Showing posts with label Brexit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brexit. Show all posts

Breaking Eggs.

I've been reading political books over the past couple of weeks, possibly triggered by the fact that for the first time in my voting life, I don't know who to vote for. Hoping for inspiration. Maybe it's my choices:  John Crace, Gavin Esler and now the acidly funny Marina Hyde. But even though they've made me laugh, it's hollow laughter and I still don't know who to vote for. They've just brought back to me the hideousness of the past few years, and the general impression that whoever is in power, it's likely to continue, because we have a broken, undemocratic system, as corrupt and useless as any of those countries we used to mock. 

One quote from Marina Hyde struck me forcefully. It's a quote of a quote of a quote, but it's apt. 'There's something rather Stalinist about Brexit's wreakers of so-called creative destruction. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge quotes the Romanian writer Panait Istrati, when the latter visited the 1930s USSR of purges and show trials. "All right, I can see the broken eggs," he said, "Where is this omelette of yours?"' Hyde wrote this piece in 2017. Little did she know what was coming our way. 

No sign of the omelette so far. Lots of destruction, even in small ways. I posted three slim poetry books to Poland yesterday. It took about fifteen minutes, while the patient counter assistant weighed the little parcels, measured them, asked what was in them, looked up the customs number for books, typed in the Polish addresses, typed in my address three times, printed out stamps and bar codes, stuck them on, along with an air mail sticker, and then printed out three customs forms for me to sign. And don't even ask about the cost. As anyone who has tried this knows, it will still be touch and go whether they arrive at all. Don't blame the EU. We did this to ourselves. All this for something that pre-Brexit involved a small and very simple sticker of which I kept a stash at home. God knows what small businesses including small publishers do. Actually - I know what they do. They don't send to Europe. Or import from there. Well done, 'party of business'.  

There's a bit of fairly low key egg breaking going on in my world as well at the moment. Well, it IS  low key in that the vast majority of people won't give a flying you-know-what about it.  'Writers' (I use the word advisedly, because some of them seem to be more celebrities than actual working writers) have demanded that book festivals such as Hay divest themselves of their main sponsor, a company called Baillie Gifford. I should explain that unless you want to charge Taylor Swiftian prices for tickets without the added attraction of Taylor herself, most book festivals need help to stay solvent. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is next on their list. And more, since the company in question does a lot of sponsoring. The egg smashers call themselves Fossil Free Books. BG's investment in fossil fuels is minimal, and it's obvious that the FFB crowd don't understand much if anything about the rules surrounding investments. I'm seldom invited to book festivals, although whenever I have been, I've enjoyed the experience. And sometimes it has been very moving, like my gig last year at the excellent Boswell Book Festival, on the same platform as a traumatised young woman who had escaped from Ukraine, with her equally traumatised little girl. 

Mostly festivals are a significant pleasure for those attending, including middle aged and elderly women. Who buy a lot of books. And the organisers generally do excellent work promoting reading to children as well. But hey, the omelette brigade are gaily smashing eggs and celebrating their success, all while disclaiming any responsibility for finding replacement sponsors. 'Not our job,' they say. 'We've broken it. Now fix it.' It remains to be seen if the omelette ever materialises, or if they're simply left with egg covered faces. 

But here's a thing. The most cursory online search reveals that the UK's biggest book chain is now owned by a US hedge fund with a really significant investment in oil. Are all those writers who signed letters demanding that book festivals find new sponsors now going to approach their publishers demanding that they remove their books from this chain? And if not, why not? There's signalling virtue and then there's shooting yourself in both feet. Perhaps the foot shooting is the preserve only of Brexiters. 

All of which leads me back to my initial problem. I still have no idea who to vote for. Where are Lord Buckethead and Count Binface when you need them? 

Swedish Cinnamon Buns, Seeing Family, and More Bureaucratic Fudging


Yesterday, in spite of the heat - it's still warm and sunny in south west Scotland - I baked some Swedish cinnamon buns. They're delicious, and I had to freeze some, otherwise we'd have eaten far too many of them. I'll put the recipe at the end of this post so if you want to, you can skip the small rant that follows and go straight to the recipe! 

I first came across these gorgeous Scandinavian pastries when I worked in Finland for a couple of years, back in the 1970s. Then, I forgot all about them until I started reading crime fiction from Sweden, in which everyone seemed to eat them, which made me want some too, so I had to seek out a recipe from a friend. 

A few months ago, mid pandemic, our son moved to Sweden. Before that, he had been working in Barcelona for a couple of years. We were meant to visit him there, but Covid put a stop to all that. And then, at the request of his company, he moved to Stockholm. He loves the city and he loves his job, so there are no complaints on that score. In fact I'm delighted for him, because if he was unhappy, we'd be doubly unhappy too.

It would be true to say that Brexit has done him no favours, making everything infinitely more complicated than it need be. But at least, working in video game design, he has skills that are very much in demand. 

In the same boat.

However, we haven't seen him for some 18 months now. We are not alone. I could name at least a dozen friends in the same boat. There are people who haven't seen longed-for grandchildren, there are people who have missed weddings and funerals, there are chronically ill people who are desperate for a (vaccinated and tested) visit from a much loved family member living abroad. There are probably millions of us, although nobody knows, because nobody in government, not in Westminster and not in Scotland, seems to care. Nobody seems aware that vast numbers of families have members living elsewhere. In fact it feels like a concept with which most politicians are totally unfamiliar.

We are at the back of a long queue, while the government and the media focus almost exclusively on holidays. 

