Conversation #18: Simon Ferrigno

It’s been a little while since my last Conversation here on the blog. I can only blame a new full time job taking me away from my computer. But, the conversations continue and I’m back. And relaunching with this interview from the wonderful (and very active) Simon Ferrigno, who I met through social media a few months ago.

I’m also open for more Conversations. Want to have your say about Europe – Brexit and beyond? Read this interview to see the sort of things we’re talking about, then drop me a line! Imagine we’re sitting down for a coffee, wherever in Europe you fancy it… Let’s chat. Now, over to Simon…

My name is Simon Ferrigno – I took part in the remain campaign as much as I could, with my then 2 year old daughter in tow (she was, and is, a dab hand at handing out leaflets), and am now chair of the newly formed Derbyshire Branch of the European movement. Outside of this, I’m a freelance writer and researcher in sustainability, and previously have worked in a range of areas, including as a chef, fruit picker, community music worker and musician, and radio DJ. I’m also presently working on a satire of Brexit called the Brexcyclopaedia, as a way of keeping sane and of trying to see through the newspeak that’s infected our body politic and media, where we have government by meaningless slogans and reshuffles that are more kerfuffles.

  1. Please tell me where you’re from, where you currently live and where you work.

I’m not from any one place. I was born in Farnham, Surrey, but as a child most of our holidays were spent in Italy, in a village called Minori where my father’s family came from, and most weekends at the Italian family headquarters in the UK, a massive semi-detached house in Hampton Wick (where they had moved after the war from Highgate and Cable Street), and which might as well have been Italy, given that many family members only spoke our dialect, and the food was exotically southern Italian (in marked contrast to the insipid boiled food served up by my East-Anglian grandparents, ardent Europhiles that they otherwise were). My father was a European long before we joined the EU. Born in Southampton (family members were born randomly between Britain and Italy, according to where the family were at the time – his sisters were born in Minori) in 1925, my father switched from a cameraman’s apprenticeship when war broke out, and volunteered to help direct ambulances after his day job working in a munitions factory as an apprentice tool maker. After a brief period in the army (he was invalided out after an accident) and after the war, he landed various jobs including delivering cars for Lotus, raced cars himself, took motoring holidays on the continent before starting his own garage in Farnham, Fern Motors (our name was anglicised due to the prevailing prejudice against ‘wops’). Business was hard in the 60s and 70s for those trying to make their way in the ‘sick man of Europe’, and in 1973, when Britain joined the EU, my Dad sold up after the oil crisis of that era and we moved to France, to the South, where I grew up from age 8, and lived until I was 26. I moved back to Britain after a back injury prevented me continuing to work as a chef, a stranger in my own country of birth.

One way or another, I have spent half my life more or less outside the UK, travelled widely, speak 3 languages fluently and get by in a couple of others. I have usually managed to feel a little British because Britain is in some way a ‘more than’ grouping of several countries and identities, like the EU. But I never feel I can wear one national identity, especially not something like Englishness, which is often so parochial. European is fine, a little bit British, Italian and French as well. I am the PM’s worst nightmare, a citizen of the world.

I have had several careers. I have been a chef, a gardener, a farm worker, a radio DJ, a musician and song-writer, a sustainability consultant and writer, juggling being a full time parent, with writing and consulting (I even got to Brussels on occasion).

One of my frustrations with Brexit is that I could so easily be still in the EU, just needing to naturalise. That somewhere in an alternative universe I did not turn down the offer by my then boss, Georgette, an ex-resistance runner, to take over her bar-restaurant in Provence when she retired in 1989. In that world the Britain I left in 1973 is a distant memory, a faded sepia postcard.

Instead, I came back to Britain in 1992 seeking my fame as a rock star, failed, and stayed on, all because I developed a back condition that stopped me working as a chef. I returned to study and started a new career in sustainability.

  1. Do you speak any European languages other than English?

French, Spanish, some German and Italian (it should be more, but I grew up with dialect rather than ‘proper’ Italian. I’m working to correct this).

