Category Archives: Europe

We are Europe and remain so

On the eve of the EU Referendum I published a blog post, A European Life, that concluded: “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.” Now, one year into the Article 50 period, one year from the deadline date of 29th March 2019, has anything changed?

In the time since the referendum people have left Britain, meaning many skilled and unskilled positions are now unfilled, damaging the NHS, other public services, agriculture and education. Businesses have planned to close or reduce UK operations, and EU agencies are moving out of the UK. Costs for consumers and businesses have risen. Many have take up the possibility of a second nationality.

There is much more damage to come, as UK citizens – young and old, rich and poor, leave and remain voters – now realise that they may soon be deprived of numerous everyday benefits of EU membership, such as EHIC health coverage, mobile phone roaming, easy car insurance, integrated air and rail travel, study exchange, and funding opportunities for education, culture and research. The freedom to work, study and make a life in all countries of the European Union is due to be restricted, affecting professionals, skilled workers, musicians, performers and other artists, students, and the retired.

But even greater damage is being done. It is now clear that Britain is no longer the country of ‘fair play’; no longer even pretending to be an open society; no longer a country governed by the mission to make common cause with other peoples. Britain, in spite of all the talk of becoming more ‘global’ and of forging ‘new partnerships’, is strangling itself in red, white and blue bunting, betrayed by a propagandist national broadcaster, and unable to counteract its own self-doubt and self-deception. The entrenched xenophobia, the lack of historical awareness, the almost feudal deference that pervades all aspects of British life from politics to humour show Britain as a country that has never taken the trouble to understand its cruel, militaristic, class-ridden past.

If the Brexit fiasco does nothing else – and even if those who look to stop or reverse it are successful –  this must be the time when the country begins to question the things that have held Britain back from a mature involvement in the world. It must include education and awareness programmes similar to those conducted in countries that have suffered from repressive and unequal regimes.  We need a full public debate on the unreconciled history of Empire; a critical examination of the role of monarchy and unelected legislators in Britain’s constitutional arrangements; a comprehensive public engagement to understand and counteract the effects of media bias and the extent of digital intrusions into private and personal lives.

If nothing else, Brexit must mark the end of the years of denial, must make us all accept that Britain is not so Great after all and we all need to do something to make this a better country, a country that looks for collaboration not conflict, equality not superiority. It  will take a lot of work, but we can recover from the shame, disgrace and international ridicule that the Brexit period has heaped on this country, and we must begin now.  We must all make sure that we play our part with good spirit and good will and we must prove our commitment with honesty and humility.

We are Europe and will remain so.

Memories of Bratislava

A visit to Bratislava in 1970 entailed a short bus ride from Vienna through barbed wire fences and past watchtowers. The walk up to the castle was a rough path covered with snails of many colours: brown, yellow, green. Up in the castle museum, my companion, a Welsh speaker, was intrigued to find that he could read some of the Slovak signs. We remarked about this evidence of a pan-European culture underlying the differences and conflicts of Cold War Europe. Back down the hill in what was then a sleepy town we enjoyed excellent ice cream before getting on the bus back to Austria.


12 weeks later

The last trip was just before the EU referendum; through France, Spain and Portugal, preoccupied with the possibility of a leave vote, but knowing somewhere deep inside that it would never, could never happen. So much for gut feelings.

Twelve weeks later and it’s across the channel for the first time since the shock of the leave majority. It feels different. Waiting on the dockside at Dover most of the cars nearby are German and Dutch, and I feel excluded from their confident comradeship. Bright young people look as if they have the world in front of them; they stand tall, chatter and smile; you want to know them, be in their future. Older travellers seem healthy and thoughtful, obviously returning to a comfortable life. In contrast, the occupants of the few British cars look sheepish, smile in a shamefaced way, are older, eat sandwiches, appear wistful.

