Fifty years of ‘Unbelonging’: a personal testimony on the road to Brexit
It was bound to happen sooner or later. I knew it from the moment I picked up the paper that July afternoon and saw the headline across the front cover. Revealed, it said. The shocking scale of racist hate since the Brexit vote. Henceforth I could sense it in the air, a hint of atmospheric turbulence, the portentous sound of slow-beating wings approaching closer and closer. When the dark angel finally alighted before me, I was on the way to the local supermarket. It was a grey-skied day, warm and shrouded in a cloak of humidity. Out of nowhere a guy came up to me and asked me if I could spare a cigarette. He was about six foot two. Skeletally thin. Bags of wrinkles bulging like seedless testicles under his eyes. An almost tangible undertow of decrepitude clinging to his faded, unironed clothes. When I shook my head and replied that I didn’t smoke, his bead-like eyes contracted even further and his weather-beaten face morphed into a malevolent, upthrust snout. ‘’Ere, you’re not from round ‘ere, are you?’ he asked challengingly, all meekness having suddenly evaporated from his tone, his voice reeking of flinty, hard-edged Northernness.
Stupidly, caught off guard as I was, I shook my head.
‘Then why don’t you fuck off back to where you come from?’ the man with the threadbare clothes angrily shouted, his lips pulled back as if he were about to hack up a gob of spit, his dark purple tongue visible like a cancerous polyp inside his gap-toothed mouth.
I should have told him that I’m a British citizen. That my partner is English and I have lived in the country for fifteen out of the last twenty-one years. That I own a Jack Russell and have a PhD in English Literature. That I drive a car with a Gibraltar flag entwined with a Union Jack sticker on the rear window. That I love Stanley Spencer and coarse-cut marmalade. That I support Liverpool FC and have, in the past, donated blood to the NHS. That my father was born in London and I used to work for several years as a civil servant for the Employment Service. That even people who don’t like migrants, on hearing that I come from the Rock, usually turn around and, with the sweetest, most generous expression on their face, looking mightily pleased with their own benevolence, say, but you’re all right, aren’t you, you’re from Gibraltar.
But no, none of this came to my lips. Instead I thrust my hands into my pockets and, looking down, head tilted slightly forward, conscious that I was being stared at now from both sides of the street, like a man who doesn’t want to tarry at a crime scene for fear he might be considered a suspect, quickly scurried away from the tramp and his vituperative words.
‘Go on, fuck off!’ my antagonist repeated in an even more furious voice, working up some saliva in his mouth and then spitting it out, emboldened, no doubt, by the fact that not a single passer-by had intervened. ‘Get the fuck out of my country!’
I nodded subconsciously and continued walking in a somnolent daze. Behind me the man kept hurling saliva-drenched obscenities, but they now sounded lukewarm and half-hearted, distinctly unenthusiastic, and after a while he quietened down and went back to the far more pressing business of trying to cadge a cigarette off somebody else. Relieved, I sighed softly and gradually slowed down. Then I whipped out my mobile phone and called my partner.
‘Was it just a pint of milk you wanted?’ I asked her. ‘Or did you also want me to buy a loaf of bread? I’ve completely forgotten.’
Before I continue, let me tell you something about myself. I’m a male Caucasian, aged 47, 5' 8" and about 170 pounds, with thinning grey hair and grey-green eyes. I don’t look like a photophobic ginger-haired Scandinavian albino, it is true, but neither do I look like a gnarled and tousle-haired Mediterranean fisherman. The relative paleness of my complexion can be explained by the fact that, even though my surname is Sanchez and I come from Gibraltar, I have English ancestry on both the maternal (the Whitelocks) and the paternal side (the Browns). People in the UK occasionally think that I’m Polish – possibly because of my jawline (which is broader and slightly more angular than most Englishmen’s) and my nose (which is bulbous at the apex, but unusually flat along the bridge, a direct consequence of having been beaten up in a Scandinavian island some twenty-five years ago) – but the truth is that most of the time nobody would even notice that I am not a born and bred Englishman. Actually, the only time when it becomes apparent is when I open my mouth and the slightly hesitant, syncopated, mildly fricative tones of my Gibraltarian accent can be heard floating in the air.
