28ARTICLES


Damon Moore

28ARTICLES


A Remain voter in the referendum, I have spent all my adult life as a European citizen, and throughout that same adult life, barring the occasional excursion to France and Italy, I have barely travelled in mainland Europe. A typical Brit I suppose, I cherry-picked experiences when I had the time and opportunity, but Brexit has crushed my easy assumptions, even for such modest journeying. When I visit the continent now I look searchingly around for information, gleanings telling me why what happened, happened. Visiting Amsterdam more purposefully last year, I watched in amazement at the numbers of container ships and barges in movement around Rotterdam. Beyond them, mighty cranes, planes, lorries, vans, cars and trains filled and organised every available route with their utter, unbreakable will for optimisation and pursuit of the production and distribution of people and goods. I watched in the gathering evening, the sulphured glow from Holland's glassed hectares stretching out across the flatness, joining together like fibres the tuneless static that could have been the static of Brexit, a language whose grammar and vocabulary was now required learning. Crossing the French border, driving a rather inadequate Peugeot campervan from the mid-1970s, /I watched as massive lorries pushed through intersections, moving from one distribution hub toward another, and I struggled to find traders or shops open in near deserted, small-sized French towns. Over the same time period measured in vintage campervan years, Britain has built transformational infrastructure in the spikes, flat-tops and domes of the capital's glittering palaces, ignoring ever-widening inequalities with the regions even as new forms of wealth and career opportunities were exported into the UK. Behind them all was a goliath—an inbuilt network of scientific, technological, trading, business and security relationships and agreements, the fruitful outcome and continuation of which our governments, and others in the EU, had heavily invested their political capital.

Many of the key influences taking us into Brexit were, it felt at the time of the referendum, almost stumbled over after having condensed over a long span of time. Remainers were defeated by a convergent political protest vote which blamed Europe for decades of domestic political failure. Lots of Brits, many of whom by temperament hardly ever voted, were motivated to vote by a political identity calculation that patronised and undermined their life chances. Since the vote, newspaper and media headlines have had a lot of success decking out the nation in the colours of victors and villains but culturally the UK has always defined its national identity through our relationship to the continent good and bad, our shared heritage, mutual cross- fertilisation of philosophy, science, ideas, arts and language, and, since 1975 when we joined the EU, the chance to travel and study freely and without restrictions on the continent, and to live and love without national conflicts—to cross borders.

In one early article for The Guardian on the subject, the columnist Simon Jenkins drew a portrait of Britain's fractured isolationist tendencies. His conclusion began:

Continental Europe is still a safer, richer economic entity than any other part of the world. It has risked most when its leaders have been drawn into a craving for power. Euro-centralism ends in tears, from the Catholic dogmatism of the Holy Roman Empire to the autocracy of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. This has always evoked a reactive nationalism, as now from Britain, Poland, Hungary, Spain and even Germany, isolation is no Longer Splendid. (The Guardian, 8th Feb, 2018).

So far on this Brexit journey, as various British Prime Ministers who have crossed the channel have discovered, the dealmakers and plutocrats of the European Union have not embraced and are not sympathetic enough of the qualitative differences that nationhood produces upon different countries. Perhaps this novel European integration experiment has been a victim of its own success, emerging as it did from the first and second world wars primarily as a way to counter continental forces of extreme nationalism. It was Winston Churchill (as I learnt from Wikipedia) speaking in 1946, who first postulated the emergence of a United States of Europe in the twentieth century. Britain has gone to war over the right of European nations to retain nationhood, but if, after 29th March, 2019, I can still be both a European and British, then I will be so because despite our worrying drift towards nativism in this country, we can still be tolerant and open to our deep cultural connections from the continent.

When Guillaume Apollinaire composed Zone he was romancing a new spirit of Europe, willing it into life. A poem of visionary greatness carved by wonderfully vivid language and of wild, uncompromising extravagance, Zone depicts the writer as a young child in flight over the capital cities and lands of Europe accompanied by priests, aeroplanes and a profusion of symbolic birds. 'You' becomes 'I' as the author self-identifies with the persona of his vision—a super-empath who regards men and women in various states and conditions, most to some degree sorrowful or suffering but all hoping for a change of circumstance, for a new, more fortunate age. Here is a transcribed middle passage from the poem, (translated by the distinguished American scholar Roger Shattuck for a New Directions edition):

With tear-filled eyes you look at those poor emigrants
They believe in God they pray the women nurse their children They fill the waiting room of the Gare Saint-Lazare
They have faith in their star like the Magi...


