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Death of a Cosmopolitan

Ed Vulliamy writes: Citizenship of the European Union has been that of my adult life, a status to which I aspired and became gratefully accustomed. I reflect with horror that this existence has been wrenched from me by the lynching of January 31st.

Voting in 1975 to become a full member of what was then the EEC was the first time I cast a ballot. At the other bookend, Brexit feels like the end of any meaningful political endeavour in this country – but more deeply corrosive than that.

For some of like mind, this is a sad political moment, or an insane economic adjustment. For me, for what it’s worth, this is visceral ‑ not political but existential, stripping my citizenship of a continent, a violation of my being and past, its geography and ambitions.

I was lucky to grow up at an ebullient, technicolour time in London – the 1950s and ’60s ‑ but it was also an era during which most of monochrome Britain regarded “The Continent” as a place (as my friend the New York Times journalist Roger Cohen, raised in North London, put it in a book about his mother) of “rabies and intellectuals”.


I didn’t care about rabies, and wanted to meet and emulate the intellectuals. In my mid-teens, fuelled by the uprisings of 1968 in Paris against capitalism and Prague against communism, the world began – life began – when the ferry pulled out of Dover. Clutching my blue SNCF rail ticket, watching the cliffs recede with a sense of liberation, across the choppy channel to dock in Calais, transfer to the Paris train, traverse the capital to Gare de Lyon and board an overnight iron horse to points South. Destinations: Provence, or Italy, or Austria or the then turbulent Basque Country and Spain. 

I was in a dotty band then, and wrote a silly rocker entitled “Down to ’Spaña”, which opened: “Where you ever on that night train / Leaving Paris in the pouring rain? / To greet the light of Dordogne dawn-break/ C’mon move now, huh / Down to ’Spaña …”

I relished those journeys, staring out at sulphur-yellow lamps illuminating stations and goods yards, as a (much better) John Cale song puts it: “looking out from here / At half past France”. You’d hand your passport to Italian customs at Chiasso – no longer, of course ‑ heading out across the Po Valley, through cypress-strewn hills of Tuscany and Lazio, on down to Rome, exhausted, happy, blinded by the light.

There was a season ticket called InterRail, which afforded unlimited travel for a month – this was how most of my generation saw Europe. But I travelled à la carte, loathe to hurry around. I didn’t want to leave a place until I’d come to know it a bit, established myself with the clientele of a bar on some cobbled square, fully explored the museums and backstreets with washing lines between houses, perhaps even caught a football match.

Apart from a formative summer in Chicago during which I turned seventeen, this was how every Easter and summer holiday was spent, and every penny earned, to change into Llire, francs, schillings or pesetas.

I worked hard on French at school, and took Italian lessons in the evenings, aware that to visit a place without communicating is not really to be there, and that although there is no way to learn a language other than immersion, I needed a toolkit of vocabulary and grammar. It’s one thing to take a taxi from Seville’s Santa Justa station dependent on the driver’s pigeon English; quite another – and cheaper ‑ to ask whether he is of the Palanganas (supporter of Sevilla FC) or Bético (fan of Real Betis, after the Roman name for the Guadalquivir river running through the city), and why.

I wore Kickers shoes, even though I disliked them, because they looked “continental”. I bought my first car in the mid-70s – a Citröen 2CV – in Brussels, so that the steering wheel would be on the “wrong”” side in Britain. Two Renault 5s followed in the same vein – it was twenty years before I bought a car with a driving wheel on the British “right” side, a sturdy Volvo. I wear a tattoo of Gustave Moreau’s “Ange Voyageur” on my forearm, unsure whether the voyaging angel itself wanders, or protects those who do, hopefully both.

I didn’t want to be a tourist, I wanted to be a European. A true “COSMOPOLITAN”, as envisaged by Diogenes, who coined the term, not levelled, as it is now, as an insult by the contemporary British right and left – it is also incidentally, the word used by both Hitler and Stalin to deride Jewry.

What does it mean now for a Brit to say one is “European” in the present trauma? To wear the blue T-shirt I have with twelve yellow stars surrounding the words “Citizen of Europe”? For many, it can have political or economic meaning: you are British and think the country’s best interests are served by remaining in the EU. But that’s not being European ‑ how utterly depressing that an organisation mobilising in favour of continued membership should be called “Best for Britain”.

For me, to be European is existential. It’s about who and what we are. It defines a way of being, sans-frontières, a state of curiosity about the way other people live and burning need to partake in it, speak their tongues and understand not just their histories and high cultures but their quotidian modus vivendi: beliefs, music, football, food, firewater and wine.

