No laughing matter

Odds have narrowed on Remain in the past few days, and I am anxious. We’re back at about 3-1 for Remain (place a bet of three pounds and you’ll get four pounds back). This suggests that Remain is still the more likely option, and betting odds have recently been a better guide to outcomes than opinion polls, but momentum seems to lie with Leave.

anxiouscameron

David Cameron gave an anxious, defensive performance on Sky News last night, where he was (over)aggressively questioned by Sky’s Chief Political Editor, Faisal Islam, and by the audience (what exactly are the rewards of a life in politics?). Although the audience was balanced (a third for Remain, a third for Leave and a third uncertain) the mood was truculent and unfriendly. Much of the questioning centred on the ‘conduct’ of the campaign rather than its substance – and reasonably so, because the conduct of the campaigns, on both sides, has been execrable.

The entire Remain campaign has been defensive, an attempt to instil fear in the minds of the electorate – fear of the economic consequences of Brexit and fear of the security implications – and it has produced exaggerations that have insulted the intelligence of voters.

For example, the claim that British families will be 4,000 pounds ‘poorer’ after Brexit was deliberately misleading. Economic forecasts are highly contentious, but no one is actually suggesting that anyone will be ‘poorer than now’, rather that families will be ‘richer than now…but poorer than they would be if Britain were to remain in the EU.’

And the ‘World War Three’ claim – that peace in Europe is threatened by Brexit – was another foolish exaggeration. But Cameron never actually used the words ‘World War Three’. He simply made the link between the creation of the EU and an unprecedented 70 years of peace in Western Europe and suggested that war between European nations was not impossible to imagine . Not a stupid claim, in my view – the European Coal and Steel Community between France, Germany and other countries just after the Second World War (a precursor of the Common Market, which, in turn, preceded the EU) was an explicit attempt to entwine the largest continental economies and make war less likely. War is inconceivable now, but in a hundred years time, who knows?

When he was questioned on the idea on Sky last night the audience laughed. In fact it’s a measure of how successfully the EU has linked us all together that the idea of war is so ridiculous. It is inconceivable that there could be war in the near future between the nations of Western Europe, but Brexit doesn’t make it less likely. It might be the first small step towards hostility decades from now.

The entire debate has been largely negative. If anything, it’s been the Leave campaigners who have been the more visionary – they paint a sentimental and illogical picture of a lovely Britain for the British, truly sovereign, in control of its borders, pragmatic and efficient, and proud. A Britain that might win the World Cup again, and another World War or two. It’s a sentimental and anachronistic idea, but it resonates with voters. It is at least positive – even if wrong.

But on both sides most of the debate has  been about economic disaster, security, and most recently about immigration. And sadly, it’s the debate about immigration that’s swinging things the Brexit way. Immigration has excited British bigots since Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the 1960s.

But it’s all so negative. Who is making the positive arguments on the Remain side? Who dares to make a non-Brit-centric argument that for all its faults the EU is a good thing for Britain, for Europe and the world? No one.

Someone at Tory Party Headquarters decided that the Remain campaign should trade on Fear. I fear it might have been a big mistake.

 

 

 

 

Reminiscence

The best autobiographies have a tentative, provisional, even exploratory feel. They acknowledge that introspection isn’t a privileged process. After all, little that we know about ourselves and others is certain, and we’re all too aware that our friends and family sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.

And whether it’s autobiography, fact or fiction, the best kind of writing is alive on the page, fizzing (or just simmering) with thought and feeling, every word apt, every construction reflecting the twists and turns of the writer’s mind as they occur. That’s why cliché and predictability kill our interest so decisively.

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Both of these qualities can be found in Elena Gorokhova’s Russian Tattoo, a memoir of her life first in Leningrad and then, before the demise of the Soviet Union, as an immigrant in the USA, struggling to understand the American way of life and its language. In fact it’s hard to believe that someone who writes so imaginatively, subtly and beautifully, could ever have struggled with English. Indeed, she admits that the English language was her obsession as a student in Leningrad. Her lightness of touch, in a second language acquired only as an adult, is hugely more astonishing, for example, than Joseph Conrad’s profound but ponderous and humourless prose (Polish was his first language).

Russian Tattoo is as much about Elena’s mother and daughter, as about herself. It describes the impact on all three generations of their cultural dislocation, and their differing willingness to surrender one set of values for another. For Elena, emigration is more of a personal escape than a political liberation, and though, after a few false starts she finds work, love and happiness in the USA, there is always nostalgia for the sounds, smells (especially of mushrooms) and making-do of Russia.

Her mother, a professor of anatomy who patched up soldiers on the frontline during the Great Patriotic War, joins Elena’s family in her retirement, shortly after the fall of Communism. She lives an entirely Russian way of life in Elena’s basement, in passive, but presumably regretful, acceptance of the complete failure of the socialist dream she’d once believed in. She never learns English and is permanently bewildered by the material wastefulness of her family’s American lifestyle.

For Elena’s American-born daughter, to Elena’s great distress, Russia is initially an irrelevance, a culture and a language that have no great meaning for her, at least initially.

