I’m a lucky guy.
I worked hard, was blessed with great teachers and a supportive family. Financially lucky as well, lucky enough to have a beautiful house in beautiful part of the beautiful country across the channel.
Our garden there shares a hedgerow with the village churchyard, in one corner of which lie two war graves from the first world war. One a young boy of 17 and the other a 21 year old. In the other corner of the churchyard is a plot of six graves, the crew of a bomber which crashed a mile or so up the road in the second war, five Englishmen and a Canadian. Not the whole crew. One airman survived, was rescued by the family of Monsieur Le Coq, who lives across the road, and was eventually taken out via a resistance route through Spain, under the very eyes of the local German Army contingent. As is usual, these graves are beautifully kept.
At the front of the churchyard is the memorial to locals killed in two world wars, which even in this small village is too large.
Here’s the thing. All these memorials are treated the same by the local villagers. From the eldest to the youngest the respect they show is all that the families of these men (and boys) could ask for. These are the dead of our continent and they look after them all like they are kin.
We are a strange folk, we British. We are in part proud and arrogant and display all the good and bad that those attributes can entail. We can be slow to embrace others but once a friendship is made it is so very hard to break. And brave, boy can we be brave. For a century we have spilt far too much blood and spent all our treasure fighting for the continent we inhabit. And not giving up. Never quitting.
Until now. Despite what the Little Englanders may think, we have made a continent full of friends and now we walk away because we can’t get our own way. Because we can’t recognise that this century is different to the last and is changing fast. Because there are more people in need.
I’ve been trying to find the word for how I feel all morning. Angry? Confused? Disbelieving? Devastated? At times each and all of those. But when I think about it carefully the overwhelming feeling I have at the moment is shame. How do I explain this to my children, and my French neighbours’ children, when they stand alongside each other at these memorials? Explain that we are not prepared to give a small part of ourselves to help the march of their, our continent from its bloody past through its peaceful present and onto its better future. How do I explain to the Le Coqs, whose family risked everything to rescue someone they didn’t know, that their children won’t be welcomed in our country as we have been in theirs?
I am ashamed that we are prepared to risk all that we have built together for a small piece of treasure, driven largely by the fear of the blood of a different culture.