After generations of slaughter on its soil, Europe found peace and economic stability through the founding of the EU in 1957. In an idealistic, co-operative post-war world looking to the future, anything was possible. The writer Gael Elton Mayo covered England with Henri Cartier-Bresson, for Robert Capa’s brainchild, Generation X, which she describes in her autobiography, The Mad Mosaic, as “the name given to the unknown generation, those who were twenty after the war, and in the middle of a century. Capa wanted to choose a young man, and young girl, in each of twelve countries and five continents, examine their way of life, and find out what they were doing, thinking and hoping for the future.” (Holiday changed ‘Generation X’ to ‘Youth of the World’ when it was published; an abbreviated version also appeared in Picture Post in 1953.)
Half a century on, from the six founding members, the EU has enlarged to 27 member states, (with Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey in accession negotiations). Its impetus seems to be shifting as it morphs into an economic, political and cultural powerhouse. In the recent travel writing issue of Granta, Jeremy Treglown writes: “The British, with their mix of insularity and transatlanticism, can find it hard to grasp that so many continental Europeans, especially the young, are patriotic about being European.”
Britain bridges the gap between Europe and America — a tricky position. Janus-like, it looks both backwards and forwards.
Its backward looking stance is reflected in the virulent anti-European stance of British political culture, and the tabloids — feeding on visceral beliefs like “one Englishman is worth ten bloody foreigners,” and the fear of integration as a threat to British sovereignty. It is ironic that America’s financial dominance has led to the imposition of tough new regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the 2003 Extradition Act directly affecting British businesses, yet there has been no outcry from the sovereignty crew. We tend to see what we want to see rather than what is there.
Its forward-looking stance is reflected through cherishing a shared yet diverse national culture. Robert Winder writes in his very readable and absorbing book, Bloody Foreigners: “It is immigration above all which exposes the traditional sense of national identity as a mirage,” and that “the architects of modern Europe seek to promote pride not in a nation, but in a federation.” He challenges little Englander “anti-alien” attitudes in his epic account of immigration to this Sceptred Isle, “a country settled at a deep level by immigrants.” Through myriad stories, he shows how over the centuries the arrivants have enriched British culture, society and the economy. Dutch craftsmen, French Jews, African courtiers, German businessmen, Italian musicians, Huguenots, Irish Catholics, Greek Christians, Russian political dissidents and intellectuals, Polish allies, Cypriots; post-imperial settlers from the Caribbean, India and Asia… All brought with them skills and enterprising chutzpah, and invariably did the jobs no-one else wanted to do. Prejudice is not just based on ignorance, it depends on it. Every school and public library should make this book available.
British publishers generally consider Europe to have only niche-market appeal, so worthwhile reads offering close encounters of a European kind are few and far between.
In The Vanishing Map, Stephen Barber journeys by train to the heart of the continent, to explore the history and memory of Europe. “I drew an itinerary at speed across a map torn from a magazine, tracing pencil arrows at random through the empty gaps between cities: Budapest, Linz, Krakow, Vienna, Bratislava, Brno, determining the course of that journey…” His pen writes like the eye of a camera, melding surreal fragmented mindscapes of a totalitarian past with the reality of a monotone present : shiny new shopping malls; concrete block housing estates with graffitied walkways; derelict factories and chemical plants; shattered statues of Stalin and those of Lenin and other communist leaders on display in statue parks; railway stations that are now crossing points for sex industry women (formerly crossing points for Europe’s exiles in the 1940s-50s). Barber stays at a youth hostel in Prague (previously a convent occupied by the city’s secret police to interrogate and torture dissidents during the Communist era). He observes “the new masters of Europe” cementing deals over vintage champagne and Stolichnaya vodka in the lobby of the Adria Palace, Budapest’s “most lavish hotel” (once an interrogation centre). In Krakow, at Noworolski Cafe, he enjoys a coffee at the table where Lenin mapped out revolution. In Linz, (which was viewed by Hitler as his home and where he planned a vast remodelling project to include the Führer Museum), whilst contemplating the fast-flowing, slate-grey Danube, Barber muses that “its three simultaneous existences had become so impacted in my mind that they were now impossible to disentangle: the digital city, the banal city of well functioning corporate mundanity, and the never-built city of looted grandeur and genocidal power that had been designed to form the pivotal site of Europe.” The Vanishing Map is a weird and wonderful rumination on a bloody past, an oblivious present, and a future collapsing into banality.