Of course I arrived in the Americas and elsewhere similarly, but that belonging was never on offer. European was, and I duly took my citizenship not from Britannia, but the Phoenician princess, mother of King Minos of Crete – Europa – and the words “European Union” on my passport.

I’ve travelled the far corners of Europe, and occasionally lived between them: from Co Mayo’s wild seaboard in the northwest, to fishing villages along the Black Sea shore and the Danube delta, and the rocks of Ikaria island in the southeast (though I don’t claim to speak Romanian or Greek). From midnight sun and midday darkness in the Nordic north to the paseggiata, beneath Mount Etna in Catania, Sicily, and the docks of Tarifa, Andalucia, from which a good outfielder’s strong arm could attempt a throw into Africa.

We had wonderful but purposeful, busy and focused family holidays across Italy and France scouring minor museums in small towns – in between, picnics with wine ‑ my mother sketching people in cafés, my father etching church architecture. I got my ever first job at the Vienna Staatsoper in January 1973 and enrolled at the University of Florence later that year. When friends also on the course hit the hippie trail East, I stayed on in Italy, preferring to investigate Bologna and Milan. Except when I was exploring the Americas, I returned scores of times, mainly to Italy, France, Holland and Belgium. I had a Swedish life for a while, for (failed) romantic reasons.

I travelled not to peep, browse or “holiday” (stupid verb), but to conjoin European life; I read newspapers, not guide books. I wanted no part in the fantasies of Brits in Tuscany or Provence let alone Spain; I travelled for work, for pleasure, for language, art and football, for the musky scent of old stone, light and landscape, love and love’s wreckage – out of deferential but insatiable curiosity, to listen and learn. If a holiday, or money, ran out halfway along a valley, I’d endeavour to return later to the same place, and carry on up or downriver.

In 1990, my dream came true and I was posted to Rome by The Guardian. I didn’t deliberately shun ex-pats and the international press; I just preferred to hang out with Italian colleagues, friends, rogues and neighbours and watch AS Roma, Juventus and SSC Napoli, where I had a season ticket. So that when the time came to cover wars across in Iraq in 1991 I had two “packs” of colleagues to choose between: my esteemed compatriots, loading sensible Maglites, batteries and body armour into the GMC, and the Italians, stacking supplies of parmesan, dried funghi porcini and duty-free Limoncello – guess who I travelled with. But for the lure of the Americas, I’d have remained in Rome forever (as my successor, John Hooper, has wisely done). 

By then something remarkable had happened to Europe. Before 1989, my work had taken me to Poland, and the first cracks in the communist edifice ‑ a strike at Gdańsk shipyard in 1981. Now I found myself reporting from Berlin and Bucharest as Stalin’s walls crumbled.

The dream that Europe’s reunification could be peaceful twisted into nightmare across former Yugoslavia, but there was this: how would one have replied to a whisper on the wind through the Croatian town of Vukovar, as I reported it being levelled into the dust of its own stone by Serbian artillery in 1991, predicting that within thirty years this place would be in the EU and London out?

On May Day 2004, I was in central Warsaw with friends from 1981 Gdańsk days popping champagne corks to celebrate Poland’s accession to the EU – an affirmation as important to them as being part of the union was to me. Later that night, I was with a “Polish Noise” band shattering rusty ironwork in a disused factory ‑ and so began a relationship with that country too.

The closest rapport, though, is genetic, and has been part of my life since writing a university thesis on the Irish Troubles in 1974, more interested in Belfast and Derry than any dreaming spires of Oxford. My bond to Ireland was bequeathed by two Irish grandmothers whose genes I feel more than any other in the mestizo Vulliamy DNA. But neither was born in Ireland, so I am ineligible for Irish citizenship, unlike hundreds of thousands of Brits since Brexit with no particular connection to Erin. Promised help towards some honorary Irish passport – since long before Brexit, not just because it would be Irish, but European – came to nought. (Bitter and twisted? You bet! – Many of these new citizens have never been to Ireland let alone tried to understand the history of Britain’s first, proto-colony).

