B. E. Andre, author of With Blood and Scars, is a British person of Polish descent. She sends this report:
I've been asked to write this blog post about my feelings regarding Brexit. I won't include any links in here because they could be considered biased; so if you are interested in anything I mention, the information is all out there – just Google. This isn't an essay – just me and you, the reader, sitting having a chat, except that your mouth is covered in packing tape. If any comments are left, I'm afraid I won't be responding to them. I am worn out with campaigning and explaining myself.
We've had a seismic few days in the UK. I got hardly any sleep on Thursday night as the votes were being counted. By early morning I knew it was all over. Britain had voted to leave the European Union. I can only describe what I felt as freefall. Then, throughout the day, I had moments when it seemed as if I were walking on a giant water bed, never knowing how the fabric would rise up around me with each step. I'd freefall again, tears would well up… I wasn't the only one experiencing this, and by the end of Friday, I knew that nearly all my friends were equally horrified and in a similar mood to me. I was shocked when a male friend admitted in a phone conversation that he was sitting at home, glass of beer in hand, crying. And, for some reason, the story of Archduke Ferdinand kept popping into my head throughout the day.
What had just under half of the people in the UK done to us? Why hadn't they read or listened to the experts' advice? Why had they allowed themselves to be influenced by increasingly idiotic and inflammatory memes? They seemed to think that leaving the EU was like making an exit from a party – swig back your drink, pick up your coat, say goodbye, and close the door behind you. A typical filer à l'anglaise departure. No further consequences. Easy as that. But the rest of us value the EU for all it has done for us. When I was on a road trip in Poland two years ago with a couple of English friends, I asked them about the Funded by the EU signs all over the country. 'Doesn't it make you angry that your money is going to Poland?' The answer I received was, 'Not at all. It's a rebirth.'
Obviously, the EU also has many faults; in this, it's like a friend with a chronic but manageable condition. He's covered in acne: we love him nonetheless. And if we get him some medication, we can make him better. That's what we should have been doing – reforming the EU from within, as a Member State.
The reasons we are Brexiting (or, are we?) are now becoming clear. Many people – very many – had voted purely on the immigration issue without a scrap of knowledge about what the EU has actually done for them and what the ramifications of leaving could be. Indeed, Google reported a surge of questions related to the EU after voting. People now admit they didn't understand and had no idea the Leave camp lied – lies that have been gradually exposed over the weekend. Meanwhile, the financial markets are all over the place – down, a rally, down again. And the lack of stability or something to grab hold of is wearing people out. The last time I looked, sterling was at a 31-year low. My pension is tied up in stocks and shares – and let me tell you, it is shrinking. During all previous vicissitudes I've been very calm about things: share prices go down, wait long enough, then they go up.
Will there be another referendum? Are we going to end up lumbered with that lying, philandering, bouffanted buffoon Boris Johnson as our Prime Minister? (I believe there's something similar going on in the US...) Even if, in our moments of wild optimism, we say to ourselves 'it will be OK in the end' – how long will that take? Five years? Ten?
Now Johnson is back-pedalling and/or changing his mind by the hour. He knows that, having engineered this damn mess, it's up to him to sort it out. But he doesn't want to do it. Setting Article 50 in motion is like pulling a nuclear trigger: he's too scared to touch it. By law the UK is allowed to hold another referendum, and more than three million people have signed a petition asking the government to do just that. It transpires that many respondents live outside the UK, so the whole thing has somehow become invalid. It may have become valid again by the time you are reading this – who knows? It's a laugh a minute over here.
Another pre-referendum worry has come to fruition. Brexit has opened the door for racists and fascist groups, as we on the Remain side knew it would. Twitter and Facebook are awash with examples of race crimes, defined here as crimes against people of other ethnicities or religions. Poles and Muslims are amongst the most targeted. Good Poles, decent people, who have migrated to the UK, made a decent life and want to stay here are receiving hate mail through their post-boxes. Nothing – so far – has made them consider returning to Poland (although more on that below). Perhaps when they came here they were a little surprised about how multi-cultural the United Kingdom is, but they soon got used it and manage to live in harmony with their neighbours. On a personal note, on two occasions last Friday, the day of the results, I witnessed a harangue about Poles in the UK. One was from my ophthalmologist. He has no idea that my parents were Polish, I speak and read Polish, and I return to Poland often. The second diatribe came when I was sitting at Costa Coffee; three middle-aged people were spewing out versions of the memes I mentioned before. 'Take back our country! Take back our country! They're taking our benefits, having loads of children and sending their money back to their own countries!'
And it is true, they are sending money back. But as long as they pay their taxes, Madam, light up one of your Lambert and Butler's and mind your own bloody business.
