Saturday, 20 May 2017

Marriage of convenience

Image result for EU citizens in the UK

“So, mummy, are you going to change your name now? You know, to something more English?” My daughter asked me this, in all innocence. I think that was the moment that I realised how devastating the recent conversations about immigration in this country had been for me.

We were in the car driving back from swimming lessons, and had just picked up some fish and chips - appropriately enough - to celebrate the fact that I had passed my “Life in the UK test”, part of the long process of applying for British citizenship. The children had been very involved in the project, helping quiz me on historical dates, and putting up with piles of paperwork accumulating on the kitchen table.

I am not sure any of us really understood what “becoming British” really meant. My husband had joked that I would now have to start liking Marmite and re-runs of Morecambe and Wise - comments that fell curiously flat with me. And now I understand why. Becoming British seems - to everyone else -  to mean erasing something essential about myself.

“No darling, I am not going to change my name,” I said, trying to keep the tone light.
“But wouldn’t it be, you know, easier?” my daughter persisted.

Easier for whom, I wondered. But I didn’t say that. I laughed and said that Britain has a plethora of odd names from Angharad to Zainab and if people can cope with those they can handle mine as part of the mix.

But the truth is I am angry. And very hurt.  The day after the Brexit vote I took my children to school as normal, and smiled, and helped the PTA set up a stall at a local community fair. I stood and sold raffle tickets and smiled at people all day and wondered about each one of them if they too wanted to rid the country of foreigners like me.

I heard a lot of people tell me that it will be fine, to not worry. But I am not fine about it. Not at all.

Somebody referred to me as an “EU migrant” the other day. I’ve lived in this country for 24 years. I thought about how, last year, he might have referred to me as his neighbour. Or a fellow commuter. Or a  volunteer. Or a mother of three. Or maybe even “that annoying short woman”. But now he has reduced me to this two-word description. It diminishes us both.

“Oh we don’t mean you,” is another phrase I hear. That doesn’t make me feel better. It is the modern equivalent of saying “some of my best friends are black”. When people talk about the need to control immigration they are, I imagine, thinking about the homeless, toothless Romanian guy begging on the street. Whereas I am - presumably - ok because I am white, employed, and can speak English well.

But where does the line between me and the Romanian guy go? At what point would I stop being acceptable? If I lost my job? If I became ill? If my accent was thicker? Just how many grammatical mistakes would it take to put me over the line? Because there is a line, now. We need to talk about the line.

The whole discussion of immigration policy post-Brexit has been profoundly dehumanising. I’ve heard the argument made over and over again that white working class communities have a right to feel angry, to feel like they want to “take back control”.  I’m not dismissing their feelings. But this is what it feels like to be on the other side of that rhetoric.

Take the idea, for example, that Britain would still want to allow the “brightest and the best” immigrants in. Great. But who decides the criteria for brightest and best? It is still reducing people down to the job they do or their IQ.  And now, thanks to the snap election, I get to hear these discussions nearly every day on some TV debate or radio phone in show. Just how many should be allowed to stay and who should go, like we were so many sheep that were being separated out for the slaughterhouse.

There is already a sense, among immigrants in the UK, that we must somehow justify our existence here. When EU citizens call into radio shows or write into newspapers, notice how they are at pains to tell you about their contribution to Britain. “I have paid taxes all my life and never claimed a penny in benefits” “I employ 25 people” “I give blood” “I volunteer with Macmillan.” Look at how - right at the beginning of this piece -  I told you about my involvement with the PTA. British people don't have to go around reciting the list of their merits before they are allowed to speak.

It is ironic to be applying for British citizenship at a time I feel less connected to this country than ever before. I sat in a local council office, a few months ago, and laid out my whole life - from my marriage certificate to my university degree and pay slips - in front of the official checking my naturalisation application. When she left to go photocopy everything -  and this took some time as there was a good kilo or more of paper there - I was left in the room staring at a large portrait of the queen and the British flag. The flag was a very muscular thing, the kind that is stitched together in thick canvas, not the flag of garden parties and bunting, but a flag for the battlefield. It made me think about Britain’s blood-soaked history, slavery, colonial conquest, war, which isn’t taught in schools very well. It is all very well to be a patriot, but that comes with a heavy responsibility, too, and a death toll. It isn't something I take on lightly.