It was nothing new to me, of course – the bitter, hate-filled tirade that I experienced that day on the way to Morrisons supermarket. When I grew up in the Gibraltar of the 1970s and 1980s, I was frequently at the receiving end of similar verbal attacks. In those days, you see, the dockyard was still open and countless Royal Navy frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers would sail into port. With the ships came thousands of British sailors, many of whom would get shit-faced in our bars and wouldn’t think twice about insulting you right in your face. Spics, dagos, Gibbos, wops: these are some of the colourful terms they used to routinely employ against us locals. It was part of the language of the time, an accepted and very much condoned form of discourse. In a book of essays that I published several years ago, I briefly mention one of these edgy, hostile episodes:
- It was November, 1984 and I was having a drink with two friends at a local bar. We had just taken part in the Gibraltar International Half Marathon, that most inaptly named of athletic competitions, and we were celebrating the achievement by having a shandy at a small wine bar down on Cornwall’s Parade. Like most Gibraltarian watering holes on a Sunday evening, the place was relatively empty – with only ourselves, an old Moroccan and a bored English barmaid on the premises. While we discussed mid-race tactics and pollution fumes in Dudley Ward tunnel, a group of about fifteen British squaddies staggered through the door. Loud voices, sunburned faces, shirts dripping in alcohol-saturated sweat. Being the most pragmatic among the three of us, I suggested we get up and go somewhere else, but M. and F., being slightly older and therefore, in the language of Gibraltarian street slang, más pasota, said that they had no intention of going anywhere just because of a few drunk ‘guiris.’ Some moments passed. From the other side of the bar, the sound of drunken laughter mingled with talk about ‘cocks’ and ‘cunts’ and ‘fucking twats’, all but killing off the rhythm of our previous conversation. Then, quite suddenly: ‘ ’Ere. Anif yer lot want ter buy us ah lager n’ lime, then?’ Looking up, we saw a corpulent man wearing a Leeds United shirt, about six foot two and with a suspiciously flushed face, his tattooed knuckles protruding around a pint glass containing some fluorescent green liquid. ‘Excuse me?’ one of my eighteen-year-old friends whispered. ‘Do you mind repeating that?’ ‘Ah says yer wanna bui’off meh ah lager ’n’ lime?’ the drunken six-footer once more said, a hint of irritation already thickening his voice. Again, the same blank looks of incomprehension on our part. Again, the same shrugs and nervous glances into our half-pint glasses. Meanwhile, the crew-cutted Englishman shakes his head and lets a little air escape through his lips. He looks vexed, irritated, profoundly irked. Finally, he turns back to his friends and, with an expression of the utmost contempt on his freckled face, says three words which I had never heard together before, but which, from the sneering tone he employed and the laughter that greeted them from the other side of the bar, I will probably remember for as long as I live: ‘Bloody fucking spicks.’
Shocking, you might think. Pretty disgusting. But what most astonishes me about this episode all these years later is that I didn’t even feel the need to tell anyone about it. I simply accepted the situation, assimilated it without any complaints. That’s what it was like back in those days in Gibraltar, I’m afraid. We clung to Britain because she defended us in a hostile world and were frequently forced to turn a blind eye to the faults of our protectors. In any case, who could we have complained to? The military police cruising around in their white provost vans? The Naval authorities down at HMS Rooke? The stern, white-helmeted guard by the dockyard gates? I can almost imagine the kind of semi-literate brush-off that would have been waiting for us had we dared:
Come on, son. Them lads don’t mean nobody no harm. It’s just a bit of banter, innit? Got to realise some of these boys have been cooped up aboard ship for many months. Messes with your head, all that does, gets you proper hyper and wired, real desperate, like, to neck a few bevvies and have a laugh. Best just to forget about the episode, matey, and carry on doing what you’re doing. No harm done, if you know what I’m saying, eh?