  1. Do you identify as European? Is this identity important to you or is it just a fact of geography?

I am European and of the world. And I always remember an elderly African farmer telling me ‘I’m the grandmother of you all’. Nationalism is a disease. We are all global.

  1. Do you consider yourself to be patriotic? Does it matter?

Not particularly, and no, or at least it shouldn’t. If the cause is just, you should fight – as my grandfather and father did in one way or another in the first and second world wars. They saw Britain in those cases as the right vehicle for a fight against fascism and nationalism, and to protect their families. In future cases, the right vehicle may not be Britain. Right is more important than some artificial construct of national identity.

Further, although my family are reticent to speak about it, they saw and probably suffered racism themselves, and some family members were deported or interned because they had Italian citizenship. Even in the right cause, no country is perfect….

  1. When you think of the European Union (as opposed to the European continent), what is the first thing you think of?

The enlightenment – a continuation of the idea that knowledge, science, progress and ideas transcend national boundaries and advantage, that humanity will advance through reason and collaboration, not competition and short termism. Yes, an essay in the Christmas issue of The Economist did suggest the enlightenment is responsible for nationalism, but I don’t buy that. Nation states are older than that, and you need look no further than the birth of England, centuries before the Enlightenment. The European Union arises both from the stresses of the world wars in the 20th Century, and the centuries of conflict between neighbours, and the efforts of philosophers, scientists, thinkers, to transcend borders.

  1. Were you/are you actively involved in the Remain/pro-EU campaign during the UK’s Brexit referendum and its aftermath?

Yes. Not at first, as I was with my family in Paraguay, where my wife is from, but on my return I was involved in campaigning online and offline, in the street. I wish I had done more now, and I wish we had not been instructed to take a step back from actively accosting people on the street campaign after the murder of Jo Cox, because we stopped –  as a result – speaking to the misinformed and ill-informed, those who believed leaving would stop all migration, or that our problems were EU problems rather than domestic, bad government problems. We were only speaking to the converted for the last days of the campaign, and I think now this contributed to losing, as previously I know we had convinced several people to change their minds.

We also made a mistake in not going into Leave heartlands, like Ashbourne in Derbyshire, which had stalls by Get Britain Out with their mindless chants, and no one was countering their brainless slogans and lies. I raised this, but nothing was done. It must have been so discouraging to local Remainers, including many small business owners who supported Remain. I saw this as we shop there, and still do in those Remain businesses.

I continue to be active now – demonstrations and events, the European Movement (I am chair of the newly formed Derbyshire branch of the European Movement), and as a member of the Lib Dems. I wear EU flags on my backpack, have a Stop Brexit sticker on my passport and several stickers and flags on my car. This leads to many interesting conversations when out and about, mostly positive, and occasional incipient apoplexy in tongue-tied Leave supporters who should, but don’t, try and discuss things. Why hardcore Leave voters remain so angry is a mystery.

  1. How did you feel when you saw the result of the referendum? Have your feelings changed since?

Gutted, for several reasons. I saw the estimated result probably around 1am, I’d gone to bed early as I was due to get up at 5am – the impact on my business even before the referendum was such that I’d taken temp work in an industrial bakery to make ends meet, which was also an eye opener. Bread no one loves or could ever love, packed and shaped by a mixture of Britons and Europeans, with some of the Britons that morning chanting ‘that’ll show the Germans and the French’ and creating a nasty atmosphere for the Europeans, one of whom said ‘this vote was made by the millions of Britons sitting at home claiming we’ve stolen their jobs and their benefits’! But to be fair, many of the British staff were also gutted, and upset, counter to the stereotype that poorer Britons in low paid jobs were all Leave backers.

My feelings have not changed – evolved, perhaps. Brexit is a terrible idea driven by innate conservatism and some very dangerous ideas and interests, those of another elite that believes their money should be free – of taxes and to move – but that the people should not, either be free to move or free to know. This is an elite that wants the benefits to be exclusive and limited, not an elite who have some belief that globalisation should benefit everyone (even if that liberal elite is itself not without faults, it is vastly preferable to the conservative elite of which Farage and Rees-Smog are prime examples).