In the end, Elena’s mother belongs forever to Russia, Elena’s daughter almost entirely to the USA. Elena, herself, a permanent immigrant, feels at home in both countries, and in neither.  This is a fascinating, instructive and moving account of the cultural implications of immigration. Read it.

In Praise of Immigration

I can’t understand all the fuss about immigration. Most of my best friends and family are immigrants. I’m an immigrant myself. Putting aside the subtle distinctions that some immigrants and anti-immigrants make between expats, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, let’s just think of immigrants as those who settle in another country indefinitely, whatever their purpose, whether in search of opportunity or sanctuary.

immigrants

Let me itemise a few of those who populate my business, social and family life.

I am a British immigrant to the Czech Republic, where I’ve built a business in IT, software and consulting – LLP Group. I’ve been made welcome, despite my lazy failure to learn the local language. Serious cultural mismatches have been few, and the most serious have had to do with the proper making of tea.

My business partner, Barbara, is an immigrant, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants to the United States. I couldn’t have built the business without her. Her husband is an immigrant from Serbia.

My friend and colleague Darina is an immigrant from Slovakia to the Czech Republic (though it’s true these were constituent parts of the same country when she made that fateful journey). I couldn’t have built the business without her, either.

My partner is an immigrant from Moldova, now a British citizen, working in Prague.

My friend Jo, who has built a PR and Marketing business in Prague (JWA) is a British immigrant, and her partner Jan, an immigrant to Britain in the late 1960s, has returned to Prague as one of the few lawyers qualified to practice in both countries.

My friends in Prague are immigrant French, Georgian, Romanian, Slovak, and so on. And I have some local friends too.

My brother is an immigrant to Switzerland where he married a Swiss French musician. He was made to yodel at his wedding, but otherwise has faced no particular indignities.

My partner’s sister Doina is a recent immigrant to the United Kingdom. She qualified as a pharmacist in the summer, sent herself on a crash course in English in Plymouth, walked into a dozen pharmacies in London and landed herself a job inside a week.

Immigrants are hard working, determined, ambitious, tolerant, appreciative. The overwhelming majority enrich the life of the countries they live in, culturally and materially. They are rarely bent on destruction or social benefits, or the slaughtering of animals in the gutter, forced marriage or female circumcision. They have fled or sought new opportunities to avoid such things.

I write this today because I met the best taxi driver in Prague yesterday. He drove me from my office to the airport. Mr Linh (his card doesn’t give his first name) is Vietnamese, and has been driving a taxi and working with tourists in Prague for four or five years. He spoke English perfectly, and (as far as I can tell!) speaks Czech well too. He underbid his rivals on Liftago (the taxi App I always use), bidding 18 CZK instead of 28 CZK per km. He was just around the corner, and with a keen sense of market opportunity he grabbed the chance for a longer than average journey.  His car was clean and he drove with care. No hints of ash or unwashed clothes.

And when he dropped me at the airport he offered me a gift from a basket of Christmas presents he’d wrapped for his customers. I had to take his word for the fact that none was explosive but after thirty years of business travel I am a good judge of taxi drivers. I have never before been given a gift by a taxi drive, assuming you can discount those cards that point you in the direction of striptease.

Mr Linh – +420 702 348 888 – the best taxi driver in Prague.

choc

I wish immigrants the world over a very Happy Christmas. And the rest of you, be glad of us!

The Iron Curtain – Then and Now

How things have changed, and yet not at all.

I took the train from Budapest to Vienna on Friday for the first time in about twenty years. When I first lived in Budapest in 1987, the city was still behind the Iron Curtain, and it was a journey I made regularly, especially in the winter, to get away from the greyness of Budapest to the colour, culture and sophistication of Vienna, not to mention the nightlife. Passengers were few and the journey took more than four hours. Eastern Europeans, as they were then called, couldn’t travel without an approved purpose and a visa, and foreigners living in Budapest were very few.

It took nearly half an hour (and the stamping of half a dozen documents) to buy a ticket at the railway station in Budapest, and when the train stopped at the border it might take up to half an hour for the border guards to make their sweep of the train. Suspicion abounded, and I was often the focus of it.

iron curtain

On Friday last week, it took me just one minute to buy a ticket (though, admittedly I waited 30 minutes in the queue with dozens of other eager travellers) and the journey was scheduled to take only three hours. The train left on time, was full, and stopped for just a few minutes at the border. After all, we were all travelling from one Schengen state to another, and in theory passports aren’t required.

But suspicion still abounds, albeit of another kind. As the train left Budapest Keleti Station hordes of a new generation of police (no more polite than the Communist-era variety, but nowadays multi-lingual) swept through the train, demanding (often very aggressively) that anyone ‘suspicious’ (which in their book meant anyone of any colour other than white) should show his or her passport. I sat in the restaurant car with a middle-class Singaporean family (probably ‘ethnically’ Indian). I didn’t have to show my passport, but they had to show theirs. About ten passengers were then removed from the train before we reached the border.

I suppose that what I saw was the EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION PROBLEM at first hand. Hungary has recently and unilaterally adopted an aggressive attitude, though why this means preventing them from leaving the country rather than letting them go, I do not know.

We are back where we were. Borders still matter. If the government of Hungary can get away with it, there will be a new physical Iron Curtain soon on the country’s border with Serbia.