I never asked for a new passport, but last month I received a demand from the Passport Office to renew my old one. This came as a surprise, since the passport is (was) valid until March 2022, but was being withdrawn due to something called ‘Brexit’. As I later discovered, passports of a certain vintage were to be deemed invalid even if they had many months to run before their expiry date.
I was more than a little sad to send in my old EU passport, filled with many interesting stamps and visas. I had become quite attached to it. As for this ‘Brexit’, I am told it is a famous and well-known thing which has beset the times, wreaking havoc upon man and beast alike (many creatures being stranded in transit between this land and others, even as I write). All of this has been impressed rudely upon me since returning to my home in Wales in early December.
I had been living, since August, in a small and remote Catalan village — my family home from home for nearly twenty years —which has no cases of COVID, and in which the neighbours look out for one another, by and large. It is a close community, and despite the typical village hazards of everyone knowing everyone else’s business, it feels like a safe place to be in these hazardous times. There is a genuine sense of community, something almost unheard of in UK cities nowadays. So Mrs Blanco and I weighed up the pros and cons of returning to Cardiff.
Pros were: (a) we would get to see our daughters for Christmas and (b) we would stand a chance of getting a COVID vaccine far more quickly than if we stayed in Spain.
Cons were: (a) we would have to follow quarantine rules, despite moving from a place with no COVID to an area with more COVID per head of population than anywhere else in Europe — see diagram below indicating COVID rates in Wales as compared with UK and Europe, BBC Wales 14 December, 2020; (b) we would almost certainly have to go into a further period of lockdown — there seems to be a glorious indifference to safety here in the UK and, unlike in Spain, face masks are a rarity except inside shops and offices — which, inevitably, occurred just as we were emerging from quarantine; (c) we would, as a consequence of (b) be restricted to taking exercise and walking our aged dog, Bruno, in a city park near our house. But I don’t want to whinge . . . millions of people have it far, far worse than us. At least we have a roof over our heads, food, a warm house, a loving family . . .
Long story short, the Pros won out, and here we are.
Much has been written about British exceptionalism in recent times, including by me, and I don’t especially wish to add to the growing literature, but I must mention just one thing: it strikes me as rather odd when a police chief announces on national radio that it would be ‘un-British’ of his officers to set up road-blocks in order to question and fine persons found to be breaking the regulations on correct behaviour with regard to COVID, as I heard on BBC Radio 4 on Monday’s Today programme. The man in question was the chief of a Northern English police force, I forget his name. I can find no discussion of this in the media, and yet it seems to me an astonishing pronouncement. Does this man think the COVID virus gives a shit about British exceptionalism?
In Catalunya, if you were found out and about in your car at the weekend without a valid reason — and had failed to fill out an appropriate form detailing that reason — you would be fined 300 €, no questions asked. The system works. Numbers indicate that a relatively large fine is something of a deterrent when trying to contain a widespread and potentially deadly virus. How very un-British.
But this laxity has been the attitude of our leaders since the beginning of the outbreak, when Boris blathered on about the God-given right of the Englishman to go to the pub, and look where it’s gotten us, what with much of the UK in lockdown over Christmas, including the whole of Wales.
Back to the passport.
The new thing arrived this morning. I am in two minds about it. Firstly, and against my better judgement, I approve of the colour on a purely aesthetic, if not a symbolic level. It works better with the golden Royal Arms: a lion wearing a crown and quite possibly laughing (or yawning) — and a unicorn, an appropriately fictional beast. Plus ça change.
My photo — in which, as Mrs Blanco helpfully pointed out, I resemble a criminal gang member, possibly even a Mexican cartel boss — does not flatter, but when do passport photos ever achieve more than a passing resemblance to their subjects? In ten years’ time, when the passport expires, and I am a wizened and decrepit old maniac, I may well find it flattering. Indeed, when that time comes, who knows what the alignment of our nation will be? Almost certainly the United Kingdom will be no more. Scotland will be an independent country and Ireland will be united, and I very much doubt that, as a Welshman, I will want to be a citizen of the residual mess of a nation, torn apart by the regressive fantasies of the Little Englanders, and the associated qualities of prejudice, ignorance and racism that their belief system upholds.
Back to the passport.
A new feature is that the title of the document is written, as you can see, in six languages. English, obviously, and then, in descending order:
SpanishThe first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enou
The first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enough. French is (or was) the official language of diplomacy, but is it still? I doubt it. And besides, for many Brexiteers, it is the French, as much or even more than the Germans, that they object to on principle. Especially Nigel Farage, whose surname, of course, is French, whichever way you pronounce it.
Spanish, ahead of English, is the most widely spoken first language in the world (discounting Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken by more than either of them, if not across so wide an area of the world’s surface). So I guess that would explain the inclusion of the language of Cervantes. All told, it strikes me as a generous and inclusive list, which, given the generally monoglot and monocultural attitude of those who demanded the new passport in the first place, strikes me as somewhat counter-intuitive.
