Dispatches from Brexitland


What’s it like to live in a Brexit-voting stronghold when you have a Gibraltarian accent? Gibraltarian author M. G. Sanchez – who last year moved to the city of Wakefield in West Yorkshire – explores the challenges facing those who live in Brexit-voting communities, but don’t sound particularly ‘local’….


I’m at my local GP surgery, trying to register with a doctor. The middle-aged woman behind the reception counter has taken my registration form and is staring at it fixedly, an ember of incomprehension flaring in her greyish-blue eyes.

‘So you’re from Geeb … Grib … Gieb – sorry, how do you pronounce it exactly, luv?’

‘Gibraltar. I’m from Gibraltar.’

‘I’ve heard of that place before,’ the receptionist continues in a not unfriendly tone. ‘You got them monkeys there, haven’t you?’

‘Yeah, that’s right.’

‘It’s sort of near Ibiza, in’t it, but sort of … sort of…’ – she makes a downward gesture with her hand at this point, almost like a schoolteacher beckoning a kid to sit down – ‘sort of a bit under it, right?’

‘Yeah, something like that.’

‘So what you’re doing here, then? In’t it supposed to be really nice down there? Sunny and chilled-out and with all them gorgeous lovely beaches.’

‘It’s because of her,’ I reply, turning to my partner, by now positively enjoying myself.

‘What do you mean?’ the receptionist asks a little guardedly.

‘She’s from Wakefield and she wants to be near her family.’

‘You mean she’s dragged you all t’way to this place when she could be there with you in t’sun?’

‘Yep, that’s about the long and short of it.’

‘Well, if ever you want someone to go back with you,’ she says, tilting her head back and laughing raucously, ‘you know where to find me, luv.’

**

The last time I lived in ‘Wakey’ was fourteen years ago, back in the winter of 2003. I had been finishing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Leeds and, as with most postgraduates in my department, my finances were a bit stretched. My Yorkshire-born girlfriend took pity on my plight and invited me to move into a property she was renting on Lee Moor Road, a nondescript street a stone’s throw away from the M62. It was a red-brick terrace house set two doors from a working man’s club. Single-glazed windowpanes. Nettle-ridden back garden. Mould rupturing through layers of peeling wallpaper. In the cellar there was a mildewed stone table which my partner believed to be some kind of butcher’s chopping table, but which in actual fact, thinking about it now, must have been one of those ‘cold tables’ which the Victorians used for storing milk, butter and other perishables. On Saturday and Sunday mornings we’d walk out into our fenced-off front garden and find beer bottles and half-eaten kebabs nestled in the long grass. Once – I can still picture the scene vividly in my mind – I opened the front door and discovered the front gate hanging abjectly from one hinge, victim of some late-night drunken attack. It was a pretty depressing situation all round, but because I was focused on my postgraduate research I rarely engaged with my surroundings. Only one thing bothered me – and that was having to go to the tiny post office on nearby Ledger Lane with the items I used to sell on eBay to supplement my scholarship monies. A thin, brown-haired, bony-faced woman used to work in this post office, and every time I’d appear before her with my carefully wrapped parcels, she would glare at me like I was the devil incarnate, no doubt having reconstructed me within her racist brain as some kind of lazy, benefit-scrounging foreigner. I will never forget the way that woman used to look at me – so full of animosity, con cara de asco. If that poisonous old crone had still been around when the referendum results were announced in June 2016, she must have half-fainted with rabid delight.

**

Our semi-detached house is in a small private estate surrounded by a cordon of council estates. Until a few days ago I used to walk the dog along the road running past the top end of the estate. I didn’t particularly mind doing this – like all busy roads, it has the benefit of attracting few pedestrians – but the amount of dog shit and broken glass on the ground was seriously disconcerting and meant that I had to keep my eyes on the ground, unable to fully relax. Now, though, I’ve discovered a large field around the corner from the house. Bordered on one side by a council estate and an unused rugby pitch on the other, it is fairly secluded and a good place to let the dog off the lead. Motorway traffic can be heard in the distance. Pylon lines stretch endlessly into the mist-shrouded horizon, brutally suturing the early morning sky. Today, for the very first time, a fellow dog owner stopped to chat with me. Young guy in his mid-twenties. Striped Adidas tracksuit bottoms. A dishevelled, hippyish air about him. I think he was surprised that I wasn’t local, but he quickly relaxed and loosened up, happy to carry on conversing. He told me that his lurcher was called Molly and that she was eleven months old. He also said that she had been attacked last week by a black Shar Pei in Pugney’s Country Park. I continued chatting with him for a couple of minutes, then I said ‘Well, I better be going’ and started walking across the adjacent rugby field towards the main road.

