Wednesday 22 June 2016

Breaking Point - and a lesson from history: voting for a better future in Europe

Let me tell you about something that happened to me last winter, just before Christmas. 

Sitting in my living room, one morning, I noticed that there was a woman standing outside my house, clearly in some sort of distress, bent over the front garden wall. 

A middle aged woman - or so I thought, nondescript - the sort of person you walk past, in the street, without noticing. I opened the window and asked if she was alright. She did not speak, but shook her head. I went outside, then, and asked her what was wrong: but she could barely utter the words to explain, clutching herself in excruciating pain, tears running down her face. In an eastern european accent, she whispered that her leg hurt, and her stomach. I asked if I should call an ambulance. No, no, she pleaded: not that. She was adamant that she could not go to a hospital. 

Eventually, I managed to persuade her to come inside, and sit down, and gave her some water, and tried to help - and eventually a kind friend who is a doctor came down the road to look at her. The friend smelled her breath, and asked a few direct questions. She's a chronic alcoholic, she told me, but I think she is very ill. She needs to go to hospital. 

Lilija (not her real name) refused. She was frightened. Don't be frightened, I said: no one is going to judge you ... (I was wrong, of course). After much coaxing, and persuasion, she let the friend drop us off at a local hospital, where we spent the next few hours, she holding my hand, the hand of a total stranger, in a tight grip, as if she were drowning, crying silently, and sipping furtively all the while from a water bottle, that had no water in it, but some sort of spirits.

In those long hours, she told me a little about her life. She was only in her thirties, which was hard to believe, from her appearance, or accept, that someone so young could be so unhappy that they must drink to the point of oblivion, in the middle of the day. 

But she was - very unhappy: having lived in this country for fifteen years or more, somehow surviving as a cleaner, or caring for children, living in a lonely bedsit. She couldn't go home: her elderly mother depended on the money she sent from England, and the family background was dysfunctional, and abusive, and she would not have been welcome. So she was killing herself slowly, with alcohol.

I had told her the doctors would not judge her, but they did. The young, cool eyed Australian duty doctor, in front of her, as she wept, announced abruptly that she was seriously ill, but it was all due to alcohol. Yes, I said, I know, but ... can't you show her a little compassion? The doctor complained then about the trouble that this woman was causing, and the burden on the NHS, with the implication that this was particularly objectionable as Lilija was from eastern Europe, and although a long term tax payer, now with mental health issues, was somehow not entitled to care - or compassion.

Fortunately, when the ambulance came to take Lilija to another hospital, and the emergency care she needed, the paramedic crew extended to her the dignity and kindness that she deserved, and took great care of her, without question or moral judgement: the familiar, kindly face of the NHS, upon whom we all depend. She hugged me, before she got into the ambulance, and I walked away, now in tears myself. What would become of her? I don't know. The address she gave the doctors was false. It doesn't exist. I've haven't seen her since. 

Here is another story  - from the past, several generations ago. You may think it has nothing to do with Broken Barnet, or Broken Britain, or anything much. You may think history has nothing to tell us, now, today - even though we are on the brink of an election being fought, on one side, on the basis of our past, or at least their version of our past, a mythical Britain which has never existed, but to which they fondly hope we can return, none the less.

Still: come with me, now, back to nineteenth century England, that cradle of high Tory virtue, where the poor were always with us, but in their rightful place: the undeserving poor, punished for their fecklessness, managed with the full force of a merciless set of laws intent on stigmatising those who could not support themselves, carefully created so as to deter all but the most desperate from asking for help, for charity, when in need.

Fear of the workhouse, for example, was a deliberately crafted tool of social engineering, lovingly polished in the workshop of political ideology, and religious zeal. The workhouse regime was made as unbearable as possible, in order to prevent all but the most desperate from applying for admission. The inspiration, of course, for much of the present Conservative government's welfare policies.

