Maybe I shouldn’t watch BBC Question Time quite so much…

It’d been two years since I’d visited England. In the early years of me living in Germany, I’d been going there maybe twice a year. Once at Christmas and once in the summer. Christmas was always a given. With my folks living just a few stops from Heathrow on the Piccadilly line, that was easy… and cheap.

Over the years, the visits became less frequent. It dropped to about once a year. That was down to my kids growing to the age where a seat was required (rather than just sitting on our laps). Kids’ tickets are not really any cheaper than adult tickets, unlike on other forms of transport. And my folks moved away from London, making the journey far longer and more expensive.

But two years was a long time. That came about because of our plans and their collapse. We had been planning to return to the UK last year.

It was almost like Mr Fate was laughing at us, as my wife took her Visa supporting documents personally (by post is not an option) to our nearest office in Germany, on the 23rd of June 2016, (the day the UK went to the polls to vote on our membership of the EU). Long story short, things didn’t work out for the Visa, nor did it (in my opinion) in the referendum. So I missed my annual trip “home” (if you’ve read other bits I’ve written here, you’ll know I don’t really get on well with that word) that year.

I read the news daily. I watch what broadcasts I can on YouTube: BBC Question Time, Channel 4 News, BBC News, Sky News, ITV News, parliament, and various independent commentators. I listen to Radio 4 in the morning and LBC sporadically. What I got from all of these — especially Question Time and LBC — is that the country is angry, tearing itself to pieces, and overflowing with people hating each other. What I saw was very different.

Where I was seemed just like it did two years ago, before the last year happened. I don’t know if people were making a conscious effort to not talk about Brexit, but it just didn’t crop up, except as minor, pleasant asides in otherwise enjoyable conversations.

News reports indicated that hate crimes had spiked. I do not question the validity of this, but the picture I saw from Germany was that the minority of raging racists, who had kept their crap bottled up for years, had been let loose, freed from the societal shackles that deemed it unacceptable to abuse someone because of their national or ethnic origin. Yes, they are a small minority, but it takes only a single person in a thousand to make another’s life unpleasant. With my family being internationalist and racially mixed, this was something that scared me. I’ve lived my life as a member of a social minority. I faced taunts and jibes because of my hair, my clothes, my musical tastes, my weight, but it was because of things that I made a conscious choice about. I chose to not conform to what the majority wanted were. I chose to follow my own path, and found no enjoyment in mainstream mediocrity.

But people do not choose their national or ethnic origin. Children do not choose their parents. There is nothing that would devastate me more than my family having to deal with hatred and abuse.

As it stands, the country is still ticking over. Branston is still on the shelves, beer is still flavourful, pubs are still friendly, the chips are still amazing, the bus services are still terrible, train tickets are still eye-wateringly expensive, and the weather still changes significantly from one hour to the next. This nightmare vision of a starkly divided country didn’t present itself during the two weeks just gone. I just saw people going about their lives as they always did.

Maybe I shouldn’t watch Question Time quite so often…


Today, 14 years ago…

Today is September the 11th, 2015. Fourteen years since the devastating attacks against the United States, that kicked off the last decade and more of war in the middle east.

Almost 3000 people died that day. The vast majority of them innocent civilians just going about their day. And that day I remember very well. Like all major events — when Princess Diana died, for older people, when JFK was assassinated — you remember where you were, and what you were doing, when you heard.

I was living in Slough, Berkshire. An awful town, full of factories and stink. Pretty close to Windsor and Eton, though, and they’re pretty nice. Nice enough for the Queen to have one of her homes there, and her grand children to go to school. But that’s beside the point.

I’d actually been in the midst of planning my journey to the United States myself. Not too long before (maybe in August, but I can’t remember), I’d decided to leave my job and disappear for a couple of months. I’d saved up some money and was going to spend some fun time in the US. I’d spent a couple of weeks there in the spring, staying with my brother’s friends in Huntington Beach, California, and really wanted to go back. My older brother had a similar idea, and had flown to Los Angeles’ LAX on September 10th, 2001, with his girlfriend (now wife).

