I went on a date yesterday with a Spanish man called Alberto. He was nice. He looked quite a bit like Gerry Adams, yes, that one, which was disconcerting. We sat in a pub in Bethnal Green for two hours. I don’t go to pubs very often these days, even so, I haven’t been in one like that since around 1992. It had a swirly carpet, slot machines and three 90-inch tvs showing three different sports. People thought this was an appropriate place to bring their young children. It’s not my place to tell people how to raise their family. Anyway, I don’t have children, so what do I know?
Alberto has lived in London for five months and, it is safe to say, knows only slightly more English than I know Spanish. I know four Spanish words, maybe three. It was a long two hours. We communicated using google translate on my iPad and talking hesitantly and more slowly than normal. I learned that he had managed a factory in Alicante before Spain’s economy became so troubled, that he tried working in Zurich for a year before he came here, that he works shit hours in a shit restaurant kitchen earning shit wages and that he doesn’t mind what he does, he would be happy cleaning if he could leave the restaurant.
He was nice but I don’t think it’ll go any further, mostly because conversation was so difficult. But what occurred to me, as I walked back to my car, is how heroic Alberto is. Imagine, moving from the place you love to a cold, grey, dirty, expensive city where you don’t have friends or a job, where you can’t communicate, to do poorly-paid work that you are over-qualified and over-experienced for. I didn’t ask about where he lives but I looked in an estate agent’s window and Bethnal Green is expensive; one-bedroom flats for £1800 a month. I would doubt Alberto earns £1800 a month.
There has been quite a bit of unpleasant talk about immigrants recently. They are never spoken about as people, just as a group that comes here to… to what? Live in our homes and take our jobs, use our NHS. I saw a woman on tv say how they are ruining our culture. She didn’t say what she thought our culture is. Pubs with swirly carpets, maybe. And then there was that poster. Yes, quite.
It sometimes seems we think we’re still fighting the last World War. Here’s a paragraph from the Guardian about football fans from the European Championship last week.
Between clashes with the police, fans sang: “Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out.” They also sang anti-IRA and anti-German songs before singing: “Sit down if you hate the French.”
The truth, of course, is that although we were brave to stand against the Nazis, we didn’t beat them by ourselves. I wonder if it goes further back than that. Are some people yet to forgive the Normans for 1066? We will avenge King Harold!
I know much of the Europe I love is what I see from a table outside a café with a glass of wine in front of me – yes, I see things through rosé-filled glasses – but I think of myself as European. I read novels by European writers, I watch European football, I dance to European pop music, I eat European food. I speak French better than Alberto speaks English, but not as well as everyone I met in Berlin or Amsterdam speaks English. I am excited again every time I cross the Channel and thrilled when I arrive.
This doesn’t mean I don’t love Britain or the British, although there are times when I wish we’d turn it down a bit. I have followed the debate on the referendum, such as it has been, quite closely. I can make the economic argument to stay, if you ask me to. I am embarrassed by much of the rhetoric coming from the Outers. I haven’t heard a single line from them that has made me doubt that our future is better entwined with Europe’s. I don’t even like saying we’re separate like that. Our history is also their history. Their culture is also our culture. We are them and they are us. Vote Remain! And that’s why I love Europe.