Out of the divide

Two households, both alike in dignity in Leeds, is where Linda Green lay her scene for her new novel. She tells us how racist abuse emboldened by Brexit – and Shakespeare – inspired her

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It started with a few friends being racially abused in public as the Leave campaign got into full swing. One was shouted at to “go home” by a group of schoolboys as he jogged through his local park. Both Muslim and Hindu friends were on the receiving end of anti-Islamic abuse as they walked down the street – suggesting it had become socially acceptable to be racist in public.

Friends who were EU citizens told me they had taken to speaking as little as possible in public – and only in a very quiet voice when they had to, for fear their European accents would attract abuse.

When the Remain-supporting Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right supporter shouting “Britain First” days before the EU referendum, it was clear we had reached a horrific low in West Yorkshire, where I live.

Her murder spurred me into action. I was out canvassing for Remain in Halifax town centre on the day of the referendum. Person after person parroted back to me the lies they had read on Facebook or the side of a bus. The Leave campaign were conspicuous by their absence in the town centre that day. I was told they had concentrated their campaign in the two most deprived areas of the town. I went home and told my husband I thought Leave would win. I was one of those who was saddened but not shocked by the result.

And of course, the anti-European and anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t end when the UK voted narrowly to leave the EU. If anything, the politicians who had fanned the flames of xenophobia were emboldened – as were those who saw it as their duty to spread their hate speech in communities.

A friend’s mixed-race son was told the local park was “whites only” by other boys when he turned up to play football with friends. I heard from people working in education that white schoolboys – often from the most-disadvantaged backgrounds –  were being targeted by far-right groups operating in the area.

I also witnessed disturbing abuse myself when I was out and about across the North. I saw a black train guard being told to “go home” by football fans at Manchester Piccadilly station. I was with my young son and stopped to offer support, as did several other people. I tried to explain to my son afterwards that it never used to be as bad as this and we must not let such abuse become normalised.

The divisions in our society had never seemed so deep. Hatred, much of it spouted by politicians and whipped up by the mainstream media, had spilt onto our streets. And yet I knew that many people were unaware of this, perhaps living in areas which weren’t as divided or not having friends who were on the receiving end of such abuse. The idea of writing a novel which shone a light on the experiences of EU citizens living in the UK was seeded in my head.

As the Conservative Party battled it out among themselves over what type of Brexit they could get through parliament with an ever-decreasing majority, the pressure for a second referendum continued to mount and pro and anti-Brexit protests were held in cities across the UK.

A Stop Brexit march I attended in Leeds was tense and heavily policed. There had been far-right rallies in the city in previous weeks and there were fears that they would try to infiltrate this march. The atmosphere was tense and intimidating along the route. A bus driver leant out of his window and shouted “traitor” at us as we walked past. Men piled out of pubs and shouted abuse at us along the Headrow. The division of our city and our country was stark.

When I went down to London for a Stop Brexit march, the atmosphere at Leeds City Station was also intimidating. I saw a man approach an older woman with a “Grannies Against Brexit” banner and shout abuse at her inches from her face. Interestingly, when we got down to London, the atmosphere was completely different and the march was happy and relaxed, with no intimidation. Only when I got back to Leeds that evening with other protesters did the atmosphere change. I held my placard upside down and tight against me and sat down quickly on the train. But a man opposite came across, standing over me and demanding to see what was on my placard. I tried to make light of it and he eventually went away, but I was well aware that had the colour of my skin or my accent been different, it may not have ended that way.

The proof of that came when a French friend wearing an EU sticker and her 11-year-old mixed-race son were racially abused on a train home from Leeds on a Saturday evening. One of the four, white, middle-aged men took hold of her head, pulled it back and screamed “no surrender” in her face. They also shouted racial abuse at her son, which left him in tears. No one on the train said or did anything at that point. It was only after one of the men said, “We are going to trolley you out of the UK” to my friend that a young woman came and sat near her and talked to her son, despite being subjected to misogynistic abuse by the men. She asked if they wanted to get off the train with her at the next station, which they did. My friend contacted the British Transport Police. She was told someone would come out to take a statement the next day, but no one did. It was only after the Racial Justice Network tweeted the British Transport Police about their response the following Tuesday, that they called to take a statement. One of the men was later convicted of racial abuse but was not jailed.

I realised that the scenario of a racial attack happening in public, and people having to decide whether they should intervene or offer support or not, was an ideal one to build my novel around. As a former journalist, I was aware that if you wrote an article for a national newspaper you tended to either be preaching to the converted or working for a newspaper whose readers had been subjected to years of anti-immigration headlines. As a novelist, your readers are much more diverse and by creating a fictional story you can engage them with characters before bringing in the issues they are dealing with. In that respect, you have much more scope to change hearts and minds. I wanted to write a novel which personalised the experiences of those suffering hate attacks and racial abuse, and made people stop and think about what they could do to prevent such things or support those on the receiving end.

Leeds, which narrowly voted 50.3 per cent to Remain, against 49.7 per cent to Leave, seemed an obvious setting for the novel. And a reimagined version of Romeo and Juliet, the obvious way to personalise these issues with a story of a young couple’s love being beset by the hate of the divided families and communities around them. Telling it largely from the point of view of two mothers who (to quote from Jo Cox’s maiden speech in the House of Commons, which I have used at the front of my novel) have far more in common than that which divides them, was hugely important to me.

I also wanted to explore issues around class and social division where Brexit was concerned. The national media had perpetuated a false narrative that voters in the North had all voted for Brexit. The truth, of course, was very different. Major northern cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle had all voted Remain. It was northern towns, many of which had borne the brunt of unemployment and a feeling of being “left behind” that had fuelled the northern Leave vote.

My own husband is a former coal miner from Wakefield who was on strike during the 1984-85 miners’ dispute. His family were one of many where generations of miners were made redundant when the pit closures came, and little was done to regenerate the affected areas, allowing resentment and the view that others were getting preferential treatment to spread.

I created the working-class Cuthbert family to show how that sense of resentment and hopelessness could lead to young people becoming susceptible to far-right views and grooming – but also that it was perfectly possible within that family for other members to have entirely different views.

And I created the professional, middle-class Mastour family to illustrate how EU citizens living in this country had been made to feel so unwelcome and had to deal with a bureaucratic nightmare to claim their right to stay. And with the parents being French and Moroccan, and their British-born children raised as Muslims in this country, there were yet more issues of racism and Islamophobia for them to face.

I hope that by shining a light on these issues, my novel In Little Stars will help to raise awareness of how the divisions in our country came about and what can be done to try to heal them. The most powerful responses I have had to it so far have come from EU citizens who were grateful that their stories had been told, and also from British readers who have said their eyes had been opened and their views challenged. I hope my story of the Cuthberts and the Mastours will continue to change hearts and minds for a long time to come.

Photo: Vote Leave vehicles pass flowers for murdered MP Jo Cox before the EU referendum (Matthew Chattle/Shutterstock)

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