A Modest Proposal For The Post-Brexit Partition Of England

Word has it that London’s discordant vote in the Brexit referendum–roughly, it voted to ‘Remain’ while the rest of England voted ‘Leave’–has provoked some head-scratching among many pondering its future place in the United Kingdom:

There are a number of ways London might distance itself from Brexit, “short of building a moat around the city,” Parag Khanna argued in Foreign Policy magazine. “There is a wide spectrum of federalist arrangements available to the city, on a continuum ranging from unity to devolution to autonomy to outright independence.”

As can be seen, the Partition of England is not off the table, thus raising the prospect of an Island of European London in the middle of the English Ocean. Fortunately, the English are experienced in Partitions, which require the drawing up of new boundaries and the transfers of large populations; that accumulated wisdom, gleaned with considerable difficulty during the glory years of Empire, should come in very handy.

Moreover, it is not necessary for all of London to secede from England. Only those sections that actually voted to ‘Remain’ need actually ‘Remain’ in Europe while ‘Leaving’ England. This fine-grained selection and culling can be accomplished quite easily by sitting down with the voting results overlaid on a street map and neatly marking out–perhaps with a pencil or an ink marker–those neighborhoods that stay while others go. Modern voting data is usually quite fine-grained, right down to street and block level; this granularity could be exploited to make New London’s map quite specific: here, this street would stay in England; there, that street (along with that park next to it) would move to New Londonia. (I presume the two cricket grounds in London would stay in England, while Wembley would move to Europe.)

It is entirely possible that the resulting movements of populations will be accompanied by some hostility and unpleasantness; some of the ‘migrations’ that would result from the redrawing of maps described above would possibly split family and friends. No matter, such discordances and divides and sunderings are but the inevitable price to be paid when the people express their fervent desire to make their political destinies on their own, free of the burden of nation or continent.

The Partition of England promises to be a historic event. The inevitable anguish and dislocations it would engender would soon be forgotten, their memories only resurrected in Booker Prize-winning novels and television shows and other orgies of nostalgia; perhaps the odd Londoner would make a trip back to the Old Country, to look at lands and peoples left behind; perhaps too, some English folks might travel to New Londonia marveling at the sights and sounds of the city that Once Used to Be English. The New York Times would have to come up with a new stock phrase or two–‘the European-majority New Londonia remains locked in intractable conflict with English-majority New England’ perhaps–as the years and the Thames roll by, and a new generation of children will grow up with their New Londonia identities.

The world has grown to accept many Partitions; it will welcome this one into its bosom too.

Brexit, Shmexit: Schadenfreude And How The Old Eat The Young

Old habits die hard. I like watching England lose: in soccer and in cricket mainly, but I’ll admit to cheering for Napoleon too. (I morbidly continue to study the Battle of Waterloo, hoping again and again that that damn fool Grouchy will show up.) English self-destructiveness–think David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup, and the national self-flagellation that follows, has always provided great entertainment for distant observers.

And so it has been with some truly ghastly interest that I’ve followed the epic meltdown of the European dream’s English chapter: first, the Trumpish silliness of the Leavers’ rhetoric, which became remarkably unfunny once Jo Cox was murdered, and then, the apoplectic fury unleashed by the insanity of the final referendum results: fifty-two percent of the English population voted to turn their backs on Europe–perhaps to stand facing, all the more resolutely, an America which threatens to emulate their xenophobic, racist, nativist, populism.

But I stopped chuckling soon enough, for as in the US, it turns out the old will eat the young:

57 percent of Britons between ages 18 and 34 who intended to vote in Thursday’s referendum on the European Union wished to remain in the bloc….In contrast, an identical proportion — 57 percent — of Britons over 55 who intended to take part in the referendum signaled that they wanted to leave, Survation found.

European labor markets will now become more inaccessible to English workers, a fact which will not bother those who voted to leave, because the majority of those who did so had few years left in the workforce; in general, the economic and political costs of this vote–a stock market crash, a decline in the value of the pound–will be felt more acutely by those who have more years left to live with it.

