I don’t know when I realised I couldn’t stand instant coffee any more. It was at some point in my mid-thirties, around a decade and a half after I’d left home. The bitterness turned my stomach but it remained the only thing my parents would buy. Once or twice, going up to visit, I brought my own ground coffee supplies. I felt an utter twat for doing so – fifteen years down south and look what she’s turned into – but with small children I needed my caffeine and decided my pride would have to take the hit. It would have been fine if that had been the only thing that changed.
I grew up in a house where everyone read the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph (and, for the brief period when it was around, Today). It was only after going down south that I started reading different papers and absorbing different views. It wasn’t long before I started to find the opinions I’d drunk in so enthusiastically back home too bitter. Once again my stomach was turned. The election of George W Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq confirmed that I wasn’t the person I’d been before. I didn’t agree with my parents. I’d become the enemy.
And I felt, and still feel, as much of a twat for having the wrong politics as I do for liking the wrong coffee. Because it means I’ve gone posh. Because it means I implicitly look down on them. Because it means I’m throwing all their hard work back in their faces. They hadn’t meant to make a person who thinks like this. There are times when even the littlest details– the fact that I don’t share a surname with my sons, that I let my boys wear pink and have long hair, that I studied languages rather than English or law – seem to be experienced as a slight. I am stroppy teenager meets Notting Hill mummy. I’m only doing it because I’ve decided I’m better than them. And so it goes on.
I know this is not unusual. It is a question not just of age but of class. The economic and cultural background my parents gave me is not the same as the one from which they came. They were people who had “moved up” and I grew up conscious of the mistrust they had of other middle-class people whom they saw as either patronising champagne socialists or culturally superior pseuds. Then I went to university and became, to all intents and purposes, one of those people. I might have less financial security than my parents had at a similar age, but I was not thinking about money when I applied to do a PhD in German. Even to have felt entitled to follow such a route was a privilege. I’m not sure how it relates to all the “tell them we won the war” comments I’d get from them due to my choice of subject matter, but a relationship there is.
And then there’s Brexit. I voted Remain and they voted Leave. And I can’t decide whether I’m furious with them for making a decision based on what the papers they buy told them, or embarrassed at myself for being that person they always feared – the middle-class, culturally superior lefty who looks down on them. Right now I am both. I am heartbroken at the stupidity of a vote that places a greater value on an abstract fear of others than your own self-interest and the interests of those you love. I’m also conscious that the stories they believe are so very, very different to the ones I do, there’s nothing I can say.
The narrative they follow tells them that people like me – chattering classes, media elite, yummy mummies, the Notting Hill set – are both naïve for not fearing immigrants and selfish for not listening to the fears of people like them. I don’t have to have ever lived in London to be categorised as one of those terrible London types. And it’s staggering the way this narrative has been exploited by hugely wealthy men to tear communities apart. On some level, in a way which will never be fully articulated, Boris Johnson is on my parents’ side and I’m not. I have relatives who’ve been on benefits all their lives who see the world this way. Nigel Farage will stand up for you, it’s the NHS you have to fear.
It is such a deep, deep well of mistrust. You can’t counter the “knowledge” that immigrants steal our jobs or EU bureaucrats make all our laws with anything so smug and elitist as facts or expertise. Even to try to will lead to accusations that you consider yourself superior and/or simply don’t care about the needs of “real” people. It’s not something that started last year or the year before that. It is in the blood.
I don’t know a way forward from this. I’m writing for no other reason than there is more bitterness I need to get out. You can’t separate an economic disaster from a human one, but I don’t even know if that’s the worst of it. We have swallowed so much bile, year on year, that we have lost the most basic ability to connect with one another, as a country, as families, at all.