Becoming British in a Troubled Time

What a time to become a subject!

Recently, I swore allegiance to the queen at a mandatory ceremony.

Citizenship ceremony

I’m now a citizen of the UK and of the European Union, although one of these citizenships is about to be stripped away. Alas. But I did have a fun party.

Dancing at my citizenship party

Almost immediately upon gaining full rights in my country, it was plunged into a constitutional crisis by a prime minister who has absolutely no mandate. He was selected by 75k members of his party: angry white extremely conservative middle class men from the home counties. They want the UK to leave Europe with no deal, however, parliament is not on board with this plan.

There has been a general election since the referendum, so parliament, unlike Johnson, does have a mandate to act on Brexit. However, using a clever move preferred by King Charles I, Johnson can use royal prerogative to suspend parliament and act without them.

For my non-British readers, it’s important to note that while Britain claims to have a constitution and sometimes whips itself into a crisis surrounding this constitution, nobody can point out the paragraph that is in question. Nobody can point to any document at all. It’s an unwritten constitution. All they have is tradition and precedent. Of course, I’ve just mentioned some precedent in the previous paragraph, but there are some important things to keep in mind about Charles I.

First of all is that he ruled a very long time ago and was a king rather than a PM. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he was beheaded for this behaviour.

The day that it became clear Johnson was poroguing parliament, there were spontaneous protests around the country. I went to Westminster to find the bridge blocked by demonstrators. I posted about this experience to my mastodon account, but will also summarise it here.

Blocking The Bridge

As I got to the bridge, there seemed to be two competing chants, which morphed into a call-response of “save our democracy / stop the coup”. Despite the bridge being blocked to automotive traffic and a long line of stopped buses, there seemed to be very few cops around. Cyclists and pedestrians were still able to get through, although many seemed to be confused.

I was slightly disappointed to see EU flags. I left mine at home on purpose. I feel like an assault on democratic processes is a larger issue than Brexit and that people on all sides of that issue might be alarmed by the PM’s actions. I would want anyone who was concerned about democracy to feel welcome.

It was not a large crowd, at all, just many people milling around in the intersection, singing and chanting. Other chants included, “You shut down the parliament / we shut down the streets.” A child stood near me was delighted to hear his mother singing “Oh Boris, you wanker!”

There seemed to be a wide diversity of ages present, although nobody elderly and few disabled people. It seemed to be about 70-80% white.

Smoke flare

After a while, some fake-cops did arrive and began helping the buses get turned around. It was also starting to get dark and a lot of families left and people who had been out for hours started to go home. As the crowd thinned, the cops told people to disperse or be arrested. I chose to disperse and wandered down to parliament square where there were still many more people, also blocking traffic.

The anti-coup protest in parliament square

There were helicopters buzzing overhead and a much larger presence of regular police , who did a lot of marching around from one side of the square to the other. People in the road, like at the bridge were chanting and singing. A reporter from RT set up next to where I was standing. Some other protestors came up to him and joked, ‘So you guys are the ones who caused all of this!” But nobody was hostile to them, which I was slightly disappointed by, although unwilling to act alone.

Eventually, the crowd in the square decided to become a silent protest, which sucked a lot of energy out of things, although also it was getting late and people were leaving. Many of them sat down in the road and some speakers got up and gave Occupy-style “mic-check” speeches about what to do when they got arrested.

Large number of people sitting down at parliament Square

This advice included:

  1. The police are not your friends. Don’t talk to them. Just say ‘no comment.’
  2. Do not accept a caution. This benign sounding term is actually a criminal record.
  3. If arrested, do not use the ‘duty solicitor’, but one of the activist ones who specialise in protest arrests.
  4. If you are arrested, the only information that you are required to provide is your name, date of birth and address. You can wait until you appear in front of a judge to provide this, but there’s no advantage in waiting.
  5. If you have a mobile phone, set it so the only way to log in is via a PIN. If you use a biometric login, the police can browse through it. The best thing to is to give it to a friend who is not being arrested.