**

A woman in a Fiat asked me for directions this morning. She was about sixty years old, frumpy, fleece-jacketed, tangles of yellowy-grey hair falling in untidy clumps onto her shoulders. Switching on her hazard lights, she pulled up by the side of the road and asked me if I knew where Barry Street was. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know,’ I replied, holding onto my dog’s leash. ‘I’ve only just moved into the area.’

I’ve had plenty of negative reactions to my Gibraltarian accent up here over the years, but this woman was in a league of her own. The initial glimmer of uncertainty, the rapidly hardening sense of suspicion, the subsequent look of visceral contempt – it all played on her face like a series of gradually darkening shadows, changing the contour of her snoutish features, leaving me in doubt as to what she thought of me.  

‘I can look up Barry Street on my phone if you want,’ I added seconds later, trying to shame her with my solicitousness.

‘No, no, yer awright,’ the middle-aged Yorkshirewoman snarled back, her heavily ringed hand already reaching for the Fiat’s gear stick. ‘I won’t keep you any longer, love.’

**

My partner says that I have two accents when I speak in English. The first is what she calls my ‘place of comfort’ accent, which is the way I talk at home or when I am with friends. This accent is so unremarkable and English-sounding, she claims, that it is easy to forget that I haven’t been born in the UK. The second accent is the accent that I put on when I interact with strangers – my so-called ‘place of discomfort accent.’ When I speak in this manner, the opposite happens: my accent thickens and it becomes evident that I’m not originally from the UK. ‘It is like you are trying too hard to sound English,’ she says, her own voice imbued with only the subtlest hint of a Yorkshire accent. ‘I don’t know how to explain it. It just sounds stilted and forced.’ Lately, I have noticed another embarrassing development when talking to strangers – I am now slipping into spoonerisms and metathetic substitutions. ‘Do you sell any Lockett’s loney and lemon lozenges?’ I might say to a shop attendant. ‘Or yes, please,’ I will reply to a poker-faced post office counter clerk. ‘I’d like to send it first-flass recorded, please.’ I have tried to analyse why this is happening and I can only conclude that I must be wary of how people will react to my Gibraltarian accent. In general, too, you could say there are three types of reaction up here to a foreign accent. There are those, first of all, who don’t give a damn. Those who initially look at you with suspicion, but rapidly relax once they realise that you can speak competent English. And, finally, those who will keep looking at you suspiciously no matter what comes out of your mouth. Prognosticating when and where you will encounter these three different responses is no easy task, but observation and day-to-day experience always give you a decent idea. Drive into a roadside car wash manned by Eastern Europeans, for instance, and the likelihood is that there won’t be much of a reaction. Stumble into a regulars’ pub in one of the rougher suburbs, by contrast, and you’ll stand a good chance of getting heckled on account of your ‘foreignness.’ These ‘statistical probabilities’ condition your behaviour, shape the way you interact with your environs. You will soon learn to divide your surroundings into ‘safe zones’ and ‘no-go zones’, to stop yourself from entering certain pubs and shops, to keep quiet at bus stops and at late-night taxi ranks, to whisper into your phone if someone calls you while you are on a packed bus or train, to swiftly press the cancel button if you’re shopping in Poundland and your Gibraltarian mother’s number flashes up on your mobile phone. Individually, these little acts may not add up to much, but cumulatively they can be very disempowering. Without realising it, you are practising a form of daily self-censorship, placing limits on your own volition, continually being forced to adapt and modify your behaviour. You are, some might say, trying to camouflage who you really are.

**

My friend Paul has an interesting theory. He believes that people in the North are slowly losing the ability to communicate with each other. I see it all the time when Im out in the ambulance, he tells me, pausing with his coffee cup suspended in mid-air before him. You turn up to help someone whos badly injured and theres people around you shouting abuse or even trying to assault you.

