Leaving | Isobel Palmer | The Hypocrite Reader

Isobel Palmer


ISSUE 67 | CAMP | AUG 2016

It can be hard to see France from Dover, especially on cloudy days. Today it’s raining, and the wind is blowing hard. The campsite is a large, open field on the edge of a cliff and empty save a cluster of Boy Scout tents huddled in one corner. My dad instructs me and my small brother to lie on the limp tent carcass he has stretched across the ground, then strides towards said Scouts to solicit helpers. We do as told and I look at the grey sea and sky and wonder whether a lining of wet mud will make the inside of the tent more weather proof. My brother asks forlornly if it’ll be chips for dinner again, before he too is caught in a moment of rare distraction by the steely scene. Eventually my dad comes back with three teenage boys and we set about the unwieldy poles. The boys seem confused, helpful without quite knowing why; they ought to be surlier at their age, they remind themselves, squaring their chins. The tent goes up quite easily in the end. They slouch back towards their orange triangles.

It is chips for dinner. We eat them out of paper cones on the seafront, fingers covered in vinegar and salt. The rain has stopped but there’s still a wind, and on it come the sounds of a fairground that has set up a little further down the shore. The next day we tour the local castle, looking dutifully to left and right as the audio guide draws our attention to carved stones stolen from dissolved monasteries and the mechanisms of a Tudor toilet, only recently unearthed. My brother expends great energy convincing my dad to buy him a pencil sharpener that doubles up as a somewhat feeble trebuchet and then we sit on the seafront again, this time eating 99 Flakes. It’s still windy but we sit there for a long time and watch some seagulls that are lurking nearby, casting hopeful glances at an elderly couple and their sandwiches. Do seagulls like ice cream, my brother asks. We wonder whether the lumps on the horizon are France or fog.

I like the English seaside. It feels muted, a place that exists at the end of a shell clasped to your childish ear: the clouds that make a soft, low-hanging ceiling of the sky and the dull pebbles that plod out along the shoreline to support squat beach houses; the wind-swept fish-and-chip-shop signs on faded village greens; the brochures and their donkey sanctuaries. It’s more muted this time because my dad seems sad and old, a person I no longer know but who insists quietly on my childhood, unfurling it with his tent and shaking it out of those same sleeping bags used on alternate weekends spent pretending his precarity was an endless holiday.

My brother is 12 years old and does not care about memories yet. He does care about the Second World War, and spends the week marching up and down doing impressions of Hitler’s last hours, banging his fist on tables in sleepy cafes and screaming “Nein!” He tells me with some satisfaction that he suspects our younger brother is a Nazi sympathizer. My dad looks absently out of the window.

Nothing changes but things do. I wake up and I’m 27. We tour another castle.

My brother is half-English and half-Russian but lives in Holland and speaks Dutch with more ease than either of his parents’ languages. I was born in Holland but am English, speak Russian but no Dutch, live in America. My brother enjoys these tessellations, counts them on his fingers each time we see each other and shakes his head in mock confusion. He’s unhappy only about the America part, has watched enough Discovery Channel to know it is a country full of guns and plane crashes and, lately, Donald Trump. No place for a sister. He’s eating a plum as he says this now and thrusts the remaining pulp in my face emphatically when he gets to Trump, declaring: this is what will happen to the world after that man wins.

Surprisingly, my brother doesn’t have much to say about Brexit. I suppose it was insufficiently spectacular for the Discovery Channel, lacking in explosive moments or clearly defined villains; shocking negligence, yes, but too depressingly ubiquitous to allow for lines to be drawn. At any rate, the drama failed to complete a satisfying arc. The mounting hysteria that preceded the vote climaxed only in grey shock and somber throat clearing, and if anger and triumph jostled for front pages in the week after the result, a month or so later both seem to have faded to a vague sense of ill ease that is better shelved than dwelt upon. It’s hard not to think about it, though, looking out across the channel; hard not to suspect—though I do not know until I look it up later—how many people in this town voted leave; hard not to feel morally superior to them, or just plain right.

I voted remain because I believe in open borders. I voted remain because, slogan-swallowing as it sounds, I do believe that—economically, politically, socially, culturally—the UK is better in Europe; because, even if the EU of the public imagination is just the smiling, multicultural face of a neo-liberal bureaucratic machine, the world seems fragile enough these days to make even the most forced smile something valuable in and of itself. I voted, that is, on the basis of deeply felt convictions that I find myself unable to put into convincing words—convictions that are easily batted away in argument, not least since I am conscious that I also voted for reasons I know to be selfish: because I am wise to the relative worthlessness of my qualifications in an ailing and competitive job market; because I love my family; because to vote was to feel myself English, despite the Californian heat outside.

All this makes it hard to criticize other people for voting with their own vague fears at heart, even where those fears, given targets, have taken self-defeating or narrow-minded shape, seem wrong-headed or straightforwardly xenophobic. And though I am angry when I read about racist attacks and angry to have been spoken for by people with whom I do not agree and angry that my generation has been forced to take a gamble by players who barely have any stakes left in the game, I am angrier when I think of the damage that will be done to people’s lives because we were given a question that seemed to have a simple answer but doesn’t—when I think of all the lies that were told and all the things that the referendum promised to fix but won’t, because even a fuck you as resounding as this one has been lost on the political wind already. Nothing has changed; probably, little will. An exit will be negotiated that leaves Britain in roughly the same position it has always been, and the money and effort that goes into that will be billed to the poorest. The establishment can hold.

I say goodbye to my brother and my dad, go home. A few days later I watch a documentary about channel swimmers. They gather on the beach in Dover; swim to France; get in the boat and come back. They come, they go, they write their names on the wall of the local pub, and the film’s slow pendulum gradually absorbs the drama of each individual crossing. I am afraid of the apathy that comes with impotence.