Theresa May, Lord Byron and trying to get out of St Pancras Station

English: St Pancras International Polski: St P...

St Pancras International (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arriving back in London by Eurostar is a demoralising experience: as the train slips into the glories of St Pancras station, my spirits sink. It’s not the slate grey skies or the unrelenting drizzle outside, it’s the fact that, as the tourists stop and point at the dizzying vault above, I know what awaits them in the cellars beneath.

St Pancras was restored to provide visitors with a grand entrance to London. Not for us the drab greys of Paris’ Gare du Nord or Brussels’ Gare du Midi, we would welcome travellers with a riot of light and colour. But that was before the dead hand of British officialdom fell upon it. Because when the train arrives in Brussels or Paris, you simply walk out into the city. In London, you are directed away from the platform, down into the cellar, where the passport queue awaits.

Never mind that our train had already left Brussels late, because the British passport officials who are sent there to check your passport before you’re even allowed to get on the train were working so slowly. An illegal immigrant might have slipped through!  Quick, better check them again. Don’t let them out of the station!

For those of us who had been travelling across a border-free Europe, the message was clear: the fun stops here.

London should have been the jewel in Europe’s crown, its most multicultural city, home to people from every corner of the world, a true international city for a union of nations.  But instead, we have refused to join in, like a surly child who won’t share his toys.

There’s plenty wrong with the way the EU is run, and the euro is proving a disaster. But we’ve refused to join Schengen, the one unmitigated success, which even Switzerland is in — and all because there is nothing, it seems, that strikes fear into British hearts like that dread spectre, the illegal immigrant.

To listen to the national debate, you would think there is an army of zombies marching on this defenceless island, pouring across the channel, hiding in the undercarriages of planes, an undefeatable army coming to take our jobs and our women and, worst of all, change of way of life.

These  sorts of views are typically delievered at great volume by people sitting at their local curry house over a plate of chicken tikka masala.

I knew a would-be illegal immigrant to Britain once, an Afghan refugee. I was living in Istanbul at the time. This was before 9/11, when the Taliban were in control of his country. He was a fully trained doctor, a gynaecologist, who wasn’t allowed to work by the Taliban, because they wouldn’t let male doctors treat women. He walked through a minefield to get out of Afghanistan, into Iran. The Iranians would let him stay so he kept going, hiding in a lorry across the border into Turkey.

In Istanbul, the only work he could get was sewing cheap leather waistcoats which the Afghans sold in the market. He lived in a single room he shared with five other men. He told me his dream was to make it to Britain. For him, it was a shining beacon of a country.

I didn’t like to think about how he would feel if he ever got here, and saw the reality of the reception he would get.

Now, as if to prove Oscar Wilde right that “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”, Theresa May has announced she’s changing the test all immigrants applying for a British passport have to pass, like schoolchildren, to make it more patriotic. They’ll have to learn the words to God Save the Queen.

I’m sure it will hugely improve the quality of life in Britain to have Somalis and Eritreans reciting “Send her victorious”, there can be no social discord where everyone can join in wishing an old woman well.

Deutsch: Lord Byron, britischer Poet

Lord Byron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apparently they’ll also have to learn about Lord Byron. I wonder if they’ll be told that he ended up fleeing intolerant Britain and living out the rest of his life in Italy and Greece, places that were less censurious of a bisexual philanderer.

Byron, a Scot whose best work was inspired by his restless travels across the continent, and who gave his life fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, was a European long before the EU or Schengen.

While he was on his way to an early death in Missolonghi, back in London they were still poring avidly over the details of his sex life — even in his day, Britain was ruled by the same mix of prurience and self-righteous intolerance.

Now, having spurned him in his life, Britain wants to co-opt him as a symbol of our exclusive little club, to feed the narcissist dreams of little men that all those people queuing up to get in at St Pancras are desperate to come and live here.

They’re not, they’re citizens of a modern world, trying to go about their business, being inconvenienced by petty officialdom.


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