Paul and I are at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton. We are having a coffee in the main cafeteria at the YSP centre. We have come to see Beyond Boundaries: Art by Email an exhibition of work produced by photographers and video artists who, either because of immigration restrictions or because they are trapped in conflict zones, are physically unable to come to the UK.

I mean, dont get me wrong, Paul adds, putting down his coffee, ‘– they are not bad people or anything like that. Its just that they find themselves so marginalised, so unable to speak up for themselves, that they end up lashing out at whoevers there in front of them even guys like me trying to help them. 

Do you think that this is the reason why so many people voted Leave in this region? I ask.

Let me put it this way, my friend, Paul says, reaching out for the little shortbread biscuit resting on the edge of his saucer. If Cameron had spent a week doing my job and dealing with the kind of people I have to deal with as a paramedic, theres no way in a million years that he would have called for a national referendum.

**

Another dog walker approached me today. Elderly guy. Old-fashioned rectangular spectacles. Puckered dipsomaniac’s face. Grey-flecked hair swept back along the sides, but combed on top into a billowing Elvis Presley quiff. Very shyly, almost apologetically, he comes near and tells me that he’s left his poo bags in his other jacket, after which he asks me whether I can lend him a couple of my own. ‘Sure,’ I reply, pulling out a handful of bags. ‘Here, help yourself.’ 

‘So where’s you from, then?’ he asks, noticing my accent.

‘I’m from Gibraltar.’

‘Ah, Gibraltar,’ he says, stuffing the bags into the pockets of his thickly padded jacket. ‘Been plenty of times to Gibraltar in me time with t’Royal Navy, me. Love it there. Monkey and t’dockyard and tha pub near t’Governor’s place – what’s it called again?’

‘You mean The Angry Friar?’

He nods avidly and without further ado begins telling me about his Royal Navy days. It is a tale that must have been sprung on many an unsuspecting listener – judging from how adroitly he switches from one exotic location to the other. I listen to him with a polite smile on my face, conscious that I need to be at the station in less than half an hour to pick up my partner. Finally – realising that I’m in serious danger of having my neck wrung if I don’t get to Westgate by four-thirty – I beat a hasty retreat with the pensioner’s phlegmy, saliva-drenched voice trailing genially behind me:

‘Ta-ra, then, matey. It were really nice talking to you. Makes a change from t’usual conversations what one usually has in this type o’ place.’

**

In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell speaks about ‘a cult of Northernness’ and holds up Northerners as real-life embodiments of ‘pluck’, ‘grit’, ‘stubbornness’ and ‘warm-heartedness.’ This is the way that the North has been imagined by writers for decades – as an anomalous zone, both attached to its surroundings and yet peculiarly set apart, a place where people act and think differently. But are Northerners that different from their southern compatriots? Is there really such a pronounced North-South personality divide? Part of me wants to believe that Orwell was wrong and that people are the same all over the UK – but I would be lying if said that I hadn’t detected certain differences between living here and living ‘down South’. Primarily, these revolve around interpersonal relationships and the way folk hold themselves before strangers. There seems to be more solidarity between individuals here, a greater supply of empathy. It might take the form of a nurse postponing her lunch break to spend some additional time with a frightened patient. A taxi-driver carrying an old woman’s shopping bags all the way up the steeply inclined steps of her Victorian mid-terrace. The flat-capped pensioner who will put down his bag of groceries and, panting asthmatically, without thinking about his own safety, position himself between the teenager who is being bullied and those bullying him. The best explanation for this type of behaviour is that provided by the York-born novelist Andrew Martin, who sees this spirit of confraternity as a direct legacy of the region’s industrial past, when there was a strong sense among the overworked and the underpaid classes that they were ‘all in it together.’ And yet, hand in hand with all this affinity, there is also a deep-rooted streak of bigotry and intolerance, an almost pathological fear of ‘difference.’ I think this is the other main inheritance that has survived from Yorkshire’s proletarian past: a tendency to close ranks against outsiders, to bristle at the merest suggestion of foreignness….