As the crowd shrank, and the police outnumbered us, but nobody was being arrested, I started to wonder when last call was at the pub over the road. It turned out to be 11:15. When I got out, everyone was gone and I don’t know what happened to the last stragglers.

As I spoke to straggling drunks, however, one especially intoxicated you man said, “fucking American!” to me and forcibly grabbed my jacket. The other guy to whom I was talking peeled him off and sent him on his way.

As a citizen, I have a clear right to protest. But as soon as I open my mouth, I’ll always be foreign. The xenophobia brewing in the anti-democratic moves by the PM give me serious cause for alarm.

A fortnight on

As the crisis meanders onwards, a peculiar time dilation becomes evident. At first, everything seemed to be happening all at once. Everything was in the present tense, be it past, future or actual present. It’s tempting to blame my initial drinking for this, but I’ve now been sober for days and it seems like several weeks have passed. They haven’t. It’s been a fortnight.

There is a claim that people are able to see their entire lives flash past them near a moment of sudden death. We don’t, as a country, see the past, but a strangely elongated present. The political parties continue to have their leadership campaigns at the speed of Twitter. Tory candidates have come and gone within the course of an afternoon. The US police have executed several black people. By gun, and in a gruesome new domestic use of battlefield technology, by a bomb-wielding killer robot. The Chilcot Report about Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq War has come out. Everything is happening at once.

Meanwhile, like a person who has just stepped off a cliff, distracted by visions, reality is still lingering at the edges of our perception. The pound continues to fall. Investment firms are leaving. The consequences of Brexit and the memory of the campaign is pushed out of our consciousness, but the mechanics set into motion – the conversion from potential to kinetic energy – has not ceased.

A few days ago, I managed to have my first conversation that did not mention Brexit. More have come since.

Today was a Rally for Europe across from Downing Street. As the shock dies off, so too apparently the crowds. By normal standards, it was a good protest turnout, but I worry this is not enough. To make a change, we really must turn out week after week. The speakers emphasised even this is not enough. ‘Don’t go home and feel proud of yourselves’ he said. We need to build a movement and organise.

The speakers talked about racism and lead us in several chants with uncertain rhythm. No instruction was given as to how one might organise. Perhaps this is something to google now that I’ve gotten home.

From the rally, we marched over to Green Park. Or perhaps we wandered. There was no more chanting or megaphones. There, we joined some sort of Picnic for Europe event. There were a lot of groups of friends sharing lunch. No speakers. Few signs. Some of us had flags. I was uncertain of the purpose of it.

The speaker at the earlier rally said we need to convince people to change their minds about Europe over the next 15 months or so. ‘Maybe’, he nearly whispered, ‘Article 50 won’t get invoked.’ If we can change people’s minds. If 60% of people come to decide the EU is a force for good.

While this neatly elides the question of democracy, I’m at a loss of how this might happen. The Tories will pick the next Prime Minister. The leading candidates right now are someone who wants to scrap Human rights legislation vs someone who is apparently unaware such legislation exists at all. If the next PM will blithely risk the British union- Good Friday Agreement be damned- then what hope for leading us back towards the EU? The slow-seeming financial catastrophe may not turn people left.

Indeed, I turn to the left and I see nothing. The problems with Keynesian economics that became clear in the 80s have never been solved. Neoliberalism so ubiquitous, it largely goes unnamed. We call it ‘reality’ and the left ‘dreamers’. But what are we dreaming of? The glory days of the post war consensus; of making socialism great again, like an inverse Donald Trump? Some are campaigning for a universal basic income, but I’m suspicious of some of the backers. A totalitarian pleasure regime is an improvement, sure; but shouldn’t we can aim for a utopia rather than merely a less hungry dystopia?

It’s possible something is going on and I’m missing it. I don’t know how to organise and I don’t know what to do.

At the rally, when I held my EU flag up over my heads, a European tourist couple attracted my attention. The woman expressed solidarity and gave some words of encouragement. She was glad to see this push back happening. I thanked her. But it’s not enough. I expect to turn out week after week for the next few months. It’s the minimum required, but it won’t be enough.