The episode mentioned above took place in 1984. To uncover my first brush with racism, however, we have to go back even further, to the end of the 1970s. My mother used to work as a teacher back in those days and at some point she was offered the opportunity to do a ten-month training course in the UK. We duly packed our bags a few weeks later and moved to High Melton near Doncaster, where her college was based. My school was in the nearby village of Sprotborough, a couple of miles away from High Melton. The area had little experience of immigration, and as the only foreigner in the entire school I was an easy target for bullies. There was one boy in particular who didn’t leave me alone. His name was James W-----. Thin, gangly kid with undersized eyes. Wispy eyebrows forming an unbroken line over his nose. A real bundle of continually wriggling nervous energy. He sat next to me in class and he was always trying to provoke me – punching me in the arm, kicking me under the table, pulling my ears as I was bent over my desk writing in my exercise book, spitting into my face as I walked past him in the corridor leading to the toilet. He had two nicknames for me: ‘Darkie’ and ‘Monkey Boy.’ Once he was waving a pencil in my face and I tried to push his hand away. The tip of the pencil broke off and became embedded in the webbed flap of skin between my right forefinger and middle finger. Mr B------, our swarthy, long-haired teacher who used to remind me of an Indian swami whenever he sat cross-legged with his recorder in the music room, quickly rushed to my side and carefully pulled out the tip wedged into my hand. I still bear a small scar where the graphite penetrated through the different dermal layers, a discoloured welt of unusually pallid skin, itself surmounted by the faintest of grey dots, which for a long time made me think that part of the pencil had actually remained stuck inside.
For sheer trauma, though, nothing beat the school’s Assembly Hall. This was a high-ceilinged, whitewashed chamber with parquet floorboards and a long floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the undulating, cold-hardened turf of the school playground. Attached to its side walls were a series of foldable timber climbing frames which, when pulled out and fully extended into position, always made me think of the spars and rigging of an old tea clipper. Into this barren, sterile-smelling hall the whole school would troop every Wednesday to take part in the weekly singing assembly. Lined up in rows, seated cross-legged on the floor, virtually knocking knees with each other, we’d sit there stiffly for forty-five to fifty minutes, then scramble up to our feet and disperse to our respective classrooms. The person who usually led these singing sessions was Mrs P----, a tall, buxom Yorkshirewoman with crimson-painted fingernails who, judging from her ruddy cheeks and swollen, large-limbed figure, was probably heavily pregnant. She’d sit there at the front of the hall before an old spinet piano, exhorting the kids, tapping the square toes of her high-heeled shoes against the pedals, occasionally throwing a flirty glance in the direction of the mullet-haired school caretaker, her plump nylon-sheathed calves rising and falling like a pair of cylindrical pistons.
We sailed on the sloop John B, My Grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night, got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up I want to go home.
But I couldn’t sing. I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know whether it was because I was shy or because I was self-conscious about my foreign accent or because I was so fed up of being bullied that I simply couldn’t dislodge the words from my mouth. I can’t really say. All I know is that I tried and tried – but only a muffled croak came to my lips, a husky whisper that contrasted with the animated, high-pitched cries of my English schoolmates and – alas! – was always noticed by our piano teacher:
‘Come on, Master Sanchez from the Rock of Gibraltar. Sing, will you? Or I will have to ask you to come and keep me company right here by the piano!’
And that’s where I inevitably find myself in due course, there, in front of the whole school, face flushed and nails digging into my palms, heart quivering and threatening to crawl up my gullet, feeling mortified, feeling confused, hating that woman with the fringed black hair and the shiny red fingernails, hating the kids who are staring at me and gloating, hating the caretaker, the headmaster, the other teachers, everyone who is allowing her to pick on me in this disgraceful fashion, the dirty rotters, the worthless scoundrels – parading me in front of everybody as if I were a circus freak.
For a long time I suffered in silence. My mother was busy studying for her course and my father, bless the guy, was searching for a job at a time when there was little employment in the UK – so I figured that they both had enough on their plate and I didn’t want to bother them unnecessarily. Therefore, I internalised everything, never spoke a word to anyone about the situation. To turn my thoughts away from my predicament, I started going to the small children’s section in the High Melton college library and borrowing books by Geoffrey Treece and Roger Lancelyn Green. Or I went for jogs around the grassy, gently sloping perimeter of the college grounds. Or I dreamed about buying a tent and going camping one day in the Yorkshire Dales. I did everything, in other words, that was humanely possible to forget about W----- and Mrs P---- and those insufferable Wednesday morning assemblies – trying to block out the thought that on Monday morning, at exactly quarter past eight, come rain, fog or shine, I’d once again be standing by the High Melton bus stop, waiting for the school bus that would take me all the way to Sprotborough and my dreaded antagonists.
