Throwback: Britain at Brexit

by Michael Veith July. 12, 2017 1205 views

As a history student, the constant gaze and analysis of the past can sometimes inhibit myself from recognizing the present. Trying to figure out and live through historical moments is always tricky - so often menial present moments are transformed through the passing of time to become instrumental and dramatic historic events. This is the case for a lot of the moments and events in our lives, however there are also those moments where we know right off the bat that this is going to be a huge, historic moment. The kind of moment that your kids are going to ask you "Where were you when (blank) happened?"

When I travelled to the UK in the summer of 2016, I had very little knowledge of the Brexit campaign. While I was aware that I was arriving on June 23rd, the day of the referendum on the UK leaving the EU, I thought very little of it. Similar to a large majority of the population of the UK, I assumed the vote would occur, it wouldn't happen, and the event would be simply remembered as an interesting tidbit of history, much like the Scottish referendum of 2014, or the Quebec referendum of 1995. But it wasn't either of those and it was instead the momentous event we now know and continue to grapple with, in its aftermath. Where was I when I found out it happened? After enjoying a night out in the streets of Edinburgh on the 23rd, I was sleeping in on June 24th, like REALLY sleeping in. Getting up at 2 in the afternoon, I entered my friends living room and he was like "DUDE WE ARE OUT OF THE EU."

Stunned and too detached from the matter to realized the ramifications of it, I just sat there in the living room, still trying to get over my jetlag and the beers from the night before. I would go about my day and the rest of the trip, trying to come to terms with how I should think about the historic times I was living through. I landed in the UK with one Prime Minister leading it, and left with another in charge. From chatting with really pissed off Scottish friends, whose entire lives were/are thrown into array due to Brexit, to being a part of the crowd outside Downing Street to view David Cameron's motorcade being whisked away after his resignation, those three weeks in the UK were probably some of the most interesting times that I'll probably ever experience in the UK.

My bike and I in London.

My bike and I in London.

Having recently come back from Quebec exclusively biking, I was convinced that cycling was/is the best way of travelling and seeing a place. Biking is just fast enough to be efficient in seeing a place, but slow enough to get a sense of the place. Let me explain. When you take a cab, bus, or subway, your sense of place becomes segmented. This is usually fine in a place where you live, because you have an extended amount of time to fully experience all the space between the spaces you inhabit, work at, and hang out in. However, while travelling you only have a limited amount of time and thus your experience of a city or place inevitably is segmented. You know pockets of place, but not the larger area. Sure this can be a over-generalization, but I truly believe that bicycle travel is the most conducive way of really getting to know the city that you are visiting. But I digress. 

The tube station in Glasgow. It was so cool to be in a place where the train system is such a part of the culture.

The tube station in Glasgow. It was so cool to be in a place where the train system is such a part of the culture.

Getting into Birmingham, I picked up my boxed bike (which I had as over sized checked baggage), dragged it outside, and got to assembling my bike. I was initially wary that something would go wrong, but about 30 minutes later I was all ready to go. I decided to bike to the closest train station and upon arriving I put my bike into one of the front coaches (in the UK the trains have a designated area where you can leave bikes and stuff like that), and took my seat. I don't know too much about the four hour trip as I was dealing with jet lag and fell in and out of sleep. I do remember suddenly finding out that there was a problem with our train, so everyone had to get out and wait around a station somewhere in south Scotland (I can't remember the name). With Virgin trains trying to fit a whole other trainload of people into another, I eventually ended up sitting on the floor, cramped together with a bunch of other people in the bike coach. Annoying at the time but definitely something to remember my train trip by.

The train station in Edinburgh, with Carlton Hill in the background.

The train station in Edinburgh, with Carlton Hill in the background.


Edinburgh was my first stop in my UK trip and I stayed there for about a week and a half. It was good to hang out with friends who I hadn't seen in over 4 years. Staying at their house in the central of Edinburgh, I ventured out each day with them (on bikes of course), as they showed me around the city.

The streets of Edinburgh

The streets of Edinburgh

I was blown away at how many historical buildings there still were. If I could take a very uninformed, probably inaccurate statistic, I would say that at least 80 percent of the buildings within 5 miles of the centre of the city are either 70 years or older. Having taken an incredible fascination to Winnipeg civic history, I was always so sad when learning of the devastating spree of demolition of heritage buildings in the 50s and 60s. While obviously the context of Edinburgh is incredibly different, - with it being a much, much, much older city than Winnipeg - it was still such a joy to be biking through such a bustling, old, and in my opinion fairly un-gentrified (or at least not as gentrified as I was expecting for an old, hip, European city).

The view from Carlton Hill.

The view from Carlton Hill.

The streets on Edinburgh. It was and still is my favourite city in the UK.