Things continue to settle down to seeming-normalcy. There’s no longer the foregrounded sense of shock and danger. Time seems less fully gathered in one spot. Or perhaps this is because I’m finally sobering up from the semi-heavy drinking I’ve been doing since the crisis started. Predictably, lack of sleep coupled with much higher than normal alcohol consumption has left me with a cold, which is enough to get me to slow down at least.

On Saturday, I went to the March for Europe. I met friends and one of them immediately began talking about redundancies in his former work place. His wife is an EU Migrant. She is applying for permanent residency here, but has no enthusiasm for it.

We stood at the back of a queue of people and waited ages to step off. We assumed things were running late. Only much later, on an incline did we get a sense of the largeness of the march. It seemed small from where we were. It was impossible to get any perspective.

The march moved slowly, a pace that seemed exhausting. People cheered or chanted occasionally. Once in a while, a song rose up. 80’s pop songs about love figured prominently, but were always short. Nobody knew any of the words aside from the refrain. For a while, we marched next to somebody with a battery amp, playing the full Rick Astley song, which became ‘Never going to give EU up.’ Once a trumpet player suddenly started playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. This is the EU hymn. A cheer went up, but nobody knew any words, so we could only hum along.

The slowness of the march created a funereal air. I heard people talking about how marching was ‘important’. Angrier people talked how it was undemocratic to strip people of citizenship. The police are largely unseen, a stark contrast to the student marches of the coalition. It seems we don’t need policing. ‘Put things back how they were a fortnight ago’ is hardly a call to revolution.

As at all British protests, the signs were clever and pun-filled. ‘Yes to fromage; no to Farage’ ‘I will always love EU’ ‘Gove uck yourself’ ‘I want to be inside EU’. One sign was just a chart of the value of the pound over the last fortnight.

As we got to Downing Street, there was the only visible police presence. We turned to look at the street with bad feeling. One man yelled ‘wanker!’ and a chorus of boos went up. We trudged on to Parliament square, which was full of people. More marchers continued to pour in behind us. At the front was a projection screen and a speaker array. I could barely see the screen. The voices of speakers echoed around the square, but were unintelligible from where we were standing. Only an occasional phrase would come through. The space in front of us was packed with protesters. Behind us were even more people, many of whom were dancing to 80’s torch songs.

Near the end of the rally, they started playing Abba’s SOS. People on stage swayed with signs. People in front of us sang along. Then the rally was over.

Afterwards, we went to the park and had tea. It was a lovely sunny afternoon. I left and went to a barbecue. About half the people there were Americans. Most of the conversations were about Brexit or Trump. I wasn’t drinking because of a cold, but most people had been going for hours. A lot of discussion retreated to the safer, more familiar area of the future of the Labour Party. A temporary problem with a temporary solution. Something a lot easier to hold in mind.

Today, I went to the stone setting for my wife’s grandmother. It’s a year since she died. There was a short ceremony and we went to breakfast. Most of the family are a generation older at least. One relation confessed that they’d voted leave. They said it like they were asking for forgiveness – they probably were. It was a protest vote. They didn’t expect to win – don’t know why they’d voted that way. They said they need to have a period of self-reflection to understand why they voted as they had. It was my first time meeting anyone with ‘Bregret.’ I got a bit snippy. I don’t know how to react to this. They were horrified by the results. They were grossly misinformed of what their vote even meant.

If everyone who feels regret writes their MP, could that make a difference? This is democracy without information. How can it be meaningful to have a vote when no one knows what they’re voting for?

One well-attended march is not enough to stave off leaving. And the uncertainty is also bad. It is impossible to plan under these circumstances. There is a rumour of another march next weekend.

One sign at the march said, ‘Britain is not an island.’ Perhaps it’s a ship, drifting rudderless along the sea.

New Boots

For some days, the news cycle stretched to 24 hours. Things kept happening through the night. Stepping away for a moment meant missing something. But at some point, exhaustion must have stepped in. Nothing happens overnight now.

