On Loathing Rees-Mogg
Brexit is beginning to do my head in. I feel it messing with my mind. As we draw close to the moment of rupture, I notice in myself a rise in anxiety and a gathering gloom. I imagine many thousands of people in Britain are not particularly fussed by Brexit. Then there are others for whom Brexit is a source not of anxiety but of energy and a reason for optimism. It’s bound to be the Remainers who are unhappy, because they lost the bet, but Project Fear is surely more than a polemical tactic. Remainers like me really are afraid of something, but what is it we are afraid of?
As in double-entry bookkeeping credits are minus and debits plus, so in the Brexit accounts leavers appear as Remainers and remainers as Leavers. I voted Remain because I am, by temperament a leaver. My wife, who is German, already has permanent right to remain (that’s to say, ‘leave to remain’) and my son has dual nationality. I associate my Remain vote with my tendency to claustrophobia: I like to know how I can get out. I give sleeping bags a wide berth, potholing I try hard not to think about. I prefer an aisle seat on the plane or in the theatre. I like open spaces and silence.
I left England for the first time in the summer of 1970 to wander about Ireland with a friend; we hitch-hiked our way to Connemara and holed up in a stone cottage on the edge of the ocean. Later that year, I went to Graz to study music. Ever since, I have carried around with me a mental image of the map of Europe which I find calming; it’s like a certificate of insurance against getting trapped. What I loved about my two years as the Northern European sales rep for a British publisher was the freedom it gave me to head out and away and, above all, especially then, before email or mobile phones, to be off the radar. For weeks at a time, no one could be sure where precisely I was; no one would try and reach me, except by telegram or telex. Bliss for me is to trundle across the Continent in a sleeper. Hotels soothe me. Once I get over the initial resistance to the idea of camping, I am never happier than in a little tent in the Scottish mountains or beside the infinite sea. As a three-year-old, I got a special pleasure from curling up in a ball on the landing halfway up the stairs – a form of hiding in plain sight. It was the combination of the foetal position with the openness of the landing that comforted me, and I recognise the same pattern in the things that make me feel safe as an adult: tents, railway sleeping-cars, hotel bedrooms. They all furnish an ideal blend of the womb-like and the provisional; cosy, yet free and unconfined.
I have always liked the fact that Britain doesn’t have borders, just a coastline: the perfect combination for me – open but cut off, safe from incursion but not boxed in. For continental Europeans the border has been a thing of dread. The closing of borders could spell death. ‘Die Grenze’ for Germans, East or West, was dark matter. I feel sure that the European attachment to Schengen is not just about economics: to be able to sail across borders inside Europe without being asked for your papers must seem – especially to the older generation – like a wonderful dream of freedom. At some point in the last twenty years, the Home Office decided the UK needed borders. ‘Keeping the UK Border Safe’ became the mission statement of a new Border Force (restriction and coercion succinctly combined). Where immigration officials used to dress in ordinary clothes, they now acquired a semi-military uniform. Brexit will give us back control of our borders. For the person who is temperamentally safer at home than abroad, this makes sense and can only be good. But for me the UK Border is a threat not a reassurance. Theresa May presumably felt a deep affinity with the Border Force when she was home secretary. She’s someone who likes things to be well defined. She has her red lines. She’s the exception to the adage ‘Nomen est omen’: she should have been called Theresa Must.
Pace Robert Frost, something there is in me that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down, and I suppose many Remainers feel the same. For Leavers – being remainers at heart, who find safety in permanence, who are perhaps a little prone to agoraphobia – the more compelling thought is that good fences make good neighbours. I’d like to think we could shake hands on our differences and go our separate ways, but there’s too much at stake. The Brexit referendum was a conceptual wall, forcing a brutal binary on a matter that was far too complex to be decided that way.
Unlike borders, borderlands – liminal, transitional places that blur distinctions – are a good image for the limitless gradations of identity within a nation, the marbled and muddled attributes of people and their cultures. The hand-wringing of politicians and commentators over the division and discord that Brexit has already wrought puzzles me. As though, until Brexit, Britain was a homogeneous and harmonious country where everyone got along just fine. For me, being English has always been an experience of bemusing social intricacy, England a place of fractures and discontinuities so numerous that communication with other English people has often been uneasy and tinged with mutual suspicion.
