Don’t go Brexit my heart

25th June 2016

I have a complicated love-relationship with Britain. As our nearest neighbour, I grew up with her children’s tv shows, her royal goings-on, her exquisite, imaginative humour. At some intuitive level, I became passively bi-cultural. We all did, over here. But there are seams within a people that one cannot fully discern from the remove of Dublin, or within the reassuring calm of the BBC.

This became clear when I lived in Britain. The Brits were a funny old race. The thing that remains most is the great diversity of the people, under one island roof. People way more educated and sophisticated than I; people way more travelled and cosmopolitan than I; people decidedly more reserved and discreet than I. Britain was replete with the less savoury too. I also encountered a gruffness of manner and thought more brutal than I knew possible, an underbelly of violence and poverty more threatening than I had known, and a diet of mindless media among some which made life like a permanent, madcap bingo hall.

Scores on the doors. Two fat ladies.

To live in Britain, I discovered, was to live in a land of hues, and one’s job was to find one’s community of like-mindeds.

This was the beauty of such a place: you could always find the exact people to float your boat, and Britain, in her distinct and beautiful way, provided a powerful sense of institutionalised tolerance and politeness to coddle the experience.

To be Irish in the Thames Valley was to be a secret agent. I knew the codes and mores, enjoyed them, whilst always knowing they were not mine. There was a certain practiced remoteness regarding their fellow citizens which puzzled me. For example, I lived in three different places in London, across four years, and never knew one neighbour. To meet eyes in public transport was an act of defiance. To say hello to a stranger was plain odd. It was a society composed of colleagues, not a family of uncontained characters.

But I loved it all the same. Britain’s orderly anonymity was different and deeply emancipating. I went to my first gay bar in the UK. Found my first boyfriend. For five weeks. Created a deeply satisfying career. For significantly longer. Met some of the people from whom I have learnt most, and with whom I have the most fulfilling and enduring friendships.

And now, Brexit.

I am not only sad and shocked, but I also feel wounded. Britain has left the European Union – the will of the majority of her people.

Britain has broken it off.

I do not know how to receive it. Am I to believe that practised, coddling tolerance was a show? Am I to conclude that there was never one Britain, and that I, in effect, only knew London? Has Britain’s essential nature changed, or perhaps has it been freshly revealed? I do not recognise the Britain I know in that decision.

In psychology, there is an obsession in examining actions and behaviours ‘out of character’. It is thought that, herein, lies a deeper truth.

Perhaps that is going too far. But I do need, in time, to understand the Brexit decision, in order to be good with our closest neighbour. I will always love Britain. But I’d also like to like her.

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