I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot recently. My Greek grandmother. Yaya. Υαυα μου. She was foreign, and foreignness was a problem off and on during her life in England, in the ways that Brexit is stirring up again. We were close; I’ve never quite lost the habit of talking to her even though she died over a quarter of a century ago. She was wise, irascible, rude, pessimistic. Generous, and full of powerful, angry and sometimes despairing love for her grandchildren. I lapse into her heavy Kastoria accent far more often than my kids think is amusing. And I still ask her advice about stuff, which is also amusing, because I’m fairly sure she’d disapprove of at least 90% of my life choices to date. That is, obviously, one of the key things about talking to ghosts: they usually don’t answer back.
Yaya – Andromache, her name was, though nurses in the last years of her life tended to call her Anne, which she didn’t like at all – would have understood all about talking to ghosts. She was the first young woman from her town to go to university, and later she went back to Kastoria to teach. But she left Greece in 1924, packed off by Georgios and Venetia, her impoverished parents, to marry a man she’d never met. Her father, a lawyer, had been active in the Macedonian Struggle against the Bulgarians and Turks, but had lost his livelihood after the war was won in 1912 and his boss, the ultra patriotic but morally dubious archbishop of Kastoria, had fallen from grace. My great-grandfather ended up scraping a living by writing emigration documents for the thousands of Greeks leaving for Western Europe and the US. He must have written one for his own daughter. Andromache never saw her parents again: they both died young, in the 1930s, and she never got over the loss. My mother remembers her standing at the kitchen sink, singing a Macedonian folk song as the tears ran down her face. Tou Kitsou I Mana: a mother’s lament for her warrior son. Andromache was sad for the rest of her life, but she was angry too.
My grandfather, Costa, was a short man with a round head, a serious expression and a toothbrush moustache. He was fond of bowler hats, and people remarked on his resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Although he was quiet and immensely kind, Andromache thought he was disreputable, because though the family was also from Kastoria, his father had actually been a brigand who spent his life in the mountains, part of the endless guerrilla war against the Ottomans. Although he’d wanted to study poetry, he became a furrier, the traditional trade of Kastoria, and opened a factory making fur coats in the City before the Crash brought bankruptcy and a spell in debtor’s prison. By the time I knew him he was long retired, though for many years he had made fur coats for the rich and famous of London in the attic of the nice house in a West London suburb he had bought during the heartbreakingly brief moment of his success.
Andromache had been angry about that. She didn’t like rich people at all, because they had made her little husband stagger up and down two flights of stairs, laden with heavy furs, while they waited in the living room, sniffing disapprovingly at the decorations and the foreignness. Foreigners and trade: nothing could have been worse for those socialites and magnates, with their Rolls Royces idling beyond the garden gate. Andromache must have hated dealing with them. She never liked the English, really. She’d never felt at home here. London in the 1920s and 30s could be a hostile place for immigrants. My mother was bullied every day as she walked home from school, and when the war came, Andromache was sworn at in the queues for rationed food. “Bloody foreigners, comin’ over ‘ere…” Cliché, but those were the words. “Taking our food…” Foreign was what she was. The details weren’t important. No-one knew or cared where Greece was anyway.
In the 1970s we would watch the National Front marches on the telly and she would shake her head in disgust, but not surprise. Never surprise. She suffered in the dim light of suburban London, this woman with a classical education. Every now and again I would visit her and find her with friends, all refugees from Smyrna or Alexandria or Constantinople, huddled over tea and almond biscuits, talking in Greek. Exiles. Stripped of whatever class or status they’d once had, living in bedsits in Holland Park and Bayswater. Foreigners.
I loved Andromache for her contrary passions. She hated the Turks but thought they’d been more civilised than the Greeks who’d liberated her in 1912. She hated the Greek dictator Metaxas. She loathed Churchill for his part in starting the Greek Civil War. And she couldn’t stand Margaret Thatcher. O Thatchett, as she called her. She would shake her head at the telly while we had tea together in her front room. “A most horrible woman,” she would hiss, and I was very happy to agree.
She wasn’t lukewarm about anything, and I’ve inherited that. She would have been absolutely enraged by Brexit, but it wouldn’t have surprised her. Absolutely not. I can imagine watching the news on the telly, with her nodding along to every new bit of xenophobia, every multi-millionaire man-of-the-people, every bit of cruelty to European citizens. “You know, Pipaki, I told you so,” she would be saying, and there would be ghosts somewhere behind those words. She’d watched the Ottoman Empire collapse in flames and now she was living through the slow, grey fade-out of the British Empire too. Brexit is one of the last frames of that fade-out.
England was what she gave her children. Or rather, my mother and her two brothers were her gift to England. One brother became a world-renowned medical researcher; the other a judge who saved Covent Garden from demolition. My mother, taught by Mervyn Peake, Auerbach and Paolozzi, gave up art to have me and my sister. First generation Britons: their success delighted Andromache, but their sense of belonging would never be hers. She belonged with the exiles. I could feel the loss and the longing even as a little boy: it clung to those old ladies like the Guerlain perfume they wore. Educated, multi-lingual, the most cosmopolitan people I have ever met. All living in the most reduced of circumstances. I loved to listen to their conversations, even though I didn’t understand them. I’d pass around the biscuits and they’d pinch my cheeks. They were talking to each other but there were always ghosts in the room as well.
I thought of those old ladies when Theresa May made her speech about citizens of nowhere. I don’t remember any of their names, now, though I remember some of their rooms, done up beautifully with a few salvaged treasures, the tea so lovingly offered, the slightly stale sugared almonds left over from some wedding or other and carefully doled out to the children. They were citizens of places that no longer existed, for people like them anyway. But they had all been citizens of somewhere before nationalists had declared that ‘somewhere’ applied to some people, but not to others. Brexit wants us to believe that identity is simple. That Somewhere is an address, and that address is here. It demands that we ignore complexity, and memory, and ghosts. It tells us that we can only be one thing. It tells us that when we sat in our grandmother’s kitchen and smelled grated onions and cinnamon and lemon juice, or listened to Easter Mass in the cathedral on Moscow Road, and thought this feels like home, we were wrong.
I was brought up to be English. Completely English. My mother never taught me Greek, even though she talked to Andromache every night on the phone in what is actually her first language. She didn’t like me telling other people that I was half-Greek. I have my very English father’s name. When I decided to write under a variant of Andromache’s surname, my mother was worried. But I’m neither properly English nor Greek. This is a little bit of trauma I’ve inherited from those xenophobes and racists who bullied her in the park, the older ones whose expressions changed when they heard her surname, from housewives muttering behind Andromache in the queue at the butcher’s shop. There must be millions and millions of people just like me. There are about to be millions more if the half-cocked experiment in patriotic identity management goes ahead. Millions of abandoned identities. Millions of us, talking to our ghosts.