Waves of Officialdom

When I was 8 or thereabouts, my  mother and I went on an extended trip to Spain to stay with my grandmother and to see my aunts and uncles and cousins.  In those days, flying was rather more expensive than it is now.  I know people were already going on package holidays to Benidorm and so on, but if you wanted to go on a scheduled flight to a non-touristic region of Spain, the flights were not readily available or they were very expensive. Spain was not, at that point, an EU member.  So, we took a passage on a big Spanish cruise liner called the Monte Granada from Liverpool to Vigo in Galicia.  I don’t remember the ship being very crowded.  I think it must have been heading on to do a cruise in the Mediterranean and that is why we were able to book the short 2-day passage.  It was winter, around December.

Despite it being a very large ship, we had a terrible crossing.  The Bay of Biscay did its notorious Bay of Biscay nauseous-making  thing and there were no anti sickness tablets available.  We had a tiny cabin with no window.  The winter seas and cold stormy weather did not really endear me to ships or sailing much, I guess 2 days just is not long enough to get your sea legs.

With considerable relief and empty stomachs, we got to Vigo and went through all the customs palaver at the other end.  I remember everyone had to go in a big room, more like a bit of warehouse, with long dark wooden tables and we had to open our suitcases ready for the dour customs inspectors barking orders to come along with their chalk.  We only had our clothes so there was no fuss with us, but it seemed to take a long time for customs man to get to us.

With that done, we were free to go happily into the arms of my mother’s twin sister, my Tía Ester, who had come to meet us at Vigo, and we travelled together to Santiago de Compostela by train. Ester’s husband worked for the railways, so they didn’t even have a car, they always used trains.

I cannot remember how long we stayed in Spain– it seems to me we were there about 6 weeks, and I have vague memories of meeting a dizzying array of barely recognisable relatives of one kind or another who I had only ever seen in fuzzy black and white pictures.  Certain people stuck with me but my grandmother was the eldest of 13 children so there seemed to be an awful lot of tías and tíos and primos, many of whom I have never met since so I couldn’t tell you their names.  My Tía Herminda with her purple coloured poodle probably deserves a mention though. Keeping all the relationships between them straight was not a vital task for an 8-year-old but there was a lot of boring grown up conversation about people I didn’t know in places I had never been to that I probably tuned out of. However, I loved playing with my younger cousins and second cousins and visiting the feria with its colourful lights and noisy vendors in the beautiful Alameda in Santiago, eating hot churros con chocolate on the cold winter nights.

The time went by and we had Christmas there which was lovely but before I knew it, it was time to leave.  So, we got back on the ship at Vigo for the two-day journey.  My mind turned to seeing my dad and brothers again and I was very happy to be homeward bound.

On the morning we arrived at Liverpool, we were not allowed to get off the ship until we were given permission.  I was used to translating for my mother sometimes.  I had absorbed English like a native speaker so when my parents came up against something bureaucratic or difficult, my teenage brothers and I were able to help.  That day it was only me, my brothers and dad were waiting on the quayside for us to disembark.

Two customs officials took us into a room on the ship.  I could sense my mother’s fear and confusion, but I don’t think I cried.  They were asking questions, I cannot remember what, probably about where we were from, when we came to the UK and that kind of thing.  They had taken our documents off us and I remember being gripped with fear, longing to get off that boat and see my dad again.  I helped my mother answer the questions.  We were there a long time and then one of the men made a phone call from the office we were in and we had to wait for a while longer.

It turns out my mum had renewed her Spanish passport but the indefinite leave to remain stamp had not been put in the new passport and she had forgotten her expired one so the immigration officers had to establish our status, whether we were allowed to return to our home.  For an eight-year-old, having two giant men in grey suits and solemn long pale faces question my mother through me was a terrifying experience.  I understand that they couldn’t have done it any other way, but it was my first experience of a wall of officialdom.  Even at eight I had the complete instant understanding that our fate was totally in the hands of these two strange men.  If they had not been able to check their records or if there was a mistake in those records we would have been sent somewhere – I don’t know where, some kind of holding centre, and sent away from our nuclear family.  Thankfully, this did not happen, and we were finally allowed off the ship to find Dad as relieved and worried as we were on the quayside.  I think the whole family were very upset.

