My Big Brexit Rant… (Finding Some Solace in THE FRENCH HOUSE)

To survive Brexit chaos, how about The French House in Soho, London.

Trump. Terrorism. Death. Okay, so not perhaps the most obvious of topics to stray into a restaurant review. But having somehow managed to do just that in some of my previous posts, what’s now left is a big Brexit-shaped elephant in my blog-room that’s still to be confronted.

But I cannot remain silent anymore. A deal has been negotiated. March 2019 is fast approaching. It’s time to talk Brexit.

Firstly, just to nail my colours to the mast from the very start – yellow and blue to be precise, since I’m very much a Remainer. But also red, white and blue, since I’m a proud Brit too.

But that’s not to say I don’t recognise that the European Union is flawed or at times a behemoth of bureaucracy. However, that’s primarily a consequence of having an institution that encompasses 27 countries and their myriad agendas and interests, as well as a remit that stretches from security to fishing, rather than any excessive inefficiency on its part, which so often gets exaggerated.

I also have some sympathy with those who think that sovereign powers should be brought closer to the people that are actually bound by them. However, I also believe that much of EU legislature, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, benefits and protects us all.

And it’s also clear to me that many people have been left feeling utterly estranged from the socio-economic advantages afforded by the EU free market, or indeed by globalisation in general.

Moreover, as a Remainer, I know that according to the 2016 vote, I’m actually in a minority. Just. Although admittedly at times it feels more like I’m part of an overwhelming majority – especially whenever I discuss Brexit with family, friends, NHS colleagues or Twitter folk.

I guess that’s a reflection of the bubble I’m in – as presumably most of us are – and that’s been another disheartening realisation from this whole sorry Brexit mess.

Yes, our country is clearly divided. But that reality also means that it truly gets my goat whenever I hear politicians talk of a “mandate from the people”. How can 52% equate to a “mandate from the people”? Is this really democracy?

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In fact, for me, the whole thing’s been a revelation on how a referendum – which used to seem like the most democratic thing a country could do – can sometimes feel decidedly undemocratic.

Firstly, the EU referendum was not born out of a genuine belief that this was the right thing to do for the country as whole. Nor was it triggered by a popular groundswell of grassroot support.

Instead, it was an irresponsible political gamble by then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a vain attempt to silence the jabbering hostile right-wingers in his own party, and to stem the tide of Tory voters (and even MP’s) jumping ship to UKIP. But as we all now know, Dave rolled the dice, and lost.. and now we’re all having to pay the consequences.

If the people are to be offered direct power, the issue at hand and its consequences shouldn’t be so mind-bendingly complex so as to be beyond the range of everybody except for the leading experts in the field. For when you look at referenda more generally, they’re usually centred on core human values (like the recent abortion vote in Ireland) rather than issues with such dense economic, political and legislative connotations that so characterise Brexit.

In fact, now that we’re seeing one set of Brexiteers lambast the Brexit deal with such animosity – including the very Brexit Secretaries who negotiated it in the first place – it surely begs the question: when people voted Leave, what did they think they were voting for? A soft Brexit? A hard Brexit? A no-deal Brexit? Canada style? Norway style? Norway Plus?.. Turns out that Brexit means different things to different people.

Besides, some people didn’t seem to be voting on the actual question posed anyway, using this referendum instead to project a whole host of other grievances onto the vote, no matter how tangentially related.

By this, I’m not meaning to judge anyone for voting Leave as an angry ‘fuck-you’ to the authorities. Or even as a despairing act of self-harm: an attempt to feel some semblance of control no matter how self-destructive it appears to us on the other side of the fence.

But still, this general disenfranchisement ran much deeper than the matter of deciding whether or not to leave the EU, and in so doing, hardly made the referendum a reliable reflection of people’s views on the specific matter at hand.

And then there’s the issue of the information presented to the public. For us to have made an informed choice, information needed to be accessible, reliable and true.

