Sunday, December 15, 2019


Modica, Italy
13th December 2019

Dearest Britain,

A park in Norwich, Norfolk

I don't live in you now and, though I left you 15 years ago for another country that had captured my heart, that doesn't mean I no longer love you, for it was you that bore me, nurtured me, educated and made me and there will always be a British girl inside the continental me. I write now because what happened to you yesterday was shocking, devastating, frightening and deeply upsetting; its consequences cannot be foreseen at this juncture, but 24 hours on they seem bleak. I may still love you – I always will – but I no longer recognise you.

The country I left was far from perfect and our imperialist past was not something that most of us boasted about. Of course there was racism, as there is everywhere and I witnessed it myself, but it also seemed to me that it was generally understood that democracy means that you cannot impinge upon the freedom of others. When exactly did that change? When did people begin to believe that they could make whatever anti-foreigner, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-elderly, anti-you-name-it comment they liked with impunity – in one of the most diverse and tolerant countries in the world? I am too far away to know and I doubt you know yourself but it has happened. Tolerance, it seems, has gone and soon it could be followed off our little group of islands by accountability in the “Mother of Parliaments”, the independence of the judiciary and perhaps even the constitutional monarchy.

When you see your own country from afar, you are unable to balance your pessimism regarding events there with a healthy dose of observation of your countrymen and women just getting on with their normal lives, but I would guess that what happened is simply that democracy is fragile and, having enjoyed it for so long, we took our eye off the ball. Then the 2008 recession gave the charlatans the opportunity they had been waiting for to exploit discontent. And you fell for it, my country. Not having known an occupation within living memory, you failed to see the danger when it came and you are failing to understand it now. This tide will turn, of course, whether peacefully or not I cannot say, and I certainly would not hazard a guess as to how long it will take.

So let us think back for a moment to a generation, that of my parents, who did recognise a serious threat to their freedom, for what I really want to talk about tonight are memories. Whenever I fly back to you, Britain, as the plane comes in over the Channel and Kent, I think first of Folkestone, a town of which I have no memory but to which I was sent at the age of eight weeks – to an orphanage there, because my natural mother couldn't afford to keep me. (Do you really want to go back to that, Britain? A narrow, judgemental state in which single mothers are forced to give up their children? It seems that you do, judging from remarks made by the now re-elected Prime Minister.) Seven months later, in the cold November of 1950, two kind, loving people who longed for a baby – a Bristol newsagent and his wife, both of Welsh origin – visited that orphanage in Folkestone and they drove back to Bristol with an extra passenger - me. My bond with the man who had just become my father was instant and I miss him to this day. I was told that I also went willingly into my mother's arms but took longer about it!

As the plane nears London, I look down and try to get my geographical bearings of that enormous city and its outskirts and I remember that somewhere down there I went to school, accompanied my big-hearted, generous but flawed dad to both casinos and Gamblers Anonymous meetings (somewhere near Buckingham Palace), became part-Londoner and grew up. Also down there his ashes mingled with my mum's, in the Ruislip Garden of Remembrance named after the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear. I only went back there once after their respective funerals (twenty years apart), on the 25th anniversary of my dad's death and I learnt that they were not there, for they are where I am. If I hadn't known that, I would have been unable to leave.

Westminster Abbey

They sat in their North London Garden, the girl and her dad, and he spoke to her sometimes in Latin, sometimes in French and he bequeathed to her his love and knowledge of books. Without him, she would not have become a linguist. He also bequeathed to her his humour, his quintessentially British irony and his gift for repartee. They served her well as a teacher and they serve her well now, when humour is all there is, she thinks, to help her deal with the situation.

Chronic illness had prevented dad from fighting (much to his frustration), so back in Bridgend, Wales, he had worked in the Arsenal, then in Bristol hosted American soldiers and joined the Home Guard. He and mum had been horrified by fascism and, like many of his era, he had, before what was always referred to as “The War”, been a member of the Communist Party because it was thought to be the only way to stop Hitler. Later, disillusioned, he left it and received threats for doing so. During the war and during our Bristol years he worshipped Churchill. That was a different kind of Conservatism, though – a party of the rich for the rich, yes, but there was a sense of decency and of responsibility for the fate of their fellow-Britons. In London during the Heath premiership, dad switched his allegiance to the Labour Party because, he said, they cared for the ordinary worker.

Dad (second from left) in the Bridgend Arsenal

My journey from the airport usually continues by coach and down we go, towards the South-West. I still have a sense of childish excitement when I see the motorway signs to “The South-West and Wales”. It's best before evening, when you can still see the green on either side, and as we near Bristol I muse that in some of these fields, cut through by the very road I am travelling on, the little girl and her dad used to go mushroom-hunting. Then she became a teenager and suddenly she was hurtling along the nearby country lanes in her boyfriend's car. She wept and wept when they left for London in the spring of 1965.

And now we come to the Bridge - the span across the River Severn which takes you into Wales. And Wales it is which gives me my real British identity. I grew up among its gentle accents, heard and sang its music every day, assimilated its culture and regarded it always as “home”. As you cross the Bridge you can still see the loading point for the old Aust ferry, which (if you were lucky) took you across before the miracle of the First Severn Bridge. (If you are unfamiliar with that part of Britain, you may be interested to know that the Severn has the third highest tidal range in the world. Hence the two bridges across it that now exist are true feats of engineering.) Sometimes you queued for hours, only to be told that they could take no more cars across that evening, either because of the current or because of the time, and then you had to get into Wales by driving “all around bloody Gloucestershire” as dad would bad-temperedly put it. Once in Wales, we were home and we stayed with my uncle and aunt or in the Cardiff Central Hotel owned by dad's cousin Frank. Years later, as a university student, I spent many drunken nights in its bar – Frank, the hotel guests and its staff had long gone – and later still it was all destroyed by fire. Wales was, and is, the sound of kindly, sing-songy voices, the land of the cwtch (cuddle - and believe me, there's nothing like a Welsh one), the aroma of Welshcakes cooking on a bakestone, a carpet of daffodils in March and April and the land of childhood warmth.

In Wales you'll find daffodils even when there aren't any!
Here, daffodil ornaments are on sale
 at Cardiff Christmas Market

But now I make another journey on these rare trips home: from Cardiff to Norwich, or sometimes straight from London to Norwich, another town of which I have no childhood memory, and yet it is where it all began. For that is where I was born and spent such a short time with my natural mother, who already had a three-year-old daughter called Jill, my sister. How we met after 64 years is a story I have told elsewhere but it is in Norwich that my British life comes full circle and yes, I do have a strange sense there, too, of coming home, of having been there before. Sadly I can only visit my natural mother at her graveside and I take her Welsh daffodils or, at this time of year, a little Christmas tree, and I hope she knows that Jill and I are there together. I have come to love Norwich in its own right, too – its lanes, the glory of its Cathedral, which I have found to be welcoming, and the peace of the nearby Broads.

A peaceful morning in Norwich

A Christmas tree for my natural mother
And on the way there I cross London again and remember other times, fashions and events, both in its life as a city and in my own.

To borrow from Rupert Brooke, all these things I have loved in you, Britain and, even though I do not recognise you now in your national life, they endure, for no politician can take my memories, though age may do so. Therefore I set them down now, for I want you to know that I have loved you, and I hope that you will come through this dark period as you have come through others – stronger, more determined to preserve what is good and, hopefully, kinder – and that if I do not live to see it, others will.


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