Halfway across the channel, looking at the other side, the heart lifts. All is not lost. Europe is still there, and I still want to be there, still feel that I will belong. We soon arrive in Dunkerque, where the fences of Calais have been replicated, and images of Fortress Europe come forward. Although there is less police presence than in Calais, very soon we pass the exit that is signposted to Grande Synthe. It is closed off, and a police van is parked on the ramp with blue light flashing.

It gets hotter. A short while later, at the Belgian border, it’s 35C: it has been the hottest September day in the UK for 105 years – a scorcher. Things are hotting up, and the fear of climate change melds with news of other changes already coming as we speed on. Cameron is gone; GCHQ powers are to be increased; Guy Verhofstadt articulates a new two-part narrative for European solidarity; the European Parliament hears Junckers stress a Europe of security – he anticipates tighter borders and a new military collaboration; Luxemburg criticizes Hungary’s refugee policy. The British referendum is part of a broader distress across the continent. No one has any solution, even in the midst of so many glib promises and barefaced lies.

Much of the broader chaos is passing the London media by as Britain remains fixated – as so often in a country where education is closely tied to social class and cultural division – on the major concerns of where you go to school and whether you are good at games.

We overnight in the Netherlands in an area where Aachen, Liège and Maastricht make up a designated Euregio, where you move seamlessly from one country to another, from one language to another, as if it’s the very core of Europe: a bit bland, but hopeful, safe and positive about the future.

At the next stop in Germany, green tendrils in the swimming pond embrace arms and legs, attach but do not threaten. The sun shines. The steam room relaxes muscles. On buildings all around vast arrays of solar panels show a commitment to a communal future; food is produced with customary respect; beer is brewed by methods that take as much pride in producing beer without alcohol as with it. There is trust.

Now comes the news from the UK: Hinkley Point, a backward looking decision based on fear of offending foreign powers, trade unions, and industrial lobbies. My life has felt the impact of the Windscale disaster, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, so this is more bad news. More and more it feels that Britain has stepped back into the past just when it might have made the decision to move forward to a kinder future, and I do not like that one little bit.

It’s a country abandoning responsibility for its people, its environment, and forsaking any regard for its neighbours and the broader world. It’s a culture that gets fat while watching others perform great athletic feats, that treats baking sickly cakes as entertainment while demanding gastric bands; a country that has resurrected the television shows that rely on parochial concerns, class, race and gender based humour and has shunned the cosmopolitan or avant-garde.

Even as there are some small signs of recognition that it’s more complex than they were letting on, there’s not enough attention given to the reasoned arguments of lawyers, parliamentary committees, academic experts and research scientists. The three stooges running the operation for Theresa May seem committed to learning nothing, saying less, and blustering.

Britain crows over gold medals and Great British Bake-Off, but it doesn’t work for me. It won’t work for anyone in the long run. The bread is better in Europe.

European publishing neighbours

Liebermann VillaSome years ago in Berlin, I visited the Liebermann-Villa on Lake Wannsee – just down the shore from the building where the notorious Wannsee Conference was held in 1942. I came to see the great artist’s pictures, but what made more of an impact was what happened to him in the 1930s, the death of his wife Martha, and the story of the house itself. As in so many places in Europe, the past emerges and disturbs at every turn: Max Liebermann’s disgrace, ruin and death in 1935; his wife’s hounding by the Nazis and her suicide; the house taken over by the state and subsequently used as a brothel, a hospital, a school and a diving club.

Langenscheidt Villa

The villa next door (then in the process of renovation) had been built by the publisher Carl Langenscheidt. I fell to wondering what the family knew of Max Liebermann’s life and death, his wife’s struggles, and the pressures they were put under.

I now learn that Ruth Langenscheidt sheltered a Jewish orphan, Berti Busch, in 1943 and her husband, Ernst Alex Flechtheim, was unable to serve as a lawyer after 1933, surviving the war only to be ‘disappeared’ when the Russians came to Berlin. I still do not know if they attempted to intervene on Liebermann’s behalf, but at least I am now aware that the Langenscheidt family showed courage in difficult times and suffered for their compassion.

A European Life

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.