Instead we were subjected to a swathe of misinformation, epitomised by those brazenly-brandished buses strewn with sugar-coated lies. Not to mention those shrieking tabloids, cynically whipping up a storm, manipulating people’s attitudes for their own financial gain.

And beyond the information that was presented, what about the information that wasn’t? Like the Irish border question. So crucial when it comes to Brexit. So serious when it comes to peace in Ireland. And so pertinent for the future integrity of the United Kingdom. And yet barely any mention of it in the lead up to the referendum.

Finally, there’s the matter of who weren’t allowed to vote. Namely 16-17 year olds. Okay, so they don’t get the vote when it comes to general elections, but Brexit is arguably a very different beast: its shadow shall be cast over them for longer than for any other voter, its impact much more enduring.

And as for whether they are mature enough to make such a weighty decision? Well, as I know from my own line of work, the law already gives them the right to make their own confidential choices on healthcare, no matter how complex and life-changing, from major surgery to terminations of pregnancy. So why should Brexit be any different?

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So much for democracy. And what about the enormous and very real risks to our country that Brexit poses, particularly from the ‘hard’ or ‘no-deal’ variety. Instead of helping the poor and desperate – many of whom may have been tempted to vote Leave in the first place – Brexit will actually hit them harder than most.

Jobs could well be endangered by any economic downturn. And if growth is damaged, this could significantly harm the government’s ability to fund our public services, many of which are already on their knees thanks to the ravages of austerity.

Furthermore, there’s the additional risk faced by the NHS from the potential shut-out of invaluable EU doctors and nurses, and how a similar drain in workforce could threaten other industries too, from science to food. And as I know from various friends and colleagues, we are talking about actual real breathing people here, not just a resource, who are now having to live under a cloud of insecurity. Likewise I’m sure for Brits living in the EU too.

And besides people, there’s how our respective EU and UK systems are just so intractably entwined across so many other key sectors too – from manufacturers’ supply chains, to the regulation of medicines, to the flow of security information. Surely no good things can come of attempting to untangle all this.

And when I think of the humongous, almost unquantifiable, amount of energy and time already expended on Brexit – from government ministers to civil servants, from public organisations to private businesses – at the expense of the much-needed thinking space and investment that’s required for so many other crucial matters facing our country – I just think what a bloody waste. And we haven’t even got to Brexit yet.

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Meanwhile, all these genuine concerns just get casually swatted away by Brexiteers under the epithet “Project Fear”, as if they were irritating flies rather than the self-destructive socio-economic missiles they actually represent.

In one corner, we have The Bank of England, the Treasury, and the World Trade Federation all publishing their meticulously-prepared research, warning of the dire consequences of Brexit on our economy; an analysis also supported by the vast majority of economists and business analysts.

In the other corner, there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg. He calls the analysis “hysterical” and the governor of the Bank of England, a “wailing banshee”, and shrugs it all off as “Project Fear”. Not exactly cutting-edge analysis, Jacob.

In fact, it’s the epitome of arrogance. It’s also slick deployment of linguistic weaponry: the mere utterance of “Project Fear” conveniently brushes aside all that amassed evidence in one fell swoop. There’s no real difference between this and Donald Trump’s reflex cries of “Fake News” whenever he’s confronted with something he doesn’t want to hear.

In fact the parallels go even deeper, since they both share the same kind of irony – for in the way that it’s actually Trump who fakes the news, it’s really the Brexiteers who use fear as their modus operandi.

With their tabloid horde of propaganda pushers, it’s the Brexiteers who cynically stoke people’s fears – just look at their rhetoric on immigration or European interference. They relentlessly create and exploit a sense of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ as a means to inculcate some sort of siege mentality.

Okay, so to some degree we all have a ‘Them-and-Us’ dial wired into our psyche – it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that once helped our early human ancestors fend off marauding sabre-tooth tigers and rivalrous tribes. But in the modern era it’s a mindset that’s limiting at best, and toxic at worst: we no longer need to fear others in order to define ourselves.