And personally, Brexit remains an assault on my identity as a European.

  1. Do you think the UK will leave the EU in March 2019?

I fear it will and hope it won’t, but I lift myself in dark moments by thinking that what we are doing is campaigning to rejoin, not to remain. Part of me also thinks Britain needs to leave so Britons understand where are now, and stop believing we can go back to some version of ‘Great’ Britain that never existed (from the Brexcylopaedia: ‘Brexophilia: lusting after the corpse of a long lost and unloved empire’), at least not for ordinary people. What would be nice is if we were working to make Britain great for everyone who lives here, and to help the rest of the world achieve some of the ideals of modern Europe, of universal freedom, education, healthcare, environmental and social protections, not the race to the bottom of the Jacob Re-Smog’s and others who think we need to go to the lowest common denominator of lower wages and  no, or low, social and environmental protections, a world for just the rich and uncaring elites.

  1. Do you feel that living/working within the EU has made a difference to your life or career? How?

Absolutely – it made my horizons, friendships, ideas and opportunities broader, and nowadays, I have clients across the EU – for now, at least, although Brexit is already affecting my work.

  1. Does the EU help sustain peace?

The evidence is there – no more conflicts in Western Europe, we cooperate, we solve problems by talking. Of course there is instability around the EU, but the EU has helped itself to begin with, and has drawn in new and potentially unstable members and helped them secure their democratic status – viz., Portugal and Spain, and now Eastern Europe. People point to the current events in Eastern Europe as signs the EU cannot do this, but they have to remember that it was not easy with previous recent dictatorships joining either.

  1. Does Europe inspire you? If so, how?

Yes, look at some of the things being funded by Horizon 2020, and the collaborations across the continent in science, or the arts. It’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

  1. Do you have a favourite place in Europe? If so, where and why?

Minori, the village my father’s family came from originally, a small fishing village on the Amalfi coast, which also makes great limoncello and fresh pasta…and of course, fish.

  1. Which (affectionate)European national stereotypes are true, in your experience?

Italians are argumentative 🙂

  1. Do you feel you have a lot in common with people from other European countries?

Yes, although I feel the same about most people I’ve met around the world as I travel for work, but in Europe we have much shared cultural heritage because of art, literature, and of course the wars and conflicts of past centuries. We have much common history and heritage.

  1. How do you feel about ‘ever closer union’ or the notion of a ‘United States of Europe’?

Bring it on – it also means more democracy, and more work for our common interest that can also help others around the world, be it setting high standards or inspiring organisations like the African Union (where I have seen the benefits of embryonic customs unions and single markets at first hand in recent years)

  1. Where is the best place in Europe to drink coffee? What would you order?

Almost anywhere in Italy, but an evening espresso with a digestive (amaretto, limoncello or grappa) on a square by the sea anywhere on the Amalfi coast will do me just fine, the sound of the sea and the passing Passegiatta is so relaxing.

  1. Which European destinations are still on your bucket list to visit?

Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Transylvania, Georgia

  1. Beyond Brexit, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing Europe today?

The decline of American leadership, climate change, and addressing the migration crisis that is a symptom of climate change, resource scarcity and inequality and over and unequal consumption. This requires a more confident and united European Leadership, and to address the dual roots of the crisis: governance and lack of opportunity in neighbouring regions and consumption patterns in Europe. That means focusing on maintaining economic value while using fewer resources, and a focus on quality not quantity of consumption by European consumers.

  1. What do you think is the most significant moment in European history?

The signing of the Treaty of Rome is an obvious one, but there is a preceding series of events: when Britain became home to the governments in exile of so many European countries, and together they resisted Hitler: Poland, Norway, Holland, the Free French…There is also the development of the printing press, the Renaissance, double entry book-keeping…which are less moments and more symptoms of a renewed freedom of thought and ideas.

  1. Are you hopeful for the future of Europe, and the European Union?

Moderately. We are living through a period of crisis, and Europe needs leadership and a more confident vision of its future, and to inspire the people of Europe (and the world).

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