And yet the worst example of racism I ever suffered did not happen in Gibraltar or even in mainland Britain, but about 4000 kilometres away from the Rock, on the Baltic island of Åland. I had gone there to take part in the 1991 Island Games, a sort of mini Olympics for islands and small territories. I was twenty-two years old at the time, a quiet, dreamy, wavy-haired youth who had abandoned a History degree course at the University of Manchester a year earlier due to homesickness. One evening, as my running friends and I were relaxing inside the large marquee that had been set up near the beach for the game’s competitors, we were approached by a group of drunken thirty-somethings from the Isle of Wight. None of us knew it at the time, but the new arrivals were members of the Isle of Wight judo team and that same morning they had been involved in some kind of spat with the Gibraltar judo delegation over competition rules. Spotting the word ‘Gibraltar’ embroidered on our red and white tracksuits, they moved to an adjacent table and began to heckle us, calling us ‘filthy dagos’ and ‘fucking spicks’ and other uninspired terms of abuse. There were three of them: two short, muscular, thick-necked bald-headed guys, and a tall, lanky individual with a bristly, grey-flecked moustache who reminded me of the character Boycie from Only Fools and Horses. At twenty-two, I was the oldest in our little group so it fell upon me to ask them to please leave us alone. Come on, fellas, I quietly pleaded with one of the men, these are supposed to be the friendly games like it says on the official games T-shirt, know what I mean? Next thing I knew the muscly bloke headbutted me and flung me to the ground with a perfectly executed judo throw. Women’s screams, crunching glass, overturned stools and tables, the patternless echo of scurrying feet. Trapped in a choke hold, I lay collapsed on the floor with my assailant standing over me and repeatedly punching me on the side of the head. I could feel the blood pouring into my eyes, accumulating in my mouth, clogging my nostrils. Who I was, where I was, where I came from, what I was supposed to be doing later that evening – all of the certainties that had been underpropping me a few seconds earlier had suddenly been ripped out and replaced instead by a spinning mass of energy, a white-hot blur of panic, more akin to a chemical reaction than a state of mind, my sense of consciousness having somehow been dragged out of its usual orbit. And then, quite abruptly, the punches stop and I find myself alone on the floor. I can almost see myself from an outsider’s perspective, collapsed in a marionette-like heap, breathing through a mouth full of warm blood, pinpricks of light continually exploding in front of my dazed eyes.
And then, an instant or two later, everything fractures again and I find myself in hospital. Bright lights. Medicinal smells. A masked doctor standing half-crouched over me. Anthropomorphic patches of dirt etched on the polystyrene ceiling tiles. Though I can’t see his face, I sense that the doctor treating me is young and a touch hippyish. In a jokey, high-pitched voice he tells me that my scars won’t be too noticeable and that I will still be attractive to girls. From the corner of my eye I can see a stitching needle being pushed into the flap of skin under my eyebrow and then coming out after a couple of seconds, a splinter of metal quivering under the light of the ceiling fluorescents, slowly but inexorably enclosing my eyebrow in an ever-tightening cocoon of black thread.
Later, in an interview room down at Mariehamn police station, I learn that two of my other companions had also been attacked, although none of their injuries, apparently, have been serious. My interviewer is a very attractive brunette woman with a pistol holster strapped to her waist. Pink enamelled nails. Anaemically pale features. Touches here and there of rosacea. Halfway through the interview she brings out a Polaroid camera and takes a close-up picture of my head. She then places the film face-up on the table, waiting for the image to develop. In ten or fifteen seconds a representation of my face starts rupturing through the chemically treated paper, slowly acquiring form and colour. When it is finally developed, I see that my eyes are reduced to a pair of barely open slits and that the upper half of my face is enfolded in a band of fig-coloured bruising, almost as if I were wearing a Zorro mask.
‘Do I really look as bad as that?’ I ask the impassive Scandinavian policewoman.
Instead of answering me, she picks up the photo, places it in a document folder and then asks me if I am willing to identify those who had attacked me. I nod my head and say ‘yes.’