But with people whose sense of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ is already heightened by perceived injustice – maybe through poverty, joblessness or community disintegration – the Leave machine has targeted them unscrupulously. By championing their own version of ‘Project Fear’, the Brexiteers have delved deep down into people’s insecurities and ruthlessly ratcheted up the ‘Them-and-Us’ dial to the max.

Do I believe Rees-Mogg really cares about the disadvantaged? No I do not. Is he offering any kind of hope or plan for them? Nope.

This whole situation saddens me greatly. And it angers me vehemently when it is immigrants and ethnic minorities – already so often the victims in society – being cast as the ‘Them’. In this way, it’s a mentality that can descend all too seamlessly and despairingly into downright xenophobia and racism.

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Still, there is perhaps a lesson from history to help us here, something brought home to me after a recent visit to the compelling Anglo-Saxons exhibition at the British Library. It reminded me that pretty much everyone in Britain is descended from immigrants anyway – a commonality that should actually be uniting us.

The Anglo-Saxons came over from Northern Europe in 6th Century and settled. The Vikings came over from Scandinavia in the 10th Century and settled. The Normans came over from Normandy in the 11th Century and settled. And every century since, Britain has been a country that’s taken in people from Europe and beyond. In other words, we are ALL immigrants!

This has also meant that Britain has always been closely bound up with our continental neighbours, revelling in the flow of ideas and people, exchanging trade and stories, and working together on projects down the centuries from medieval illustrated bibles to modern commercial aircraft.

Okay, so for some of the time, we’ve also been beating the hell out of each other too, with countless wars and conflicts. But in some ways, that’s why the EU represents such a vital development – an institution and framework to help maintain the peace and allow relationships to flourish.

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I’m no expert on these things by any stretch. These are just my views. I’m very happy to hear constructive arguments to the contrary and to be proved wrong. I am in a bubble after all.

Having said all this though, and despite not being a Brexiteer or a Tory, I can’t help but harbour a strange sense of sympathy for Theresa May – now that’s something I never thought I’d say! – for trying so tenaciously to steer a ship through a perilous minefield, despite facing mutiny from rogue elements within her own crew, whilst also under heavy bombardment from at least four* competing ranks of enemy armies, not to mention an apocalyptic tsunami looming up ahead.

(* For the four, I’m counting the EU, DUP, SNP, and Labour. I would have included the Lib Dems, but given their rather depleted state, they’re regrettably less like an army and more like a long-lost platoon that’s gone decidedly AWOL. Shame, since it was them who came up with the notion of a People’s Vote in the first place.)

Okay, so May chose to put her hat in the ring once Cameron left, so I guess she volunteered for all this. But still, her strategy has been to find a compromise – sort of the whole point of a negotiation – and to that end she’s somehow managed to secure a solution that arguably honours the referendum result, but remains about as pro-Europe as she can get away with in order to accommodate the concerns of the 48%.

Now that’s no mean feat. But the problem is that people are still so divided into their respective bubbles, to the point that anything less than a hard or no-deal Brexit (for the Eurosceptics) or a People’s Vote (which Remainers hope will equate to a no-Brexit) seems inadequate to most. Had the negotiators calibrated the deal a little towards one or other camp, I don’t think it would really have made much difference – both sides seem to be pretty much sticking to their guns.

Meanwhile in terms of the MP’s, it seems that Parliament consists of just so many different warring factions, that it’s difficult to envisage any one of those making it to an actual majority. It’s therefore hard to foresee how this can be resolved other than to take it back to the people.

So my ideal outcome at this point would be a People’s Vote, inclusive of 16-17 year olds, that ultimately delivers strong support for Remain. At least this time round most of the issues have come out of the woodwork (including the Irish border question) and the people have had time to digest their meaning and consequences. And hopefully there’ll be no more nonsense buses.

Still, the road to that outcome is quite fraught and uncertain, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that we can’t make assumptions on how people will actually vote. And if the vote were to be finely balanced, whatever the outcome, there’s a risk that it all further amplifies the divisive atmosphere that’s already infecting our society post-referendum.