**

Every morning on my way to drop off my partner at the train station, I see groups of schoolkids trundling up the hill towards the local academy. A large percentage of them are sipping Monster, Relentless, Rockstar and other energy drinks. Many are also wearing hoodies. It’s a little disconcerting, actually, the number of people who wear hoods in this town. Kids making their way to school, construction workers on a fag-break, homeless people selling the Big Issue, middle-aged men walking their dogs, students travelling in buses. Only last week when I was at the dentist there was a guy sitting beside me in the waiting room with his hood on. He must have been thirty or thirty-five, a brawny, freckly, ginger-haired knucklehead who sat there staring dumbly at his mud-caked boots, seemingly unaware of how uncomfortable he was making everyone else feel. Why are hoods so popular in this part of the country, I wonder? Is it because of fashion reasons? Because they’ve replaced the baseball cap as the ultimate symbol of urban hardness? Because they open up miniature no-go zones around their wearer? Actually, that could be it, couldn’t it? The moment you slip up your hood you are in effect turning inwards, isolating yourself from your surroundings, voluntarily renouncing everything around you. I am reminded of those Japanese who wear disposable face masks not because of hygiene reasons, but simply because they don’t want anybody coming near them and bothering them. In the language of semiotics, both hood and mask serve as non-verbal pointers helping to demarcate proxemic space, silently but effectively transmitting the message ‘fuck off and stay away.’

**

It is 17 January 2017. On the front cover of today’s Daily Mail there is a cartoon of a suspiciously Thatcheresque Theresa May, tweed-suited and handbag in hand, standing on the white cliffs of Dover while trampling on an EU flag. The accompanying text focuses on the speech which May delivered yesterday, in which she made clear that Britain would be pulling out from the EU on all fronts, while still expecting to preserve strong trading rights with the Union. Translated into layman’s terms, this means that May wants to retain all the positive elements associated with EU membership (membership of the customs union, tariff-free trade), while ditching what she sees as all the negatives (freedom of movement, adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, having to pay regular membership dues). I don’t know much about politics, but it seems to me highly unlikely that the EU will agree to a deal which, in the words of Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, will ensure that it ‘is better to be outside the single market than be a member of the European Union.’ My worry is that when the rebuff comes (for it is bound to come sooner or later) the right-wing press will deviously repackage it as an out-and-out attack on British interests, furiously harping on about European treachery and the duplicity of foreigners. In turn, this will create a xenophobic mindset among vast sectors of the population, who will conveniently forget that it was they themselves who originally repudiated the EU. Hate crime levels will once again rise. Right-wing politicians will trumpet out increasingly radical proposals. And through it all the pusillanimous Tory administration will watch limply from the sidelines, too scared to intervene in case they are perceived to be soft on migrants and foreigners….

**

I am in bed with the flu. I have caught it off my partner, who appears to have caught it off her mother, who caught it from her other daughter, who in turn must have caught it off somebody else. Never ceases to amaze me how a single strain of the influenza virus can zigzag its way like this across Wakefield, dexterously hurdling over barriers of class and culture, infecting people regardless of race, nationality or creed….

**

I’m back at the surgery again, waiting to see a doctor. It is 7:15 p.m. now and I’m sitting on a bench in a waiting room the size of a five-a-side pitch, gazing down at the greenish-blue veins on the back of my hands. There are about ten long wooden benches in the waiting room and they have been arranged in what could be termed a clockwise radial pattern – that is to say, branching out from a common centre and always facing to the right – so that when you look ahead you only see the back of the person sitting opposite you. The arrangement makes me think of Buddhist mandalas, crop circles, permanently turning roulette wheels. From time to time I lift my eyes and gaze for a second at the other patients – mainly puffy-faced men in fleece jackets who sit there with a day’s stubble clinging to their chins. Nobody looks at each other; everybody’s attention is turned inwards, blocking out what lies immediately around them. I think of more things: derelict cars abandoned to the elements, islets with no connecting causeways, isolated counters on a draughts board. To add a tragi-comic edge to the proceedings, Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ is now playing from a set of speakers beside the main LCD information screen. I listen to the happy, uplifting lyrics with my arms crossed and my fingernails digging into the sweaty flesh of my palms, marvelling at life’s capacity to spew out unexpectedly cruel ironies:

Laughing and a running hey, hey

Skipping and a jumping

In the misty morning fog with

Our hearts a thumpin' and you

My brown-eyed girl

You're my brown-eyed girl

 **

Let me be clear about one thing: I do not take any pleasure from writing in this vein. During the fifteen-odd years that I have lived on and off in this country I have suffered all manner of slights and barely camouflaged insults, but until recently I kept it all firmly embottled within me, never thought of expressing myself in print. If a yob started heckling me on a bus on account of my accent, I’d tell myself that he had to be part of the small minority of bigots that you find anywhere. If a supermarket check-out operator pulled a face when I asked her for more plastic bags, I’d assume that she was just some miserable old harridan with a chip on their shoulder. Besides, I was British myself, wasn’t I? Not British English like the people around me, but British Gibraltarian, which in some ways is even more British than native British, since – unlike the majority of modern-day Englishmen – we have never felt guilty or uncomfortable when it comes to asserting our own brand of Britishness. But then came the morning of June 24, the day that everything changed. On that sadly anti-climactic morning I switched on the television and saw scenes that made me doubt everything that I took for granted about the UK. It wasn’t so much the fact that Britain had voted to leave the EU that I found shocking; it was the gloating, fiercely jingoistic mood that suddenly possessed over half of the nation. Foreigners, the press reported, were being verbally abused in public. Social media was awash with all manner of incendiary declarations. Thugs felt empowered to saunter up and down high streets, brazenly wearing T-shirts printed with racist slogans. It was almost as if the referendum had released years’ worth of pent-up anger and xenophobic sentiment, bringing legitimacy to previously suppressed discourses, enabling people to say things that twenty-four hours earlier they wouldn’t have dared to say. Even then my Gibraltarian instincts told me to back off, to remain disengaged on the sidelines. This is not my quarrel, I told myself. I am British, after all. Don’t get involved. But as the days passed and more and more race attacks were being reported in the news, that initial sense of reluctance petered away and I could no longer continue pretending that I was just an impassive observer. To hell with it, I thought. If those morons feel no shame in parading their bigotry, then why should I carry on covering for them?

**

It is half past three and my partner still hasn’t returned from walking the dog. The first lights are switching on in the street, casting jittery coppery reflections on car windscreens and rain puddles. Police sirens can be heard somewhere in the distance. I am pacing up and down the corridor in my dressing gown, glancing repeatedly in the direction of the window, pausing every few seconds to check my mobile phone. Then, lo and behold, the door swings open and there she is stamping her boots on the thickly bristled doormat.

‘I was trying to call you,’ I say, putting my phone back into my dressing gown pocket. ‘I was worried that something had happened to you.’

‘I must have had my phone on silent,’ she replies, taking off her wellies and placing them on the boot tray. ‘I’m half-frozen. Why don’t you go and make us a cup of tea?’

‘You’re not annoyed with me because I’m still too unwell to walk the dog, are you?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Then why do you look so angry?’

‘Do I? Must be because of that silly old berk on the rugby pitch.’

‘What do you mean?’

She looks directly at me for the first time, the beginnings of a smile appearing on her cold-reddened features. ‘Well, I was walking through the rugby field when I bumped into this old man walking a fat staffy. Real friendly bloke. The sort that will stay there gabbing forever if you give them half a chance. Anyway, there we are, me and this old guy, talking about dogs and how cold it is and other silly stuff like that, when we get to the part of the field near the main road – you know where I mean, don’t you, that part where there’s plastic bags and beer cans and broken bottles and all other kinds of rubbish. “Shame about that,” I say to the man entirely innocently. “It never used to be like that,’ he says, a strange look suddenly coming into his eye. ‘What do you mean?” I ask. “Well, it’s them Poles, in’t it, luv?” he says, nodding as he speaks, as if he were agreeing with himself. “They are t’ones who are always coming here at night and dumping all this rubbish.” “Have you actually seen any Polish people do this?” I ask, drawing back. “Not I meself, luv, but I know plenty of people what have. It’s common knowledge round here, in’t it, luv?”

I look at my partner and then at the mud-spattered mutt standing by her side. ‘This guy you’re talking about – did he by any chance have his hair combed tightly backwards and with a bouffant at the front, sort of Elvis Presley style?’

‘Yes, that’s him – how on earth did you know?’

‘Well, you know us foreign-born folk,’ I reply jokingly, already heading towards the kitchen. ‘Always sticking our noses into everything.’