The streets on Edinburgh. It was and still is my favourite city in the UK.

While I was only there for a week and a half, by the time I left I felt like I had been there for at least two months. Becoming incredibly spatially aware of where I was in the city and beginning to delve into the history of the evolution of the city, made me want to stay longer and even considering moving there for a time maybe in the future. It's truly an amazing city.

The Greens. Its a public green space in the centre of Edinburgh. Because its Scotland, of course they have to have some public teeing grounds. In the background is Arthur's Seat, one of the many hills in Edinburgh.

The Greens. Its a public green space in the centre of Edinburgh. Because its Scotland, of course they have to have some public teeing grounds. In the background is Arthur's Seat, one of the many hills in Edinburgh.

A street close to the Royal Mile (the main street of the old city) that connects two prominent structures in Edinburgh, extending from Holyrood Palace all the way up to Edinburgh castle. One of the sites along the way is the Bank of Scotland, seen in the background.

A street close to the Royal Mile (the main street of the old city) that connects two prominent structures in Edinburgh, extending from Holyrood Palace all the way up to Edinburgh castle. One of the sites along the way is the Bank of Scotland, seen in the background.

University of Edinburgh. Notable alumni include, David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Alexander Graham Bell.

University of Edinburgh. Notable alumni include, David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Alexander Graham Bell.

Dean Village or Water of Leith Village. Being beside Water of Leith, a river that runs through Edinburgh, it was original a milling community. Being a separate village for over 800 years, it was eventually incorporated in Edinburgh and now is a nice tranquil and desirable residential area.

Dean Village or Water of Leith Village. Being beside Water of Leith, a river that runs through Edinburgh, it was original a milling community. Being a separate village for over 800 years, it was eventually incorporated in Edinburgh and now is a nice tranquil and desirable residential area.

But of course looming over all this was Brexit.

As I had mentioned earlier, I got into Edinburgh and once meeting my friends, who I hadn't seen in 5 years, we went out for beers.

Then a day into being in the UK, it was out of the EU.

The fact that I was in the UK when Brexit went down was pretty interesting, but what made it even more interesting was being in Scotland in the immediate aftermath. Getting the results of the vote, it was found that the entirety of Scotland had voted overwhelmingly to stay in the UK. What had tipped the scale was the essentially all of the areas in England, besides the Metropolitan area of London. When Scotland had its referendum to leave the UK in 2014, the fact that leaving the UK would also mean leaving the EU for Scotland was touted by the Remain side and judging the result, it had worked. Scotland was a good boy and behaved. They had stayed in the UK but now they were still out of the EU. I remember the immediate days after the referendum, there were countless newspapers touting the strong connection that Scotland had to the European continent, arguing the connection was even closer and longer lasting than their union to the United Kingdom.

Sights of the Union Jack and the European Union flag took on much more political weight. They became symbols of either complacency or resistance.

Sights of the Union Jack and the European Union flag took on much more political weight. They became symbols of either complacency or resistance.

Hanging out in Edinburgh, I was also introduced to my friend's group of friends. It was a fascinating experience because the group was incredibly diverse with people from the US, from Scandinavia, and from different areas on the European continent. Some were living together and partners, so Brexit really threw them for a loop. It was indicative of all the other couples and relationships that are trying to figure out how to stay together in a post-Brexit world.

I would have loved to stay in Scotland for much longer, but I eventually had to leave and pretty soon I was on the similar train heading down south again. While still all part of the UK, I had now become more mindful as we passed through Scotland and back into England. Brexit had brought forth in my mind (and I think to many people) the tension between these two places.

Instead of going straight back to Birmingham, I stopped by Manchester and stayed with friends who lived just outside of the city. Only there a day, I didn't take many photos and instead merely took it all in. Perhaps it was placebo, however I could just get a sense that I was no longer in Scotland. Having spent almost two weeks there, the difference between the two countries was palpable. What about those who have spent their entire lives in one or the other and visits the opposite? What's it like? The only comparison I could think is Canada and the United States. They are so close geographically and culturally, but there is definitely something different between the two.

For my whole bike ride into Manchester, I followed the extensive canal network. When I think of canals, I so often think of places like the Netherlands but England has so many as well.

For my whole bike ride into Manchester, I followed the extensive canal network. When I think of canals, I so often think of places like the Netherlands but England has so many as well.

After spending a bit of time in Manchester, I took the train down to Birmingham once again. The main reason why I was in the UK in the first place was that my childhood friend was getting married in Birmingham. I had barely spent any time in Birmingham when I suddenly went on the "Stag-do," a bachelor party outing the weekend before the wedding. Far from just being a night out with the boys, it turned out we all piled in a van and headed toward the western edge of Wales. For the weekend there we spent time in a cabin, shooting the breeze and of course, going cliff diving.