When the first members of my Irish family came here, during the Famine, to the north east of England, some of them - including three small children - ended up in Newcastle Workhouse, their mother having died, shortly after arrival, of fever contracted in Sandgate, one of the festering slums that were home to newly arrived refugees from the West of Ireland. 

Where are you from, they were asked? Shaking with fear, no doubt, not fluent in English, they whispered - 'Sligo': the beadle mistaking their words for 'Glasgow', as it is still recorded, written down in the ledgers, with indifferent inaccuracy. 

And yes: they were refugees, fleeing starvation, and religious persecution, although their new English Protestant neighbours, especially if they had the benefit of twenty first century scepticism, would have seen them, no doubt, at best as economic migrants - and more generally, without doubt, at that point, as some sort of vermin.

The surname, incidentally, of these children, was Durkin - the same as the self professed libertarian polemicist who has made 'Brexit, the movie'. The motif of which would appear to be, in the name of our freedom, to obstruct the free movement of everyone else. 

Almost every inch of the Sligo Mayo border was home to a Durkin family, at one time. Almost all those that did not die in the Famine left the area in the wake of the Irish diaspora, their descendants, like me, and Martin Durkin, scattered across Britain, the USA, and Canada, settling at will, in a new world of possibility, with open borders, and freedom from institutionalised religious bigotry. How lucky we are, that they survived - and prospered.

But let us move on, and visit another workhouse now, in London, a little later in the next century, in 1908, to be precise. Here is a small moment of history no one has remarked upon, until now.

It is the Westminster Union Workhouse, where according to the register for that year, on April 19th, a woman of sixty eight years of age was admitted - a needlewoman, referred to the Workhouse by order of the police in St James' ward. 

Her name, according to the register, is Nina Schrod, but it is a mishearing of the name Bina Schrod. 

She is described as 'injured', and would appear to have been previously in a 'sick asylum'. She will be discharged to a son, a GPO letter sorter, who lives with his own family, while his widowed mother has spent the last few decades eking out a living by sewing, living alone in a series of lodgings. 

Now, however, she is dependent on the goodwill and charity of the parish overseers, along with many other destitute and ill Londoners living in the heart of the city - all of them a burden the Board of Guardians are keen to dispose of. 

Bina came to England in the 1860s, from Germany, with her husband Nickolaus, a cabinet maker, and they settled in a part of London that was home to many other German immigrants in the nineteenth century, around the Tottenham Court road area: so many of them in this area it would probably have been more usual to hear German spoken, than English. That must have felt some Londoners feel ... uncomfortable, or even - awkward ...

Bina Schrod was from Friedberg, near Frankfurt: her first name suggests she - and maybe her husband - might have been of Jewish origin, although perhaps one of many who chose to convert rather than suffer the many restrictions forced on German Jewish citizens, even before the later persecution and genocidal regime of the twentieth century. Fortunate, if so, that the Schrod family escaped now, before the rise of Nazism, which saw the remaining Jewish population removed to Buchenwald, and total annihilation.

Most Germans who settled in London at this time, in the nineteenth century, were undoubtedly doing so for largely economic reasons, moving to a more liberal country that put up no barrier to immigration, and offered great opportunities for those arriving from all parts of Europe. 

Bina, who died in 1915, never became a naturalised British citizen: but her son Carl, born in London, was careful to change his name to Charles, and the family perhaps escaped the anti German prejudice that arose during the First World War. 

Charles married an English girl, and their children, including Gladys, born in 1900, grew up in suburban south London. Oh, yes - and Gladys, in 1927, married a man called Harry Farage: the grandfather of Nigel, of course.

Nigel Farage dismisses his German ancestry as irrelevant to his views on migration, and Europe. He has dismissed the recent revelation that the myth of his genteel sounding 'Huguenot' surname, lost, he hoped,  in the mists of time, is actually the legacy of a Belgian immigrant, who settled in Berkshire in the 18th century, and whose Ferridge descendants latterly assumed a rather more romantic spelling of their name. 

