With or Without EU? Essays from Goodbye Europe
Culture Comes First: An Exclusive Introduction by Emad Akhtar, Editor of Goodbye Europe.
The idea for Goodbye Europe came out of current affairs fatigue. An overdose of speculation on the exact mandate, on negotiation progress (or lack of), and the endless back-and-forth of hard vs. soft Brexit. Maybe it’s impossible for the binary nature of a Yes/No referendum to be anything else, but the vote was exceptionally polarizing, played out online, across front pages, in Whitehall, and in every other conversation ad nauseam.
As an editor, politics doesn’t interest me half as much as culture. I’ve always believed in the idea of books – or, more generally, stories – being a neutral space away from the draining demands of having to have an opinion on politics.
We can all watch Game of Thrones, or be gripped by Gone Girl, or terrified senseless by It, and share those experiences in a largely uncomplicated and generous way. While current affairs is determined to magnify our differences, culture is a way to telescope them.
So, we wondered, what would a cultural response to the referendum look like?
The brief for the contributors to Goodbye Europe was consciously a broad one. We wanted pieces that could be read in 5,10, 20 years from now and become a document of our time, capturing the feeling for future readers, through some of the most influential voices at work today.
We wanted to hear from novelists, historians, artists, poets, and journalists writing in a way that would absolutely not be suitable for the news. They needed to be personal pieces that would provide an insight into the contributor’s relationship with the continent, good or bad, warts and all. Whether intimate or creative – the stuff of memories or the imagination – or possibly something that would teach us, or fascinate us, or let us learn ideas through their lens.
The responses have been nothing short of phenomenal: pieces of exceptional quality from some of our most treasured writers and artists responding in different mediums, from short stories, poems and illustrations, to anecdotes, history lessons and love letters.
Because the contributors are predominantly from the spheres of Arts and Media, as we saw in the run-up to the vote, the overall leaning of the collection is unmistakably pro-Remain (bar a few highly notable exceptions). I do hope in reading this that people will be exposed to a greater variety of opinion than they would while reading their preferred newspaper. Part of the point of the collection is to circumvent, in some small way, the hugely divisive coverage of politics over the last couple of years.
We used to hear the Centre mentioned as a political entity but it’s been nothing but Right vs. Left in recent memory. One of the most interesting things about Brexit was how it blurred lines and brought people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, who could agree on little else, together in their conviction to Leave or Remain.
In the scheme of this collection, where culture comes first, hopefully readers won’t reduce the brilliant depth, range and intensity of the pieces to a binary ‘In or Out’.
Perhaps most satisfying to me as a reader is the vast range of cultural aspects the collection covers – so much bigger than politics as to eclipse it. Everything from language, food, music, movies, driving and parenting, to nudity, literature, geography, history, war, smoking, sailing and ornithology.
Clearly there is plenty that both binds us to and distinguishes us from the mainland. As many (typically helpful) social media people have pointed out: we’re not saying ‘Goodbye’ to Europe, only the EU – and that it would be literally impossible to say goodbye to a continent. But, interestingly, various pieces in this collection do accredit the hard lines of island geography for the softer shading of cultural differences.
We thought, if we were lucky, perhaps through this process we’d gain a greater sense of ‘Britishness’ in relation to ‘European-ness’. On this topic, the collection makes more sense than any current affairs. It attempts to answer questions too fundamental for topical coverage – the scaffolding under the tent of the media circus.
What does the idea of Europe mean to the UK? Not just to its citizens, but also to all the foreigners living here – immigrants, naturalized citizens, fellow (for now) EU nationals – as well as people on the continent looking in on our politics? How much is this country formed by these notions, either in opposition to them, or by convergent threads in the past and present? How will this affect the future of Britain as a contributor to European culture, outside of economic or bureaucratic agreements? How deep below the EU do our shared roots run? How much can politics really touch, and how much can it never transform?
Hopefully book groups will find plenty in this collection to stimulate such discussions for months and years to come.
Emad Akhtar is Publishing Director at Orion Publishing Group.
Between the ages of six and eight I lived in Scheveningen, the fishing port for The Hague, in the Netherlands, as my father had taken a two-year sabbatical from his Oxford college to head up a recently founded international legal organisation. Its purpose was to strengthen the rule of law in the post-war and post-colonial world. He was rather put out when he learned, many years later, that the initial funding for the organisation came, covertly, from the CIA. I did not learn any Dutch because I was sent to an English school. It was in a two-storey building – the ground floor was the English school and the upper floor a French school. The French children would sometimes enjoy themselves leaning over the bannisters of the staircase and spitting on us.