And then I am in a police van heading down to the same beachside park where I got assaulted earlier. I am convinced that coming to the park has got to be a waste of time, as I’m pretty sure that our attackers must have fled by this stage of the night. But when we get there we find them less than fifty yards from the marquee. This time they are in a group with seven or eight other Isle of Wight athletes. I spot the guy who attacked me, cradling a pint glass to his chest. When he sees me, he turns to his mates and says something to them under his breath that makes them all laugh. It only lasts a fraction of a second, this collective outburst of laughter, but its brazenness fills me with so much anger that I suddenly start shaking all over. Flanked by two local policemen, I take a couple of steps forward and stop next to my aggressor. ‘It’s him,’ I say, almost jabbing him in the face with an accusatory finger. ‘And these are the other two who were with him.’
The three British judokas were arrested shortly afterwards and taken into custody. During the next two or three days I traipsed around the island in an apathetic, semi-disorientated state, no longer able to focus on my running events, never looking at people in the eyes, a baseball cap continually pulled low over my brow. Men stared at me with undisguised hostility in the streets. Kids pointed me out to their mothers. Girls raised their hands to their mouths and whispered muffled words to each other. Warming up for the 4x400m relay, I could feel the spectators’ eyes trained on me, scrutinising every inch of my features as I jogged up and down the track’s home straight. Despite the fact that we had been warned not to mention the incident to anybody back home, news of the assault somehow leaked to the Gibraltarian press and an article duly appeared in the Gibraltar Chronicle a day or two later, describing how myself and another local athlete were ‘recovering from facial injuries caused by an unprovoked attack.’ The article was seen by my mother, who had no inkling as to what had happened and who almost fainted with worry on reading the news. When I finally heard that our assailants had been put on a plane and deported from the island of Åland, I did not feel either relief or vengeful satisfaction; just a curious sense of emptiness, the way you sometimes feel when you wake up halfway through a bad dream and find yourself staring at the reassuringly familiar things around you, neither asleep nor yet fully conscious, in a state of shrunken-eyed torpidity. Thinking about it now, I should have insisted to the police that my attacker be taken to court and prosecuted for his actions, but I was only twenty-two-years old and rather naïve and all I wanted to do was go home and forget about the whole unpleasant episode. Apart from this, there’s very little else to say about the incident. At some point over the next few days a short piece about the attack appeared in one of the English tabloids under the title ‘Yobs thrown out of island in disgrace’ – or something to that effect. Also, as I passed through Gatwick airport with the rest of the Gibraltar contingent on the way back to the Rock, a British Customs officer turned to one of his colleagues by the entrance to the green channel and, nodding in my direction, without removing his hands from his pockets, very casually said, ‘Look, there’s that guy who got roughed up in that tournament in that Scandinavian island in the middle of nowhere. Must have done something bad to deserve a beating like that, don’t you think?’
For a few years after my ‘Åland experience’ I flitted between different jobs and girlfriends, finding it difficult to settle into a routine. Sometimes I’d saunter up and down Gibraltar’s Main Street; other times I’d walk to the top of the Rock and sit on a craggy ledge somewhere, smoking endless packets of Marlboro cigarettes; most of the time, though, I simply stayed in my room, bored out of my head, too dispirited to rouse myself from my state of apathy. When I at last emerged from that semi-depression, I decided to return to the UK and resume my studies. I knew that this wouldn’t be an easy option, but I was desperate to turn things around and overcome my own personal demons. There were, nonetheless, one or two individuals who tried to convince me not to press ahead with my plan. At the construction site where I worked, for example, there was an electrician who seemed hell-bent on making me change my mind. ‘Don’t go,’ he used to say, very earnestly stopping whatever he was doing and looking down at me from the top of his foldable aluminium ladder, power drill held like an oversized Luger in an exceptionally chunky and hirsute hand. ‘It’s very cold in the UK and the English son to uno malaje and none of the women will have anything to do with you ’cos they don’t like foreigners there.’
But I still went. And to my surprise, things weren’t as bad as the guy with the power drill had intimated. The University of Leeds, where I got a place to study English Literature and Language, was a fairly neutral and aseptic place and, though I have to admit that sometimes I felt a little lost wandering through its endless fluorescent-lit corridors, I never experienced any of the prejudice or xenophobia which, having been brought up in a colony like Gibraltar, I somehow associated with the English mindset. On the contrary, I met many wonderful English people and made all sorts of friends. Even away from the university environment, things were refreshingly low-key and relaxed. In the gap between my third and fourth year, for instance, I was a bit low on cash so I applied for a part-time job working for the Employment Service. My interviewer was a guy from Huddersfield. Loosely knotted tie. Haggard, slightly harassed expression. Crud lines visible under overgrown fingernails. At the end of the interview he told me that ten other people – all English – had already applied for the job, but only two of us – myself and a local girl from Horsforth – had interviewed well. ‘Anyway,’ he said, picking up the folder on his desk and rapidly closing it. ‘My gut instinct tells me you are the right person for the job, so if you want it, it’s yours.’
