Every Tuesday at 5:30am I point my bleary eyes ahead and start the drive to the office in Surrey, about an hour and a half away. I know people face far longer commutes than this and have to make them every day every working day. I am not moaning or anything, but having tainted my Tuesdays in this way for 8 years or so, there is not a lot left to excite me about the journey, apart from avoiding the occasional ambling pheasant in the country stretches during the short summer weeks of daylight at that mad hour.
Despite having listened to my fill of sports and news radio shows for company on these journeys, I’ve always decided against borrowing an audio book from the library. I know me: I didn’t think I possessed sufficient powers of concentration to keep with the plot, particularly when dawdling and frustrated behind one of the many slow lorries that smoke their way along the first 15-mile stretch of single-carriageway A339. Furthermore, as my Tuesdays are generally the only day I have to make car journeys of over 20 minutes duration, I presumed the library’s return date would expire long before I got through the first couple of the five or so CDs in the time allotted to me. More prescient than that has been my concern that I would in all likelihood miss the return date, or manage to lose or scratch one or more of the CDs, either way resulting in fees or fine.
However, having heard one soccer match following-morning carcass-cut too many, I went all flippant and spontaneous, and headed for the audio book shelves at a recent Newbury library visit.
I chose Autumn by Ali Smith
In direct contravention of the adage about judging books and covers, I have been drawn to the rich bucolic oranges of the paperback cover for some time, picking it up in bookshops several times, feeling sure I would buy it one day, but never being quite convinced enough by the blurb to make that purchase.
But now, having got the audio version home on a Saturday, I actually remembered to pack it in the car in time for my next Tuesday trip, and slapped disc one into the player before indicating left for the A339. The journey flew by. I was gripped by the story the whole way – apart from the moment I drove over the bump that jogged the CD into missing a line. If I broke any speed limits, failed to observe traffic signals or ran over ducklings, then I apologise, but was absorbed by the story and really don’t remember. (Don’t worry – I have since checked the bodywork for new dents or fresh blood or feathers and have found neither). I listened to all five discs over the next fortnight: eagerly listening on every one of my journeys, even a snippet on the diddy one to the allotment. I think the library were as shocked as I was to return it to them, all discs intact, before the due date.
One could argue that not much happens in Autumn – for example, there’s a whole chapter detailing the intricate process of a passport application – but in spite, maybe because of this, I found it gripping.
Why am I telling you this? Because the story contained an isolated short chapter that I found so perfect, I rewound and listened to it again several times. It may have been written in 2016, but for all of the arguing, inaction and blame-pointing since then, I think still perfectly describes the listing state of this country after the self-disembowelling of ‘Brexit’, whichever divisive binary side you take.
Personally, I didn’t see all that much wrong with the old European Economic Community system albeit yes, I believe it has proved a mistake for all member countries, not just the UK, to sign away their sovereignty and self-determinism with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. I would have preferred that we’d referended against reversing that power – much easier from within than without – and still retain the big advantages of membership and ‘community’ for all. Even without a bloody Brexit, it’s a different world now than it was when our countries heroes fought for our freedom in WW2, and perhaps started the process towards the EEC. To me, our forebears didn’t fight to keep England as it was – it wasn’t perfect then, nor was ever going to be – they fought for peace and freedom for all, wherever they came from. Today it’s the raising of barriers and isolationist attitudes that Brexit and current divisive US policy drives, that threatens this freedom.
Ali, I hope you don’t mind me copying that chapter here, but I do it to mark your insight while giving you full credit and urging everyone reading this to buy and read your whole book, or even drive to Surrey to listen to it.
All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic.
All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: What is the EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. All across the country, people called each other c*nts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people had pinned their hopes on it. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain. All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened other people. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane. All across the country, politicians lied. All across the country, politicians fell apart. All across the country, politicians vanished. All across the country, promises vanished. All across the country, money vanished. All across the country, social media did the job. All across the country, things got nasty. All across the country, nobody spoke about it. All across the country, nobody spoke about anything else. All across the country, racist bile was general. All across the country, people said it wasn’t that they didn’t like immigrants. All across the country, people said it was about control. All across the country, everything changed overnight. All across the country, the haves and the have nots stayed the same. All across the country, the usual tiny per cent of the people made their money out of the usual huge per cent of the people. All across the country, money money money money. All across the country, no money no money no money no money.
All across the country, the country split in pieces. All across the country, the countries cut adrift.
All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there,
a line you don’t cross here,
a line you’d better not cross there,
a line of beauty here
a line dance there,
a line you didn’t even know exists here,
a whole new line of fire,
line of battle,
end of the line,
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