I didn’t realise how much this experience had affected me for a long time.  I never talked about it until it came out unexpectedly as an adult in the course of a conversation and I recalled the fear and stress.  But in truth I have always had a deep underlying fear and dislike of figures of officialdom especially immigration officers.  Strangers with powers over your life still worry me.  When going through Miami airport once I was stopped and made to wait in a big room full of people whilst immigration made some checks.  My name had come up as a partial match to someone they were looking for and they had to verify my identity before I could continue my journey.  I found the whole thing very distressing and as soon as it was over, and we could leave I burst into tears.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, it was just the tension of having people with power over your life that got me again and perhaps transported me back to that office on a ship when I was 8 and I wondered if I would ever see my dad again.

So, when I see the pictures of refugees, particularly children, I really do feel pain for them.  Can you imagine being them?  They probably do not speak much English; they have been pushed around and made to pay every penny they had to try and escape to a place where they can find healing.  They must be terrified as they have gone from person to person in their lives who has tried to seize control of their futures.  Whether politics or war or poverty, their lives have been made insufferable enough to seek something better.  They have been taken advantage of by criminals, had their or their families meagre savings swiped.  They end up on a windy British beach with nothing except their lives which they are lucky to have kept and the clothes they stand in being filmed by privileged idiots like Nigel Farage.

They will then have to go through the long stressful procedures to establish whether they can stay or whether they must go back to their hell.  I was lucky, if our paperwork had not been in order, I had family to return to.  These refugee children may not have anybody, or anything left to go back to.

Having negotiated all that, if their claims are successful they may well have a lifetime of being stopped and questioned by immigration officers when they go on their holidays and each time, despite the fact they are legal and have done nothing wrong, that knot in their stomach will be there somewhere.  When the children learn enough English – which won’t be long believe me,  they will see and understand the likes of drunken Tory MPs on Newsnight ranting about how the government should send the navy out (to do what bully them, shoot them?) to deal with these poor desperate souls in boats and they will wonder why their parents spent everything to had to come here to a place where people hate them without even knowing them, without knowing their story.

Remember those pictures of the children removed from parents in the USA and put in cells in big warehouses?  That distressed me beyond words, and I fear for the lifelong damage that this policy may have caused these children.

Those immigration officers who I met with all those years ago were, I am sure, very professional and kind, I can’t really remember that because all that stayed with me is the fear, the instant understanding that those people were more powerful than I was and could decide on something that could hurt me.  For those children who have already gone through dangerous sea crossings or long and thirsty and hungry  walks through the desert, the distress of understanding that must be horrific and, well, those children and adults, deserve our help not our hate.  The far right is trying to dehumanise them again as they did in 2015, whipping up a panic that somehow British people are threatened by refugees.  Do not let them. These people are humans with hearts and emotions and personal stories.  Do not try and eradicate them from your reality by pretending it’s not your problem or that you should not care.  We should all care.  “There but for the grace of God go I”, or put it another way, there but for our privilege and good luck go any one of us.

@redalphababe

Jackanory Tell a Story in a Rose Garden

I hope that people who are now so exercised by the Dominic Cummings affair can now understand why so many of us have been so passionately exercised about the EU referendum and everything Brexit related that has unfolded from that.   Several excellent analyses I have seen from columnists as to why the majority of people are furious, have made the point about how personal this issue has been.

Everyone was expected to follow the Covid lockdown rules and they are, without doubt, difficult rules which divide family, which isolate people, which cause anxiety on many fronts, whether that is health, social or financial.   To see a person with power allowed to justify his breach of the rules so publicly without so much as an apology then have him and his slightly fantastical explanations defended furiously by PM and cabinet ministers alike has not only made the government a national and sadly an international disgrace,  but has touched people up and down this land at the most personal level, as they feel the pain of missing their children and grandchildren, or as they cope with their own childcare dilemmas without leaving home.

Their people have died alone, their frail elderly relatives are in care homes are maybe completely baffled as to why they are not getting visits from loved ones.  Their houses and flats are crowded, and their children are climbing the walls.  I read an article about young people going back to school in Spain as we ease out of lockdown, and the thing they found hardest was not being able to hug each other because of the social distancing rules.  This lack of being able to show our normal affection for each other is a source of pain.  Yet most people in Britain have followed the rules despite all these difficulties and temptations.  The previous government advisers found to have breached their own recommendations resigned swiftly.  Dominic Cummings instead held a personal roadshow in the Rose Garden and refused to admit he had done a single thing wrong and even let slip he has been making decisions for the Prime Minister without bothering him, a rather worrying revelation which hasn’t really been followed up by the press yet.  Nobody every voted for Dominic Cummings.  But he has done what they have all done since 2016 – doubled down again and again and got Boris Johnson and his mates to do the same.