I spent four and a half years at that government office in Leeds. On the ground floor, where my section was based, most people knew that I was from Gibraltar, but on the other three floors I somehow came to be known as ‘Maltese Mark.’ I think this was because Gibraltar wasn’t much in the news in those days and also, I suppose, because it is easier to remember an alliterated word pattern than a vaguely assonantal one. Anyway, I didn’t really mind. ‘Maltese Mark’ suited me fine and to a certain degree I found the nickname quite endearing.
My time at 33 Park Place served to change my thinking on a number of levels. During the years of my colonial youth most of the English people I had come in contact with were soldiers and sailors – nearly all of whom were aloof and high-handed when sober, and aggressively, shockingly insulting when drunk. Rightly or wrongly, this had implanted the belief in my head that the English were an arrogant and mean-spirited lot, a belligerent, inward-looking people who took pleasure in distancing themselves from the rest of the world. But in those offices in Leeds I came to realise that the cross-section of Englishmen I had met in Gibraltar was by no means representative of the other Brits back home. Yes, there was a lot of ‘gradism’ within our offices and I once overheard someone on the third floor describe me as ‘that asylum seeker sitting on reception’ – but none of this took away from the fact that, on a day-to-day basis, I was treated kindly and respectfully, with scrupulous fairness. What I learned – or rather intuited – from those Leeds years is that there has always been, and always will be, two Englands. On the one hand there is the ‘Greater England’ of William Wilberforce and Dr Barnardo, of Josephine Butler and the Earl of Shaftesbury, of Jo Cox and Jeremy Bentham, of George Orwell and the Fifteenth International Brigade, a progressive, reformist, noble, compassionate, open-minded England, an England which spends more on foreign aid than any other country with the exception of the United States, which repeatedly extends a hand to those in need. On the other hand there is the ‘Little England’ of Charles Trevelyan and the British Union of Fascists, of Reginald Dyer and the transatlantic Slavers, of Enoch Powell and the Northern Mill owners, of Britain First and the English Defence League, a retrogressive, insular, profit-driven, fiercely self-righteous England, always looking at foreigners with suspicion, aggressively convinced of its own superiority. These two Englands have for centuries now been engaged in a vast colossal struggle, tussling through time and space like two perpetually wrestling titans, bringing out both what is best and what is worst in the country. Look at the gangly, charmingly dishevelled guy from Huddersfield, for instance, who offered me the job that day in March, 2000. He could easily have chosen one of the other ten English candidates, and yet he chose me, an outsider from Gibraltar with no previous employment history in the UK, before his fellow countrymen. Not being funny or anything – but in how many other countries would they favour an outsider over one of their own for a civil service post?
Of course, there were still racist incidents during those years. There was the guy I’ve already mentioned who described me as an asylum seeker. Or the postman who refused to accept my Gibraltar driving license as proof of identity when I went to the local depot to collect a registered parcel. Or the time I was having a row with my English girlfriend on a bus and some random guy in front of us all of a sudden turned around and, quite brazenly, winking at her in the manner of someone uncorking a droll witticism, said, ‘Don’t worry, luv. I can’t understand him either with that fucking stupid accent of his.’ Or the plumber who came to my house to fix my boiler one day and, with a smirk on his face and an unmistakable gleam of hostility in his eye, asked me why I was here. Or the crew-cut yob in a curry-house in Keswick who, leaving his friends to come to my table, asked me if I considered myself a white person.
