In October, we visited Ipswich.
An English country town in East Anglia, Ipswich has seen better days. On the one hand it has a stunning marina (where we were staying), full of yachts with fancy names such as Ostrica, Calva and Waratah, and even a dhow, and surrounded by trendy restaurants, new buildings for the local university and fashionable and expensive apartments overlooking the water, as well as the old Customs House and supporting maritime infrastructure. Furthermore, it is a town endowed with much history, from a fifteenth century ‘Ancient House’, the Great White Horse Hotel (now a Cotswolds and a Starbucks), and thirteen ornate medieval churches scattered within the town’s more modern buildings. On the other hand, many of those ornate churches are in desperate need of repair (one condemned as vegetation infiltrates its now collapsing structure), and Ipswich's High Street is full of pound shops, bookmakers, charity shops and empty units. This is not to say that we did not like it - far from it - merely that there is no ignoring that the town has rough edges.
The town proved to be quite a conversation starter. As we explored we discussed why English towns have a habit of rejuvenating only pockets of their amenities, when there is so much else they could celebrate and demonstrate. Why in Ipswich, for example, is the money being spent in the marina area and not to preserve either the historic monuments in disrepair (which other less fortunate towns would have killed for), or to preserve the economics of the High Street, to bring people back to the town? We wondered whether the characteristics of Ipswich - a struggling high street, a history that has seen better days, minimal ethnic diversity, a town without a marketing department to maintain a glowing global image - are indicative of life outside of the affluent English cities (namely London), and consequently whether London, as the capital of the United Kingdom, is truly representative of the country as a whole. (My own opinion is that it is a country unto itself). This led to an unanswerable question – where should the capital really be? Does a town like Ipswich, with its highlights and lowlights, represent Britain more accurately than London? Would an historically affluent but more provincial city like Bath be a better fit? If Manchester, Leeds or Hull were to assume the role of capital, would the people of the South West, Scottish Borders and of Powys feel represented? Could one of the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish cities successfully assume the role and succeed in representing everybody? And if it’s not possible to choose a place that represents all of the people of these isles, then what is it that binds us together at all, other than geography and a history of conquering one another? What, put simply, is Britishness?
The following day we visited Sutton Hoo, the site of one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds and not far from Ipswich. It was here that Rædwald, King of East Anglia and de facto King of England, was buried in 620 AD, accompanied by his treasure and inside a 90 foot boat. The National Trust property features a museum, explaining the significance of the myriad finds here, and also the history, as we know it, of the British people. The maps on display are telling: as the Roman Empire left in the fifth century, great migrations began: Angles came from Northern Germany and Denmark, Saxons from Germany, Franks from France, Jutes from Denmark, Swedes from Sweden and others, through the heart of Europe and the many cultures therein, came from as far away as Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Meanwhile, those already present in these isles, native populations who had lived alongside the Romans, were pushed west into Devon, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Little is known about who these people were, but it is they that the maps call the ‘British’, not the Anglo-Saxon realm that was forming to the East. And not even this eastern realm was one coherent whole, subdivided as it was into the tribal kingdoms of West, South and East Saxon, Mercia, Northumbria, Deira, Lindsey, Hwicce, East Anglia and Kent. At what point did we become one? Again we asked: what, put simply, is Britishness?
Around the time of our Ipswich weekend, the UK government agreed to take a paltry 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years, amidst the worst refugee crisis Europe has ever seen. Inevitably, the ‘Britishness’ and ‘British values’ debate was rife in the public domain, with certain voices shouting that Britishness, or Britain, would be diluted by accepting all or any of these foreigners. Such voices neglected that most fundamental of values: to help those in need. Such voices seemed oblivious to the fact that, one could conclude from historical influx and efflux of different cultures, and from considering the differences in peoples even now in different corners of the country, that there is no one such thing as being British, that this is a land of different cultures, even among those with the same skin colour. For all of our differences, and even though the countries within our 'United' Kingdom argue for and against independence from the current governance structure, we coexist on friendly terms, and have much to benefit from each other's company. We are a land that has historically welcomed new friends from afar, and have been enriched in so doing.
On November 7th, we arose fresh off the Eurostar and Metro at Place de la République, a public square near the Canal St Martin (and crucially, from our point of view, close to our favourite gluten free patisserie). Mere hours after leaving London, we were immediately confronted with the very sight our government had been trying to ignore, here in plain sight: refugees. République is the site of a refugee camp, or perhaps refugee protest, with people sleeping rough and banners proclaiming the human rights of those disenfranchised. It was a stark sight and a stark statement: here there is no ignoring what is happening across Europe; here there are people in need.
One week later, I was flying in to Paris again when gunmen and bombers targeted the Bataclan Theatre, the Stade de France and other locations in the city, many of them near République (where we were no longer staying, by chance). Those events are not my story to tell: it is not important what we did that weekend (we listened to the sirens, and we wept with the city). Instead, that is a story for Parisians, of the nation of France, and also of the refugees. Yet certain voices around the world seized the opportunity to use the Paris ISIS attacks to justify tightening borders from those innocently caught in the migrant crisis, single-handedly failing (or refusing) to understand that the likes of ISIS, the likes of the Paris attackers, are the very people the refugees are fleeing.
On the Sunday evening, as I was leaving Paris once more, people from all over the city gathered in Place de la République, the very place where help for refugees is called for daily, to stand in solidarity.
There is no neat conclusion to this piece. There is no way to successfully pull together the two threads of this narrative (I know, I've been trying to write this for weeks). In 2015, bad things happened, both in the news and personally, and what pulled people through in both situations was people - family and strangers - helping those in need in whatever way they could. So I start 2016 with a thought: what if we stopped pretending to conform to an inaccurate identity (whatever that might be for whoever might be reading this), stopped hiding behind it, and sought to be more like family with one another?