We have become a country divided. The Leavers now find themselves somewhat vilified. I have no doubt that (very) many of them aren't racists, but they allied themselves to a group of people who are. If you mention racism, they quickly respond 'But that's not me, not me.' Do you see another irony? They are now experiencing being shunned by their Remain friends. Perhaps we should invent a new word: Brexanoia – paranoia associated with having let down the whole country, and a denial of responsibility. At one point one of my acquaintances suggested this could lead to civil war. I don't believe that for a minute – that is a little bit crazy. Nevertheless, as I walked through town today I sensed something of the cavaliers and roundheads going on around me. You see, Dear Reader, we are now suspicious of each other. In addition, because the racist attacks have increased so much, we – the non-racists – feel we must be vigilant and make sure other people are Okay. I no longer dare speak to my mother in Polish either. Me – I can deal with any nastiness that comes my way, but I'm not prepared to let my 80-year-old mama suffer.
In a moment of madness at the weekend, I wondered whether I'd been prescient when I wrote my novel With Blood and Scars. Nonsense, I know. Although it's mainly a homage to my parents' Polonia post-WW2 generation, WBAS is also a story of racism – Pole against Jew, Brit against Pole, Jew against Pole, Irishman against Brit etc. - and how this racism can be overcome. Suddenly, with Brexit, the ideals seem impossible. Suddenly, with Brexit, another war in Europe also seems to have edged closer.
I was recently called a 'fear-mongering demagogue' on social media. I couldn't be bothered to be offended; actually, it made me laugh. I don't know my accuser's background. What does he know – as an American, I mean? How can he judge whether my concerns are legitimate or not?
Does he have the faintest concept of the political situation in Europe? Of Visegrad? Of the shenanigans going on in Poland? Of Jobbik in Hungary? He probably watches Fox News, for God's sake. Although the UK may be a relatively major player financially, we are still seen in the US as a little bit cute. The Remainers also looked at the bigger picture. Where the hell does an American find the temerity to tell me that I'm stupid to want the EU to stick together? How the hell would you like it, buddy, if New York and all of California suddenly decided to have nothing to do with the rest of the United States? Wouldn't you be just the teensiest bit pissed off? Note: please don't put yourself out to inform me that the United States of America and the "United States of Europe" are very different. Thank you – I know.
Ah, well. Yes, I'm angry and tired. Brexit has been the last straw. The first part of the year has been nothing but exhausting rollercoaster rides with in-flight footage of events in Poland unfolding. There's another country divided. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have, in just over half a year in power, implemented so many bizarre rules and regulations that I'd probably have to spend the next three days trying to remember them all. In brief, they have been playing fast and loose with the constitution; they have installed their own people in the national media (we can now call it state-run propaganda ); they've changed the right-to-sell land laws; they've allowed logging in the last primeval forest in Europe; money is flowing to the Catholic Church in Poland from the state coffers; the education system is about to be overhauled and will include more patriotic content; their election promise of 500 złoty benefit per month per child had to be amended - it is now payable only for the second and subsequent children, and this has resulted in spikes in accessing social care for children in the two days after payment is made; defence minister Antoni Macierewicz has been discussing the notion of a volunteer army – a Christian Militia - and guess where those volunteers might come from… the ultra ONR (National Radical Camp - Obóz Narodowo Radykalny) who fly their hateful falanga when and where they please (in the UK too), while little or nothing is done about their demonstrations. Erasmus students in Białystok were told to hide indoors on campus when the ONR demonstrated recently.
As in England, racism is rife. The moths from Pandora's Box are spreading everywhere.
And finally, on the Poland story, there's Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, who continues to offend the families of the people who died in the Smoleńsk air disaster. Just recently he called for the bodies to be exhumed again. One of the relatives had a justifiable suggestion. I paraphrase - "Dig up your own brother before you start digging up my wife. After all, haven't you said that the bomb must have been under his seat?" If you can't remember the Smoleńsk accident, remember Google is your friend.
Here I'd like to remind people, especially Polonians who don't speak a word of Polish apart from bigos and pierogies (sic), and who can't read more than Wesołych Świąt, and who haven't been to Poland in the last 25 years, not to presume to tell me, as has happened before, that I should be more patriotic and support the PiS government. Why should I? Because it's Polish? Fella, are you nuts? So was the Communist government Polish – you know... there were Poles in it. The current government is only two steps away from other end of the spectrum, so why should I feel any loyalty to it either? For the record, I have always been just slightly left of centre in my political leanings, the merest smidgeon.
A year ago I was a relatively happy person. I loved both my countries – the UK and Poland. I felt patriotic towards both. Today, as I see nationalism etching symbols of hate, intolerance and exclusion into their well-worn and much-loved patinas, I just want to cry.