Earlier this year our son booked - and then cancelled - a trip home on 17th July. He had holidays and was planning to spend a week with us, but it wasn't to be. Partly it was that the flights kept being changed. Mostly it was that he had had only one vaccination by then, he would have had to isolate at home with us, which he would have willingly done for the days of his visit. But nobody, not even our - otherwise extremely helpful and obliging MP - could tell us what the protocol was for getting tested. As a UK citizen coming back here, he would have to register and pay a rather extortionate amount up front for two tests, only one of which he would use, since he would be returning to Sweden within 7 days. Nobody could give us any information about how he would obtain the other test necessary for travelling back to Sweden. (Test centres are only for residents, not UK passport holders.) Or what would happen about the expensive but wasted test, meant to be submitted by post on day eight. 

The Same Vaccinations

Now, he's hoping to come back for a few days in late September, or early October. Taking the bull by the horns, I wrote to the Scottish health secretary, pointing out that even though rules had been relaxed for double vaccinated people returning to the UK, neither Scotland not anywhere else in the UK was prepared to recognise the very same vaccinations, given in the EU. Even though proof of said vaccination would be available. 

What I got from the 'operational management team' was disappointing. It was a standard, vague and faintly admonitory email as though I had asked an unreasonable question, and not one that is exercising many thousands of people in the whole of the UK right now. In fact it didn't really answer my detailed question at all. Basically, it said, we know best, best get back in your box till we tell you what you can do.

It surely shouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility to respond to a concerned citizen by saying that EU and indeed worldwide vaccinations and tests will be recognised as soon as possible and that tests will also be made available while people are visiting family in Scotland. Most people would be happy to pay for them. We don't expect miracles. We don't expect it to happen tomorrow. Just a response that refrains from sending out a bureaucratic finger-wagging one-size-fits-all exercise, recognises the pressing problem and promises a solution some time soon. 

If, like me, you need something to sweeten your temper, here's the recipe for cinnamon buns

I mix it in my bread-maker and bake it in the oven. I use the measuring cups that came with the bread-maker, which I think are very similar to US cups. but this is a very forgiving recipe so as long as you get the relative proportions right, it should be OK. 


1 cup milk

4 tablespoons melted butter

half a cup of caster sugar

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom (I had run out so I pounded a few seeds and used them instead but you can leave this out altogether if you're not keen on cardamom.)

1 beaten egg plus extra for glazing

4 - 5 cups plain flour

1 packet dried yeast


2 tablespoons melted butter

three quarters cup of soft brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon (more if you like) 


I chuck all the pastry ingredients into the bread-maker on the 'dough' setting. This is usually about an hour and a half, but I sometimes give it another half hour or so on the same setting. If you don't have a bread-maker, you can just put the dry ingredients together, add the wet and mix it all in a bowl, kneading it very well in the usual way, and then leaving it in a warm place to rise for an hour or so. It should be very soft, but not sticky. The spices can be variable - you can add more or less according to your taste.

Divide your yeast pastry in half, and roll out one half into a rectangle, brush with plenty of melted butter, and sprinkle with mixed sugar and cinnamon. Then, roll it up, starting on the long side, cut your roll into about seven triangles, pinch each into an ear shape (I'm not very good at this, but they still turn out OK) and put on a well greased baking tray. Do the same thing with the other half. You finish up with about 14 buns and you can put them reasonably close together on the tray. The filling will leak out a bit but this doesn't matter. Leave in a warm place till they start to rise again and then brush with beaten egg.

Bake in a hot oven: 400F or 200C for about 15 minutes, perhaps a little more. My oven is over hot, so I find 175C works better and doesn't over crisp them. Leave them to cool on the tray for a little while before lifting so that any leaked sugar has time to set. Best eaten warm. They don't need butter. Lovely just as they are - especially with a large mug of coffee. 

Don't Mention the War

Little Polish boys after so called 'amnesty' in the Soviet Union,
before the deportations of 1942

 A little while ago, somebody on one of my online groups posted one of those jokey Brexity memes - a story about Churchill and Macron, the punchline of which implied that England won the war, single handed, while the rest of Europe simply surrendered.  

It struck me even more offensively than it otherwise might, because I'm in the middle of researching my Polish grandfather's life story for a new book. His son, my father, had been in a Nazi labour camp, eventually coming to the UK as a refugee, via Italy, with the Polish II Corps. My grandfather, in the Polish army, had been arrested along with many of his countrymen and women and sent east, in his case to the notorious Kharkiv prison in the USSR, a place from which tales of torture and execution emanate, all of them so horrible that I can only read about them for a certain length of time.

I came away from the group. It was either that, or lose my temper, which would have upset other people and wouldn't have made any difference. 

But I've thought about it a lot, since then: the whys and wherefores of it, and the way in which Brexit has spawned - or perhaps simply legitimised - a jingoism that seems largely without any foundation in reality, and that now goes hand in glove with a need to proclaim Britain's (aka England's) greatness at every opportunity. It isn't enough, apparently, to be merely competent or efficient. We have to be 'world beating' with the emphasis on that word 'beat'. It's an adult version of the language of the playground and I hate it. 

Along with many - perhaps most - people who experienced the worst atrocities of WW2, my father seldom if ever spoke about that time. The kindest, wisest of men, he hated nobody. He would, however, have hated Brexit and all that inspired it. Before he died, too young, in 1995, he wrote down reminiscences of his childhood in the countryside near Lwow, now Lviv in the Ukraine. He had little to say about the war. Later, I learned more from other people, from books, and from his war record which referred to his internment in a Nazi labour camp, his time in the army in Italy, and his resettlement as a refugee in Leeds.

My beloved Yorkshire uncle George, who served in the Royal Navy and took part in the Atlantic convoys, never spoke about the war either. When I visited Warsaw, as a young woman, in the 1970s, I remember a friend of our Polish family taking me for a walk around the beautiful rebuilt old town and telling me quietly and unemotionally about the uprising in which he had taken part, about this or that friend who had died in this or that place, and about the ensuing destruction. 