Finally, considering the fuss made by the Brexiteers about ‘taking back control’ — that idiotic phrase: take back control of what precisely? — and asserting the UK’s ‘independence’ from those dastardly continentals, it is deeply ironic that my new passport, rather than being an all-British affair, was actually produced by a French company and printed in Poland.
It transpires that in 2018, following open tender under public procurement rules, the Franco-Dutch security firm Gemalto was selected over British banknote and travel document printer De La Rue to produce the new passports. Hurrah for the free market! I hear you exclaim. However, the success of Gemalto in winning the contract proved highly controversial — after all, we took back control, didn’t we? — and the production of British passports subsequently moved from Tyneside to Tczew, in Poland, resulting in the loss of 170 jobs at De La Rue’s Gateshead factory. For the record, Gateshead voted Leave by a 57%-43% majority in the 2016 EU referendum. Gemalto, meanwhile, has since been taken over by the French multinational Thales, a leading manufacturer of advanced weapon systems and munitions (share price 73.36 €).
The blow to De La Rue employees in Gateshead did not prevent the constituency from undergoing an 11% swing towards the Tories at the 2019 general election. Apparently the lure of ‘Independence’ from Europe was too cheering a proposition to be flushed down the toilet by a vote for anyone other than BoJo, despite the shambles of the new contract for the manufacture of UK passports, and the job losses it inflicted on the local community.
It has become almost a cliché in recent years to remark on the conflation of reality and fiction in the post-truth world — both here on Brexit Island, as well as in Trumpland — but really, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
As we creep towards the New Year, and the promise of further months of lies and dithering from an incompetent government, intent on handing out lucrative contracts to their chums for the running of Test and Trace (remember that?) and much else besides, and the unrolling of the various COVID vaccines, and a seemingly inevitable crashing out of Europe, most likely without a deal, I cannot help but reflect on how this royal shitshow might end, and when, if ever, we might recover from the shame and idiocy evoked by those words, British exceptionalism; or whether indeed those words suffice for a condition that seems to be more adequately described as a sort of collective death wish, inflicted upon them by their Etonian overlords, and readily embraced by a significant proportion of the British people.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world, the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider wrote to friends and fellow writers around the world, asking for contributions to a Journal of the Plague Year (in homage to Defoe’s work of that title). Most of the contributors were from Latin America, but others lived in Europe or Asia. Jorge, an old friend, is indefatigable in organising people; all of the pieces were translated into Spanish, and will eventually be published in a single volume. The criteria were simply that the entries be under 500 words, and the resulting work, tracking the pandemic and the ways that different governments responded in diverse countries, makes for fascinating reading. Over the next three days, I will be posting my own contributions to the collection, made over the months of March, April and May as a record of my own experience of living with the pandemic in Wales.
As soon as the news broke that the plague had arrived in Europe, it was obvious it would come to Brexit Island, but our government was in denial. They gabbled on about the globally repudiated tactic of herd immunity. They refused to join forces with their EU counterparts in focus groups dedicated to resisting the pandemic, and they ignored the World Health Organisation recommendations for immediate lockdown. However, none of the efforts of Prime Minister Johnson or his pals to distance themselves from the place they fondly call ‘the continent’ was ever going to stop this thing from crossing the Channel — and with a vengeance, given the head start our leaders had allowed it. The extent of our Prime Minister’s lack of interest during the weeks before the lockdown is shocking: he didn’t turn up at five consecutive key COBRA meetings to discuss policy on the pandemic, and one senior government adviser told The Sunday Times that Boris ‘didn’t work weekends’ and ‘there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.’ For Boris, resistance to the plague was merely a hindrance to the more pressing agenda of Brexit. However, it became apparent to many observers that the government’s laggardly approach was likely to have serious repercussions on the British population, such that the UK might turn out to be the European country most affected by the pandemic, and with the highest number of casualties.
On 20th March Boris announces the closure of the pubs. ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,’ he said. The right-wing, Brexit-loving newspaper The Sun reports this rather differently: ‘Mr Johnson said it went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’. In this version, as Fintan O’Toole points out in an article in The Guardian, ‘the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not on the “people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but on “people born in England”. It does not apply to Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. It is a particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.’ So, we — or rather, the English — are not going to the pub. I don’t care. I don’t drink any more. But that is not the point: as O’Toole reminds us, this outburst of Johnson’s was about something else: ‘What Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.’ He was flagging up the fact that ‘we’ (the English) are special and different, not like those ‘continentals’. So we will, reluctantly, stay at home and not go to the pub, but we won’t impose a full lockdown just yet. We will wait and see, and Boris will continue to shake hands with whoever he likes because he is Boris, who at the age of five told his sister Rachel that his ambition was to be ‘king of the world.’