(So, Dave – a penny for your thoughts on this utter debacle, as you leisurely chillax inside your garden shed..)

 

* *

 

If that British Library exhibition got me really thinking about all these things, it was then a meal at The French House that made me decide to put pen to paper. For against a backdrop of such anti-European sentiment (well, at least in 52% of the country), here’s a place that’s showing some real love and affection to our continental neighbours.

Indeed, the very history of The French House illustrates our close European ties. Opened as a public house in the late 19th Century by a German immigrant, it was then bought by a Belgian émigré family, and it has since become the epicentre of the Soho community, a much-loved haunt of bohemians and poets, artists and actors – it’s pretty much seen them all.

Meanwhile, during the War, Charles de Gaulle, then a fugitive from the Nazis, would often stop by. It’s even said he penned his seminal rallying cry to the Resistance – “À Tous Les Français” – from the pub’s rickety tabletops. It’s name then changed to The French House, and its Gallic roots have been part of the fabric ever since.

So when it came for its new chef Neil Borthwick to conjure up a menu for the tiny bistro upstairs, it’s perhaps of no surprise that it pays tribute to these roots. In fact, as the ever-changing menu is lovingly written out each time by hand, it resembles nothing short of an impassioned love-letter to Les Français.

And such devotion manifests itself in such gratifyingly Gallic dishes as confit garlic, resplendent in its full alliaceous glory, the sweet little cloves all close to bursting out of their pockets, with an accompanying slice of toast smeared lavishly with goat’s cheese. It’s as though the Tricolore has just been planted on the table, accompanied by the stirring sound of the Marseillaise.

Then comes a tranche of brill, beautifully-roasted and decorated with emerald-green flecks of tarragon and sweet diced shallots, the aniseed flavour redolent of lazy summers by the Loire or amid the fat wheatfields of the Bourgogne. Alongside comes a bowl of rich gooey aligot, the stupendously cheesy mash that’s Gallic comfort food par excellence.

And then the pièce de résistance – to excuse even more flagrant plundering of the French vernacular – a dessert of Paris Brest, which can only be described as the naughty lovechild of a profiterole and a bagel, its sweet delicate pastry encasing an enchanting filling of velvety crème anglais studded with crunchy hazelnuts and crystallised sugar, whilst in the ‘hole’ stands a warm column of melted chocolate that oozes out dreamily once its defences are breached. Overall verdict: Oh là là!

Yes, this food and this place represent an affectionate homage to France, and a tribute to its culinary traditions. It’s a reminder that instead of putting up the barriers between ourselves and our neighbours, we’ll all be enriched by keeping the channels open.

And so whatever twists and turns are in store for the coming weeks, and whatever lurks post-March 2019, at least let our hearts continue to remain open to our neighbours – whether that be a fellow Brit or European, a Remainer or a Leaver – for loving thy neighbour is all that’s really expected of us in life.

 

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Meanwhile, if you’d like to get your teeth into some more troublesome topics, you’re welcome to check out my pieces on Trump, terrorism, and death. It’s not all doom and gloom however – there’s always a silver lining in my pieces, and of course there’s always food..

 

Find Solace from Brexit at The French House

Confit garlic at The French House in Soho, London - a perfect tonic for the Brexit chaos

 

Brexit may feel a bit fishy, but this one's a proper whopper - a tranche of brill at The French House Soho

 

Go all the way with aligot at The French House Soho - a luxuriously cheesy mash.

 

Paris Brest at The French House Soho - the naughty lovechild of a profiterole and a bagel.

 

Take solace from the Brexit chaos inside The French House Soho

19 Comments

  1. 7th December 2018 / 10:54 pm

    Wow Aaron a great article saying it as it is. We are living in a very different world atm and it makes you question so much. On the other hand that food especially garlic looks scrumptious

    • aaron
      Author
      10th December 2018 / 8:54 pm

      Yes, it’s such a challenging time. And very dispiriting in many ways. But that garlic WAS smashing!