Warsaw destroyed

Two thoughts occurred to me as I pondered that thoughtless little joke. Mainland Britain has not, within living memory, been invaded. Not by a stronger and utterly ruthless force. Better, perhaps, to leave the Irish situation out of this for the moment. But the British people who like to scoff at those countries for their supposed 'surrender' have not the foggiest notion of the realities of invasion.

Moreover, those of us born in the years after the war, don't even know the reality experienced by our parents and grandparents, those who fought but also those who saw the full horror at first hand. 

Because they didn't tell us. 

Just like the soldiers who returned from the Trenches in WW1, none of them told us what it was really like. Partly because it was indescribably terrible, but partly because they needed to forget, to get on with their lives. Some, like my father, succeeded, but some didn't. Mostly I think they wanted to protect us, the loved ones who came after, the ones born into that brave new post war world. I can understand it, but now I'm no longer so sure that it was the right thing to do. 

Instead, they welcomed the way in which post war Europe, flawed and difficult as the project might be, came together as a community, with the hope that future horrors could be avoided. Later, most people had few illusions about the Common Market and then the EU. Their eyes were wide open. But it was far better than the alternative. I think we have betrayed them. 

To most of them, the real older generation, Brexit would have been unthinkable. My father loved his grandson very dearly, and he would have been nothing but proud of the fact that he considers himself to be a European, with friends from across the continent, including from Germany and Austria as, in fact, my father had himself. 

We think we know about the war but we don't. We watch films, but no matter how good the writing, the acting, the direction, the very nature of film sanitises. We can and do read about it, but words and images slide away from us. We can put the book down, make another cup of coffee, give ourselves a shake and walk the dog. We can't feel the helpless terror. 

Researching the background for my new book, I ran - as I am still running - eBay searches for photographs and ephemera from dad's part of the world. Much of what pops up consists of postcards of Lwow and other towns and cities of the region, mostly pre-war, some of them even older. 

But not all. 

Every so often I'll find a run of photographs, real photographs, casual snapshots, taken perhaps by soldiers. Photographs from the 1930s and 40s. And they are photographs of horrors. Mass graves, people burying other people in icy conditions, hanged men and women, corpses, pictures of destruction, as though you had taken the pictures of the Blitz, wartime Liverpool, or Clydebank, terrible as they all were, and replicated them across the whole of the British isles, including every small town or rural village, not just with utter destruction, but with millions of dead, with trails of displaced people, starving, skeletal people, cold and diseased people transported thousands of miles, and pictures of casual cruelty, genocide, summary execution. Not for nothing were these called Bloodlands. I've even bought a handful of them when I thought they might be relevant to my own researches. I don't show them around though. I seldom even look at them myself.

So forgive me if I find glib jokes about how plucky little England saved Europe so deeply offensive.

 Because they are. 


Old Photographs and Uncertain Times


The Czerkawski siblings, Meryszczow, 1926

As I said towards the end of my last blog post, I'm in the middle of researching my Polish grandfather's life story, for a new book. We're in the middle of a pandemic and enduring the hideous culmination of a Brexit that a large majority of people in Scotland (and many in England) didn't vote for and loathe more and more, the deeper Westminster drags us into it. 

All of which is keeping me awake at night.

The photograph above is in the book about the Kossak family that I also mentioned in that last post and that had been sitting on my bookshelves for some time. Wanda Czerkawska - the shyly smiling lady facing the camera - was going to marry artist Karol Kossak in 1927, so her story would become part of the much more famous Kossak family story. Wanda was born in 1898, so she was six years older than my grandfather, and 28 when this picture was taken. They must have believed that she would become an old maid, at a time when women especially tended to marry young. The book is in Polish. My command of that language is very limited, so I could do little more than skim through it, although a friend translated the chapter on Wanda's family for me. I thought I had looked at all the pictures, but when I was casually leafing through it a few weeks ago, the photograph above leapt out at me. I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it, but perhaps it was because the book was still new and shiny, I had simply missed the page.

It excited and moved me.

I have only two other photographs of my grandfather. One is a small head and shoulders snapshot and the other is with my grandmother and my father as a young child. His hair is in a bob, and he's wearing a smock, as boy children did in those days. But until I saw this new picture, I had no group images of the siblings of the family and none so early. 

It's intriguing, that photograph. 

My grandfather
Firstly there's the focus on my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, in the middle. He was more handsome than that in other pictures, but here, he is the main figure in the picture, with the rest of the family slightly out of focus, grouped around him. He looks solemn and thin and under a certain amount of stress. And he's wearing a black armband. I'm fairly certain that he is wearing it for his mother, Anna, who had died in 1925. This had left Wladyslaw central to the family in all kinds of ways. His widowed mother had made a second marriage, one of which, for various reasons that are becoming clearer to me, the family disapproved intensely, and which seems to have been less than happy. There was a child of that marriage, Danuta Hanakowska, born in 1920, and Wladyslaw must have known that her care and upbringing would be left to him and his young wife, again for reasons that are becoming clearer to me. I'd been wondering about the starched lady at the back of the picture, the one turning away from the camera as though she doesn't quite belong. But of course she would have been Danuta's nurse.

Of the others in the picture, the lady in profile with thick, dark, bushy hair (hair that she passed on to me) is my grandmother, Lucja. She was only 20, though she looks older, and the little bump she is showing would have been my father, who would be born in May of that year. At the back, between my grandfather and grandmother, you can see the profile of a pretty young woman, fashionably dressed in white. That would be Ludmila, or Ludka, the beautiful, spoilt baby of the family. I remember seeing a picture of her among Wanda's possessions, when I was in Poland in the 1970s, dressed in silk lounging pyjamas and sporting a cigarette in an elegant holder. It was, of course, difficult to copy photographs back then, but if anyone out there still has them, I'd be delighted to have copies of them. I think they may be with the Kossak relatives in Sweden, with whom, sadly, I lost touch. 

