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Opinion

Let’s hope it’s not goodbye, just à bientôt

We must now find ways of remaining friends with our former fellow EU members, says Big Issue founder John Bird

I don’t know anyone who went through the life I went through. One person almost corresponds, but he had dedicated education and could at 15 recite poetry and read copiously.

But I never met anyone who went through the privation, the muck and suffering, the hunger, ignorance, violence and disregard of human life that I went through. Of course I have read books about people who went through what I went through, and sometimes worse, but never have I known such people.

So what do you do with this strange concoction of suffering and harm, to which you could add self-harm?

I have no idea. All I know is that this background of suffering, no food, no shelter, no love, no humanity, informs how I look at current events.

Yet in a number of ways I did not suffer like my parents suffered. Firstly, they had to live through German bombs being dropped on them from the skies, nightly. Then they had to live on such shortages that an egg a week was full ration. Even I had full rations when the wages came in.

Probably the biggest thing my parents suffered was that they did not always believe they had a tomorrow; because the outcome of the war they went through was not a foregone conclusion. Invading troops and murder by a German army were imminently possible. Rape, pillage and murder are never far behind a conquering army.

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Unlike much of Europe, my parents never saw occupation or the sudden disappearance of people they grew up with, those with the wrong religion being carted off for extermination.

Now, at last, after four years of preparation, whilst we celebrate Christmas, we pass through the ebbing days of the UK experiment with European membership. A membership of defeated nations who rallied together to try and put belligerence behind them. The UK was the only nation to join the European Community that, through a quirk of geographic fate, did not suffer occupation and its attendant humiliation.

So two psychologies were put together to form the European Community: one, the invader-Germany and the other the pliant and broken France and the others who were walked over by Germany. To which was then added one of the victors – the UK – who was to be treated as simply another member.

Alas, it didn’t work. Not enough people in the UK wanted to stay in a closed club of those who were once the vanquished and defeated.

When the vote came I, like most Remainers, was shocked. We had planned a different future. But now here we are, over this Christmas and New Year period, saying goodbye to a club of the defeated which we as the victors wanted to be a part of.

This is the biggest change in our lifetimes, aside from it being overlaid with the Covid-19 pandemic. So in the space of a year we exit the most important political family we were ever party to joining, and at the same time are reduced to being not very good at coping with a virus.

All I know is that I feel a deep sense of loss

And the virus has run rings around our health service, our social services, our pubs and restaurants, our political institutions, our sex life and our children’s education.

Our railways run regularly without passengers. Our shops when open look as if Daleks have caused most customers to run for the hills. Our city centres are like Christmas Day every day. And our political and health updates read like a ride on Blackpool’s biggest big dipper.

Unprecedented. Men like me going around looking like scarecrows because we can’t get a haircut. And an anonymous-looking American sits like a spider at the epicentre of its web of distribution and gives us whatever the fuck we want: largely what formerly we bought face-to-face from live, not virtual, merchants.

You want a plastic bucket? Consider it delivered. You want a short skirt with a minimum of material? Consider it delivered. You want a year’s supply of bum wipes? It’s on its way.

But this is the year end and we have been members of this European family of the defeated, with us sticking out like a sore thumb as one of the victors, and it’s all over. A big separation party is not planned as far as I know. And if there is one I have not been invited. All I know is that I feel a deep sense of loss.

That we did not make the most of this connection. That it was like that Dutch lager: it refreshed parts no other beer reached, but not all the parts. Certainly not the parts that included my eldest brother’s Canvey Island mobile home estate. Certainly not virtually all of the people I knew who used their hands to earn their living. Certainly so vast a part of the UK that it beggars belief why the government, intent on staying, missed all the signs by a mile.

One of the greatest shocks, as we slip out of Europe like a goods train passing anonymously through a station, is the shock. There was no one prepared in political leadership for that shock. And that is why it has left a large part of the comfortable classes, often more Europeanised in spirit, appalled at their leaving.

Psychology: that’s the failure. We should have realised that joining formerly defeated and broken and occupied and murdered nations without being one of them was a tough act to follow.

Pity we missed that big chance. Now we really must find ways of remaining friends with our former fellow members. I hope we never give up on forging new relationships with our nearest neighbours simply because we didn’t stay in the same club.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue

@johnbirdswords

john.bird@bigissue.com

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