On our return to England I was sent to a famous prep school where the most junior French classes were taught by a certain Mr Dodds, an elderly man with rather long white hair. I have vague memories of having to stand up and recite the declination of French verbs, and having to climb into the large wooden wastepaper basket in the corner of the room if I made mistakes. The classroom wall had a large black and white lithograph entitled ‘British Cavalry Clearing Out a German Machine Gun Nest’, showing a successful attack – an event, I was to appreciate later, that was deeply implausible.
There were two large gold and blue volumes at home, which I think my father had had as a child, called Our Island Story and Our Empire Story and I enjoyed reading the racist and jingoist adventure stories with happy innocence. Nevertheless, for reasons I cannot readily explain, I was always very proud of the fact that my mother was German. She was a political refugee who escaped from Germany in 1939, just before the war started.
In the school playground between lessons the other boys would rush about with outstretched arms claiming to be Spitfires, but I was a Messerschmitt. Inconsistently, however, I was very upset when one boy took to calling me Jerrybags. Why the suffix ‘bags’ was an insult I do not know. Perhaps it was something to do with debagging – the occasional assault and removal of the trousers of an unpopular boy. This particular boy’s father ran the main dairy shop in the town and my wise and clever elder sister, when I told her of my distress, suggested I riposte with Milkbags – which worked very well.
The teaching of French at my next school was little better and my deep fear and loathing of the language was confirmed by the occasional family holiday in France, where the French would greet my attempts to communicate in their language with expressions of pain and disgust. I had the choice of doing Greek, German or Geography for O level and although I was keen to learn German, my father – despite being a convinced internationalist who spoke good German and French – insisted that I study ancient Greek. This is just about the only resentment I have against him.
When we are young we have a wonderful facility for learning languages. The neuroscientific basis of this is not known, but it presumably is connected to the way that children’s brains have an extraordinary ability to make new synapses, the electrochemical links between the 80 billion nerve cells in our brains. Up to the age of two, children can discriminate between all the different possible phonemes but then their brains start to become hard-wired, at least for sound. Chinese children, for instance, lose the ability to discriminate between ‘r’ and ‘l’ – between rice and lice.
I lost the miraculous ability to learn foreign languages many years ago. I am deeply ashamed that I am, effectively, monolingual, unlike the rest of my family. I refused to take part in any foreign student exchanges and associated Europe with anxiety and feelings of loss of control. And yet this timidity on my part engendered in me a feeling of inferiority about being English rather than of defensive superiority, and I longed to have closer contact with the European mainland.
Perhaps in some way I was hoping to reassert my German heritage. This eventually took the form of spending my spare time away from medical work in England, working pro bono in Ukraine. I liked to think that I was helping that troubled watershed of a country to move towards the freedom and the rule of law which we enjoy in Western Europe, away from the Soviet past and the cynical authoritarianism of Russia in the East. For my friends and colleagues in Ukraine, Europe is the promised land and they are desperate to be part of it and to be seen to be part of it.
This has made Brexit all the more painful for me. I remember when I was studying PPE at Oxford in the late 1960s, how I had to write essays on the weakness of the British economy – the so-called ‘sick man of Europe’. You can never predict the future, and the economic future of Britain will depend as much on the world economy as on the particular details of any Brexit deal, but I am puzzled by the way that the proponents of Brexit seem to have forgotten the recent past. They seem to think that somehow the country will return to the triumphant past – to the nineteenth century when Britain dominated the world economy (but also conducted the Opium Wars), or even, more absurdly, to the swash-buckling age of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. But the EU for me was never about economics – for all its flaws, it was about law and freedom and deliberation and inclusiveness, even if it was so often boring and bureaucratic and moved with the speed of a snail. Instead, with Brexit, we may well get to live in a new age – but a mean and petty one, overseen by leaders with all the intellectual rigour of a tabloid headline.
I’m something of a thief, I’m afraid, and among my stolen possessions I have the score to ‘Vltava’, the river theme from the Czech composer Smetana’s symphonic poem Ma Vlast (it means: ‘my country’). This I took from school, having played the piano part in the orchestra – nobody, it seemed to me, could possibly love it as I loved it, or play it as I played it; therefore in spirit if not in law it belonged to me.
The Vltava, I knew, is the river that runs through Prague. But I’d never been deeper into Europe, or for any greater length, than a school day-trip to Calais; so Prague was little more to me than a romantic abstraction in which dark-haired women drank coffee from thimble-sized cups at tables where smoke rose from green glass ashtrays, bickering elegantly over politics and men. I recall practising on the piano in the dining room at home, drifting on its minor triplets: it was the current on which I floated out of the Essex town where I was born, across the muddy Channel, into some network of rivers which in due course would wash me up on the banks of the Vltava itself.