I don't know who the others are: the lady with the cloche hat at the back ('she looks like you' says a friend) or the tall, good looking man on the right, or the slightly self satisfied man on the left. But since the caption says 'Czerkawski siblings' they may be Wladyslaw's reckless elder brothers, Zbigniew and Boguslaw. Zbigniew died of consumption in 1932, while Boguslaw (Bogdan) was killed during the war in 1943.

The picture was taken at an estate called Meryszczow, but at this time, Wladyslaw and Lucja were living at another estate, some kilometres away, called Dziedzilow, which is where my father was born, so they must have been there because of the death in the family and its consequences. Wladyslaw would have fallen heir to Meryszczow as well, had war not intervened. 

Old photographs are always mysterious moments in time, caught like fossils in amber. This has a momentous quality to it, because it was a turning point for all of them in more ways than one. 

I look at this picture and see that none of them had an inkling of what was about to happen, a little more than a decade later. Only two of them would survive, three if you count the bump, and of those, only two would go on to have a fulfilling and happy life after earlier turmoil 

Which leads me back to thinking about the uncertain times we live in now. We're here at what feels - not like the culmination of something, although it is - but at the start of something worse. Unless Scotland can find a way of extricating itself from the hard right Eton Mess that has infiltrated the Conservative party (never my party of choice, but - at other times - never ever as mad and bad as they seem now) we are in for some miserable years. The notion of a sovereign and thriving UK is proving to be the jingoistic mirage we always suspected it was. Personally speaking, if we were younger, we may even have left by now, and taken our chances in mainland Europe or Ireland, much as many of those in this picture might have been better to move away, head west, possibly to America, where they would at least have stood a chance of survival. 

But we don't, do we? We have loyalties and allegiances, homes and friendships. And in our case, we have a Scottish government with a certain level of competence and care and the possibility of independence. So we hang on and hope for the best, even as we fear the worst.

These were people who knew all about the reality of difficult borderlands, where life could be short and violence was never very far away. Maybe like people living on the edge of a volcano, they thought it wouldn't happen to them. Maybe, like my friends and relatives here who keep shrugging and telling me that nothing will or can be as bad as all that, they thought it better to sit it out. Maybe they'll be right, although this small group of people were wrong.

Who can say? All I do know is that as a writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, I've learned a great deal over the past few years, lessons I would rather have avoided. I've often found myself wondering what it would have been like to live at a time and in a place where things had begun to fall apart around you. What would it have been like to try to maintain your footing, and a certain moral compass, amid those shifting sands. 

We read books or watch movies about Nazi Germany and we think 'Why didn't people do something?' 
We read about the dreadful fate of the Jewish people, and we think 'Why didn't they see the signs? Why didn't they move away while they still could?' 
We look at these people in the picture who must surely have had some small inkling of impending doom. 

Well, maybe they didn't. Whoever does? Whoever really believes that things will fall apart? That human beings will be careless and cruel?
I look at my grandfather's face, and I think that of all of them, he was perhaps the only one with any kind of prescience. But in uncertain times, we cling to the hope that things will and must get better.

Sometimes, they get much worse first. 

Julian, Wladyslaw and Lucja

Five Days Till November.


No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon —
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! —

Thomas Hood

November is my least favourite month of the year, and we're not even there yet. Bad enough when we're not in the middle of a pandemic. Horrible right now with the virus, with Brexit looming and Christmas quite probably cancelled. 

The only thing keeping me reasonably sane is writing. Research and writing. Of which more very soon. 

Hood didn't get it completely right though. Plenty of birds in our garden, demanding to be fed. 

The Textile

It crossed my mind today - perhaps because as well as writing, I still collect and occasionally deal in old textiles - that our relationship with the rest of the EU used to be like a large, complicated textile: a tapestry or an intricate shawl perhaps. It had taken forty five years of hard work and dedication to produce. It was beautiful in its own way, with many fine elements, something to cherish. Not that it was perfect, because no old and precious textile ever is. Some of it was worn and moth-eaten to be sure. There were little bits of invisible mending but there were still holes here and there. After all, something composed of so many disparate elements needs constant care. Some of it needed fixing. Some of it definitely needed renewing. 

But all of that was possible, especially with a certain expertise and a willingness to compromise over methods. On the whole it was still warm and serviceable and it sheltered us from a very cold world outside.

There were lots of these textiles: twenty eight in total. All in a similar style, but with variations to suit the needs of each owner. If you put them together, they would form a wonderful tapestry of differences and similarities.

Then, along came a bunch of people who suggested that this precious thing of ours was past it. If we'd looked closely at them, we might have seen that they were people with a destructive streak. Not artisans or artists at all. But we didn't look too closely. The truth was that most of us had hardly even thought about the textile for years. It was just there. Sometimes we complained that it wasn't fit for purpose. Mostly we hardly even noticed how beautiful it was. 

It would be so much better, these people told us, if we dismantled it and started again. Look at all that yarn, they said. Look at how much we'll have when we've unravelled it. It'll be the easiest project in human history, and once it's done, we'll be able to make something infinitely better because we're so clever and and we don't need any lessons in how it should be done. Everyone else will look at our great achievement - all twenty seven of them - and they'll follow our lead and dismantle theirs as well. Easy as pie. 

So that's what we did. We set out to unpick and unravel this wonderful thing, this thing that had sheltered and accommodated us for forty five years. We didn't even go about it carefully. What did we need with advice? We knew what we were doing.