The beach at Abereiddy, the very western edge of Wales. To the north (the right hand of the photo) was the site of the Blue Lagoon, a carved out quarry where friends and I cliff dived from. Unfortunately, just as we got to the Blue Lagoon, my camera ran out of battery.

The beach at Abereiddy, the very western edge of Wales. To the north (the right hand of the photo) was the site of the Blue Lagoon, a carved out quarry where friends and I cliff dived from. Unfortunately, just as we got to the Blue Lagoon, my camera ran out of battery.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the UK I feel that Wales is always the forgotten country in the UK's "country of countries." So often we hear of Scotland because of stuff like the Scottish referendum, or then there is Northern Ireland because of "The Troubles" in previous decades, but I don't often hear of Wales. Driving through Wales, I was once again reminded, that Wales is also a very distinct culture and country as well. The highway signs were all in English as well as Welsh. I had often seen videos of the crazy village names in Wales but it was often simply a gimmick and used as a challenge in pronouncing it. When I was there and saw it in the places where we were navigating through, the gimmicky of it was swept aside, and I feel like I also began to see Wales as a distinct country, with similar desires (albeit not as vocal, or at least not on the international stage) to establish a strong Welsh identity. Or at least this is what it appeared to me at the time. In the Brexit vote, Wales just passed the 50 percent threshold for the Leave camp, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland. So thinking about Wales trying to distinguish themselves from England and the UK, but at the same time leaving the EU and trying to be more part of Britain. Not quite sure how it all worked out or I guess more accurately working out. So before I knew it we drove back to Birmingham and with a week to go before the wedding I decided to dip into London. And what a dip it was.

Big Ben at Sunrise.

Big Ben at Sunrise.

Taking the train and arriving at Euston station in the centre of London, I arrived around noon time and immediately got to seeing the sites. Biking up to Abbey Road, which was close by and while I wanted to take the stereotypical shot. I got there and thinking since it was around lunchtime and still early in the day and there wouldn't be a lot of people, I was wrong. There were already a whole bunch of groups there and unsurprisingly Abbey Road is still a fairly active road. So here I kept on seeing all these tourists stopping up traffic. So no Abbey Road shot for me. And that was the beginning of the tension I felt with being in a big city, which I've always associated myself with (growing up I would always call myself more of a city boy), and feeling uncomfortable with being in a metropolis.

After Abbey Road, I headed to the British museum. Amongst all the historical artifacts, what blew me away as well was the crowds. Obviously I should have assumed a free museum located in one of the major cities in the world would be overrun with people, but I didn't.

The British Museum.

The British Museum.

In many ways, this crowdedness of the museum was a small microcosm of the larger hustle and bustle of the city. The business of London surprisingly caught me off guard. Perhaps it was that I was travelling alone and thus, the sheer amount of people that I would sometime have to weave through only highlighted that fact that I was a small person in a huge crowd. After being used to navigate through different UK cities with friends or other people it was really weird being all alone. I think my time in London crystallized what had slowly been dawning on me the entire trip: the incredible loneliness of travelling alone. That might sound extreme, but I just have to hold on to some shred of that statement, in order to balance out the blind nostalgia and rose coloured wanderlust that I already find slowly coating my memories of my UK trip.

But for my gripes, it was a great experience being in London. On top of seeing all these incredible structures that are just part of the world's psyche, the London Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge (very often confused as London Bridge, but I guess its a bridge that is in London, so why not?). Biking between all these sites made the experience even more memorable. As I talked about earlier, biking around made me see all the in between places that gave me a really good mental map of centre London. Instead of simply consisting of areas around a tube station, it was a much larger continuous area. That was another interesting thing. During the whole time in London I never took the tube. Some may ask why not, to be honest, since I was using my bike as my primary mode of transportation, any visit of the tube would essentially be to take the tube just for the sake of it, and there were so many sites to see in London, I would have much rather simply used the time (and money) towards something else. (Besides I grew up going on the newer, and according to my British friend, much better and nicer tube system in Hong Kong, which was basically modeled after the London one.)

Westminster Abbey. I was able to go in for free around 7 in the morning for prayers and nothing else. Sitting in one of the pews and simply feeling a sense of awe in the the place that I was in. Think of the sheer amount of time that Christians have gathered in that space over the centuries!

Westminster Abbey. I was able to go in for free around 7 in the morning for prayers and nothing else. Sitting in one of the pews and simply feeling a sense of awe in the the place that I was in. Think of the sheer amount of time that Christians have gathered in that space over the centuries!

The Guildhall in the City of London (not to be confused with the metropolitan area of London. If this is news, please youtube CGP City of London. It includes a good breakdown and history of the whole City of London/Metro London deal.)