  2. Christopher Slater-Walker
    8th December 2018 / 6:10 pm

    Can you give us some examples of that mass of red tape and waste for which the EU’s institutions are responsible?

    • aaron
      Author
      8th December 2018 / 8:47 pm

      A fair challenge, Christopher! And it’s not something I can cite specific stats back at you off the top of my head. However, I guess I’m noting that this is an institution comprised of 27 European nations, all which have their own agendas, which means there’s potentially a lot of process and energy to get things done, not all of which is going to be in the interests of all the nations all of the time. Moreover, the EU’s also an institution which I understand has a massive infrastructure to support it. Having said all this though, I was also making some sort of concession at the beginning of the piece in order to achieve a bit of balance, because I’m aware that I’m fundamentally very much a Remainer!..

      • Christopher Slater-Walker
        8th December 2018 / 10:47 pm

        As am I; very, very deeply so. It’s just that one often sees these claims that the EU is desperately inefficient and bureaucratic and needs fundamental reform of these aspects. Indeed, recently I saw a claim that the EU directive for selling cabbages within the EU has 62-odd thousand words in it, and comparing that with the constitution of the USA (13,000 I think) and various other widely-known documents. However to make these claims with no background seems deeply misleading to me; that directive will have to be translated into the language of every member state, and there will of course be some standard words of introduction and so on, explanations of scope and terminology etc. Perhaps those 62000 words cover all the languages? How many words do you get if you multiply 13000 by 28, the still-current number of member states?

        But mostly what I want to say is this, and you mentioned yourself that there are parts of EU law for which all people should be grateful: many directives relating to the production, distribution and sale of many products actually protect consumers, while balancing the interests of the environment, producers, sellers and so on. Achieving a final document on which all member states can agree can’t be an easy task. And I say “all” because I believe that EU law can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be adopted only where all member states’ representatives approve it.

        Having said that, I’m sure that the EU is just as subject to lobbying by special interests as Westminster is, and it is in the end staffed by human beings, who aren’t infallible and aren’t always reliable either. But we in the UK have elected representatives there and for that reason alone I can’t accept some of the more outlandish descriptions of the EU that one hears, such as that it’s “deeply undemocratic,” “insular,” “protectionist,” “run only in the interests of Germany/France…” and so on.

        Oh…now that I’m on my hobby horse, I’ll go on: the EU implements in most cases a zero-tariff policy for imports from a wide range of third-world country on anything but arms.

  3. Teresa Sorokin
    8th December 2018 / 7:15 pm

    Your thoughts are parallel to mine but I feel you should also have included the disenfranchised UK citizens abroad who have had no say in their future and arguably are most affected by this debacle. We have now (together with the EU citizens in the UK) lived in limbo since June 2016, and still continue to have to fight for our rights. At least the EU citizens in the UK won’t be losing their EU status and freedoms as we will be.

    • aaron
      Author
      10th December 2018 / 8:57 pm

      Thanks so much for getting in touch, Teresa. It must be such a difficult time for you, and other Brits in the EU, with such a cloud of uncertainty hanging over things. Let’s just hope things end up with a good resolution. Wishing you well!..

  4. Emma @ Adventures of a London Kiwi
    9th December 2018 / 2:24 pm

    Yes YES YES!!

    • aaron
      Author
      10th December 2018 / 8:58 pm

      Thanks Emma!

  5. Milou de Castellane
    9th December 2018 / 8:45 pm

    I am currently living in Paris (yes, gilet jaunes are the talk of the day) watching my beloved UK becoming more fractured as the days go. I moved here as a precaution owing to Brexit fearing the loss of my rights as a British & EU citizen to live, work and love where I chose. Now talk turns to Frexit but I think we are looking at a small minority of people who have no understanding of the important of remaining united. Actually most here believe Brexit will never happen, and cannot understand the point in the first place. Ditto most of my friends in London. We all voted to Remain…and I feel the tide is turning in our favour. But the time and money wasted on this enterprise…

    Never fear, The French House remains close to my heart, my second home, and though I live and work here for now, my heart belongs to Soho.

