for August, 2019
My mother died from a brain tumour a couple of months ago. Her descent was swift and horrible. From diagnosis to death took twelve weeks. We are all reeling through the painful, predictable stages of grief: disbelief, denial, anger etc. Everyone tells me it takes a long time to come to terms with a mother’s death.
And there’s a political choice she made that I’m finding it hard to reconcile. In June 2016, at the age of 77, my Mum voted for Brexit. I voted Remain.
Every day, for decades, Mum read The Daily Express. She claimed she didn’t believe what she saw in the papers – but her Brexit vote must have been influenced by her tabloid of choice. She told me that she left the polling booth not even knowing if she’d done the right thing.
Retrospectively, I curse myself. Why didn’t I talk to her before the Referendum? Why didn’t I explain what a leave vote might mean for her children and grandchildren – and for the freedoms of so many others?
Politics was largely unspoken in our family. If electoral candidates called at our front door, asking my father to reveal his voting intentions, invariably his response was, ‘well, that’s between me and the ballot box’. Dad was a policeman for thirty years, joined in the long-ago era of Dixon of Dock Green - and drank the constabulary Kool-Aid that pitched the Conservatives as ‘The Party of Law and Order’.
After 60 years of marriage, my father, diagnosed with dementia a decade ago, has, unexpectedly outlived my mother. She was his chief carer, so things are complicated further. Dad didn’t cast a vote in the 2016 referendum. In May, when I asked him if he wanted me to take him to the local primary school, to vote in the E.U. elections, he emphatically declined – as if it were some pointless puzzle.
Along with thousands of others, I’m deeply depressed about losing my European Citizenship – and hence my Freedom of Movement. I work as a theatre and opera director. Recently I’ve directed my first feature film. I’ve created many shows in the U.K. but also internationally, in opera houses in the U.S.A., China, Germany, Italy, Oman, Saudi Arabia.
When I direct productions in the U.S.A., I have to obtain a special kind of work-visa called a ‘Visa 01’ – to prove that I’m a so-called ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’. It’s a justification for a foreigner being permitted to enter the U.S.A. to direct in an American theatre. I’m a member of theatre unions on both sides of the Atlantic.
When you apply for your first American Visa 01, you have to assemble a sheaf of professional testimonies – evidence to support your claim that you are indeed an ‘alien’ who really is in possession of certain ‘extraordinary abilities’. With each subsequent application, for each new project, there are several hours of hanging around at the American Embassy. I’ve seen various luminaries there – politician (and sometime dancer) Ed Balls, conductor John Eliot Gardner and actor Sam West – all in the visa queue holding-pen.
There are complicated forms to fill in – make a mistake and you’re sent to the back of the line – and hundreds of dollars to pay for the privilege of having a new page in your passport.
I’ve had to apply for visas when directing shows in other non-European countries, of course. When I directed the Chinese premiere of The Barber of Seville at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing, I needed a special work-visa. It was the same in Oman – for La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, Muscat – directing snowy scenes on stage while the temperature outside the stage door was 40 degrees centigrade.
But when I work in Europe, it’s been a different story. I directed a new production of Carmen in Bari, Italy, and didn’t have to apply for a work visa. I seem to remember filling out some forms for health insurance and tax purposes – but, because I am a European Citizen, didn’t require the same kind of visa as when working outside Europe.
Now that my Freedom of Movement is being taken away from me, will I really have to queue at the Italian, French or German embassies? Why should a European opera company consider giving a job to me, when they could much more easily find a director who hasn’t had their E.U. Citizenship taken away?
Through an accident of birth, my wife is far more fortunate. She is a freelance opera singer and has worked all over Europe.
My wife was born in Scotland. But, because her mother was born in Ireland, my wife and our two children will be able to apply for an Irish passport. Which means that, even after Brexit, my wife will retain her Freedom of Movement to sing in operas and concerts across Europe, visa-free.
I was born in England. So were my parents. Sadly, I can’t claim any antecedents that might entitle me to save my European Citizenship.
When Freedom of Movement is taken away, there are thousands in the creative industries whose careers will be damaged. Singers and actors, set, costume and lighting designers, choreographers, technicians – all of whom, particularly in the world of opera, with its need for large creative forces, are used to travelling freely across the continent, from one opera house to another. Brexiters talk proudly of removing Freedom of Movement, preventing European workers coming to this country. But it’s a two-way street that’s going to be blocked in both directions.
At the airport, on our travels for work or leisure, I presume my Irish- passport-holding family will be whizzing though the E.U. Citizens lane at border control. I’ll be far behind, crawling along in the non-E.U. queues.
‘See you at the hotel!’ they’ll chorus, as they desert their Dad.
It’s ironic that my mother had never held a passport, never once been abroad. ‘There’s plenty to see in England, thank you very much,’ she’d say. She wouldn’t travel on a boat, let alone a plane – I had to send her a reassuring text every time I took my life in my hands and, against all odds, landed safely on some foreign runway. When she met my father-in-law for the first time, a retired airline pilot, she said ‘oh, you must have been terribly brave!’ My late mother, who never left the U.K. – and had no intention of ever doing so – has helped curtail my freedom to live and work across Europe.
Dear Mum, Rest in Peace. You know I’ll miss you badly, but I must confess, there’s one part of your legacy that I could happily live – and work – without.