I always imagined, if I applied for citizenship, that I would do so in a wave of good feeling for the country, but instead, this feels like a marriage of convenience. That is the worst thing about the immigration discussion. It is making me dislike the country that I once loved so much that I left my own roots behind to integrate myself here.

And yes, I know that not everyone dislikes foreigners here. But what hurts more than blatant xenophobia is the silence of friends.

Why bother going for citizenship?  Pray that you are never forced to investigate the intricacies of immigration law, which is always much more complex than you'd expect. Yes, EU citizens who have lived here for five years can apply for permanent residence, but only if they fit certain criteria. If you have been a student or not working for any of that time - say if you took a few years out to stay home with children - you need to have had comprehensive sickness insurance covering that time, otherwise you do not qualify for permanent residence. Few people knew about this. It was brought in quietly in 2006 and few of those already in the country would have been alerted to the change. Insurance companies themselves don’t really know what “comprehensive sickness insurance” means. It is catching a huge number of stay-at-home mothers and carers who now find themselves ineligible. I know of one mother who is a full-time carer to her two disabled children - British children - who has no hope of getting permanent residence under the current system.

“If I have to leave the country, who is going to look after them?” she asks.

Human rights law might, of course, prevent families from being split up in this cruel way. But Britain is keen to ditch the European Convention on Human Rights, too, so who knows?

Permanent residence isn’t really worth much as a guarantee anyway. If you lose it if you leave the country for more than two years - for example if your company posted you abroad, or you went back to your home country to nurse a sick parent. Then you start again from zero, as if you had never lived in the UK at all.

The blind faith that “oh, you are married to a Brit so you will be fine” also doesn’t hold. The rules are already pretty unsympathetic if a Brit is married to someone from outside the EU. The UK only allows foreign spouses into the country if their British partner earns more than £18,600. We may move to something similar for EU spouses after Brexit. My husband earns enough to be above this level, but I'm not complacent.  What if he became ill and unable to work? What if he had to take early retirement? It is a rule that pretty unashamedly makes a divide between rich and poor, again reducing people to the sum of their bank balance.

Once I looked into it I realised that nothing would really give me security in the UK except citizenship.

It is not that I am expecting mass deportations of EU citizens, just that ordinary life will slowly, drip by drip, be made harder. Already institutions such as schools and hospitals are asking questions about people with foreign-sounding names. My daughter’s question about whether I plan to change my name is not a ridiculous one.

Most EU citizens I know here are angry or depressed. I belong to a few forums for the 3m EU citizens in the country - these have been useful for getting advice on the complex citizenship forms for example. But what I increasingly see there is a sense of despair. You could roughly divide the 3m into two camps. There is the “Ciao, adios I’m gone” brigade who are already planning to leave with two fingers up. “If I’m not wanted here I’ll go somewhere where I am appreciated,” is the attitude. These people are generally young and highly skilled and can move easily.

Then there are those who are too deeply embedded, who have children and spouses here, who can’t uproot themselves as easily. For them the past year has been one of complex feelings, a bit like realising you are in an unhappy relationship. Do you stay for the sake of the children? Can you afford to leave? Is the love you once felt something that can be rekindled or is it gone forever?

Sunday, 19 February 2017

February half term - when the highlight is a dead woodlouse

About as thrilling as it gets over February half term
February half term is the holiday that really tests your mettle as a parent. Unless you have enough money to go skiing, or to fly everyone far enough away to find some genuine sunshine, there is absolutely nothing interesting that you can do as a family in the UK. Everywhere is just too cold. Anything that is really good - like, say the Moomin exhibition at the South Bank, has been fully booked up by more organised parents about eight months ago. Anything reasonably exciting, such as Madame Tussaud’s or the Eden Project or Legoland or even the local soft play centre, will be hideously crowded.

Neither my husband nor I can cope very well with parenting in crowds, so we tend to go in search of what we call “low-octane fun” - slightly tedious attractions just interesting enough to pass for a “day out” but not so popular that we would struggle to find a space in the car park. This is why the British invented the National Trust.

