Beginnings are important but it’s how a story ends that really counts.
I’ve just had three glorious weeks holiday in Italy. I reconnected with friends, made new friends, spent quality time with family, read novels, swam in the ocean, drank wine, danced, sang, travelled from Rome to Tuscany to Sicily, and indulged in every form of cultural and culinary tourism.
When I first landed in Rome I was tired and depressed, bruised by the disappointing EU Referendum result and suffering existential angst (to borrow from Simon Hattenstone @TheGuardian). At first I kept up with all the news, but after a few days I knew that to relax and rejuvenate I was going to have to stop reading. I did, and was better for the escape.
Nevertheless every person I met or spoke to engaged me in conversation about the referendum result. With only one exception, every person was shocked and anxious about the development, fearing for what it might mean for Europe, now and in the future, for international relations, security and prosperity in general. Some laughed at Britain’s naivety and selfishness, not holding back when they said it would make the once great nation a small shadow of itself. Others cried or shook their heads in disbelief. What has happened to the British character they wondered? I felt their pain acutely.
Repeatedly these conversations moved from the public and political to the personal. Friends and strangers wanted to know what Brexit meant for me. Yet I could only express something of the discombobulation I felt. I could only ponder the impact on my sense of identity.
[See my post immediately after the Referendum at www.blogjuliearts.com]
Since the EU Referendum questions about identity keep coming up.
They say a swathe of people who voted out were troubled by concerns about identity. They say they felt their national sovereignty was compromised by EU membership, and that open borders and immigration threatened their sense of ‘Englishness’ or ‘Welshness’ as well as their economic opportunity. Whatever ‘Britishness’ is for them, it means something quite different in London and other cosmopolitan centres. But such was the myth and propaganda. While I empathise with feelings of disenfranchisement, there are many reasons why their vote to leave amounts to a misplaced protest vote. That however is not my focus here. What I find ironic (and sad) is that if a crisis of identity and visibility were the reasons for their choice, they have not actually advanced their cause an iota. They have done nothing to redistribute wealth or enhance sovereignty or democracy. They may only think they have - for a limited period before the reality of Brexit (and its domino effect) takes hold.
I wonder too what Brexit means for the people like me whose identity is built from an amalgam of cultural experiences and loyalties... whose inner multi-culturalism has been formed by existence in an open society which depends for its flourishing on freedom of movement... and whose modern, global self-image, character and history is very much cross-border?
There are so many people like me! There are many who have ancestors and DNA from countries other than the one they are living in. But more than that, there are millions of people whose identity has been shaped by different colours and customs, by the arts and by travel, who have deeply embraced new cultures and places in order to survive and thrive in the world, in order to be true to the complexities which make them unique.
How can we be asked to choose one loyalty over another? How can we be asked to think, to live, to work, to create, to love, to move within a randomly redrawn boundary of such narrower proportions? What a cost it will be to suppress our spirit and nature to the new agenda – the change few predicted?
I am, it must be said, furious about the lies and manipulation of the Leave Campaign. I am disgusted by the lack of planning, lack of a blue-print for a post-Brexit economy, and the shallowness of their reflection upon the real meaning and consequences of their pseudo-nationalistic lobbying. I am appalled by the loss of integrity in our politicians, the ruthlessness of their egos, and the degeneration of the media and public life to what feels like an all-time-low. And I will support every possible project to limit the damage they have done and hold them accountable.
But I also want and need a new conversation. I don’t want to let myself run away from Britain in despair.
I need to reach out to all the people like me who – beyond politics – feel the need to do something positive and constructive in the face of daunting negativity and right-wing nationalism. In the spirit of Jo Cox (who we simply must remember) I have to believe that once the lies and referendum rhetoric have been uncovered as false and irresponsible, that millions of people in Britain - even those who voted Leave - will reflect long enough to see that there must surely be more which unites us than divides us; from each other, and from our European neighbours and allies.
If you too feel your identity is cross-border and richly multi-cultural, please lift your voice and resist the manipulative silence of xenophobia, the insidious resentment of racism, and do all in your power to resist your family, workplace and community becoming isolationist, defensive or irrationally suspicious. Please stop listening to politicians or media who would have us frame the world with ‘us’ and ‘them’, scape-goating ‘the other’ for all that isn’t right in our lives. Rather be all the more determined to celebrate the richness of diversity and culture which exists in Britain; the Britain that will never be great again unless we do something quite drastic now about the conversations we are having publicly and privately. Because, just like Germany in the 1930s, if we do nothing it could be too late.
You cannot resist a torrent once it is pouring downhill. We can only avoid blood on our hands if we recognise the warnings from history and turn the tide now. These are dark times - the large number of hate and terrorist crimes across the world in the last month, concerning and repugnant – and, whatever your view of Brexit, we need to shake ourselves out of despondency or flippancy. We need to take seriously the social, moral and cultural challenges we face, as well as the political. Our humanity and our future depend upon it. This is something we can influence before the next General Election. We can change the conversation so a new spirit informs the political landscape and obliges our representatives to behave with more integrity and conviction, more humanity and intellectual nuance.