Equally damaging is the signal that England sends to the rest of the world: that its politics has been captured by the mean and the narrow-minded, by the spiteful and the vicious. This morning, on Facebook, I quoted that old man, John of Gaunt, and his epic complaint:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Lamentations over the fall of England are, as can be seen, not new. But this paranoid pulling up of the drawbridge is especially astonishing when witnessed in its historic context: in an ever-more connected world, England, frightened by strange accents and brown faces, has voted for pathetic isolation, all the better to rummage about in corners, muttering vaingloriously about days of empire and exclusive Englishness.

Flood the Chunnel; form squares. The good old days are back.

A Professional Businessman, Not a Professional Pakistani

Hanif Kureishi and Stephen FrearsMy Beautiful Laundrette makes most of its viewers laugh a lot. My personal favorite of its many rib-ticklingly subversive moments came–as it seemingly did for many others–when the gay street punk Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) helps the Pakistani Nasser Ali  (Saeed Jaffrey) evict black West Indian tenants from his slummish property, and struck by the incongruity of a ‘colored’ immigrant evicting others of his ‘kind’ bursts out:

Doesn’t look too good, does it? Pakis doing this kind of thing.

The equally perplexed Ali retorts:

Why not?

Johnny points out the obvious:

What would your enemies have to say about this? Ain’t exactly integration is it?

At which point, Ali disabuses Johnny of any naivete he might still entertain about the society he lives in:

My dear boy, I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani.

I guffawed and chuckled loudly when I heard this line and have, over the years, repeated it with much relish to anyone whom I might subject to my usual glowing review of this modern classic. Saeed Jaffrey is a comedic genius of sorts himself, so part of the reason so  much mirth is provoked by Ali’s pronouncement is because Kureishi’s line is delivered with such pitch-perfect elan; but the rest, almost certainly, is because we recognize a very uncomfortable truth about our modern world.

In the Thatcherite England of the 1980s, it had become rapidly clear that older verities mattered for little in the reworkings that the Iron Lady and her associated ideologies sought; traditional bonds of association–between communities and their members, between citizens and the state, between members of a non-economic class like an ethnic group–were to be sundered by newer ones, not founded in family or religion, and impelled only by adherence to the unblinkingly sterile bottom-line of economic advancement.

The immigrant, always on the lookout for a leg-up that would allow him to transcend his inherited handicaps of skin color, accent, and mysterious origins in indeterminate ‘backward’ cultures, was often best placed to take advantage of these reorderings of national and cultural priorities, best positioned to become the most enthusiastic proponent of their new strategies for empowerment. He thus provided endless material for ironic takes on his experience: family-centered social groupings reveled in enthusiastic betrayals of kith and kin; brown placed itself in implacable opposition to black and vice versa; all that mattered was a demonstration that the lessons of the new times–those of non-stop hustle, the limitless and unbounded pursuit of the profit margin–had been suitably internalized.

Nasser Ali had learned those lessons well; it is tempting to view him as a mere cynic, a vulturous nihilist of sorts, picking at the carcasses of those claimed victim by Thatcherism. But Ali is much more enlightening than that. He is the modern man, one quick enough to reconfigure  himself to take profitable advantage of his changing environment and its associated moral realities; he will buy for himself the respect he had previously sought in an appreciation of his intangible qualities.

We laugh hard but ruefully. This is a man who has nimbly enriched himself in a world seemingly gone just a little nuts. Then, he was the oddity, the outlier; now, he is the norm.

(Coded) Messages in Bottles

As part of his continuing series on free speech in Asia, Timothy Garton Ash turns his attention to Burma–the land of military juntas and Aung San Suu Kyi–and points us to some deft work to get around its censors’ pen:

Thirteen years ago, editors of tiny magazines in dim, cramped offices showed me examples of the crudest precensorship by the authorities: individual phrases or whole pages had to be blanked out, or hastily replaced with advertisements. This was the age of the hidden message, of the Aesopian, with even an article on the proliferation of mosquitoes in Rangoon banned by the censors as suspected allegory. Sometimes, editors got away with little triumphs, like the November 2010 First Eleven magazine headline, in this soccer-mad country: “SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE.” First Eleven submitted this to the censors in black and white, but published it in multiple colors. The letters in bright red spelled out “SU…FREE…UNITE…&…ADVANCE TO GRAB THE HOPE….” Su—that is Aung San Suu Kyi—had just been released from house arrest. The captain was back.