A day later, he would have been turned back. I was due to fly in late September for a two month trip. On the afternoon of September 11th (UK time, so it would have been about the time the planes hit, New York time), I’d just been in to the travel agents to book myself a vegetarian meal for the journey.

When I got home, the phone was ringing. I answered. It was my little brother’s girlfriend’s mum. “America’s just been attacked,” she said.

My response was something like… “Huh?” I went to turn on the television. My parents had Sky, so I flipped over to CNN, or some other news channel. And there I saw the planes smash into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. For weeks those images played over and over again.

Shocking images. The explosions. The people falling — jumping — from their supposedly safe, cosy offices. Those images will stay in our nightmares forever. I can’t imagine how awful it would have been to have been there, seeing it first hand.

Being British, I had grown up hearing about many terrorist attacks. Bombs in cars, bombs in train stations, it was just the way things were with the IRA. Americans, though, weren’t so familiar with the concept of being attacked by foreign terrorists. Although, at that scale, I don’t think anybody is familiar outside of wartime…  almost 3000 people. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters.

After that, though, it seemed that so-called terrorist acts were taboo, even for the IRA.

Airlines were shut down, US airspace was closed. After the initial shock subsided, I had a thought. “All the flights are cancelled, into and out of the United States. What about my holiday?” A terrible thing to think when so many precious lives had been cut short.

My flight wasn’t cancelled, though. US airspace reopened, and America was back in business.

I also flew in to LAX, heading to a good friend’s home in Long Beach. After asking for the “cheapest” way to get to Long Beach at the information desk, I hopped on a bus. It took hours to get there from the airport. I wished I’d taken the train, but by the time I wished that it was too late.

I travelled through a lot of Los Angeles, with my rucksack that would probably get me laughed at by most serious backpackers tucked under my seat. I got to LB, eventually. At times on the bus I noted that I was the only white person travelling. Coming from England, this was… a very new feeling.

I spent a good couple of months in the US that year. In my journeys, I saw very proud Americans flying the stars and stripes. Everybody seemed to be coming out as proud Americans. From the outside, America seems a very patriotic country. European patriotism all too often sways too far, and ends up sniffing the backside of nationalism. Sometimes they unify, sometimes they don’t.

I spent a lot of time in Long Beach during those couple of months. I had a ball. In the back of my head was that terrible tragedy that happened on the other side of the country. It was there, it was clear. Did we talk about it? I don’t think we did all that much. We didn’t need to.

On my journeys across the country, I did end up in New York state. In earlier times, I probably would have gone further, on to NYC. But I didn’t. Now, I’m not so sure whether it was my conscious avoidance of the typical big city, or whether it was me avoiding the problems that I knew were there.

The closest I got to NYC was Binghampton, NY. I’d managed to get over to vist another good friend of mine. He really seems almost like a old school friend, even though I’d only known him a couple of years at that time. I still remember the night we met, and maybe I’ll tell that story another day. I’m kind of sad that I haven’t seen him in years, though. One day…

On that journey, I was the anti-tourist for the most part. I made a principle of not taking pictures. I wanted to see and remember. And still I remember. Sometimes I forget, but when talking about it, the memory bubbles to the surface, and there it is… like a lost photograph found, it makes me smile, and the remembering is all the more powerful. I met people: travellers, Americans, foreigners, locals, weirdos, and even a random gay man that offered me a place to stay, free of charge… well, no money was requested, but there was strong implication that other forms of payment were accepted. I turned him down and stayed at a hostel down the road instead.

My memories of the United States in late 2001 are fond ones. The cloud of that awful day was there, but like strong, proud people, the Americans stood up and showed that their ways couldn’t be halted by violence.

Values run deep in every culture. And we must keep our values. Because ultimately our values are what makes us who we are.