterness borne of perceived voting habits or lifestyle choices that was causing the woman who complained to cast judgement, one way or another. The past three years of politics has done that to us. We are a divided nation, and we are quick to see strangers and people from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds as ‘other’ to us. It really doesn’t help, although many of us are guilty of it.
As the sun closed on the darkest day of the year I didn’t have any more answers or a deeper understanding of what had just happened to the UK, but I helped the little boy pick his toy soldiers off the floor of the train, and when we pulled into New Street I wished the family a good onward journey. The grandmother’s expression softened in the face of a tiny act of kindness after half an hour of open hostility from other passengers and she smiled and thanked me, unnecessarily, for my tolerance and understanding. Small kindnesses are so easy, and take so little energy from us. The incident reminded me to be less of a grumpy old cynic, and to try not to assume the worst of people. Most people really are trying their best with the resources and information they have available to them.
Today the sun sets one minute later than it did yesterday, and in a week sunrise will start inching its way back minute by minute, casting light for longer each day in the deepest shadows of our dilapidated towns and cities. Hopefully, the return of the light will also boost our collective mood, and we will return from our sofas and Netflix binges to interact with the world outside our own little filtered bubbles. On the last day of January, with sunset after 5pm once more, we will leave the European Union. This fills me with sadness, because I have such a strong belief in the European project. Born in France to parents of Polish and Italian ancestry, and after an early childhood spent in newly reunified Berlin, I feel more European than I do British or English, and I believe that we are better off in the EU than out. But we had an election, and the results under our voting system, flawed though it is, were clear. We shall leave. It is the nature of democracy, and I respect the result of this election in a way that I couldn’t respect the results of the 2016 referendum, which was a vote cast into the unknown and fuelled by misinformation, lies, and foreign interference. The people who voted Conservative this time around voted for the party knowing full well that we may well leave without a deal. There is no ambiguity. I am fearful, and I think it is a mistake, but I am resigned to the path we are now on.
As winter moves around and spring arrives, I hope that the left can regroup. I hope that what divides the Momentum wing of Labour from the centrist body of the party, and what separates Liberal Democrat voters from Greens and the SNP and Plaid Cymru from Labour can be put aside. That together, the opposition can unite, in some shape or form, and that we can hold the Conservatives to account to keep them from inching evermore towards the right. We, the left, need to stop sniping at one another, and cease our petty tribalism, or we risk not just five more years of Conservative governance, but ten. I hope that we leave with a deal, and that the Conservative party does indeed return to centre ground as Johnson promised in his speech yesterday morning. I hope, despite my innate cynicism, because on the darkest of days, hope, unity and artificial light are all we have.