A European Life

by Kelvin Smith

I was born shortly after the end of the Second World War in a nursing home that overlooked the Mersey, open to the world, “on the stream of trade” as my school song had it.

At primary school we drew Spitfires and Hurricanes in aerial dogfights with Junkers and Messerschmitts. There were bomb-sites in the towns and cities and there were Emergency Water Storage Tanks (marked EWS) everywhere. My first non-English words were Hände hoch and Achtung, closely followed by Frère Jacques. My parents had few foreign friends, although a Dutchman, a fellow chemist, had stayed with them in the early 1940s and he returned home with a broad Lancashire accent. “Reet bloody champion”, he would say.

At secondary school we learnt that Paris was full of réverbères and facteurs, and that in France they listened to the TSF. It was another world and one that was mightily attractive. European theatre was performed at the Liverpool Everyman, the Walker Art Gallery had a landmark show on Dada, and we knew that Hamburg was where the Beatles had really developed their style. I hitchhiked to Paris. Then I went to Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg on an exchange trip organised after the Queen’s visit to Germany in 1965. We saw the barbed wire border and watchtowers near the Baltic, the artists’ colony in Worpswede and a large war cemetery. I remember the visitors’ book was open at a page where someone had written: Nie wieder Krieg. At university it was Florence, Vienna, Budapest, Marseille and, briefly while waiting for a train in the middle of a cold March night – my twenty-first birthday – Venice.

This was the beginning of a life that has always been influenced by Europe. My reading, my travel, my food and drink, my music and art, my thoughts and emotions, my work and my pleasure have grown with this continent and been enriched by contacts in and from it. I have spent extended periods in Austria, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Belgium and France. I speak and read French and German, some Spanish and Norwegian, and a little Russian.

In the late 1960s I spent a year in Vienna where the second nationality choice on official forms was ‘stateless’. I saw bullet holes in city walls, felt the abiding fear of the Russian invaders and occupiers, echoing earlier memories of Turkish attacks. On visits to Hungary and Czechoslovakia we passed through the barbed wire, were followed, and were thrilled by the sight of military camps where Slavic youths fed pigs.

In the early 1970s home in London meant Swiss Cottage, then a haven of European exiles with exotic delicatessens and eclectic cultural life. Later in that decade, living in New York, home was the Lower East Side where you could still hear Ukrainian and Yiddish in equal measure, and where stores would ship a package back to relatives and friends in Kiev, Minsk, Riga or other Soviet cities.

And so it continued throughout the decades, affecting my personal and professional life: from a Polish family who had travelled with Anders from camps near Archangel, via Teheran and Beirut, to arrive in South London in the 1950s: to an Irish Count and his French wife who were my introduction to many years of involvement with African book people. Europe pervades a working life that extends from austere days at the Frankfurt Book Fair when the only thing to eat was Erbsensuppe mit Einwurf, to later projects that took me back to Paris and Vienna, and on to Strasburg, Leipzig, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Podgorica, Vilnius, Madrid, and Naples. Holidays meant many other beautiful and intriguing European cities, towns and, for several years, a small terraced house in a Vallespir village; astonishing beauty in seascapes and landscapes; an array of ways of living, loving and creating.

My whole life has been lived in the context of this complex and sometimes conflicted continent and whatever the result of the referendum tomorrow, I am just one of very many British people who are not about to leave Europe. We are Europe.