The fateful date. Britain has notified the EU of its intention to leave. Today, at a beach somewhere in southern England, Theresa May places her throne by the water and in the style of King Canute attempts to command back the tide of history. From this side of the water, today is about two parallel stories: hers and mine.
Theresa doesn’t actually have a throne. Or an empire like Canute did. She’s an elected representative not a monarch, chosen by the people and not by God. So she has to make do with a beach chair. And she has to carry it to the beach herself. So she gets up early to beat the traffic, packs the beach chair into the car and drives over to Margate. It’s still cold at the coast in March so he has a good chance of getting a prime spot by the water’s edge.
I also get up early and make the short bus journey to the edge of town to teach at a company making air conditioning units. Glamorous, I know.
Actually, they don’t make air conditioning units in Herne (pronounced Hair -nuh, unlike the English seaside town of Herne [Hör’n] Bay, which Theresa has just driven past). They design them here and build them in the Czech Republic, where wages are lower.
Manufacturing is still a big part of the German economy and it makes money. Just. Being competitive is everything. Margins are tight. Time is money and the clock is always running faster than you are. It’s a pressure cooker environment. Working in a German company is intense and complicated. The people I am teaching work for a former German blue-chip company owned by an American investor which has been merged with an Anglo-Swedish competitor. That’s why they need English. I think.
As Theresa takes her place on Margate beach in front of the cameras, I make the 12 mile bus ride to one of the region’s chemical plants. The firm I teach here is much simpler to understand. They make PVC, they’re German and they need English to talk to their owners in Mexico.
The site is two miles long, two miles wide and filled with reactors, giant cooking pots all boiling gently: provided you get the temperature right. The margin for error is zero. Safety is everything. To make PVC you need Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM): in its gas form one of the most explosive gasses on the planet. Get one thing wrong and…kaboom!
As I leave the plant, Theresa has told the sea to go back to Europe where it came from. She packs the chair back into the car. The water rolls back as the tide goes out. It has been a success, although she has lost a shoe in the waves.
I’m joking of course. In actual fact, the British ambassador in Brussels has delivered Theresa’s letter in person. He’s at home now, washing the tomato stains out of his shirt. Theresa gives us a speech about the “momentous journey” we are all now going on. You can tell that she never rides busses. When you make a journey on a bus, you rarely go all the way to the end of the line. You get off at the place you feel is right.
Will the United Kingdom go kaboom!? Probably not. But it won’t make anybody’s life easier. In Britain too, margins are tight and economic growth is measured in point somethings of percentages. It’s difficult to imagine the economy reaching its full potential while it plays poker with its partners like this.
Will I go kaboom! Well, I can’t deny that it makes me angry. But there are a lot of angry people around at the moment so who’s going to care? I remind myself that I can get off this bus at any time.
In the evening I make soup. It doesn’t boil over.
Some time during the middle of the night, the Dutch coastguard report that the Prime Minister’s shoe has been recovered on a beach close to Alkmaar.