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Fenland Brexit Blues

I've lived away from the UK since the Thatcher Years. Brexit came as shock. I had perhaps the excuse of distance, but it made me question my British identity after so many years away. Home suddenly got much further away, and yet uncomfortably close, when I realised that the heart of the vote, the two districts in the whole country that voted most strongly for Brexit - South Holland and Boston - were right by where I grew up, and I never saw it coming.

My village was on the edge of the Fens. You left one way and there were the damp, seemingly empty, windswept spaces of fenland, while on the other, the hills started, rolling away across the Midlands. My back was always turned to the fens, and I never particularly considered it as important or significant - for me life was elsewhere, and I only ever went there if I really had to.

My sister has lived in South Holland for almost 40 years, raised her children there, living at the end of a long pot-holed lane, still considered as an outsider in the local village, so I can't say that it was completely unknown territory. I'd never been to Boston however, so there was still an element of exploration involved, but at the end of the day, this is still close to where I came from, close enough for people there to accept me as somehow local, despite an accent twisted by years abroad. I went with camera in hand, asking questions both of the people and the quite distinct landscape they inhabit. The basic question was simple: why had over 75% of the population voted Brexit, and that, not on a low turn-out as these things so often are, but with more than three quarters of the population voting. (The exact figures: Boston 75.6% to leave on a turnout of 77.2%, South Holland 73.5% on a turnout of 75%)

The BBC had already been there, as had the New York Times, so all the statistics were there. The massive population growth (15.9% between 2001-2011), mainly from East Europe, which the local council claims to be double that. The hourly wages for casual labour 30% lower than the national average. The pressure on housing, with landlords subdividing rentals to increase revenue, pricing locals out of town. The violence that makes Boston the UK's murder capital by head of population.

It is clear, when talking to people, that there is a sentiment of injustice, of not being listened to, of a broken system that is under more stress than elsewhere due to the degree of migration from outside. Yet local industry, mainly based around intense agricultural production trading on international markets, clearly depends on the thousands of seasonal farm labourers from abroad. If I think of one situation I encountered, it was people gathered at the side of the road, half-hidden by an uncut verge, near a flag and a social-centre in a village a short distance from Boston. I don't know what I was expecting to find at the centre of their gathering, but it wasn't an old lady on the ground, half trapped in her mobility scooter. Marie, in her 80s, on her way to bingo had been distracted by her handbag snagging on a bush and didn't see the pothole in the pavement. She was there, hidden by the bushes for half an hour before someone found her, and raised the alarm. The alarm fell flat. The emergency services insisted that she should not be moved until the ambulance arrived but the ambulance wasn't going to be there for three hours - three hours in which Marie's pain was only going to get worse.

In the end, they set off her alarm and the police came. When I left they were in the process of putting pressure on the ambulance dispatch to come more quickly. Strained services, lack of maintenance, local solidarity, and individual suffering. Nothing to do with Brexit perhaps, but that was how the vote went. It wasn't because of foreigners that Marie fell - the first person on the scene who raised the alarm was Viki from Lithuania. That was my first encounter with Boston and immigration. Viki had been there for twelve years, her kids at the local primary school, making steps towards being a children's photographer She was integrated, part of the community, of this group of people standing in solidarity with Marie until the police arrived and she gave them her report.

Boston was bookended by another Lithuanian. I'd stopped in at Lillo's hair-salon on the edge of town opposite a Methodist chapel. I was attracted by the cartoon image of a Mediterranean barber in his window and so, accidently, found the town's self-proclaimed first immigrant who came in 1965 and had to go and regularly report to the police station at the beginning. He could only get olive oil at the chemists in distant Cambridge.

He's against Brexit. "People didn't understand, people look at the difficulty to get a doctor's appointment, they look at the lack of the police, the lack of services and they think it's all because of immigration. They see drunk people in the street. It's immigration but it's sometimes English guys. We know, we see them across the road." Matt, a Lithuanian and one of Lillo's clients, had other views. "The Brits have finally woken up, they've been taken for a ride, there's too much immigration, Brexit is a good thing." Matt doesn't know if he'll be able to stay on and he certainly doesn't want to go. He has an English girlfriend. Lillo, meanwhile, is off to Sicily to drink some bloody wine for six weeks. You get the feeling that just about everybody else wouldn't mind doing something similar, vote or no vote.
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