Eleanor Barrett gave my father English lessons and I was sent to her small, cottage like house to stay for tea after school and sleep over – to improve my English and maybe to give my mother a break, or both. She had silver hair and blue eyes, was a widow and if I was sometimes bored it was because she was an elderly grown up and all I wanted then was to be outdoors playing with other children. But she had an open coal fire which was wonderful and she grated cheese and made me strangely named things like ‘Welsh rarebit’. She was a Quaker and her husband had been a conscientious objector in the war. Pacifism was a startling concept for someone like me who had grown up in a family where armed resistance to fascism was a given. Even my parents who were very much ‘you’re either with us or against us’ people respectfully agreed to disagree with her. I am writing about her now for 2 reasons: first, because there can never be enough written in praise of older women. But secondly because England has just voted 52 percent against 48 to leave Europe after a campaign of xenophobia and racism. Within days incidents of racism have soared, such as graffiti on the Polish Cultural Centre (which we visited when I was a child and where I have worked teaching creative writing as an adult, done readings and where my play was performed) or school children and their families being told ‘Go home Polish scum’. Homeless people have been marking their cardboard signs ‘English and Homeless’ for fear of being attacked as migrants.
What has been heartwarming are the messages of support I have personally received and the amazing responses publicly telling me and others like me that we belong, are welcome here.
One of the things English friends are saying is how ashamed they now feel being English/British. So to all of them/you, don’t be ashamed! Think of the best in your culture, history. Invoke it now. Remember everyone who has ever resisted the colonialist/racist mind set and behaviour. We badly need those role models at this time. I wish I had a picture of Mrs. Barrett, as I called her, to show you. Let’s replace all the media images of the men in power who have lied and led the country into this vicious and hideous mess with images of good and ordinary folk. If Mrs. Barrett was still alive we might be disagreeing about all sorts of things but I imagine she’d be opening her door and helping Syrian refugees as she once helped Polish ones.