This little bit of crypto-messaging reminded me of yet another cloaked message, in another context and country and age, pointed out by Christopher Hitchens:

In the year 1798, seeking to choke the influence of French and other revolutionary opinions in their own “backyard”, the British authorities jailed the radical Irish nationalist Arthur O’Connell. As he was being led away, O’Connell handed out a poem of his own composition that seemed to its readers like a meek act of contrition, and a repudiation of that fount of heresy, Thomas Paine:

I

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I prize above all earthly things;

I love my country; the king

Above all men his praise I sing:

The royal banners are displayed,

And may success the standard aid.

II

I fain would banish far from hence,

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

Confusion to his odious reign,

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

Of France, its liberties and laws!

If the reader has the patience to take the first line of the first stanza, then the first line of the second stanza, and then repeat the alternating process with the second, third and fourth lines of each, and so on, he or she will have no difficulty in writing out quite a different poem. (How much the British have suffered from their fatuous belief that the Irish are stupid!)

Such a construction yields, of course:

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I fain would banish far from hence,

I prize above all earthly things;

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

I love my country; the king

Confusion to his odious reign,

Above all men his praise I sing:

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

The royal banners are displayed,

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

And may success the standard aid.

Of France, its liberties and laws!

56-Up: Checking In With ‘Old Friends’

Roger Ebert once referred to Michael Apted‘s Up series as the ‘noblest project in cinema history.’ In writing his review of 56-Up–the latest installment in the story of the Fab Fourteen–Ebert disowned those words as ‘hyperbole’ but its easy to see why he might have thought so. It is as straightforward–and as complicated–a film project as could be: take fourteen children, interview them at the age of seven about their vision of life and what it holds for them, and then, every seven years, meet them again to ‘check in.’ The original premise might have been to explore whether the British class system affected a child’s world-view and whether it locked their lives into unalterable trajectories, but over the years the Up series has grown into something else: an episodic cinematic document of a tiny cross-section of humanity.

Fourteen ‘ordinary’ people; fourteen ‘ordinary’ lives. Hardly the stuff of riveting storytelling, or so you’d think. Thirteen of them are white, one is black, four women, all are English. This is not even a very representative sample of the world’s humanity. And yet. somehow, over the years, they’ve managed to captivate millions all over the world who tune in, faithfully, every seven years.

Every viewer of the series has his or her own personal reasons for remaining riveted to it, for eagerly awaiting the next installment. In my case, it has been because, like many others, I’ve become personally interested in the fortunes of its participants, not out of pure voyeuristic curiosity, but because I’ve been growing too, and often find immediate, sharp, and personal resonances with their lives. There is the sometimes incoherent, sometimes acute vision of the seven-year old, the callow, rash pronouncements of the teenager and young adult, the maturing, sometimes rueful perspectives of the thirty and forty-somethings, and now, the slow, low, sometimes content glow of the mid-fifties. (They’re ahead of me; I’m not fifty yet, though the gap between my age and theirs has shrunk!)

It would be a mistake to say every life examined on this show demonstrates some universal truth or anything like that. Rather, each one showcases, in part, some of life’s fortunes and misfortunes; some get more than fair share of the hard knocks. But it is in the adding up, in the rendering of a composite image that one is able to see a glimmer of the complexity and variety of human existence: present and missing parents, loves–lost and found, illness and good health, passion and anger, ruefulness and exultation.

Of  the various cinematic techniques invented by directors over the years, I find the epilogue particularly poignant: the passage of time and persons, the looking back, the reckonings and accountings of a life.  Often it is because those episodes are tinged with regret for missed opportunities, sometimes because through them, we are brought face to face with the most basic facts of our existence: life is just one moment after another, the past already gone, the future yet to be realized. The Up series has often felt like a collection of epilogues even as we know–or at least believe and hope–another installment is forthcoming.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m looking forward to 63-Up.