In common with most people in Britain, I suppose, my background was a mixed and mottled affair. My mother came from Fleetwood, my father from Sittingbourne – small, nondescript coastal towns at opposite ends of the country. As a child, I saw this North-West to South-East diagonal vividly in my mind’s eye. Though not a midpoint on this line, Liverpool – where my parents met and married and where I was born and, for my first seven years, grew up – represented for me the neutral territory that my parents could agree on, and I have always imagined it the place they were most happy. My father had travelled further socially and culturally (my mother, who reckoned herself a cut above him, would jokingly call him a Jutish peasant), but they had both made bold moves away from settled family enclaves to dissolve their differences in the colourless medium of academia.
When my father gave up his university career and took a job as head of the chemistry department at Winchester College, it was a disaster for my mother. For me and my siblings the change of scene – from the smoggy suburban streets of Liverpool to a well-upholstered southern cathedral city – was little short of a miracle. But for my mother it was an internal exile from which she would never fully recover. Among the handful of documents that she had kept for their special significance, I found, after her death, a railway ticket, one way, from Mossley Hill to Euston, dated 6 July 1959.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the stuffiness, the fetid airlessness of Winchester College in 1959. The period of public school glasnost was still five or six years away and no one who had time-travelled there from the Edwardian era would have found all that much to remark on. To be translated from a community of progressive academics among whom she was beginning to find her feet to this sump of unreconstructed upper-middle-class entitlement was traumatic for my mother. Every advance from those nice and not so nice people she read as condescension and slight. My father, meanwhile, was oblivious. As for me, after touching down briefly in a tiny C of E primary school, I found myself a day boy at the Pilgrim’s School, the feeder prep school for Winchester College, where I undertook a crash course in social identity change. Everything followed from that.
By my mid-teens I was indistinguishable from a toff, my origins betrayed only by the occasional fossil vowel sound. Winchester furnished me with a new set of identity papers, my passport to the delightful and exclusive world of the English metropolitan elite, so viscerally disliked by readers of the Daily Mail. I learned early to pass myself off effortlessly, so that I have long since ceased to notice my habits and reflexes of concealment, how I keep my head down, hat pulled over my eyes, hugging the wall, hoping to slip by unnoticed in environments where, as soon as I open my mouth to speak, I will be resented, and keeping my counsel in the company of the upper-middle and upper classes.
I’ve always thought of the family I came from as in transit and I relate this to the strain of nomadism in my disposition. I don’t feel I definitively belong anywhere. The nearest to home for me is the North-West of England: my mood lightens as I head up the M6. But it would be affectation to claim Liverpool as my home town: so much of what I have become cuts me off from it. As to Winchester, for all that I was happy there, it’s just not me.
I get my sensitivity to class from my mother. That it was possible not to concern oneself with class I could see from my father, who had no time for the category. But my mother was a fierce polemicist and the chief family ideologue and, identifying strongly with her, I ended up thoroughly indoctrinated. So I cannot help seeing Brexit as an epiphenomenon of class struggle. I’d direct sceptics to the first episode of Seven Up!, the astonishing Granada TV production of 1964, which brought together 20 seven-year-olds from representative sections of English society at the time, interviewed them and filmed them interacting. The resulting forty minutes give as succinct an explanation as one could hope for of our present travails. The world that first edition of Seven Up! depicts seems at first conclusively to belong to a now distant past, until it dawns on one that the seven-year-olds of 1964 are still in their early sixties and continue to shape our world.
I have taken to wondering whether my parents would have voted Leave. Neither of them had much idea about Europe. They never went there on holiday. My father’s first trip to Europe was to a conference in Austria, when he was 38. After that, he visited Europe at most six more times. My mother only left the UK twice in her life: once (when she was 48) to visit me in Graz and once (when she was 65) for my wedding in Solingen, near Cologne. Her injunctions to us against marrying a German or a Japanese were largely ineffective: three of us married foreign nationals. In 2016, my parents would have been in their mid-nineties, so in the top decile of those who voted. Perhaps their lack of European experience was not typical – I have no idea.
My father was always delphic about his politics. He had a touching faith in the position of the Times, regardless of its editorial regime. My mother accused him of voting Tory, but he would never let on. Sittingbourne voted Leave and, if I had to bet, I’d probably put my money on him having done so too, though he might well have regretted it. As to my mother, whatever her insularity, I think Boris and Jacob would have inoculated her against the Leave cause. She would have loathed Rees-Mogg. I loathe him too and I recognise the violence of my feelings about him as cognate with how I imagine my mother’s. If there are many others like us, then the perpetrators of Brexit have underestimated the forces they are at risk of unleashing.