I remember as a young child of six going, with my stepfather and sisters, to get my passport photo taken in Fallowfield, Manchester. There were no photo booths back then. I sensed that taking these photos was important and now I wonder if my parents hadn’t got British passports for themselves and for us where would we be today? Would I have to prove that I was born in Manchester? Would my parents have to provide evidence of tax payments and national insurance contributions dating back to the 70s? Would they face deportation to Bangladesh - a country that hadn’t achieved independence when they left in the 60s. And one they haven’t lived in since their early 20s.
My mother told me, “Manchester is my home now; there’s nothing for me in Bangladesh.”
After reading about the treatment of the Windrush Generation who have lived and worked in the UK for decades only to be told they are illegal is beyond sickening. The common denominator that links many is the fact they never applied for a British passport and it’s too late now. Did Britain feel so much like home they never had the urge to travel? Had they planted roots that had grown so deep and embedded in British soil that to leave would feel like an aberration?
So comfortable with their Britishness and perception of Britain as home the Windrush Generation naively believed if they followed the rules, paid their taxes, made regular national insurance contributions they would be accepted as British - until the home office started to clamp down. Home Secretary, Amber Rudd accepts their approach has been misguided, some would say callous, but there are already a litany of casualties and destroyed lives with elderly Jamaican folk subjected to humiliating treatment and the threat of deportation to a country they have little connection with. Without a British passport it seems you are nothing in Britain.
I am facing a similar level of uncertainty as an EU resident with a second base in Brussels. I speak French now, albeit at a simple level, locals greet me with a smile and ask after my children. I am in Brussels for longer periods than in London, I have friends and colleagues there, my work even hangs permanently at Wilford X Gallery in Temse, Belgium, but that doesn’t give me any assurances about my status when Brexit comes into effect. Ironic that my artwork is called What makes a good soul? A question I ruminate on with regularity.
I already get questioned at the airport, ‘What are you doing in Brussels?’ I feel like saying I don’t live anywhere I am just passing through, my children were born in Brussels, but they have Norwegian passports and as for me I just work where there is a desk and pay my taxes in Britain and own a property there, but don’t feel like Britain is my home either. It’s all a muddle. It might make more sense to say I am an alien and live on the moon.
Maybe Theresa May hit the nail right on the head when she coined the phrase: ‘... citizens of nowhere.’ I am already rootless and disconnected from Britain, my British passport is my only way back in. And I am starting to feel the same way about Brussels, who knows where I will end up next? Many of these Windrush citizens were approaching retirement age, perhaps just hoping for some peaceful final years in Britain; it seems staggeringly cruel to do this to them after decades of living in a country they took for granted was their home. As a result some have lost their jobs, and even ended up homeless, without rights, or access to housing and healthcare. All the money they paid into the system counts for nothing then? With heated coverage in the media, the Home Office has backtracked on specific cases, but I can imagine others are not so lucky. I wrote a song summing up my feelings about assimilation, Britishness and belonging. It seems prescient in the current climate. Even Morrissey, from my hometown in Manchester, looks at immigrants with scorn, although he insists he’s not a racist. I wonder what he will make of my rap?
Maybe it’s time to take the Great out of Britain and replace it with small or myopic or parochial because Britain doesn’t seem that great anymore.