‘So, Charlie,’ I said to my imaginary friend. ‘We can’t avoid it. We have to talk about Brexit.’
Charlie made a face and started fiddling with the soft silk scarf he wore around his neck. ‘Can’t you just write about something else? A fascinating and illuminating topic that involves migration, cultural exchange, and some outstanding art? You know. Me.’
‘I can’t, Charlie,’ I said. ‘I can’t write about anything else until I get this out of my system.
Charlie shrugged. ‘You know I don’t care very much. I’ve been here too long. Seen too many things.’
It was true. Charlie had spent exactly one hundred and eighty-two years on this island. The seventeenth year was tainted somewhat by his death, but that didn’t stop Charlie from remaining his usual, stoic self.
‘Why did you move here, Charlie?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ Charlie laughed. ‘I was travelling westwards across the continent, spent some time in Paris and admired the Louvre, then crossed the Channel, and by the time I arrived I just couldn’t be bothered to turn back.’
‘But seriously, Charlie. Did you have dreams?’
‘Of course I had dreams. You know, in those days we thought England was the most advanced country in the world. The steam engine. The parliament. The newspapers. The clubs and associations. In the years around when I left, Count Széchenyi was campaigning to build a chain bridge between Buda and Pest… That bridge also came from Britain. Those are all technological and social advances, of course. British art wasn’t very highly regarded, I have to concede that. But I loved those dreamy, frilly English portraits, so light, so airy, compared to the hard, glossy pictures we were taught to paint in Vienna. I was eager to learn that technique. And there was also Turner. We became jolly good friends, if I may say so.’
Nobody knew how well Charlie actually knew J. M. W. Turner, but he was adamant they were close. I tended to believe him, as he was not the name-dropping type.
‘We have a tendency to idealise this place, don’t we?’ I said. ‘It originates from your time, I think.’
Charlie looked at me in silence for a moment.
‘No doubt,’ he finally replied. ‘But why not? I came here, a regular nobody. All I had were some paintbrushes, a few sketches and watercolours, and a decent amount of ambition. And I found a patron, a nice Scottish gentleman called H. A. J. Munro of Novar – he paid for my pictures and even invited me to his castle. I found an art dealer, Dominic Colnaghi – he was one of the best, you know? I exhibited at the Royal Academy and painted lots of portraits. I even painted Queen Victoria.’ His eyes wandered off.
‘That’s all well,’ I said. ‘But you must have realised at some point that all those dreams of England… that they weren’t fully true. How did that feel?’
Charlie’s warm eyes widened. He had that curious look, half amusement, half surprise. ‘If you expect your dreams to be true, then… what can I say… you’re doing dreams wrong.’
We both went silent. Then Charlie continued, his voice gradually softening as he spoke.
‘When you come here with nothing, trying to make a life for yourself, keeping on, working ten hours a day at a till, packing and unpacking boxes in a vast storage space, painting endless watercolours of babies and toddlers and happy couples (can you imagine how many of these we did before photography took over?), cleaning bathrooms in hotels, hoping that your children, at least, will speak the language without an accent – in those circumstances you can’t survive without optimism. It sounds counterintuitive, but wallowing in how bad things are is a privilege. It means you can afford to stop keeping on. Most of us can’t. It doesn’t mean we’re naive or that we can’t differentiate between dreams and reality.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘I really do. But there is a big gap between how we imagined the future of this country five years ago, and how it turned out, you can’t deny that. You can’t deny it’s scary and you can’t deny it hurts. Bottling up the pain is not healthy, you know.’
‘Yes, it hurts. It hurts because, in the course of all that keeping on, this place became your home. It is incredibly painful to see something happen to your home that you think – know – will be extremely harmful. You fear for your home because you love it dearly. But that feeling is different for everyone because home feels different for everyone. Trying to describe it is futile. “But no matter how much detail you add, no one will ever really understand what it means to you. No one will understand how much it would hurt to lose it.” You wrote that, remember?’
‘Yes, I did.’ I smiled. I didn’t know Charlie read the blog.
‘Well, you also wrote that sometimes pain is too deep and too personal to be expressed in anything other than a subdued way. And that those subdued expressions are nevertheless worthy, poignant and sincere. You wrote that this is how we behave most of the time, when we are faced with something larger than us. “You get a coffee, get a beer. You resort to the Biedermeier.” It was a blogpost about the Biedermeier. That’s the artistic culture I came from. And I ended up in the land of keep calm and carry on. And you’re surprised I’m good at restraining my pain?’ He chuckled.
I perked up. ‘You don’t have to teach me about that. In one of the most distressing times of my life, I organised a britpop party to dance it out. Which reminds me: the Biedermeier post had a soundtrack. We need one for this post too. Here’s a song.’
Charlie listened intently. ‘It’s a song about Albion. A mythical England. Lovely, but sad. Gin in teacups, leaves on the lawn. That’s almost like the Biedermeier.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s a love song to a part of England that’s broken, depressed and poor. Acutely pointing out flaws while feeling an overwhelming tenderness… what is more, feeling a tenderness for the flaws – that’s something you can only feel for your home. Once you get that feeling, you know you’re at home, I would say.’
Charlie opened his mouth to speak, but – uncharacteristically – hesitated at first. When he finally spoke, I saw he was trying to be as gentle as he could. ‘There’s something here that’s… a bit uncomfortable to address, but I think we have to… “Down in Albion, they’re black and blue, but we don’t talk about that.” That’s something that’s brought up in commentary a lot nowadays. That they were black and blue, but we never talked about that, and that’s why… well, that’s why they… voted for the thing. You know. Brexit.’
‘You’re right. And I have been thinking about that. There’s a parallel here that I find rather moving. That feeling that things used to better, that nostalgia for the past – that’s not that different from our idealised version of the future, is it? When the present is difficult and bleak, we all need something to hang on to. Brexit is in many ways a cautionary tale about the dangers of nostalgia, but if that is true, we need to be careful with our own dreams as well. Those nostalgic images of the past don’t include us, and projecting them into the present hurts us because it denies us our home here. But our dreams were also incomplete because they ignored the dark side of Albion. To get a full picture, we need to try to understand.’
Charlie sighed. ‘Ever since I was a little boy, I observed everything carefully so as to be able to draw it as well as possible. I’ve been observing things in this country for almost two hundred years now, and sometimes I’m still at a complete loss as to what’s going on.’
‘Well, what can we do, Charlie? Just keep on keeping on, as you said. There are so many things we love here. The rows of red brick houses. The beautiful gardens. The genuine goodwill towards strangers that makes everyday interactions so gentle and warm. The way people thank the bus driver when they get off. Pub food. The strange feeling of being both hot and cold on a cool sunny day. Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Turner.’ At this point Charlie nodded approvingly, then rolled his eyes when I continued with the Pre-Raphaelites.
‘I think we have exhausted the subject of Brexit. Any subject is exhausted when it leads to the Pre-Raphaelites. I suggest we take the advice of your old blogpost and get a coffee, get a beer. Preferably beer.’
I filled our glasses and we drank in silence, both of us immersed in our thoughts. Charlie spoke first.
‘It’s a nice song, but… why is there a four-mile queue outside the disused power station?’
‘No idea,’ I replied. Charlie smiled. In his head, he was sketching up his next painting, more melancholy and beautiful than anything he had ever imagined.