We tore it apart, shredding and breaking it in pieces as we went. It was more difficult than we thought, and we kept losing patience and tugging at all the knots and tangles, but by then, it was easier to keep going than to lose face and admit that we'd been wrong. 

Now we're left with a pile of broken and useless threads. That big, beautiful textile that was ours has been systematically dismantled on the instructions of a group of people who didn't need it anyway. Too rich, too careless, they always knew that whatever problems might arise, they could throw money at them, and buy themselves a dozen new wraps to shelter themselves from the cold. 

And all those other people, with their own finely woven textiles - well, they've seen what we've done and they're appalled. They'll mend what was damaged and move on. 

Not us though. We're left out in the cold, with a heap of tangled threads, to sort ourselves out as best we can. 

Throwing It All Away

There was a time, back in 2012, watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, when many of us felt at least a stirring of pride in - or perhaps I mean genuine affection for - the island group that we call home. It was a production full of historical awareness, creativity and good humour. We liked to think it reflected the best of us.  

Yet here we are, eight years later, and many of us can't think about that time without a profound sense of regret and horror. Because in eight short years, we've been precipitated into the most divisive political situation of my life - although I know other parts of this now precarious union have been through worse times.

How on earth, we wonder, could a country that is supposedly part of a voluntary union, deliberately throw away all that goodwill, all that affection, in the pursuit of an unattainable, unrealistic and unworthy dream - one, moreover, that has turned into a nightmare for so many of us, based as it is on lies, greed and xenophobia. The sabre rattling we're now seeing at Westminster is terrifying. It takes an Irish writer, wise Fintan O'Toole, to call it out for what it is: England recasting itself as a victim of colonisation, emerging from the imaginary 'empire' of the EU. 

Somebody remarked to me today that - living in the EU - he always makes it clear that he is Scottish, not English, because so many of his friends, coming from many different nations, have admitted that they really don't much like the English now. They're very fond of Scotland though.

I'm glad for Scotland, but sad for England. After all, I was born there, albeit with an Irish grandmother and a Polish father. I spent the first eleven or twelve years of my life in England and I loved it deeply. Still do, in so many ways. But the cultural and ideological gap between Scotland and England is now a gaping chasm, one that can't be spanned - and certainly not by one of the PM's imaginary bridges.

As most of my friends know, last year, after thinking about it since 2016, and taking some time to gather together the various papers needed, I reclaimed the dual nationality I had when I was born. It was a fiddly but not particularly difficult or expensive procedure, largely down to helpful advice from the Polish vice consul in Edinburgh and the fact that I still had a number of my father's old documents squirrelled away.

I haven't yet applied for my passport. I had all my 'ducks in a row' but then Covid and lockdown and shielding (for my husband) intervened and I couldn't get to Edinburgh. I'm hoping to do so before the end of the year. 

What the process has done, though, is to highlight for me that the citizenship is more important to me than the passport. The passport, when I get it, will be a convenience. The rather beautiful and formal citizenship letter was what I craved. Let's face it, Poland too has its troubles. But I don't think it's ever going to be stupid enough to vote to leave the EU. So the letter symbolises something very important to me - not just Poland, but Poland in the heart of Europe - and the precious retention of my European citizenship that the Cummings government has tried and failed to take away from me.

I loathe the constant stream of tabloid insults to our European friends and relatives. Now the government intends to break international law, threatening the Good Friday Agreement in the process. I resent every lie, every implication that the EU is the enemy, every wretched inconvenience. I resent having to try to stockpile food and medication. I resent every smirking politician who invades my TV screen, disparaging the rest of the continent to which I belong, and which I love. 

But you know what I hate most of all? I hate the way the revulsion at what this government is inflicting on the rest of us fills my days and disturbs my nights. 

I've always been interested in politics. I can't call myself an activist, but I've done my bit. I campaigned to join the Common Market, back in the 70s. I've been a Labour party member and now I'm a member of the SNP. I've read and debated and I've always voted. 

I've also made big mistakes. Huge. Voting no at the last indyref was the biggest mistake of my life, and, hand on heart, I did it because I swallowed the lie that it was the only way of remaining in the EU. I've regretted it every day since. I didn't do my homework. I didn't look at countries like Finland - which I know well - and Denmark and Norway, and wonder why on earth we couldn't be like them. There's nothing I can do about that now except say sorry, and campaign for independence. And to be fair, I've been welcomed into the fold like the lost sheep in the bible. 

But it strikes me that although politics should be something we all engage with, it works best when we don't have to think about it every single day; the way so many things that are important to us in our lives go on working just well enough that - even the most proactive of us - don't have to consider them or be afraid of them all the time. I am careful what I buy, shop local as much as possible, read labels. But I don't spend my entire days worrying that the farm shop down the road is up to something nefarious behind my back. I trust them. I love the fact that the water that comes out of our taps here tastes pure and clean and I would be alarmed if it didn't. But I also pretty much trust Scottish Water to keep it that way, without worrying about it every time I drink a glass of water.

Throughout my life there were some governments who seemed to be doing their best, and some that I didn't trust. Some I voted for and some I didn't. I never believed that any of them would keep all those fine election promises. And there were some that I disliked intensely. But there has never been a government like this one. 

It was in 2016 that everything changed. At first, we thought it might be OK. Given the closeness of the referendum result, and the way in which Scotland voted to remain in the EU by an overwhelming majority, we actually thought that some sensible compromise might be reached. And you know, we would have gone along with it. Leaving the EU would have been bad and we wouldn't have liked it, but staying in the single market and customs union would have honoured the referendum result while accepting that just under half of the country disagreed. That would have been a way forward: a decent and honourable compromise. And it wouldn't have threatened the Good Friday Agreement in the way that it is under threat now.