    • aaron
      Author
      10th December 2018 / 9:01 pm

      Thanks so much for getting in touch, Milou. It sounds like Brexit has already had such an impact on your life already. Let’s just hope that things resolve well. And if not, there’s always The French House to drown our sorrows! Really hope things go well for you..

  6. kavitafavelle
    10th December 2018 / 5:38 pm

    I’m with you on your opinions about this almost entirely, except with regards to the sympathy for Theresa May. She may well have accepted a poisoned chalice, though it wasn’t so much accept as grasp for deliberately, but she has not made any attempt to bridge the divide, and now she is actively seeking to deter parliamentary democracy by cancelling any vote on her deal, having realised she wouldn’t win it.

    • aaron
      Author
      10th December 2018 / 9:07 pm

      Well, I did say my sympathy for her was strange! Especially as I’d much rather Remain than her deal. But I can see why she’s aiming for a compromise, even if as you said she just hasn’t really brought people with her along the way. And unless she’s really got some magic up her sleeve, I can’t envisage that cancelling the vote will help – just damages her credibility even further. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kavey!

  7. 10th December 2018 / 11:17 pm

    Well I’ve had many a Brexit conversation today Aaron so I’m all talked out right this minute but excellent rant and excellent food. Now as I sit here watching the news I’m not having quite the sympathy for the PM but I am needing to put this yummy food place on my list! Great piece as always!

  8. easynomic1
    13th December 2018 / 7:21 pm

    Aaron you pick a very difficult topic…I am an italian moved to UK in 2015.
    Obviously I didn’t vote the referendum as I can’t do it. Now the problem for me is to understand what’s are happening. Unfortunally due my lack of English I can’t share my opinion about it, It could be misunderstood.
    The think that I want to say anyway is that the EU he did everything he could do for make difficult find a deal and discredit the UK government. I am Italian and I know what mafia is…EU in this case wasn’t different. They didn’t think at the million of EU citizen that live and work in UK as well as the million of UK citize resident in different EU country that live and work honestly. In this case that show how the politics take care just at the money and at the interest of the major company instead of the people. Also miss May did a honorable job, good or bad, that no many politics will would do. Those are thing to be discussed in front of some international dish as we are all part of the same world…

    • aaron
      Author
      15th December 2018 / 7:30 am

      Thank you for putting in such time in in making this Comment – I really appreciate it! I’m not sure though I quite understand your points. It was the UK’s decision to leave the EU, full well knowing that this might have implications for Brits in Europe and vice versa. And in terms of subsequent negotiations, I’m not aware that one side is more or less supportive on this matter than the other. So overall, I would place responsibility of this issue with UK, not the EU. Either way, I know quite a few friends and work colleagues living with a lot of uncertainty right now, and it’s one reason why the whole Brexit thing makes me so cross. Also, in terms of comparing the EU with the mafia, I’m not sure I get that at all? Perhaps the mafia might be more, erm, ‘efficient’ – but the EU is an institution that at least strives for the common good, whilst the mafia is an unscrupulous criminal organisation whose business is drugs, prostitution, murder and extortion.

  9. 13th December 2018 / 11:45 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your post! I’m from the USA, and I’m really fascinated every time I come across articles like these. I love to gain perspective from those living in other countries. Thanks for sharing! (PS the food looks great too!)

  10. 15th December 2018 / 12:14 am

    I’m from the USA too and WOW I really enjoyed reading your post. It’s very intriguing to me how the events in America are unfolding… Pretty concerning. Good to see your take on Brexit!

  11. 15th December 2018 / 9:11 pm

    Such a brilliantly written and thought provoking piece Aaron. I wholeheartedly agree with you and in love with that juicy garlic clove.

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