The National Trust - for those who may not know - is a charity that since 1895 has been restoring and maintaining old houses, stretches of coastline and gardens, turning them into places for the general public to visit for a modest fee.

Actually, I think the main reason they invented the National Trust was to give old middle class people something to do after they retire. They are all there, either as volunteers, or eating overpriced Eccles cakes in the cafe. But a happy side benefit is that it also gives parents with young school age children somewhere to take their offspring on a bitterly cold February half term.

I may, however, be suffering National Trust fatigue. The first couple of visits are magical. You walk around some stately home, in your own Downton Abbey fantasy, cooing over the ornate drawing room, laughing at the old fashioned bathrooms and wondering at the system of bells and pulleys that once summoned the servants in the downstairs servants hall. All this history. All these knowledgeable volunteers ready to tell you the history of this tapestry or that marble-inlaid table-top.

Then after a while, they all start to look the same. I have seen so many old houses now in the UK, the whole country feels like a museum at times. You can have too many mullioned windows, too many gardens designed by Capability Brown.

Every National Trust site will feature some of the same things. If it is an outdoorsy place, there will be a “mini beast” quest for the children. A “mini beast” is what in my childhood used to be called a “bug” but which has now been rebranded by the British school system for reasons I can’t quite understand. The “quest” will involve a couple of earnest volunteers encouraging your children to look under a log to see if they can find a woodlouse.

Once, at a National Trust gardens in Suffolk, both the children and the elderly volunteers were becoming  so distressed by the failure to find any mini beasts, that I resorted to secretly placing a dead beetle I had spotted earlier under a rock for them to discover.

Me: “Amazing! Kids, look at what you have found!”
Younger daughter: “Why is it not moving mummy?”
Me: “It’s sleeping. Please can we go have a cup of tea now?”
Younger daughter: “Wakey wakey beetle. Mummy, it's not waking up.”
Husband: “Honestly. A worm and a dead beetle. The kids see more bugs on an average day digging in our own garden.”
Me: “Shhh. You’re going to hurt those two volunteer ladies’ feelings. Maybe these things are designed for city children who don’t have gardens.”

If it is in a stately home, there will be a box of slightly musty, old-fashioned outfits for the children to dress up in. Nice idea, but by the time you get to the end of half term these are pretty well shredded and the headgear screams out “nit hazard”.  

Then there is a treasure hunt, where the children are given a series of things to find as they walk around the house. Great idea to stop them from getting bored. My eight-year-old ultra competitive son takes them very seriously. Meanwhile, the pre-teen daughter is outgrowing all of this and keeps telling us how dull it all is.

This is how our average stately home visit goes:

Me, brightly: “Look at this huge copper pot kids, have you seen one this size before?”
Pre-teen daughter: “Boring. Who wants to look at a big pot?”
Me, reading the information plaque: “Look it’s from 1775! It says here they used it for-
Pre-teen: “Read it already. Boring.”
Me, to younger daughter: “Don’t climb in the pot sweetie. Remember what I said, looking, not touching.”
Son, consulting treasure hunt sheet: “I need to find a diamond pattern. It says you have to find a diamond pattern in this room.”
Me to younger daughter: “Come out of the pot right now. I told you not to go in it.”
Pre-teen: “Can we go now?”
Son: “I need to find the diamond pattern so I can tick this room off.”
Me to younger daughter: “Please don’t touch any more things. Come on, hold mummy’s hand while we go to the next room.”
Son: “I’m not going. I need to find the DIAMOND pattern and tick it off!”
Pre-teen: “How much longer are we going to be here?”
Husband, grimly upbeat: “I think the next room is the housekeeper’s study. Shall we go see what’s in there?”
Son: “Where is the diamond pattern? I need to tick this room off!”
Younger daughter: “I need a wee-wee.”
Me: “But you’ve just been for one.”
Younger daughter: “Might be a poo.”
Me to husband: “I’m not taking her again. It’s your turn. I’ll help him hunt that diamond thing.”

And so on, until taking refuge in the cafe and paying £3.50 each for a slightly dry slice of cake starts to feel quite attractive and reasonable.

I have the greatest respect and affection for the National Trust. But sometimes I read the Tripadvisor reviews of these places and feel like weeping.