So hold on to that thought for a moment – why you are so angry?  The Dominic Cummings/Boris Johnson partnership and their cabinet muppets are taking the mick, that’s how you feel, right?  For some of us, all this is just a continuation of the fury we have felt at the egregious interference with our families and businesses and lives that Brexit represents since 2016.  For us this has been personal for many reasons.  We have been lied to constantly, we have had broken promises, our concerns have been ignored.   You see, when government decisions have such a personal impact on the day to day lives of so many people and they are managed so badly, they cause division and make it impossible to forgive anything.  The scale of anger over the “one rule for them aspect” jars because the lockdown has affected every single person directly.  The scale of rage over Brexit and Brexit lies has been met with much apathy, indifference or irritation from the other half of the British public largely, I believe, because there are so many people who don’t think they will be affected.  They don’t think it’s relevant to them.

Conversely, the rest of us have raged because we see the hypocrisy of the crowing about removing freedom of movement for a nation, and for us personally, by a bunch of politicians many of whom have sneakily got themselves a second EU passport or who’s financial position means they will always have freedom of movement.  We have seen government ministers owning companies which have profited from the volatility of sterling through these long and terrible 5 years, a volatility caused by them,  whilst many of us with small businesses contemplate the damage that leaving the EU represents to our life’s work.

For millions of us will be affected, have been affected in the most personal way by Brexit.  People have already lost jobs, closed businesses, scrabbled around for new contracts.  Our sense of identity has been assaulted; a part ripped from us.  Families have been divided, children face a future having to choose between looking after elderly parents in one country or living with their spouses in another – forced to choose.  EU citizens have been insulted and faced discrimination and xenophobia never faced before as they have been made to justify their presence on British shores.  They are being made to pay extra for their access to medical treatment, in effect they are paying twice because they have a different passport.

Yes, I know you will point out that health and care workers are now exempted from the NHS surcharge,  but really, it’s the worse kind of racism that attempts to make out that some foreigners are more useful than others.  It’s really an extension of the “we didn’t mean you” attitude which is so offensive.   The policy should be scrapped for all immigrants living and working in the UK permanently, regardless of where in the world they are from.

EU citizens who had a legitimate vote in the EU elections last year were denied a vote with no justification simply because the Brexit government has nothing but contempt for Europeans and didn’t care enough to sort out its voter registration systems.  There is an attempt to hold the government to account for this disgraceful chapter by the way, and I would urge all of you who have professed to stand by the 3 Million to please support the 3 Million in this endeavour.  The crowdfunder offers a tangible way to challenge the government through the courts since you won’t be able to vote them out until 2024/5.  I have added the link at the bottom for this.  Please share and help if you possibly can.

The scale of rage over Brexit has been met largely with indifference or irritation amongst the general public because there are so many people who don’t believe they will be affected.  I am sorry to break the news, but whoever you are, you will be affected too at the end of 2020 when transition ends. You will all be affected.  When the government is totally blasé about whether we will have a reasonable trade deal with the EU by the end of the year, why would you now unquestionably trust them that no-deal won’t be a problem in light of current government behaviour?  If they can defend a bizarre story about driving to a castle to check your eyesight is okay, why would you believe them that we don’t need an extension to transition in the current circumstances.  If you are dependent on meds imported from the EU to stay alive, why would you think it will all be hunky dory if negotiations fail on trading arrangements when one of the key architects added something to his blog after his regulation breach in order to present himself in a certain way in that performance, claiming he had warned about Covid before it all began?  You don’t have to be a trade expert to know that no deal will present problems to supply chains.  If a virus can cause challenges to supplies of all sorts of things, as it has done,  so can a lack of trading arrangements.

If your job is hanging by a thread because your employers have used all their reserves to stay afloat with no income for months, why would you think after the economic shock of this Covid disaster is being worked out, that they will have anything left over to keep you in paid employment when their competitiveness and profitability is further slashed by no-deal consequences on their supply lines or when a deep recession removes discretionary spending from their customers pockets?   If government can carry on with a recess of parliament during a massive global health crisis and emergency, the like of which we have never seen before in our lifetimes, what makes you think they won’t keep avoiding being held to account on absolutely everything with their massive majority and 5 years to the next election.  They are taking you for mugs over Covid and Dominic Cummings, what on earth makes you think they aren’t taking us all for mugs over the refusal to request an extension and abandoning our trading relationships with our closest trading partners, neighbours and friends?  In fact, what else are they taking you for mugs over?

@redalphababe

To help right a wrong against our EU27 friends and family who were #deniedmyvote, please follow this link HERE

To sign a petition requesting the extension of transition until the Covid crisis is over please follow the link HERE