Arts·Year in Review

Love in the time of Brexit: An award-winning playwright looks back on his 2016

Governor General's Award winner Jordan Tannahill followed love to London at a particularly turbulent moment.

Jordan Tannahill followed love to London at a particularly turbulent moment

Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to protest against the British exit from the European Union. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by Governor General's Award-winning playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill

In the summer of 2015, a one-night stand in London turned into a long-distance pen pal correspondence via snail mail with a Brit. It was the kind of infatuation that prompted me to attempt cursive writing for the first time since grade five. He, on the other hand, had the chicken-scratch of a doctor, which I didn't mind because it meant I had to read his letters slower. I felt like a fiancé in the First World War or a teenage girl in the midwest with her boyfriend away at seminary school; it was the most chaste courtship of my life.

In time the letters grew into visits and by June 2016 I had decided to spend the rest of my year living with him in his ex-council flat in the London neighbourhood of Hackney. A couple of days before I landed in London, the United Kingdom voted on whether to remain in the European Union. I was at my mother's house in Ottawa; she was throwing a goodbye dinner for me during which I stole away periodically to check the live-stream results and message him on Facebook.

Me 5:05pm (Ottawa) / 10:05pm (London)

Here's hoping you're still European by morning

Him 10:35pm (London) / 5:35pm (Ottawa)

It's been a dramatic day in the UK with massive storms and flooding in London. It's felt apocalyptic — divine judgement on Nigel Farage. Nobody knows anything yet but most people seem to think it's a Remain win, but narrowly. The closest thing to an exit poll puts Remain at a 4 point win, and the markets soared today.

Me 11:22pm (London) / 6:22pm (Ottawa)

I keep checking my computer to see if anyone's reporting results yet but I guess the world is still waiting with baited breath.

Him 11:31pm (London) / 6:31pm (Ottawa)

Apparently Gibraltar may have just voted 90% remain. But then they'll likely be invaded if we leave so...

Me 11:32pm (London) / 6:32pm (Ottawa)

I'm glad they remembered to send them ballot boxes

Him 12:02pm (London) / 7:02pm (Ottawa)

...this might be a disaster. Newcastle only voted 50.7% remain. That's so low, and the EU has poured money in there. I think this might be going badly now.

Him 12:20am (London) / 7:20pm (Ottawa)

It's looking horribly more in favour of Leave than we expected. A major city just came in with only 31% remain.

Him 1:00am (London) / 8:00pm (Ottawa)

Even if remain still wins, this is a terrifying picture of a country divided.

Him 2:06am (London) / 8:06pm (Ottawa)

On the basis of the last hour, I'd be surprised if leave can lose this now. This is the most depressing night of my life.

Him 2:09am (London) / 8:09pm (Ottawa)

Literally what the fuck do we do now?

Me 2:11am (London) / 9:11pm (Ottawa)

Oh my god I'm just catching up on all this now. I'll plug my phone in so you can call me!

Him 2:13am (London) / 9:13pm (Ottawa)

Don't worry — enjoy your family and friends. I reckon I'm going to go to sleep in 45 mins or so. This is such a tragedy.

Me 2:14am (London) / 9:14pm (Ottawa)

No no please call! My phone's plugged in.

When I called he was in tears. I'd never heard him cry before. "This is a nightmare," he murmured. He and his friends were all post-Maastricht Treaty children; they were Europeans and had been their entire lives. "I honestly think you should cancel your flight. I'm going to be a wreck, this country is a wreck." We talked and cried until we both fell asleep, holding the phones to our ears.

A Pro-Europe demonstrator in London waves a flag during a "March for Europe" protest against the Brexit vote result. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

The day after I arrived I dragged him to the Tate Modern to take his mind off things. Along with the tide of other visitors we found ourselves flowing toward the Switch House, the Tate's towering new extension. We rode the elevators to the top floor and walked out onto the outdoor observation deck. Below us was Old London with its steepled churches, clock towers and columned edifices; Modern London, with its Brutalist arts centres and housing blocks; and Future London too, with its implausible glass skyscrapers bulging and twisting into the clouds.

We looked down at people getting on with their lives, crossing intersections and bridges, oblivious to our gaze. To my left I heard a girl ask her mother: "Where's our home?" And on that tenth floor terrace, as I stood beside the man I loved, beside scores of tourists and locals, I wondered how many of us were asking ourselves the same question.

Jordan Tannahill is a Canadian playwright and filmmaker. His work has been presented in theatres, festivals and galleries across Canada and internationally. Jordan's plays have been honoured with various prizes including the 2014 Governor General's Award for Drama for his book 'Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays.'

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