“A great day out with the kids. We got a friendly welcome at the ticket desk and enjoyed a hot cup of tea in the cafe. The toilets were clean.”

Essentially:  you were not snarled at when you paid £60 for the family ticket. You were served a hot beverage. And the toilet floor was not covered in excrement. This constitutes a “great day out”. I recognise that poverty of expectation so well. And that is what makes me want to weep.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

What to watch for in the Nativity

The year four class are acting out a skit about the parts of the digestive system and my son has been chosen to be the anus. He told me this very proudly. It is a key role, he says.

My first reaction was to laugh so hard that I snorted tea all the way up into my left eye socket. The second was to ask, tentatively, if he was going to need a costume. The mind boggles. My husband suggested - actually, I am not going to go into what he suggested but lets just say it involved a flesh-coloured draw string hoodie and brown face paint...

It is probably not so much stranger than the show I remember being in in year three, which was about teeth. I was a lactobacillus acidofilus, aka a "tooth bug", which involved dressing all in black with a set of cardboard antennae on my head. Dentist friends have subsequently told me that this may not be an entirely accurate representation of dental bacteria, but I can't stop imagining them as giant, charred grasshoppers.

I love primary school plays and now is the peak season for them as the infant nativity approaches. The nativity is, of course, a complete pain in many ways, staged as it is at two o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, requiring you to enter tense negotiations with your employer about time off, and performed in an over-crowded, over-heated hall with a tinny sound system that can barely be heard above the bawling babies in the audience. But it is always worth going, for many reasons.

It is always interesting to see how the school pads out the play to give all the children a part. The nativity, strictly speaking, has only about 15 roles - Mary, Joseph, three wise men, a couple of shepherds, handful of sheep, an inn-keeper or two and the angel Gabriel. The infant school has, however, at least 90 children to involve, so the inn-keepers all have wives, children and mothers-in-law, there are legions of soldiers, herds of camels, a heavenly host of angels, and any number of animals that didn't originally feature in the Christmas story, including chickens, pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits and mice. Last year they made all of the reception class play snowflakes, creating a blizzard over Bethlehem.

Discovering exactly what role your child has is trickier than you might think. My friend's daughter was so disgusted by the mass casting as a snowflake that she simply told her mother she was an angel. An angel costume was bought and assembled, and all was going pretty well with this plan until the dress rehearsal, after which panic ensued.

The other fun thing is to watch Mary and Joseph. Joseph doesn't want to be there. It is a boring role, with no lines to say, and involves him sitting on stage next to a girl, effectively playing dollies in front of everyone. It is a grim prospect for a six-year-old boy. Mary, on the other hand, looks smug. She's got the role every girl in the class wanted and now she gets to sit in front of everyone in a blue dress and tea-towel, playing families with Joseph. She'll soon discover it is a boring role with no lines and her just left holding the baby. There is a parable there about motherhood if you want to fish it out...

Then there are the kids struck almost catatonic by the stage lights and the audience. They sing the songs about how excited they are about the birth of Jesus without a single change of expression. In contrast, there is always that one kid who thinks he is in the West End, and hoofs it way too much. He's always fun to watch - and could possibly take out a sheep or two with flailing arms.

Watch carefully as the Angel Gabriel lobs the baby Jesus to Mary like a football - extra points if Mary fails to catch him and Jesus ends up bouncing off the ground on his way to the manger.

One narrator will be completely inaudible. Another will sound as if she is addressing Parliament. The chickens will wriggle, the donkeys will plod and the reception year snowflakes will wander around the stage with realistic randomness during their musical number. At least one of those children on stage will have wet themselves.

And then they will sing Little Donkey and I will cry. Those traditional Christmas songs are like pepper spray - they floor me entirely. This is the truly magical moment about Christmas. I am not into the religious side of it at all, but there is something about this collective exercise, this group of adults perched on tiny, bum-numbing plastic seats, smiling benevolently at each other's children, from the chicken picking its nose to the angel who has tucked her heavenly raiment into her knickers, willing the stuttering Gabriel to get to the end of the sentence. The goodwill in that room is so palpable that even a hard-hearted old Christmas cynic like me can feel it. It gets me every time.