But the reinvention of Nigel Farage is key to his political viewpoint, just as the schoolboy extremism revealed in his former school records is central to a clear understanding of the man he is now.

The idea of Britishness to which he ascribes has never existed, is just as outdated and bogus as the tobacco stained, beer swilling bar room bore persona that he has adopted. 

And nor do most of the leading members of the Brexit campaign really believe in the idea of Britain to which they proclaim loyalty. They simply want to protect their own interests and privileges, and assert a sense of authority and power.

The truth is that most of us - all of us - living here, in Britain, in 2016, are the descendants of migrants. We have all of us, at one point, arrived here, and been dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is the mark of the humanity, and decency, of the society we have created, as part of the evolution of social progress, that we have enjoyed such care, and flourished, as a result. 

We have to see beyond the rhetoric, and the spin, and see the human stories behind the soundbite politics: or we lose our own humanity in the process. Migrants, refugees, immigrants - you, and me, and our children. Where is the difference?

London is the most ethnically diverse city on earth, and even here in Broken Barnet, we rejoice in a population of the broadest possible cultural and religious backgrounds. 

The fear of something other, and alien, only applies if you abandon that sense of humanity, and empathy. As Jo Cox put it - we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. 

And that one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, the descendant of immigrants, who has grown up in the protection and care of a British society founded on tolerance, decency, and compassion, could stand in front of a poster of refugees, and seek to make political profit from such hatred, is contemptible. 

We are citizens of the world, Europeans, and British: no contradiction there, only something to be proud of.

Tomorrow we have the chance to affirm those values, and defend them, preserve them, for generations to come.

I only hope that hope itself wins over hate, and intolerance, because I do not want to live in a country living in the dark, selfish, reactionary isolationism that Farage, Gove, IDS, Johnson, and all the rest want to become our future, but in a Britain, a Europe, and a world, that respects and supports diversity and difference, and acts in unity and comradeship for the greater benefit of all. 

Mrs Angry, eternal optimist, teetering on the brink, June 23rd, 2016.


Jimbokav said...

I love reading your blog despite the fact that I have escaped Broken Barnet. You often make me laugh and just as often seem to say exactly what I feel about the subject matter in question.

But not this time I'm afraid.

You seem to be linking "kindness to strangers" to our membership of the EU as if in some way our exit from this would somehow prevent immigration and our borders would immediately be closed, never to be opened again.

What happened in your touching story about Lilija, (not her real name I know), is that you chose to go and help her, (and well done to you for that), but what didn't happen is that you weren't forced to help her. To my mind that would be a more reasonable comparison between your experience on that day, and the shambles that our immigration policy has become within the EU.

I read a Telegraph article today that stated that the UK population was projected to rise from approx 64.6M in mid-2014, to 74.3M in 2039.

Of that approx £10M rise, (according to the ONS), 68% is directly or indirectly attributable to immigration, (51%), and (17%),immigration through it's effects on births and deaths.

I just want to know where this £10M people are going to live for a start. I want to know who is going to pay to build the houses that will house the £6.8M newcomers to this Country? I want to know where their kids are going to go to school. I want to know which library they will be a member of, (oh no, wait. Cancel that. Barnet Council are working hard on that as I write).

I too am a product of an immigrant family, (Irish Father and Scots Mother), and it might very well be selfish of me to have this opinion, but I have it nevertheless. I want what is best for my child and what I see happening doesn't fill me with optimism. I am scared. Am I really scared? I have never written or said that about this subject before and it has surprised me that it came out, but yes. I think I am.

I started off this process undecided and then teetered towards leave, then back to undecided and then back again to leave. The Jo Cox incident had a significant affect on me and I thought to question my own judgement and maybe put someone else's ideals before my own. Someone "better" for want of a better word. I then veered over to remain for a few days. And then I heard Cameron and a load of other....... people speak and I was enraged. I was enraged as nuch with Cameron and his cronies as I was with Farage and soe of the despicable things that the leave campaign have had the gall to do and say.

