Brexit: Ms. May, Where Is My Friday Fish?

With Brexit looming, the United Kingdom, once heralded for its tolerance, is now recognized for its growing xenophobia that triggered a departure from the EU in the first place. Ambassador Jose Zorrilla offers a look back at the United Kingdom, recalling a time when its institutions practiced and preached tolerance.


There was a time when I taught in England. Even though it was a long time ago, the landscape still lingers in my imagination filtered by the mist of time. The mouth of the river still continues to follow its course carrying little boats to rock, the hills carry the scent of The French Lieutenant’s Womanand occasional sheep or cows grace the pasture that creates one of the most memorable creams the world over. Of course, I am remembering coastal Devon, a little village not far from places of mild winters and rough seas where in those days many British retirees chose to spend their golden years.

The landscape included sights of abnormal meaning for an alien like myself. A trough, for instance, dedicated to the horses fallen in the Great War. Performances of amateur theater executed by solemn middle aged women and men, pubs where people got tipsy drinking warm beer and playing darts, a game as esoteric as cricket, only a tad less patrician. I confess I never understood why the scores went the way they went. I guess not being an Englishman has its privileges and shortcomings.

But among all these landmarks and oddities there was one that struck me particularly: tolerance. Let me elaborate a bit. As a junior assistant teacher, I was allowed to have lunch in the High Table with my peers and so I did enjoy the privilege of seeing the world, that is the dining room, from above. The menu was the usual under the circumstances, with a rare insistence on rhubarb, which made me believe the national-or at least regional-malaise was constipation. Another of the constants of the menu was a kind of hake in white sauce. I guess the equivalent in the continent would have been “Empress hake”, for those not familiar with food, a white fish in a creamy béchamel sauce. It happened every Friday and I could not fathom why precisely on that date.

So one day I dared to ask one of my comrades-in-gown the cause of such a celebration. He said. “We have to eat fish at least once a week. Since we have catholic students, why not to serve it on Friday? I understand this is a Catholic commandment”. At the time it was not so in Spain but yes, it was customary in other countries where Catholicism was widely practiced to not have meat on Friday out of respect for Good Friday. Spain was in its Francoist days. Tolerance, believe me, was a scarce commodity back at home. And there it was, open for me to see, in this simple, accessible form. Ethnic, grass root and pure. England, the country of tolerance as Spain is the country of bullfighting and Germany the country of beer drinking clubs.

So, the Friday fish became a fix in my life. All my life. Every time I boarded a plane to fly to a Muslim country and was served salami as appetizer, the Friday fish was there. One day a friend of mine, an excellent theater director, put on the stage in Bilbao, capital of the Basque country, a play by Lessing, Nathan the Wise, an apology of tolerance directed to the Basque nationalist crowd, in those days intent on killing political adversaries. I immediately thought of my old Grammar School, its book of fallen alumni open always on a different page, the break playground as noisy as ever…and its Friday fish. The Spanish Classical Theater offered a play by Cervantes, The Big Sultana. In it, a Christian female slave marries a Muslim Sultan under the idea that God is the same for everybody. My Grammar School and its Friday fish popped up, of course.

Over and over again I pestered my friends. The argument went that in England tolerance was like quiche lorraine in France, ethnic to the very end. The last chapter happened recently. A secondary school in Marseille offered pork chops every Wednesday for lunch. The Muslim kids begged to be fed with something not forbidden by their religion. The answer was scathing. “This is a Republican School and every Wednesday it has pork chops for lunch. There is no room for compromise”. Again all my friends and relatives had to put up with the story of how things went in England in my days.

But this last time, things did not go the usual way. Brexit had altered the whole picture. How was it that close to ten million migrants had come to Spain in the last ten years without a problem and just three million had triggered xenophobia and Brexit in that paradise of tolerance? I did not know what to say. Then came Theresa May’s infamous quote- If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. Well, that was grave. For as you enter Westminster Abbey, there is a plaque in the North aisle of the North Transept to the memory of Jonah Hanway, creator of the Marine Society and great benefactor of the humble. Guess how his plaque remembers him? You bet: “citizen of the world“. Now, you probably remember the Napoleonic quote: “a Hussar that is alive at thirty is a good for nothing Hussar“. Well, a Tory that fails Westminster is a good for nothing Tory, believe me.

I understand that times change. That Brits are beginning to desert tea to taste coffee, that they are dumping French language to study Spanish and that they even have paella for lunch. At least in the West End. But to throw tolerance overboard is a bit of an overstatement. So, keeping calm and carrying on as usual but also with all the severity in the world, I dare to ask you, Ms. May and all your Tory buddies: where is my Friday fish?

Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983. He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP

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