We’ve heard so much recent talk about hard or soft Brexits. Call me a whinger, accuse me of not accepting a democratic result: I’ll still whinge, I’ll still refuse to accept. I don’t, as far as I know, have any “foreign” blood – unless being a quarter Scottish counts or my grandmother’s maiden name deriving (arguably) from that of a favourite of William the Conqueror’s. But since the referendum, part of my soul’s been torn out. I was brought up European before we’d even joined the Common Market. My parents lived through World War Two, just too young to be called up. My mother had to leave her school at 14 when so many pupils were evacuated it wasn’t viable for it to stay open. Trying to restart her education, she went as a paying guest to the French Massif Central in 1946, where she witnessed more that war had done. Later she managed a degree in French and Italian while bringing us up.
Before our first European holiday when I was seven, we had an introduction through books my parents provided. There were huge hardback Babar books (some with illustrations which would now be thought offensive so I’ve chosen one of the later books to show here: note the Citroën and what is surely a Provencal landscape):
Then came the delightful Madeline (“In an old house in Paris covered with vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines“). Cuddly, philosophical Moomintroll was a comforting bedtime read from a minority ethnic Finn who wrote in Swedish.
From This is Rome – more cities covered now – I remember a multi-armed policeman directing mad traffic with six gloved hands. In The Story of Ferdinand, a bull lived happily under the “cork trees”of Andalucia until captured for the bullring, but he was too peaceable animal to fight so they allowed him back. I’ve now discovered this classic was actually American, and has an interesting political history.Germany offered the terrifying Strewelpeter and Emil and the Detectives, which I tried several times but found boring. My father was equally bored by a gentle Dutch children’s classic called The Wheel on the School but I liked this environmental tale of protection for nesting storks. Then there was a sweet book of cartoons called The Lovers by Raymond Peynet. This was for adults, but such a Gallic blend of innocence and naughtiness was delightful for a child. What you give a child, an adult remembers, and Peynet was a precious find when we cleared the house after they died.
By that time we were setting off annually in the Vauxhall Victor to Dover for our holidays “on the continent”. My mother did the talking, French, Italian, (no Spanish because they refused to go there until Franco died), German because although we were still playing English vs Germans in the school playground and our neighbours in Finchley had come over on the Kindertransport, my own parents had decided they wanted to put that past behind them. As soon as Spain grew out of such ideas too, they went there. When they retired they went to Hungary, what’s now the Czech Republic, Rumania, Greece, Portugal – my mother’s well thumbed phrase books evidence of her will to try meeting the locals on their own terms.
My memory is of a France still war scarred and dilapidated as late as 1970. We stayed in fly blown hotels and endured nasty toilets in the yards of dark cafes.But we discovered potage, beignets, and vinaigrette. We children drank Orangina, learned how pizza and ice cream should really taste and played boules on beaches that stayed warm till after dark. I was lucky to see Marcel Marceau, the famous mime artist and as a teenager the films of Chabrol, Truffaut, Fassbinder. I learned from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth that Europeans could collaborate across borders and centuries to create extraordinary art (much older, I discovered the potent mix of Shakespeare and Italian opera). I began very slowly to read in French: “Bonjour Tristesse” was my first conquest and from it I learned the phrase “J’ai envie de…”
J’ai envie de rester européenne.
My French Literature BA in the then school of European Studies at Sussex included German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and English literature too (plus Russian and Scandinavian), to be read in the original if possible. Why did I choose that degree? I think the books started it off, even more than the holidays, because books were so wonderful, no matter how often you read them, whereas the holidays were sometimes uncomfortable and the drives, in pre cassette/CD/DVD days, very long. Europe wasn’t perfect, after all, but then neither are we.
I tried to bring my children up the same. Babar and Madeline of course, but also a child’s version of Don Quijote, my son patiently allowing me to translate a few pages each night for a bedtime story, and a picture book called The Beast of Monsieur Racine that my daughter recently admitted she found “creepy”. Sebastian is always late showed us what a rural Swiss school would look like (once he got there). On holiday in Brittany we saw lobsters in tanks outside restaurants and read the wonderful Monsieur Thermidor (author from Warwickshire, actually). Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs helped them understand when their grandmother died. Cuentos para contar en 1 minuto y 1/2 (stories to tell in a minute and a half), picked up in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, boosted my daughter’s Spanish GCSE. Together we watched films by Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro, and I knew I’d done something right when she qualified as a translator of Spanish and Italian.
My family and I are European citizens. We can work, have medical treatment, travel… We have assured rights to holiday and sick pay, to maternity and paternity leave. We share the whole heritage. It doesn’t mean we aren’t equally fond of and proud of the English language (I write in it, after all). But between us we’ve lived in France, Spain and Italy. We have friends from all over Europe, some here, some there. These assets and relationships will now be weakened or even lost. I’m motivated by literature, but there are parallel arguments for scientists, economists, musicians, artists, medics. My children and I never had to go through a blitz on our city or hear guns booming as we stood on a doorstep on the south coast. Let’s not forget the original reason for establishing a European community: to create stronger trading and cultural links and thereby prevent another war.
In bookshops in Europe (many more than we now have here) I browse so much translated work, because nobody there minds reading the work of “foreign” writers. It shames me that we have so little available here. But, whether you read in translation or in the original, it does seem to me that if we keep reading, relating to and discussing European writers, we’ll never truly leave Europe. So why not Books against Brexit? Given the rise in hate crime since the referendum, we need a counter movement. (En passant, before I get yelled at, I do recognise the wide spectrum of opinion among Brexiteers and I know most of them have no racist or fascist intentions.) Rock against Racism and Love Football, hate Fascism were successful campaigns, so would Books against Brexit work? Could it even be parented by my other idea (as far as I know equally hypothetical) Words for the World?
In subsequent posts I’ll be making some recommendations.
Parce que j’ai envie de rester européenne.
© Jessica Norrie 2016