The days, however, are still moving rapidly. A joke goes around, ‘it’s the most astonishing day in British politics since yesterday.’ An American newspaper responds to speculation about the country breaking up with a portmanteau for a new country made up of just England and Wales: ‘Wangland’. It seems apt. Perhaps citizens could be called ‘wangkers’.

On Wednesday, a piece of music I’ve written is in a concert at a conference. I go despite not having signed up. The piece crashes, but it’s not my fault. One of the performers is stressed by it and tells me later that he was unable to regain his composure. The music is the kind of fast, chaotic, noisy music I usually like and it’s very well played, but I have trouble concentrating on it. The non-stressed performer is pleased by how everything went. Some people have taken good pictures of her playing and she wants to post them to facebook. She looks at everything else going by and feels guilty. ‘How can I post about my good concert when the world is burning?’

We go to the pub. I’ve been trying to cease drinking entirely, but I order a pint anyway. It’s not very good. I bicycle for half an hour to meet my wife in Brighton. We go to the Vegetarian Shoes shop. I had been planning to get new trainers, but I also get steel capped boots. I say I may need them. My wife thinks I am being silly. I don’t know.

One of the PM candidates is a long-standing opponent of both immigration and human rights. I feel like a time may be coming shortly where I have very little to lose. I can’t tell if I’m being overly dramatic. Things are starting to feel quotidian again, as if Real Life has returned, but of course it hasn’t. I don’t have permanent residency in this country.

My wife and I go to the beach to stare out across the water towards France, but neither of us is able to put our phones down. My wife is instagramming the weather and I hit update on Twitter over and over. She seems unconcerned. I find her optimism unnerving in it’s rootlessness.

A decade ago, the day I learned my mother was dying, I assured her things would be ‘OK’. I felt it strongly as I said it, despite being unable to know what I meant. When I’m feeling uncharitable towards myself, I think I must have meant that things would be ok for me. She would die, but I would carry on. Now I wonder if it was the certainty that I found so reassuring.

Since the referendum again

Tuesday, I have meetings, with friends and colleagues. All anyone speaks of is brexit, their voices animated with despair. Attempts to broach other topics are ponderous and difficult. Nothing stays on topic. We take turns to rant.

Some of my neighbours voted leave. I have avoided them for days, afraid of what we’ll say to reach other. I no longer wish to know them.

Everyone I speak to is exhausted. Other migrants talk about where they’ll move. I have been arguing with my wife about Canada. She doesn’t want to go. And truthfully, I don’t either. It suddenly feels like I’ve spent the last decade of my life avoiding Canada.

I hit reload on Twitter compulsively. Sometimes great masses of news tumble out at once, sometimes a trickle. A Muslim business bombed. A hate chant in Camden. We’re all to wear safety pins to show we support migrants with subtle plausible deniability.

I feel free floating anger at all the political parties. All the institutions have failed us as we lurch leaderless through the crisis. The country seems certain to break up. I tweet a name jokingly for a new country, but then see something very similar on an serious proposed map.

I saw tweeted newspaper covers that expressed sadness at the football, but joy at the breakup of the country. I want to do something, but can’t think what. I day dream about stomping a fascist to make myself feel better.

I do not go to the protest because I’ve taken the train to the countryside, to a place that mostly voted leave. I hear the foreign twang in my voice and speak louder than I should when in public. It is a beautiful day. I consciously try not to overhear what others are talking about.

The parties tear themselves apart. No confidence in the Labour leader. I go to my home and all the pictures I brought from America are leaning against the walls. After months of living here, we’re finally hanging them up.

Since the referendum

I stay up all night Thursday night. Friday, I am in daze of exhaustion and disbelief. Saturday is pride.

I decided to go this year after the massacre in Orlando. It felt important. It’s also the first planned protest since the vote. Almost all LGBT rights come from EU law. I search for something coherent to put on a sign, but draw a blank. On the way out of the house, I pause to get my pink Union Jack flag, but then don’t, in anger. Looking around the march I see that most others have made the same choice.