The Guildhall in the City of London (not to be confused with the metropolitan area of London. If this is news, please youtube CGP City of London. It includes a good breakdown and history of the whole City of London/Metro London deal.)

Tate Modern

Tate Modern

The Tower of London with The Shard tower in the background. The old and the new.

The Tower of London with The Shard tower in the background. The old and the new.

Staying at a friend's friend place, I spent about two and a half days biking all throughout London seeing sights of all different kinds. What I didn't really see was any indication or anything that reminded me of the incredible event of Brexit. And of course why would I? Being in London, it is a whole world unto itself really. The incredible cosmopolitan nature of London really made me forget most of it. Statistics backed this up. Compared to the rest of England, metro London voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Thus, similar to the phenomenon of Liberal bubbles in America creating the false sense of a lack of Trump support, it really seemed that London gave me a false sense of almost forgetting that Brexit happened. Then while I was biking to yet another destination, the National Gallery, on my list of sites to see, I just so happened to be passing by 21 Downing street and there were huge crowds surrounding the entrance.

Crowds at Downing Street.

Crowds at Downing Street.

Naturally I had begun to acclimatize myself to large crowds in London and I initially assume perhaps there was always this many people surrounding it, people trying to get a glimpse of the Prime Minister or pose for photos. I asked someone standing around "What's happening?" They responded something to the effect of "Well apparently David Cameron has resigned and we think he will shortly be leaving Downing Street for good."

Ah yes. David Cameron. The Prime minister of Great Britain at the time. He had been the one who actually called for the referendum regarding whether or not to leave the EU. Badgered by UKIP and breakaway sentiments in his conservative party, he had put forward the referendum, certain of the outcome and hopeful that it would permanently quell those sentiments in his party and consolidate control. Or at least that's my take of it, based on what I've read.

I wished I had taken more photos of the event, but I'm glad I was able to just experience and take it all in, as opposed to simply capturing it.

I wished I had taken more photos of the event, but I'm glad I was able to just experience and take it all in, as opposed to simply capturing it.

However he betted wrong, he had resigned, and I just happened to be there at that moment when he was leaving. To avoid making it sound more dramatic then it was, it was honestly a little anti-climatic. I waited around for about 10 minutes and suddenly there was a murmur that went across the crowd and the gate doors opened and then two black cars just quickly zoomed past the crowd and then that was it. I remember talking with my brother months later and he described that it was so surreal to get a Whatsapp photo of me standing outside of Downing street and then a minute later getting a BBC news alert saying that David Cameron had resigned. As much as sometimes I laugh and wonder if maybe those cars that whizzed by didn't hold David Cameron in them, I was still there. In that crowd of people seeing it all go down. Afterwards the crowd slowly dispersed and I remember overhearing a man describing the event to a friend on the phone and talking about how angry he was with David Cameron.

There once again the effects of Brexit were reeling in front of me: the entire change of the UK's leadership. Perhaps justifiable but still incredible that not only Brexit put the future of the UK is such disarray, but also with also the immediate aftermath with the whole changing of the administration. David Cameron had announced his resignation just hours after the Brexit results were announced on June 24. And despite by the time I saw him being whisked away for the final time, Theresa May had already been announced as the next Prime Minister, throughout the last few weeks there had been a lot of speculation regarding who would lead the conservative party and which direction they wanted to take. To imagine that I landed in the UK with one prime minister and left it with another. And that's what exactly happened. I returned from London and after attending the wedding for my friend, before I knew it I was dismantling my bike, stuffing it into a bike box and getting on a flight back to Canada.

The English Countryside. My view on the train ride back to Birmingham from London.

The English Countryside. My view on the train ride back to Birmingham from London.

It's been a year (actually exactly a year since Theresa May was confirmed as the next PM), since my trip there and future of the UK is still uncertain. The Brexit negotiations with the EU have officially begun and for the next year and a half to two years, the whole world watches to see what sort of arrangement transpires. The UK wants a "soft" Brexit, essentially meaning that they get to have their cake and eat it too, however many have said that the EU needs to get a "hard" Brexit, completely shutting them out of the EU, and making them an example for the rest of the EU nations, hopefully striking enough fear in other countries who have thought of leaving. The entire EU project, 40 years in the making, seems to be in the balance, or so they say. We have yet to see. I guess we just have to resort to living in these interesting times.

“If the surprise outcome of the recent UK referendum - on whether to leave or remain in the European Union - teaches us anything, it is that supposedly worthy displays of democracy in action can actually do more harm than good. Witness a nation now more divided; an intergenerational schism in the making; both a governing and opposition party torn to shreds from the inside; infinitely more complex issues raised than satisfactory solutions provided."

- Alex Morritt

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