IN MID-MARCH, when I went over to the UK to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Secular Society for my opposition to racism in South Africa, and my promotion of free speech, atheism and gay rights in the UK, I took the opportunity to catch up with old friends in Brighton.
Among those I met was a gay Spanish guy who settled there with his English partner around eight years ago. He took a job as a nurse at a local hospital, a job he enjoyed immensely – until Brexit happened. He began noticing, for the first time, a change in attitude towards him from some of his patients who decided that they no longer wished to be attended to by a foreigner.
When I met Alvaro (not his real name) he told me that he was contemplating returning to Spain because of the increased hostility he was encountering. Just that week, a large and belligerent man in the A&E let loose a torrent of abuse when he heard the nurse’s Spanish accent and threatened him with violence.
I was appalled, especially as I had come to the UK in 1973 as a refugee from apartheid South Africa and, on the whole, found the attitude of all the British I met both welcoming and sympathetic. There were only two exceptions: a taxi driver, on hearing my South African accent, asked me if I was “a bloody Australian”. When I said no, his reply was “good, I hate Australians”.
Later, in Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland, I asked a grumpy barman in an hotel what single malt whisky he could recommend (the bar was stocked with an incredible selection of brands). He snapped at me: “what would a @%&*ing Englishman know about whisky?”
After my conversation with Alvaro, I decided to become a “foreigner” for the duration of my stay in Brighton and London, and adopted a heavy mock accent – part Polish, part Spanish part Russian, part Swahili – to see what sort of reaction this would provoke.
An hour or so later, a woman approached me on the street and asked whether I spoke English. “Jus’ a leetle,” I replied. “Never mind”, she grumped, “I’ll speak to someone else.” Then she added: “Why don’t you %$*@-off back to from ever you came, you with your stupid gay moustache and beard.”
That was in cosmopolitan Brighton, a city I chose to live in for eight years because of its tolerant, laid-back atmosphere.
Brexit hasn’t just turned many British people into hateful xenophobes. A few weeks before I left for the UK, a long-time friend who had settled in France many years ago emailed me to say that after the referendum French people he had known for years had suddenly become hostile towards him, and he now feared for his future.
Thank goodness a huge number in the UK are now coming to the realisation that Brexit was a ghastly mistake, and I was heartened to see that, at the weekend, there were huge demonstrations against it in London and Madrid. My only regret was that I was unable to attend either.
From now on, if anyone asks me my nationality, I will say “European – and proudly so!”