I’ve always found coming home difficult. Perhaps it is because for me, home is such an important place. I’ve heard it said that for most of us, it is the one place in the world where we can shape things more or less to our own, unconditional liking. And for us that seems to mean something rather at odds with the norms of the country in which we live. Of course it is well-known that part of the pleasure of going away is the renewed appreciation of home that it brings when you return; perhaps with it can come a resolution to do things a little differently, a little better, inspired by what you saw when you were away… It probably depends on where you’ve been: perhaps sometimes you are just relieved to be back?
But home is a nested concept. At its most intimate, it is the specific building that you inhabit, and in our case we have an extra layer, namely our specific part of the old school house that we share. In another sense, during our recent week in Switzerland, we never left our European home in the first place, something reinforced by the fact that we know that country and a few of its people well enough to consider it home from home.
What gives me the problem is the bit in the middle: the national level. And that is, of course, all the more difficult at the moment given the current state of play in this country.
I think it stems from my thoroughly English up-bringing, at a time between the 1960s and 1980s when European countries were nowhere near as integrated as they have since become, and the sense of superiority that it is now evident has been a part of this nation’s problem was barely identified. It was just an unspoken part of the national narrative.
As I travelled abroad much more often, more widely and for purposes other than conventional holidays, it became clear to me that Britain was not always the enviable place we had always been led to believe. Other places do some things as well, if not better. It is only logical: why should one small island have a monopoly on The Best? It’s nothing other than our own particular national myth – but it seemed so deeply embedded that it was almost invisible. Perhaps that’s the whole point.
Yet as so often, empty vessels make the most noise. I fear that the drum-banging that many in Britain still seem to feel they need to engage in, is a subconscious reaction to the above fact. I wonder how many stop to think – or care – about how this appears from the outside. We spent a week travelling across borders between France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Sometimes it was only cursory – such as the evening we had a meal in a Greek restaurant in Germany – a mere 15 minutes’ drive from our friends’ home. The whole thing was unremarkable in the extreme, now that the Schengen Agreement covers all of those countries.
Why, then, on reaching the Eurostar check-in at Lille Europe station, do things so noticeably change? The first things one sees are large boards detailing all of the things that are prohibited on the train. These were followed by notices instructing visitors from Canada, Australia, The USA, Japan and South Korea that they are “granted” leave to visit for six months (how condescending), but that they are not entitled to work or any access to state funds while they are there. Welcome to Britain! As they are only in English, I wonder how many South Koreans take any notice.
One then passes in front of stony-faced Border Force staff (notice the choice of wording in the name) and endures the ritual humiliation of removing watches, belts, loose change and personal technology while struggling to haul luggage up into the X-ray scanners.
Once through this obstacle course, one is assaulted by repeated loud-speaker instructions decreeing insistently what one should and should not do at every moment of one’s progress onto the train. At every point, progress is micro-managed by Eurostar staff. It is not surprising that people start to behave like harassed sheep.
On the train, the same recorded and live loudspeaker instructions persist; perhaps they were just trying to be helpful, but how many people really need to be told to press the door-open button in order to open the door? On arrival at somewhere like Ashford, one hears urgent-sounding announcements telling people that they are not yet in London. At least they are now tri-lingual.
It doesn’t take much to notice the change of culture that such behaviours communicate. One is left with the impression that Britain is still more about keeping people out, and if not that, then treating them like idiots whose every thought and action need to be controlled. I think it is an unconscious extension of the way the authorities and elites in this country perceive the rest of the population. Britain is fundamentally about control, not liberty – even if, thus far, it has generally been achieved by ‘soft’ means.
I have also been told recently that the reason the British government does not want regional services through the Tunnel is that it wants to be able to control entry points closely – and that means keeping them at a few specific places. Who knows? Elsewhere, facilities make it increasingly easy for people to come and go as they please; why should Britain be any different?
I can only wonder at the mindset that still has this view of Britain in the modern world. Where does this assumption that the U.K. must be bulwarked against the outside world come from, in a way that no other European nation seems to think? Just what is it that we have that they are supposedly all intent on stealing? And why do the authorities seem to believe that people in this country need to be controlled and told what to think and do at every turn, rather than liberated to live their own lives?
When I mention such things in conversation, the reply is often that it is “very important” that the country keeps “undesirables” out. Well really? So much more than any other country – some of which are quite possibly far more attractive to migrants than the U.K. And at the cost of the freedom to move of the rest of us? Who told us this? Answer: the same people who put gave the Border FORCE its aggressive name.
From what one overhears in places like Lille station, plenty of other Britons feel about this as I do. And I when I asked one of the French security guards (in French) how he felt about subjecting visitors to Britain to such treatment, he gave me bemused shrug. Those Britons who are in the know can see the idiocy of this mindset: it is the authorities whose thinking is lagging, not us plebs.
At least Eurostar now has interiors that can hold a light to the TGV and ICE – so we needn’t feel quite so like second-class citizens while under the sea. But in between getting off the train and reaching our little haven, we had to cross what increasingly feels like hostile territory, parts of South-East England which despite their physical proximity to the continent, are populated by those who can’t or won’t see what we had just experienced – and perhaps never do. Those who can’t see that Britain’s increasingly scruffy, congested and sometimes-aggressive public realm is not “just like everywhere else – only better”. And we all know what they, and their attitudes, have done to the country.
Then we got home to our apartment, which increasingly feels like a retreat, a little bubble of Europe-inspired sanity adrift on a sea of hostile, xenophobic madness. It’s not anger, but sadness that makes us feel like this – because after all, ultimately, there is no place like home.