There was no compromise. None whatsoever. There were people who predicted the way things would go and we thought they were exaggerating. We underestimated the xenophobia and carelessness and malice at the heart of the state. We underestimated their determination to placate the Brexit Ultras. They threw it all away: forty seven years of co-operation and collaboration. Almost all of my adult life. All that goodwill, all that regard, all that honour and honesty. All those - let's face it - special privileges England demanded and largely got. They threw it all away to placate a minority of delusional haters.


God alone knows. For money? Because they're disaster capitalists? To save an ageing Tory party? Because it was always the plan? Because some of them never really understood that blackmailers will always ask for more? Because they thought that if they were dishonest in very specific and limited ways, we would all be fooled into agreement? 

As I write this, the European press are increasingly bemused - but also amused - by our self destructive posturing. They still have each other and they can do without us. So long and thanks for all the fish.

Hunting around for some - any - words of wisdom, I'm reminded of an F Scott Fitzgerald observation: Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

It doesn't help our despair, but it helps to explain their difference and their indifference. 

In last week's Brexit Blog post, The Descent Into Political Insanity, the usually measured and restrained Professor Chris Grey pulls no punches when he points out that the Brexit Ultras are now willing to sacrifice anything and everything to a cause that has long since ceased to bear any resemblance whatsoever to the promises they made. It has now become – and I don’t use this term lightly or carelessly – a form of political insanity, and it is an insanity which has spread to the entire government.

Precisely. Which is why Scotland must save itself. And soon. We must not allow ourselves to be dragged off the cliff with our neighbours. We've tried to talk sense into them, but it hasn't worked. We've been willing to compromise in all kinds of ways, but we've been ignored and our elected representatives insulted. We are rich in things that matter. And we have plenty of friends elsewhere in Europe who would be happy for us to cut the rope. When England comes to its senses, we can forgive, get on, heal our divisions, be better neighbours. But it doesn't look as though that's going to happen any time soon.

Meanwhile, how's your stockpile of imported goods coming along? 

Brexit, Bereavement, My Dad and Me.

For the first time since he died, back in 1995 - far too young at the age of 68 - I find myself with a sense of relief that my dear dad isn't around today. I'm especially glad he wasn't around on 31st January, to see groups of idiotic but dangerous xenophobes decked out in union flags, cheering as they burnt EU flags or jumped up and down on them in the mud, or told anyone with a 'foreign' appearance and a 'foreign' accent to go back where they came from.

My dad was a post war refugee alien and that made me half alien too. Proud citizen of nowhere, me. He came to Yorkshire via Monte Cassino in Italy, and the dreadful battle that was fought there and that he survived.

When he married my Leeds Irish mum, he was marrying into a family that already knew a bit about prejudice and hatred. My nana's own grandmother had come to Yorkshire fleeing famine, at a time when the incoming Irish were both exploited and insulted in equal measure by the native population. They were accused of being filthy layabouts, 'coming over here' but stealing English jobs at the same time. The people who make those accusations never, then or now, seem to notice the contradiction at the heart of what they are saying.

'Don't you think they should send all those Poles back where they came from?' somebody asked my mum, in casual conversation. That must have been about 1949, well before I was born. 'Not really,' she said, never exactly a shrinking violet. 'Seeing as how I've just married one.' You can read more about that time here.

The truth was that there was nothing and nowhere for dad to go back to. His mother was missing. His father had been imprisoned by Stalin, along with so many Polish officers. Most of his extended family were dead, killed by Nazis or Russians. Released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but forced to trek east, my grandfather died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the silk road. 'Lancer Wladyslaw Czerkawski' it says on his grave.

Later, Churchill, Eisenhower and Stalin came to an agreement. It didn't involve much regard for Poland at all and doomed them to years of misery.  Dad's home was now in the Ukraine. All the borders had shifted. So if you try to tell a Pole that Scotland isn't a real country, you'd better remember that Poles never ever confuse state and nation. They know the difference all too well.

Nowhere to go back to. Dad with his parents.

Dad made the best of things. He was a hard working, clever, kindly man. His contribution to his adopted countries, England and then Scotland, which he loved, and the good he did, is not really the subject of this blog, but it is real enough. All these years later, I still meet people who tell me of the small but positive ways in which he influenced their lives.

All the same, he had enough experience of fascism, of the lies that are told, of the fear that is imbued, of the way in which people can be groomed into evil, to be able to say with absolute certainty 'It can and will happen anywhere, if the conditions are right.'

So he would have been sad and worried about our disunited kingdom, but he wouldn't have been remotely surprised. He would have seen the signs long ago. Today, I read a harrowing account from a young black woman travelling on a London bus at night. A group of white men boarded the bus and racially harassed any passengers that they perceived to be 'other' - black, foreign, Muslim. Everyone else looked away. Nobody dared to defend the victims. Nothing to do with them, was it? Not yet, anyway.

It happened before. But now, it has been legitimised and the elected government do nothing to challenge it. Instead we're treated to gung-ho flag waving, the validation of 'England for the English' (unless you're wealthy) and the myth of a united country.

All of which helps to explain why I wake up every morning with the feeling of living in a nightmare. It feels like a bereavement except that it is compounded by a sense of helpless rage. I'm certainly not alone. Scotland neither voted nor wished for this and it is being imposed on this nation without compromise and in the most contemptuous way possible.

Too many people are sleepwalking into the kind of fascism, here and in the US, that my wise dad said could happen anywhere. And he would say too, that large numbers of people wouldn't realise it was happening until it was too late to do anything about it, and maybe not even then. Every cult has its adherents who will go to their graves refusing to admit that they were duped.

It all seems so ordinary, so harmless.
'Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.'
So says Hannah Arendt.