Again I was undecided, (but felt like I was being pulled ever closer to leave, (because whether rightly or wrongly, that's how I feel for a number of reasons even if I worry that I am selfish, (or blind to the financial perils involved).

"Which politician do I like?" I thought? Nope. Can't think of many and none that seem to be commenting about this. And then.... Alan Johnson was on TV. "Oh, I like him" I thought to myself. He was articulate and eloquent and even simple in his communication, (I like simple when I am struggling), and he again dragged me kicking and screaming over to the remain side.

But no. I just can't do it. It's not what I feel. It's my vote and even if I think that better people than me think we should remain, (and a bunch of people I have little wish to associate with at all think we should leave), I still find myself wanting to vote leave tomorrow.

Can we be better than we are now and still leave the EU? I certainly hope so, because I don't think we are very good right now.

Red Sonia said...

As usual, all about money and furriners. That's what this country has been reduced to - its lowest common denominators.

One by one Bojo, Gove and Farage stripped (many of) us of humanity, compassion and consideration for the plight of those in dire distress because of the actions of those same people who seek to demonise them.

The hatred and vile contempt of those drooling blood with their contempt of those with differing views to theirs has made me ashamed to be English.

Mrs Angry said...

Well, Jim: you have obviously thought long and hard about this matter, and given a careful and honest explanation of your reasons for voting as you will - but I cannot agree with you.

There may be an argument for restriction on economic migration, or not - but this is not the point, or at least the point I was trying to make.

The referendum has been directed by the Brexiteers so as to exploit the underlying bigotry of too many voters - a xenophobia that in some cases tips over into outright racism. Worse still, the Leave campaign has conflated the issue of refugees 'flooding' Europe with the issue of free movement between member states, without any reasoned debate about the economic benefits, or drawbacks.

The Farage poster was the last straw, and gave us all we need to know about the dark motives underlying this campaign: what happened o Jo Cox tragically served to underline the same inconvenient truth.

The next most convincing argument for me to vote Remain was the leadership of the Leave lobby: just look at them, and what they stand for, and what they have done. Do you really feel comfortable supporting any move so desperately promoted by such people? I don't.

Neither you, nor I, nor Farage, nor many millions of other Britons would be alive today, if our families had not sought refuge in this country, at some point: whether fleeing poverty or injustice matters not to me.

And we do have a duty to help others, whether in our own immediate household, or beyond the garden wall.

We are citizens of the world, not little Englanders, and humanity has - or should have - no boundaries.

Mrs Angry said...

And Red Sonia: yes, the lowest common denominators - the weapon of choice of all demagogues. The cynicism with which the Leave campaign leaders have exploited the most base instincts in the rush to secure votes, as part of their own domestic political agenda is simply beyond contempt.

Anonymous said...

I think this is your best post to date. I can only thank you for your humanity.

Mrs Angry said...

Well, that is kind of you. It is a load of rambling nonsense really - but from the heart.

Anonymous said...

Mrs A , I must say that I found myself with very mixed emotions regarding the referendum, I think none of our politicians covered themselves in any glory! Perhaps if they had done there job properly & not followed what we are now used to in Barnet & that is just take the money & do bugger all , so what we ended up with in Europe was a super capiter, unaccountable and answerable to nobody , but it didn't have to be that way if we had a priminister with a back bone & a brain then maybe just maybe Europe would have had a chance !

towy71 said...

Great post Mrs A and in a size that I can actually read, sorry that I have only now got round to reading but events iykwim ;-)

I was shocked on Friday morning and have been spitting feathers ever since. Here we are after a momentous vote up shit creek without a paddle and the politicians that should be doing something about are too busy back biting or hiding and the major mischief maker, who you mention in the blog, is nowhere to be seen, doubtless in some place well away from the scum that his rhetoric encouraged.