My dog’s tail has been dyed rainbow this week. There is a university LGBT staff and student group marching behind us. Some of the students come up to pet my dog. Their university has lost more than 60% of it’s research funding overnight. I let them put a sticker on my dog’s collar.

After the march, we go to the pub. Everyone is speaking about the referendum and the air force’s planned flyover. The person seated next to me is an EU national who doesn’t meet the extremely narrow requirements to be prescribed hormones in their home country. They’ve lived here for 2 years and will have two more years after the shoe drops. It takes 5 years to get permanent residency. I want to say something reassuring, but I can’t think of anything.

The Red Arrows streak overhead, blowing coloured smoke behind them, in the colours of the trans flag. This is unexpected. Most people at the pub cheer, but I don’t. This is coming from the same government that made transphobic clauses in the new marriage law. The same government who put migrant humanity up for a vote. A large public display of trans inclusion from their military fills me with mixed emotions. For a moment, I fear I may cry.

This has been the first year we’ve been cheered at pride. My first year, the crowds were openly hostile and have gradually become more welcoming. This year, we are one of them. It is North Carolina and Orlando that have made this true. The deaths of Americans over there have brought LGBT togetherness over here.

I spend the rest of Saturday drunk. I go to a friend’s house where the others are drinking chocolate milk. I drink all of their beer and come home and drink whiskey, looking at Twitter through the night. Reports of racist attacks are trickling in. I wait for a political leader to do something decisive, but no one on the national stage does. It becomes apparent that nobody in the country has made contingency plans. Everyone expected this to fail. We are in recession and leaderless.

On Sunday, my choir is singing in a festival dedicated to Minimalism, but I am not singing with them. I have missed all of the festival until Sunday evening, and drag myself to the venue, hungover and exhausted. I am enlisted to sell CDs.

They sing Pauline Oliveros’s Lullaby for Daisy Pauline. I have sung it with them many times, but never been in the audience for it before. Their slow movements are mesmerising. The piece is transformative. The magic of the piece is in the changes, as the choir slowly moves through the sections. Change in music is so beautiful, but change in life is so painful.

Afterwards, the festival director interviews the composer. He forgets what he’s talking about for a moment and says the piece made him feel high. He talks of Deep Listening as a source of hope and empathy almost mystically. But Pauline is from America, where no shoes have yet dropped. ‘We’re in a dangerous time’ she says. Listening is how you sense danger.

She leads us in a listening meditation. The entire audience, breathing, listening and singing together. The sound comes in waves, as people sing for one complete breath and pause to listen. By some spontaneous consensus, the piece stops, as everyone independently decides it was the right length.

The choir returns to the stage to sing pieces by Meredith Monk, which are about the Holocaust. The programme seems starkly timely. We return to the present- to the real from the possible.

I go to the bar afterwards. I’ve promised myself not to drink more, but I do anyway. The choir director says their last rehearsal had been Thursday. The music had changed completely in the mean time. Everything seems to carry more weight. I cycle home wondering what minimalism meant in the 1960s. Then I return to twitter, as if my following of news might change something.

On Monday, I struggle to pay attention to my to do list. The pound falls further. I have a rehearsal that I need to fix a piece for. I am still hungover. In the evening, we go to my mother-in-law’s house for dinner. Her father was born in Ireland, which means my wife and her sisters can apply for Irish citizenship. Their mother has the needed documents. She’s made fish pie, but I was not expected. We stop by a Polish shop to get extra food on the way in. There are reports of anti-polish violence around the country, but none in London yet. I stand outside with the dog and everything is completely normal.

While my sister-in-law eats, I hold the baby. She did not register before he was born, so his only nationality is British.

We’ve been talking about moving to Ireland, but my wife asks me if I’d like to buy her mother’s house. We come home and argue about moving to Canada. My Spanish friend has said she may go to Spain. Most of my friends are migrants and I wonder how many will leave.