The US has its own intractable problems. So do parts of the EU. Now we seem to be governed by banal but fundamentally (and openly) dishonest people from whom a rational person would hesitate to buy a used car, never mind a policy. So I'm left wondering, did people sit at home like this in pre-war Germany, making the best of things, not wanting to rock the boat, shrugging off each successive outrage, each official lie, reassuring each other that 'everything will be fine. Because they wouldn't do anything too bad, would they?'

Until ... what? A slow descent into totalitarianism - or the kind of chaos that will result when the whole project collapses under the weight of its own contradictions?

What interesting times we live in, to be sure.

Opening Pandora's Box - Brexit, Xenophobia, My Polish Father and Me

The day after the Brexit referendum I remember my husband saying 'they have no idea what they've unleashed.' To be fair, I don't think any of us realised what had been unleashed, although by now, many of us have a fair understanding.

I was born to a Polish father and an English /Irish mother, in smoky post war Leeds. A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to the Polish consulate in Edinburgh, carrying a sheaf of papers, including copies of my birth certificate, my parents' marriage certificate and dad's naturalization papers, as well as my own application for the restitution of the dual nationality I once had. The consul was polite and helpful; the process was fiddly but reasonably straightforward. It remains to be seen whether the application is successful and it could take some time - but the process is under way.

I had been thinking about doing this ever since the referendum, but it seemed wrong to undertake it purely to retain my freedom of movement in a post Brexit world, even though it was bound to be a consideration. In retrospect, I think I delayed for so long because I wanted to be sure that there were other, better reasons.

My dad came to Yorkshire with General Anders' army at the end of the war. He spent some time in a Polish resettlement camp, and then worked as a textile presser in a woollen mill, learning English and studying at night school. He didn't apply to become a naturalized Brit till the mid 1960s. By that time, we had moved to Scotland, where he was working as a senior research scientist. Because he would occasionally have to travel to the Eastern Bloc and they wouldn't be able to offer him protection there, the Home Office advised him to renounce his Polish citizenship. It meant that both my mother and I lost our dual nationality as well.

I don't know what dad felt about it, because I was young and didn't ask him. It was one of those questions that you only think about later. I still felt very Polish and can only assume he did too. We celebrated Christmas in the Polish way, and he would become a little emotional over old Polish Christmas carols, something I don't think my mother, who loved him dearly, ever fully understood. Later, it struck me that she simply wanted him to be happy, and because he was usually a cheerful, kindly man, any intimation of despondency upset her too. I visited Poland several times, met long lost relatives and eventually spent a year working at Wroclaw University, teaching English under the auspices of the British Council.

Back when my mum and dad were first married, there had been the odd instance of xenophobia. I wrote about these in my recent book, A Proper Person to be Detained: somebody remarking to my newly married mum that she 'thought they should send all these Poles back now'. The fact that throughout the early years of their marriage, whenever a crime was committed by anyone vaguely foreign sounding, the police would come calling, until my mum, tired of the midnight hammering on the door, went down and told them in no uncertain terms where they could go.

But as time passed, these seemed like increasingly isolated incidents.

Now that I reflect on it from a Brexit perspective, I can see that we weren't immune. My surname caused me problems at school and as a writer, and still does. I was told it would have been better if I had done as some Poles did, and changed it, but I defiantly refused to do it - and probably still would refuse to do it. When I occasionally suggested that I'd like to write about Poland in my fiction, I was invariably told that 'nobody would be interested'. Much worse though, was that my father - a biochemist - was repeatedly refused promotion. Repeatedly turned down for the headship of his department in the government research institute where he worked. This would have been acceptable if there had been no evidence of his expertise, but some years after his PhD, he was awarded a Doctor of Science degree. This is a higher doctorate whose fundamental purpose is to recognise excellence in academic scholarship. He was, in effect, a double doctor. He was popular with the staff and he had become an expert in his field, working in particular on ways of helping to set up sustainable third world agricultural projects.

He was the only person in his research institute with such a senior qualification not to be given promotion. In fact few of his peers had that qualification or international recognition at all. They were too busy working on commercial projects for inventing 'spreadable butter'.

He should have moved, but he loved this part of Scotland, loved his work and his quality of life, so he elected to stay. Nevertheless it rankled. Fortunately, before retirement, he was offered a prestigious attachment to UNO City in Vienna, where he and my mum spent two very happy years, and from where he travelled the world, working as a special scientific adviser. I still have correspondence from that time, from researchers worldwide who clearly admired him as much as we did. It was long after dad's death, that I finally understood, or perhaps admitted, what had been going on.

What had been going on was nasty, low key xenophobia. Impossible to prove or challenge. But present all the same.

Along with many other people, I've spent our years within the EU blithely supposing that suspicion of foreigners was a thing of the past. Or that at the very least it was dying out. I wonder now how I can have been so ridiculously naive. It hadn't died out at all. It had just gone underground. Temporarily. People may have found it socially unacceptable to admit to it, but many of them felt it all the same.

When I look back now, I remember the odd occasion where I heard tourists or migrants, speaking in their own languages in public places. Fascinated, I would try to figure out where they were from. But how could I not have noticed the hostile glances? Now I remember the young men emerging from the Polish shop in town, being accosted by a vitriolic old woman, shouting at them to 'get back where they came from.' Nobody intervening on their behalf except me. The English woman on a Spanish service bus, saying angrily 'You'd think they'd speak the language' to her companion. She expected the driver, in Spain, to speak English. The hideous exclamatory headlines in all the tabloid newspapers, the newspapers I didn't buy or read, and tried to ignore. The fact that my dad would occasionally say that fascism could happen at any time and in any place. All that it needed was for the conditions to be right.

