Daybreak in middle England was warm and cloudless and full of possibilities on Friday.
But the morning sunshine was soon obscured by clouds, not just meteorologically but also in the minds of many of those who had ushered in a new dawn only hours earlier.
In the West Midlands village of Meriden, some of the 17 million voters who willed Britain’s departure from the EU into being on Thursday were not so much celebrating Freedom Friday as enduring terrors of self-doubt.A few seemed like kids who had disobeyed instructions, pressed the Eject button in the pilot’s cockpit, and were starting to wonder what the hell was happening.
Meriden is traditionally regarded as the geographical centre of England and a place as good as any to represent the heartbeat of the nation. It is probably the smallest place in England to have its name on a parliamentary constituency – once marginal, now a safe Tory seat.
On the green is the old ragged cross that marks England’s alleged centre, covered with soft English moss, fringed by pink English roses, serenaded by cheery English birdsong (some performers being migrants). A few yards away is the Spar store run by the Brummie Sikh brothers, Dal and Kam Singh Nijjar, who work for 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
A year ago, when Meriden was in the thrall of election week, Dal told me his customers were very worried about immigration. He was spot-on, and Meriden’s voting pattern reflected the first phase of an anti-immigrant mood all over the white suburban West Midlands, where there are few non-whites or East Europeans in the vicinity (popular souls like Dal and Kam excepted), but where the thought of Birmingham makes many residents shudder.
This time, Dal said on Thursday night that his customers were voting to leave, big time.
Again, he was right. In the early hours of Friday morning, Solihull, the metropolitan borough which includes Meriden, declared it had voted to leave by 56% to 44%.
When Kam Singh Nijjar opened at 6am on Friday morning, not all his customers knew what had happened.
“We’ve left,” Kam said to one early customer.
“Good. Let’s get on with it.”
By 7am the shop was getting busier, the dog-walkers were out in force and the hum of traffic was getting louder. And it was possible to pick up signs of doubt. John Quinn, retired from the motor trade, said: “Your head can rule or your heart can rule. I went with my heart, I just felt it had got too much towards Europe rather than Britain, and that the EU needs Britain more than Britain needs the EU.”
Care worker Rachel Pomeroy was out in the green with her deaf English bull terrier Stewie. Stewie’s owner turned out to be a remain voter: “I don’t think the country’s in a very good state as it is and I thought leaving would make it even worse,” she said.
Others were entirely free of self-doubt, like furniture restorer Kevin Jones: “It’s fantastic. We won’t have any Germans telling us what to do. Look at all those cars. Audi. Mercedes. BMW. You telling me we’re not going to get a trade deal? She may be arrogant, old Angela [Merkel], but she isn’t stupid.”
And back home behind his laurel hedge and his three big leave posters, Meriden’s most-committed Ukip activist had his bottle of French champagne all ready for the evening to come (appellation d’origine contrôlée, geographical status protected under EU law). “A day of reckoning is coming,” said a joyful Nick Courtney. “There will be a domino effect across Europe. Mark my words it will happen.”
The posters are directly opposite the Strawberry Bank Hotel’s sign saying “Book Your Wedding Here”, reminders to the bride and groom–to–be that marriages can be followed by hellishly messy divorces. Courtney is a newcomer in Meriden but he insists no one has objected to his display. “I’ve had no backlash whatever. My neighbours informed me how pleased they are to see the signs. And 95% of my friends want to get out.”
The least informed person I met all day seemed to speak for a surprisingly large number of people. She came out of the shop, looking smart but distracted. “I don’t understand it,” she wailed, “so I left it to the people who did. Now I’m being told it’s not good and it’s going to cost us loads of money. Like we need that.”
Here was a theme that often cropped up: the sense that the question should never have been asked, that this was a question involving complexities not principle, and that the elected leaders should have sorted it out themselves. (Essay topic for David Cameron in his forthcoming twilight: “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” Analyse and discuss.)
Again and again round Meriden – even after an interminable campaign and decades of argument before that – people said they thought no one had ever presented the pros and cons of membership fairly and comprehensibly. All they heard was propaganda.
Nearby at Berkswell Station, waiting for the 7.42 into Birmingham New Street, the vanquished remainers seemed more confident in their stance. “Very disappointing result and the campaign’s been awful,” said solicitor David Sheldon. “The leaders have behaved appallingly. Funny really. A guy at work who was voting out said ‘Don’t worry. It won’t ever happen’.”
Hospital sonographer Romesh Attwall, her parents Indian migrants, was not exactly repentant, but somewhat nervous. “I’m a child of immigrants. But when my parents came from India Britain needed people to work here. Now there’s an immigration problem. I know there’s going to be instability. I just hope I don’t live to regret this.”
Down the road in Stratford-upon-Avon, the world, as it does every summer’s day, had made its way to Shakespeare’s old front door. Outside his birthplace was a English teacher from Stuttgart, Ulrike Mensing, who was taking the news hard. “Coming from Germany we feel let down. Being rejected doesn’t feel so nice. I came here very often. I love Great Britain so much.”
There was also Blyth Timken, there with her two sons from Santa Fe, New Mexico. She shared the general bewilderment. “I did try to find the arguments for each side but I never discovered them. If it was me I’d think I’d have gone for remain. As travellers it’s so nice not to have to stop at every border.”
Back at the Spar, Kam reported on his morning conversations with those who have voted for Brexit. “They’ve kept telling me I placed my vote but I didn’t expect [it] to happen. A lot of people are worrying about it, just a bit. They’re happy enough at the moment. But there’s this strange tingling in the back of their minds.”
And just after lunchtime there was a sudden downpour.
This article was written by Matthew Engel in Meriden, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th June 2016 18.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010