Apollinaire peppers this poem with detailed sentimental references to religion, the exotic east, menageries, and with an itinerary extending from the Jewish quarter of Paris to New Guinea. Zone in fact has so many guises that the text whirls away on a sense of its own. Roger Shattuck comments of Apollinaire that, “Travel made him a cosmopolitan of the truest type, and he never ceased to think in terms of the wealth of lands he had lived in and visited. In a like manner, his spasmodically intense but unsystematic studies had filled his mind with a body of knowledge that was of no single country, no one tradition.”

Engaging with the writing style of Zone, the reader is taken like a tourist into a cultural bazaar awhirl with notions of crackling, spontaneous information. There is no one direction, no single mind game. Instead, goods on offer are accretions of knowledge, individual stories, and the gorgeous perceptions of poets. We will never know exactly what it is we need and need to feel but there is a sense of rightness triumphing over political dogma that we all share. Apollinare offers us this uncertainty in a ramped-up exculpation of our plight, illuminating this very poignant experience. We join his procession of all human and European life gathered together on the cusp of the future. That we are limited and sustained only by compassion is our life-raft through and into creative confusion avoiding truth-merchants who frame their imprecise concoctions on which they hope we will latch simply to get us through the week.

Apollinaire's linguistic effervescence is precisely how he mixes poetry into society, redirecting the disasters of Europe's war experiences into a new opportunity for nations. Reading further into Roger Shattuck's lucid introduction, I was struck by the commonality between his approach and the motto of the European Union, “In Varietate Concordia”, (“Diversity in Unity”):

...his, {Apollinaires}, verse hovers somewhere between lucidity and obscurity in a manner which can be satisfying when a careful balance is retained, or outrageously exasperating... 
In this tension the poem exists as a unity. (Introduction to Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire)

With Zone as my guide, 28Articles intends to explore the cultural dimension of Brexit and to awaken songs of Europe that have been resounding far too quietly in my Remainer subconscious. For all I know, personal conclusions about the UK at the time of the vote may have been as out-dated as my general ideas about what the European project is. Was I a soft or a hard Remainer? On what basis had I voted? What was it I had convinced myself of and what did any of us, from whatever side, think we knew? Over the initial stages and planning, I have performed tasks as a European citizen I would never otherwise have done. I have read up on the Treaty of Rome and the Copenhagen Criteria. I know that Schengen is a town in Luxembourg, that the Schengen Agreement was signed on a boat and that the twelve stars on the EU flag represent not the founder countries as I once assumed but symbols chosen to represent completeness and unity. I know roughly the dates of enlargement and now have a reasonable grasp of how the EU is organised. My most demanding task overall, by far, has been to stay optimistic whilst listening to never-ending, angry Brexiteer sledging on the radio. Britain and Europe will never be over and Britain will never be out of Europe. What we have to grapple with now is where next?

Poetry is generally regarded as powerless because no-one expects it to have any power. Just like the invisible strength of that goliath network of relationships and agreements, bulletins and directives binding the member states in common directions, poetry has an invisible strength namely that it is a ruthless environment for private balanced thought, to experiment with a perceived inarticulacy so as to uncover and test wider truths. If you want to know what you really think about whom you are, write poetry. Making poetry is our common gateway toward shared creativity in a quite miraculous way. Even for the shyest, most introverted of writers, every poem has a potential reader and therefore a potential audience. As we inch forwards, like some infamous University Boat Race, befouled into slack-water where no-one knows what will happen and no-one knows whether afterwards, a UK citizen will be able to survive culturally as both British and European, we need to take considerable account of ourselves. Poetry provides a means of looking culturally from the outside and into the converse other. It asserts we can be human beings first, political cargo second.

Comments