It is 2 September, 2016. I’m back in Gibraltar on holiday. I have come to see my mother and to attend to some personal business. A few days ago, while I was sitting at one of the Main Street cafés, I saw an Englishman walk past with a T-shirt (presumably homemade) bearing the slogan ‘THE EU CAN FUCK OFF.’ He was brawny and shaven-headed, with an array of arrow-shaped Celtic designs wrapped around the length of his right arm and a clunky metal watch resting on his left wrist. Why are so many people in the UK scared of outsiders, I wondered, gazing at him. How can all that institutionalised respect for cultural diversity co-exist with such systemic prejudice and xenophobia? Part of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that Great Britain is an island and many of its citizens are not as used to dealing with foreigners as they are in mainland Europe. Barricaded safely in their natural fortress, tucked away behind the cordon sanitaire of the English Channel, their self-worth massaged by moribund imperial ideas of British pre-eminence, Little Englanders have always found it difficult to engage with their European cousins, preferring instead to sit back and view foreigners with that peculiarly Anglo-Saxon mixture of aloofness, fear and condescension. The situation hasn’t been helped either by the populist British media, who for various years now have been tapping into the population’s latent xenophobia and plying them with regular doses of facile scapegoatism. In the ’80s and ’90’s the Sun led the way with its loathsome repertoire of rabble-rousing one-liners ('Up yours, Delors’, ‘Hop off, you Frogs’, and other similar journalistic marvels). More recently, the diffusion of Europhobic rhetoric has been divided between the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, the first, second and eighth largest British newspapers in terms of circulation. Consider, for instance, the front-page headlines spewed by the Mail in the run-up to the Brexit referendum:
- 13 April 2016: MIGRANTS SMUGGLED TO UK FOR JUST £100
- 19 April 2016: OSBORNE’s 3M MIGRANT BOMBSHELL
- 19 May 2016: MIGRANTS SPARK HOUSING CRISIS
- 20 May 2016: EU BOSS: WE DO MEDDLE TOO MUCH
- 27 May 2016: RECORD NUMBER OF JOBLESS EU MIGRANTS IN BRITAIN
- 12 June 2016: FURY OVER PLOT TO LET 1.5m TURKS INTO BRITAIN
- 15 June 2016: WE’RE FROM EUROPE – LET US IN!
- 21 June 2016: CAMERON’S MIGRANT DECEPTION
Two days after that last headline in the Daily Mail, the population of the UK voted by a narrow majority to leave the European Union. Many of my liberal English friends were in a state of shock, oscillating between feelings of outrage and sombre despair, trying to understand where it all went wrong, unable to comprehend how their fellow countrymen could have willingly and without coercion opted for an isolationist future. As a passionate supporter of the Remain campaign, I shared their frustration and their pain, but not their sense of disbelief. On the contrary, I had been more or less expecting something like this to happen. For close to twenty years, after all, I have been experiencing the divisiveness which gave birth to the Brexit movement. I encountered it in the form of standoffish postures and judgmental expressions, in the resentful looks that followed me whenever I visited a hospital or a library or a post office, in the barely civil treatment that has been meted out to me by a myriad of barmen, waiters and supermarket check-out operators. If you ask me (and I’m only speaking as an outsider, so don’t take anything that I say too seriously), the phenomenon we now call Brexit was there all along, hidden but relentlessly gathering momentum, rapidly percolating through into the mainstream, its separatist agenda rendered palatable by the drolleries of Mr Farage, its anti-European paranoia buttressed – and ultimately legitimised – by the rantings of the right-wing press. Add to all this the rampant social inequality, the long-brewing political resentments, the intense suspicion of foreigners, as well as the cloying, irrational nostalgia for the good old days of Empire – and the startling thing about all this Brexit business is not that the UK voted to leave on 23 June, but that almost half of the electorate – 16,141,242 people – still wanted to remain part of the European Union. To misquote the Duke of Wellington, I never expected it to be such “a damn close-run thing.”
M. G. Sanchez, Gibraltar, 8-9-2016.
About the writer of this piece
M. G. Sanchez is a Gibraltarian novelist, essayist and short-story writer. He has written three novels – The Escape Artist, Solitude House and Jonathan Gallardo – all of which deal with Gibraltarian themes. He lived on the Rock until the age of twenty-seven, when he moved to the UK to study English Literature. He subsequently took BA, MA and PhD degrees at the University of Leeds, completing his studies in 2004 with a thesis exploring perceptions of foreignness in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. Since then he has lived mainly in the UK, but has also done stints in New Zealand (2004), India (2005-2008) and, more recently, Japan (2014-2016). He has often stated that his intention as a writer is to debunk the stereotypes propagated by the media on the subject of Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians. More information on his writing can be found on his website (www.mgsanchez.net) and his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mgsanchezwriter).