As the recipient of another man’s liver, I knew I would be one of those persons deemed ‘at risk’. I take immunosuppressants and therefore, in theory, am more susceptible to catching nasty things. I email my consultant and ask his advice. He tells me to follow government guidelines, and that I will shortly receive a letter with instructions about ‘shielding’, a new term to me, but one that will soon become very familiar.
I live in a house close to Cardiff city centre with my wife and daughter no. 1, who is a junior doctor, and living with us while saving to buy her own place. I am a university professor and walk into work most days, up the river and across the park. A pleasant walk. I am reasonably fit and visit the gym frequently. I walk my dog in the park. We get out at weekends. We live an active life.
When the plague comes to our island I decide not to go into work. I tell my Head of School that I will work from home as from 16th March. Daughter no. 2 visits us from London just before the lockdown is announced. Her employers there tell her she can work from home, and since she is here, she stays with us in Cardiff. We are all four at home then, for a few days. On Sunday 22nd March we drive to the mountains near my natal village and go for a long hike. We do not realise it will be our last excursion of this kind for a long time. On Monday 23rd March the university announces that it will close, and that if anyone wants to retrieve anything from their office they should do so now. I drive in and collect my plants, drive home. In the evening Boris announces to the nation in an evening broadcast that the lockdown has begun. He is in Churchillian mode, trying very hard to do serious and sober. The next day daughter no. 1 leaves home and moves in with a medic friend. She works in a local hospital and doesn’t want to infect me or her mother with the plague.
On the 1st April, as foretold by my consultant, I receive a letter from the Welsh Government telling me that as a person with ‘an existing health issue’ I need to take extra steps to avoid catching the plague. If I live with other people (i.e. my wife or daughter no. 2) I should ‘try to keep away from them as much as you can. Try not to be in the same room. If you have to be in the same room try and keep a window open. Keep three steps away . . . Do not sleep in the same bed if you can avoid it . . . Use different bathrooms if you can. If you share a bathroom, clean it after every use. Avoid using the kitchen at the same time as others and eat your meals in separate rooms. Clean all cups, plates and cutlery thoroughly.’
We are still allowed to exercise, and to take the dog for walks. I take my ancient dog, Bruno, for an early stroll by the River Taff, which divides the city in two. The path along the Taff doubles as a cycle track. As we climb onto it from the river bank, where we have been watching the swans, a cyclist, speeding towards us at thirty metres’ distance yells: ‘Get out the bloody way!’ I am so astonished at his rudeness that I am temporarily lost for words. The cyclist has swished past and is heading for the bridge. All I can see of him are his taut, jigging buttocks and his pumping legs. ‘Fuck off, you lycra-clad Nazi’ I yell, finally enunciating a phrase I have been dying to utter for some years now. Passers-by stop and stare, and follow my gaze upstream towards the cyclist. I am willing him to stop. I want him to return so we can have a proper confrontation. The adrenaline is racing through me. I want to rough him up, show him what’s what. The image of a 63 year old man wrestling with a wiry young sporting type on the sidewalk is not very becoming, I’ll admit, but I am fuming. What has come over me? Plague madness? Fortunately the man doesn’t return in response to my taunt. I shuffle home, pondering what might have been.
Boris comes down with the plague. Hardly surprising, considering the way he’s been ignoring his own advice about social distancing and shaking hands with everyone. Why’s it called social distancing anyway? Why isn’t it called personal distancing? He falls ill, and then, dramatically, gets taken into hospital, and onto an intensive care unit. The nation holds its breath.
Today’s poem is by the Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’Abal, who died unexpectedly last year, at the age of 66. I met Humberto only once, but his intelligence, courtesy and gentleness made a lasting impression. Two of his poems appear in The Other Tiger.
The nights in Chonimutux
are thick and black.
You can pick up a little
between your hands
to seal off
small holes in the walls.
They are like inverted ravines.
If you keep looking at their depths
you will feel yourself falling headfirst
as if the earth were above you
and you were standing on the sky.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Las noches en Chonimutux
son espesamente negras.
un poco entre las manos
y tapar con ella
hoyitos en las paredes.
Son como barrancos boca abajo.
Si te quedás viendo su hondura
sentís irte de cabeza
como si la tierra estuviera arriba
y uno parado en el cielo.
Humberto Ak’Abal was born in 1952 in Momostenango, Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya people. He started out as a shepherd and weaver before leaving to find work in Guatemala City as a street vendor. He wrote in Maya-k’iche and Spanish, and his work has translated into many languages, including French, English, German, Arabic and Italian. Ak’Abal published twenty books of poetry, as well as three books of short stories, and two books of essays. Ak’Abal died suddenly in January 2019.