Rivers in particular seemed to me an impossibly romantic feature of mainland Europe: my geography was (and remains) inaccurate to the point of idiocy, but I knew how the Danube, for example, began in Germany, and washed through ten countries before emptying itself into Russia’s Black Sea. The Severn’s modest journey from Wales to Gloucestershire seemed inconsequential in comparison: in Europe, where country abutted country like the pieces of a puzzle, one body of water took in a dozen ways of speaking, a dozen means of baking bread; many hundred ways of telling tales to frighten children when the nights drew in, and of singing in a harvest.
My conception of Europe then was hazy, informed on the one hand by the completion of E111 forms before I took the ferry to Calais, and on the other by the mistrust and contempt with which it was met in the deeply conservative chapel where my family worshipped. I knew that were I to break my leg in the supermarché where I exchanged francs for Brie, I would not have to pay to have it set; this seemed to me a sensible arrangement, and an improvement on Harfleur, Passchendaele and Dunkirk. All the same, I was faintly aware the EU was regarded in certain quarters as an invading force massed fifty yards south-east of Dover’s white cliffs, its fleet packed to the gunnels with straight bananas, legislation regarding the proper refrigeration of the annual chapel tea and machinery with which to dismantle Parliament. From the Ebenezer pulpit preachers preached, with scripture texts appended, that the EU – in common with the Roman Catholic Church – was foretold in the book of Revelation. The Whore of Babylon was mentioned, though it was never clear whether she was a greater or lesser threat to English sovereignty than a banana more linear than creation intended.
But I was European – we all were – this much I knew. The Christmas tree pulled down the attic hatch each year was European; the dusty sweet slices of stollen we ate were European; ‘Silent Night’ was European. Romeo and Juliet were European. So was my father’s car. Parliament occasionally lapsed into Norman French; the Essex soil with its crop of sugar beet was sowed with Roman coin. Italy, France, Germany, Spain: I felt a kinship with them which was nothing like the awed and alienated sensation I felt when reading Arundhati Roy, or buying blue plaster scarabs from the British Museum shop.
In 2016 I saw the Vltava for the first time. It was January, and I’d pitched up in Prague for two months on a UNESCO City of Literature residency. My flat overlooked the river through one broad window with a narrow ledge, and here I leaned out into air which was cold in a sweet, sharp way, nothing like the wet chill of an East Anglian winter, watching swans fly downriver through a snowfall. I propped my laptop on the ledge and sent Smetana tinnily out into the city, tapping out the melody with my right hand.
The love I have for Prague is as unearned as it was immediate. I’ve no right to it: no family connection, no facility with the Czech language or any other, no understanding beyond the cursory of the history of its changing borders; but the kinship I felt when I flatly refused to return that piano score was there from the moment I first walked over Charles Bridge.
The stone apostles, the jackdaws, the violinist with his case open for coins; the beggar who corrected my pronunciation of Jak se máš (‘Good morning’) and let me give a biscuit to the dog wrapped in his coat; Master Jan Hus’s statue in the Old Town Square, and the good black coffee served with cakes very nearly like those I baked at home, but also nothing like at all: these seemed, in some obscure indefensible way, to belong to me. In cafes I drank coffee from cups small as thimbles; tapped my cigarette into green glass ashtrays; bickered, as elegantly as I could, about politics and men. I wondered if the teenage thief at the piano had known I would one day come.
It did not seem impossible: this was ma vlast. Now I am forced out of my hazy, romantic European identity – of that abstract sense of fraternity I never needed to explain or to defend. My conversation turns like gossip to the Single Market, Freedom of Movement, the European Court of Human Rights; I fret about the UK border with Ireland, the Erasmus programme, the Customs Union. But when I think of the night of 23 June 2016, and of what has come after – when I threaten, only half in jest, that on my deathbed I’ll recite the name of every family member who voted to take my citizenship from me – it is never in terms of legislation, or of white papers put before Parliament. I think instead of a river that runs from where I stand to the Vltava being dammed up with fistfuls of British soil and scraps of whatever comes to hand; and they’re nothing, these fragments – you couldn’t build a hut on their foundations – and singly they amount to nothing, but taken together they’ll leave me on dry land.
This is a little foolish, of course. The jackdaws, the Vltava, Master Jan Hus: when flights depart Stansted they will be waiting, as they always were. But something has altered. They wait politely now, with good manners, as one waits for a house guest whose stay will be mercifully brief – not with that easeful, familiar welcome reserved for family. The Czech for ‘their country’ is jejich vlast. I cannot pronounce it.
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