You know, Pandora's Box wasn't really a box. It was a large storage jar. And in this case, the lid had been tipped for a long time. We just didn't notice. Every now and then, some right wing bloviator would give it a nudge. With his Brexit referendum, David Cameron lifted the lid clean off and out they all tumbled: xenophobia, prejudice, racism, hatred, bigotry and a host of other evils. Why did we imagine, even for a moment, that they had gone away?

I feel European because I am. For years, in response to 'where do you come from?' I've listed the complications of being English, Irish and Polish with a bit of Hungarian thrown in for good measure. But I've lived in Scotland for more years than I've lived anywhere else. Like so many much younger people, I'm happy being a citizen of nowhere, but if I can't have that, I'll settle for becoming a citizen of the places with which I feel most affinity: Poland and - with a bit of luck - a future independent Scotland.

As for my dad - I miss him more than I can say. I need his wisdom and his affection to guide me. But I'm very glad that he's no longer around to find himself on the shifting sands of prejudice all over again, to hear the alarming tales that I hear every single day now from EU citizens living in the UK: the jubilation over the ending of  free movement, the refusal of settled status to people who have lived and worked and paid their taxes here for forty or more years, the daily acts of bigotry, the lack of any recognition that when you characterise migrants as foreign invaders or - worse - as vermin, you are also talking about the neighbour who gives you fruit and veg from their garden, who feeds your cat when you're away, who chats to you in the street, whose child is friendly with your child.

It's no good saying 'oh but we didn't mean you.' I'm afraid you did. You did.

Over the past three years the cracks in what was once the United Kingdom have become gaping fissures. We're governed by men and women who lie as the birds sing. And the divisions in our society are now so deep that I doubt if they will be healed in my lifetime.

A Post For Valentine's Day

This week, with Valentine's Day fast approaching, I'm writing about an old wooden coat hanger - the one in the picture above. It dates from the late 1940s, and it has, as you can see, the letter K burned onto it in poker-work. It's precious to me. I use it every day. You see my late dad made it for my late mum, and that's her initial on it: K for Kathleen. 

Theirs was a love story as intense as any you will read in a novel. Julian was Polish, from a wealthy family. They lost everything in the war, including (most of them, anyway) their lives. He came over with a tank regiment, spent some time in an army resettlement camp before demobilisation, and stayed on as a refugee because there was no place to go back to. Kathleen was a young woman with a Leeds Irish background. 

(You would not believe, or perhaps you would, how many people have recently asked me if he came to the UK as a 'prisoner of war'. But that's beside the point. I know people who did, and who also made a good life for themselves here.) 

My Leeds grandfather was an English Methodist called Joe Sunter. Except that the family were probably descended from Vikings and Joe, with his auburn hair, looked the part. The family had been lead miners in Swaledale throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but had finished up in Leeds by way of Castleford, during the Industrial Revolution. Joe's mum had died young, and his dad had remarried. His stepmother wasn't very kind to the boys, so Joe and his elder brother George left home early, Joe to join the navy and George to join the army. George was killed at the very start of WW1 but Joe survived and married Nora Flynn, my grandmother, a shirtmaker. 

By the time my mother and father met (at a dance) and married, Nora was running a tiny stone floored sweet and tobacconist shop, next door to which Joe had an equally tiny fishing tackle shop - all within a stone's throw of the factories and mills of Holbeck. 
Mum and dad's honeymoon was in January, in Scarborough.

My dad, I realise, must have seemed impossibly exotic to my mum. He was dark, handsome, foreign and very charming. He was also, fortunately, one of the kindest men I have ever known. I don't think they stopped loving each other for a single moment. 

Dad began by working in a mill, went to night school and eventually became quite a distinguished scientist, but he always loved to make things. In fact I remember that his hands were the hands of a working man, rough and capable hands that could garden and construct things and build toys out of wood. The coat hanger, with its letter 'K', wasn't one of his more challenging efforts. But it was, somehow, like him, that he would take the trouble to decorate it, just for my mum. In the picture at the top of this post, the hanger is resting on a rather battered wooden blanket chest that used to be in their house and is now in mine - and dad painted that too. 

I've realised over the years that I often find myself writing what I call 'grown up love stories'. They aren't really romances and my characters don't always live happily ever after. Not all of them are good and not all of them behave well. But at the heart of the novels is, I realise, something positive, some recognition of the power of affection and kindness to work a little magic in the world. 

I used to think it would be enough. 
Now I'm not so sure. 

Inside 32 Whitehall Road in the 1950s. 

Back in those post war years when times were hard and my dad was labelled an 'alien', as though he had come from another planet, somebody said to my mum, 'I think they should send all those Poles back where they belong now, don't you?' 

'No, I don't' she said, forthright as only Kathleen could be. 'Seeing as how I've just married one!' 

Although in every other way I'm sad that mum and dad are gone, I find myself glad that they aren't around to see the rise of post-Brexit xenophobia, to hear tales of children being bullied for their Eastern European names, people being told to go back where they belong, the Home Office letters exhorting people to 'prepare to leave the country', the outrageous suggestion from some think tank that visas for EU migrants should be restricted to those working anti-social hours. 

Either we are all, as they say here in Scotland, 'Jock Tamson's bairns', or perhaps we should all consider going 'back where we belong' - if we can decide where we do belong.

My dad belonged to a part of Poland that is now in the Ukraine. His mother had Hungarian ancestry. My great grandfather James Flynn came from Ballyhaunis in County Mayo but he helped to build Yorkshire's roads. My grandfather belonged in the Yorkshire Dales and, long before that, in Iceland or Norway or whichever country his Viking ancestor set sail from, as an economic migrant. They were all, when you think about it, economic migrants. 

Dad always said that fascism could happen in any country, at any time and in any place. I think he was right. Nowhere is immune. But after all these years I didn't expect to feel the fear of it in my blood and bones, the way I feel it now, here in the UK.