Terence Blacker: A crossroads is no place to make a home

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The Independent Online

In Peter Tinniswood's peerless comedy of northern life, I Didn't Know You Cared, it was at about this time of the year when Carter Brandon, a lugubrious young romantic, sat with his Uncle Mort watching the swallows as they gathered on the telephone wires. Soon, Carter said, the swallows would be taking off and flying south to sunnier climes. "Lucky devils," said Uncle Mort. Then in the spring, said Carter, they would gather once more and fly all the way back here. "Bloody fools," said Uncle Mort.

Humans have been coming and going, too. For the past month, it has seemed as if the focal point of the national news has been the country's airports. First there was the annual holiday scramble, and then a week-long demonstration at Heathrow to remind us that the Government's plan to double air passengers at what was already Europe's busiest airport by far was neither sensible nor environmentally responsible.

Now, as if to confirm the impression that Britain is becoming little more than the Crewe Junction of the world, an unlovely stop-over on the way to somewhere more attractive or interesting, the latest immigration figures reveal that feverish entrances and exits have also been happening on a permanent basis. According to the Office of National Statistics, 196,000 UK citizens opted to live abroad last year, and the departure figures were boosted by 189,000 long-term foreign residents who, having had a long look at us, decided to go home. On the in-flights were 574,000 migrants to Britain, a fall of 25,000 from the previous year.

The news has provoked a predictable reaction. One newspaper carried a borderline-racist front page showing two photographs: a portrait of a scrubbed, smiling white family, who were emigrating, beside a huddle of ill-shaven Bosnian asylum-seekers, allegedly on their way here.

The Institute for Public Policy Research tends to take a more positive approach. The authors of their recent report Brits Abroad noted cheerfully that "the UK seems to be at the crossroads of global economic flows of goods, services and people. The country with the world's biggest international financial centre and the world's busiest airport is also the pre-eminent hub of the movement of people."

It's an odd form of pre-eminence, but they are right. With almost six million, one in 10, of its citizens living abroad, Britain has a larger expatriate component to its population than almost any other nation. On the other hand, the Brits Abroad analysis is less encouraging for those of us planning to stick around. On the whole, a crossroads is not a particularly enjoyable place to live one's life, even if it does happen to be a hub of international finance and air travel.

It is tempting, but unwise, to dismiss those who are leaving to live abroad at a rate of one every three minutes in search of space, opportunity or that elusive "quality of life" as misguided, defeatist or indolent. Their decision rarely to be seems to be financially motivated: the opposite, in fact.

It seems that, for them, Britain, while its economy may be sound, has somehow lost a sense of what it can offer beyond mere business opportunities. Those who make the key decisions in the home country have come to see money and mobility, that "global flow of goods, services and people", as the key to the national contentment. Everything has a price-tag. For more and more people, the crossroads may be busy and profitable, but it feels less and less like home.

A victim of eco-friendly fire

When small meets big in the world of environmental concern, the result is as inevitable as it would be in the world of business: the small gets flattened. So perhaps one should not be surprised to read that the set-aside system, a rare success in nature management on farms, is itself about to be set aside by the Government. The subsidy for fields taken out of production had over the past few years dramatically reversed the decline in certain rare plants, insects and birds such as the corn bunting, yellowhammer and skylark. Now the demand for bio-fuels means the fields will produce oil-seed rape.

Perhaps the environmentalists' mantra "Think global – act local" should be revised to "Think global – trash local".

* There are few authors who can make international headlines by muttering one uncontentious sentence, but the great Harper Lee is one of them. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird is rarely seen in public and has not submitted to anything as undignified as an interview since the mid-1960s. Journalists who have nosed about her home town of Monroeville in Alabama have discovered that Ms Lee's neighbours share her complete lack of interest in publicity. She once wrote to Oprah Winfrey, but has otherwise been content to let her one book do the talking for her. This week, she attended a ceremony at the Alabama Academy of Honour and was invited to say something. She did. She said: "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."

Publishers have been waiting for a second book from Harper Lee for 47 years. Now they have one. A small volume opening with these 11 wise words, followed by blank pages, would be a worthy, eloquent memoir.

terblacker@aol.com

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