Parliamentary Brexit bashing to one side, Richard Heller decides to treat us with a lesson on remittance and how Brexit could threaten us with a special refugee crisis.
On top of all the other problems to worry about (no food, no medicines, plagues of locusts and frogs) Brexit threatens us with a special refugee crisis. The government has made no plans to receive a population of which little is known but which will be extremely difficult to re-settle and assimilate.
I refer to Britain’s remittance men and women, the people who have been paid to live in foreign lands to avoid blotting the names of their families.
The term first became common in the late Victorian age, when the “black sheep” of distinguished families were given a regular income (a remittance) to live abroad permanently. At that time, they were usually sent to distant parts of the British Empire. Kipling wrote many stories and poems about them. They also figure in the work of R L Stevenson and Mark Twain.
Robert W Service, “the Canadian Kipling” (author of Dangerous Dan McGrew) wrote a poem about one with the dramatic lines: “Gilded galley-slaves of Mammon—how my purse-proud brothers taunt me!
“I might have been as well-to-do as they
“Had I clutched like them my chances, learned their wisdom, crushed my fancies,
“Starved my soul and gone to business every day.”
Remittance women were far less common, because scandalous women were usually disposed of through marriage rather than independent exile. But there were some examples, notably Winston Churchill’s future mother-in-law, Lady Blanche Hozier, remitted to Dieppe.
After the Great War, Britain’s Dominions became more assertive, and less willing to provide berths for the embarrassing upper-class riff-raff of the Mother Country. In combination with a favourable sterling exchange rate in the 1920s, this led a new generation of remittance men to settle in Monte Carlo and other “sunny places for shady people” in Continental Europe.
But then in September 1931 the United Kingdom fell off the Gold Standard. The pound lost nearly a quarter of its value against the dollar overnight. It would fall further, by almost 10 per cent, by the end of the year. The streets of Monte Carlo and other resorts were thronged with ashen-faced remittance men. For years their pounds had made them honoured guests at bars, hotels, casinos and brothels. Now they were met with curled lips from maîtres d and madams.
Desperate times – but with typical British grit, remittance men hung on into the 1930s, giving copy to a new generation of writers, including Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Graham Greene. There is an especially ripe example – Prince Yakimov – in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy.
I can remember encountering remittance men and women on Mediterranean holidays as a child in the 1950s and 1960s and family visits to the United States. They were often ostentatiously British, lounging in sweltering heat in faultless tweeds, and would loudly lament the decline of standards in the home country they had been paid to leave.
They became scarcer in the late 60s. This was due partly to higher taxation but more to the Permissive Society. It became much harder to create scandal, and therefore much harder for black sheep to blackmail their families into remitting them overseas. But there were still enough to be recognized and inspire a new generation of writers led by Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis. Many concealed themselves behind some kind of occupation, especially in some branch of the arts or personal therapy. Remittance men often turned themselves into gigolos, or in the United States, “walkers”, personable but unthreatening escorts to theatres, operas and art galleries for rich women whose husbands had no taste for the arts. Others lured victims into sleazy bars, night-clubs or worst, real-estate ventures. But their chief financial prop was still the sterling remittance from the family at home.
That is why I am very worried about the impact of the falling pound. Perhaps the financial markets have already discounted the threatened horrors of a no-deal Brexit. But perhaps they have not. Could it descend to new depths? Will this repeat the nightmare of 1931 for Britain’s remittance men and women, and will they show the same ability to keep calm and carry on behaving badly as their ancestors?
I have offered to carry out in-depth research for the government on this vital topic. It is a giant task and I will need many collaborators.
Remittance men and women travel much further than they did in the interwar years. Besides the French and Italian Rivieras, Spain, Tangier and the usual Greek islands we will need to conduct interviews on location in Dubai, Muscat and the Emirates, throughout India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indo-China, Macau, Malaysia, Bali, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, various South Sea islands including Hawaii, large tracts of the American West Coast, New York and the Hamptons, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, the Florida Keys, the Cape Verde islands, and finally remittance paradise, São Tomé e Príncipe. (Get there if you can, remittees, before it falls into the clutches of the Chinese empire.)
This is work of national importance, for which we must seek public funds and the support of concerned private donors. If these people suddenly decided to come home, the government could be faced with a remittance refugee influx. Will overcrowded Britain welcome hordes of blazered ne’er-do-wells cadging drinks in its bars and clubs?