Please raise your voice. In conversations and social media share #identity+ and tell your story about the cross-border loyalties which shape your identity... which exist independently of a political party, a vote or campaign.
Julie Elizabeth Mullins:
Ø I am more than any temporarily elected minister or government tells me I am.
Ø I can define my own cultural boundaries and identify with many clans, communities, institutions, religions and nation states.
Ø I am filled with experiences and values that are Australian - black and white – because that’s where I was brought up and educated.
Ø I am British born with Celtic ancestors, red hair and freckles.
Ø My first passport was European and I feel European.
Ø I cannot part with my love and loyalty for Italy, Ireland, England or Australia, nor my need for deep connection to them.
Ø That complex jigsaw is me.
Ø I am multi-cultural.
Ø I am a citizen of the world.
In the week between the referendum and my return to Italy (where I lived happily for several years) an incident occurred which touched me deeply. I was in a sports shop in London looking for some assistance. The young man who might have served me was talking to a couple of friends in a language I didn’t recognise. When finally I got his attention he was a little resentful of being interrupted and responded a little abruptly. When he brought me the shoes from the storeroom and I requested some socks he said “no, we don’t have them” and turned away. A little surprised I said in reflection more than challenge, “oh that’s strange, in Australia they always give you socks to try on with new shoes”. He replied “then go back to Australia to buy your shoes”.
I erupted. Every frustration I’d been feeling that week - with colleagues who failed to recognise something monumental had happened and that I couldn’t ‘get over it’ in a heartbeat, and with friends who I hadn’t realised were so differently positioned – bubbled to the surface. I demanded to see the manager. He shook his head and moved toward the storeroom. I insisted: “Get me the manager or this is going to escalate”. He ran into the storeroom and closed the door behind him. Another young man tried to follow. I stopped him: “If you do not get me the manager and you follow your mate into that room to avoid a customer that is requesting your help, you are also going to be in big trouble. Get me the manager – now!”
Reluctantly he used his walkie-talkie, where I heard the manager ask “what does she want?” I saved him the trouble and spoke into it: “if you come here I will tell you what I want face-to-face”. The salesman backed away. The only two other people, Islamic ladies covered with a burka, looked on nervously. I was, it must be said, in full red-headed flight.
When the manager arrived I prefaced my explanation with: “You better listen carefully Sir, because this will not end here if I do not get a sincere apology. I am very upset about the hatred and racism that is brimming beneath the surface of this country all of a sudden. And I will not accept this rudeness.” I told him the story. He drew in his breath, paused for a moment, then apologised unreservedly and said he’d speak to the young man concerned. I breathed out. The two ladies nodded in shy (but surprised) agreement. I closed my eyes for a moment, then went back to my shoes.
When the young man returned, suddenly appearing more lanky and vulnerable, he stood beside me and quietly said “I’m sorry Madam I was rude, I apologise”. “Thank you”, I replied, “I appreciate that very much. We can leave it there then. Now, please, I’d like to buy these shoes if you’d kindly show me to the check-out”. He seemed taken-aback, not quite knowing how to proceed.
As we moved slowly toward the til he added: “Madam, I am sorry I was rude, I really am. I have had a bad day” and the tone of his voice had changed to one of sincerity and humility. “It’s ok” I replied quickly and thankfully. “That’s finished now. I’m sorry too. I have been very upset this week about the EU Referendum result and sensitive about any attack which seems racially motivated.” He nodded with implicit understanding. “And by the way” I said as an after-thought, “you are very welcome in this country”. Then the young man hugged me. He stopped between the shelves and embraced me gently but firmly, in what I could only feel was a sign of friendship and relief.
It was a brief physical moment but a powerful emotional message. We were on the same side again. We were both human, vulnerable and in need of comfort, both wanting to feel welcome in the land we’d chosen to make our home.
As I left the counter the lad was smiling at me, telling his friends what had happened. I still didn’t identify the language. The manager opened the big front doors to let me out, the last customer of the day. He apologised again and said he’d talk to the boy about it. “No” I said, and I reached out to touch his hand. “You’ve said enough, thank you. He understands. And we’re good now. So let us end it here. I do not want him to get into more trouble. This story has had a happy ending, and that is what counts. We’ve all learned something. And after such a difficult week, it means a lot to me it could end this way. Thank you. Thank you very much.” Then he nodded in recognition. The young man walked forward. We each waved and smiled as the big doors locked behind me – divided not by a wall of fear and resentment but a pane of reinforced glass.
Walking across the pavement to greet a girlfriend for dinner I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit taller, a little less isolated, and a little bit more intimately connected with humanity.
We all have stories. We all have hopes. Let’s share them. Let’s change the conversation.