Nicholas Fraser’s journey through Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Belgium and the Midlands, recounted in The Voice of Modern Hatred, is an attempt to understand Europe’s New Right. In today’s neo-Nazis, encountered “at parades, in rain-washed marquees or in rundown bars,” he finds the same hatred of others and the will to destroy as in the Nazis of a generation earlier, however now they are slick and “often spoke a coded language of euphemism” and “some preferred to be called populists or even members of national parties … The populists take old and half buried resentments, dressing them up in a new language.” They are equipped with modern means of propagating ideas, “Goebbels would have been proud of the many elegant web sites and the use of email to circumvent the many clumsy efforts at censorship.” Fraser interviews Holocaust deniers, David Irving and Robert Faurisson. In Lübeck, he observes a young Nazi on trial for shooting a bookshop owner and maiming a policeman. He meets the discursive leader of Denmark’s National Socialist Movement who works part-time in a kindergarten. Near Bonn he comes across clandestine neo-Nazis in the woods being addressed by their septuagenarian hero-leader, and in Rosenberg he watches a punk hatred band performing “toned-down racist songs.”
It is Fraser’s account of Khaled Kelkal’s ritual killing in 1995 which shows the extent to which the social and racial tensions afflicting the heart of Old Europe are insidious like a cancer. Having placed a bomb (unexploded) on a TGV, Kelkal was tracked down by French police. Blurry video footage of them kicking Kelkal’s body, shouting, “Finish him off, finish him off!” was shown on the evening news. Fraser visits the soulless, desert-like banlieue outside Lyon where the disillusioned delinquent was shot. The sociological researcher he interviews says, “You have to look at French failures. The schools have failed, justice has failed. The old system is on the way out — only nothing is there to replace it. And all these things are somehow present in the Kelkal story.” Plus ça change. Jean-Marie Le Pen — who Fraser profiles in his book — is running again in the 2007 French presidential race, though it seems likely Nicolas Sarkozy will secure the racist vote. Fraser’s conclusion is pertinent: “The French attitude towards race was complicated, surrounded by fussy gestures but at its heart was a charmless void.” The Voice Of Modern Hatred may have been published some years ago, but it remains (sadly) relevant. Its publisher would do well to commission an updated edition.
Enlightened Parisian publishers may bring out winners like Mano’s novel Brune, Gaston Kelman’s Je suis noir et je n’aime pas le manioc and Zahia Rahmani’s Musulman, but France’s regions remain resolutely retrograde.
Cultivated and outrageous, Duncan Fallowell embarks on an altogether different journey, recorded in his travelogue, To Noto. High-spirited and hilarious, his writing is both an act of intimate self-exposure and a portrayal of the places he visits — from la-la-land in the South of France to Mafiosi territory in Sicily. His quest is to find Noto, “a remote and forgotten baroque town in Sicily” and the Lago di Palici of legend, “the oldest sanctuary in Europe.” So he sets off in his midnight-blue Ford Capri. On the road, Fallowell keeps up a quirky, eclectic commentary; interviews various illustrious luminaries including Angus Wilson and Régine as she opens a new club in St Tropez; indulges in ambulatory cogitations about French, Italian and British cultural differences — “Sexually the French suffer from knowingness, the English from awkwardness, the Italians from guilt: 3 varieties of hiding…” He ends up in Palermo, “a very violent town,” attending a mafia trial and going to a party for the film The Sicilian directed by Michael Cimino. To Noto is more of a Rake’s Progress than a Grand Tour — the ride is well worth it.
For a nostalgic trip along the shores of literary reverie, Nathalie H. de Saint Phalle’s Les Hôtels Littéraires is just the ticket. (As yet not translated into English.) Or indulge in French foodie fantasies with Les Bistronomiques by Arthur Deevs and friends — a gastronomic delight.
Understanding the past is necessary for the creation of a constructive Europe-inclusive present and a new 21st century civilization. The positive aspects of Britain’s shared identity with her Continental cousins are rarely acknowledged by the British Media or corporate publishing decision-makers. The London Festival of Europe in March 2007 may go some way towards fostering a new awareness of the cultural creativity, innovation and ideas for life and politics that are flowering on the Continent. Meanwhile, for finger-on-the-pulse news and views covering diverse cultural destinations Café Babel and Naked Punch are inspiring reads.
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet 2007
First published in 3:AM Magazine 4 Feb 2007