Ireland is now Europe’s most interestingly changed country – in large part because of the European Union ‑ and its youngest, demographically. For decades, people like the great writer Edna O’Brien left what they saw as the myopic, backward- and inward-looking green-letterbox island off the coast of Britain for the breezy, cosmopolitanism of red-letterbox-land. Now, we watch Boris Johnson, the overweight Etonian, greet Leo Varadkar, the gay half-Indian Taoiseach, clearly unable to grasp that Ireland is not Britain’s backyard, let alone a modern, fully-fledged European republic not now with twenty-six counties, but with twenty-six countries behind its shoulders to help defend its interests over Brexit. So which is now the myopic little island, and which the cosmopolitan? The roles of the green and red letterbox are reversed – inward-looking Little England and Wales off the coast of international Ireland.

Where did all this lead “my” Europe? The continent became an entity and identity, not necessarily in people’s self-perception, but in living, breathing reality. Some 400 million people cross twenty-five countries without having to show their passport at Chiasso or anywhere else, under the Schengen Treaty most Brits have never heard of. There are now two million “Erasmus babies” born to students from all over Europe who fell in love in a third country, under the inspired scheme whereby any student in the EU can study and settle in any of twenty-eight countries – now twenty-seven. How marvellous is that?

Tens of millions of people whizz, work and abide across a continent not without its problems, but without internal seams. And remember: they are the grand- and great-grandchildren of those who endured slaughter in the Great War. Children and grandchildren of a Europe ravaged by Holocaust and World War Two. The children of Cold War and Berlin Wall.

Have the Italians, the Dutch, French, Romanians, Latvians and Portuguese lost their identity to this process? No, they’re just part of it. Nor did the British, and we were part of it too but now we’re not. I was all my life, and now I’m not. Our children were part of Erasmus, and now they’re not.

We’ve left that bold international experiment our now prime minister oafishly ‑ but effectively ‑ likened to the Third Reich and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt to the USSR (make up your mind). What? I wonder whether people who commute on comfortable, cheap, high-speed trains between Toulouse and Barcelona, Lyon and Torino, Amsterdam and Köln, Warsaw and Bratislava, feel like they’re living under the SS or NKVD/KGB as their parents and grandparents did – perhaps they do, but perhaps not.

So there is this other British view of Europe in opposition to mine, and I watched it gain hegemony. I was at Heysel stadium, Brussels, in May 1985, when thirty-nine football fans, mostly Italians, died as a result of the violence of Liverpool fans – which is not irrelevant to what has happened politically since; that’s what you do in “Europe”. I reported the drunken, violent rampage of England fans across Germany for the 1988 Euros, Nazi-saluting, but also imitating the RAF’s Dambuster bombers (make up your mind).

These were heralds of how my generation’s voting to join Europe was overtaken by the zeitgeist that followed. We thought Britain might have got over this myopic and belligerent post-colonial fantasy. But as we “cosmopolitans” became European so Britain went from being a country that travelled curiously and embraced European cinema, and made films like Letter to Brezhnev and My Beautiful Launderette, to one that boards cheap flights for stag outings to piss all over Krakow, and gorges on The King’s Speech, Dunkirk, Journey’s End, Churchill twice in a year, Victoria and Abdul, now 1917, ad infinitum. Rather than get off the dime, we returned and stuck to it.

In 2008, I submitted an article to The Observer on the slipstream of England’s failure to qualify for the 2008 Euros (played in Austria and Switzerland), arguing that this was a metaphor for what Europe would look like without Britain – calmer actually, without England’s awful fans (read: Thatcher’s and later Cameron’s whingeing). In 2014, when UKIP won the European elections in Britain, I bet a colleague a case of whiskey we’d leave the EU. I was considered insane, Cassandra on a bad day. The problem is that Troy fell.

In 2015, knowing which way the referendum would go, I sold up in London and bought a little apartment in Montparnasse, but resold it again recently after a ruling by the Préfecture de Paris and legal advice that one cannot be granted residence in the Schengen zone if dependent upon a pension paid from outside the EU unless one has submitted an income tax declaration (in addition to paying to property tax) within it.

So this is funereal. I’ve grown up a European citizen, not a British “subject”. But my citizenship has been bullied and stolen from me by what the composer Dmitri Shostakovich called “the appalling tyranny of the majority”. The lives of British people with no or narrow aspirations who want to live in a little island won’t change much with Brexit, but many despised “Europeans” and “cosmopolitans” who aspired to wider horizons have had their lives ruined by them.

One is bereft and bereaved. Physical exile away from one’s country of birth is either a necessity or a choice. For the refugee in flight from famine, drought, war or poverty, exile is an imposed tribulation. For the fortunate like me, it’s a decision to depart for another culture in preference to that wherein one happened to be born. It never occurred to me that I’d spend my last years trapped on this island.

Exile out of choice is one thing, but for “Europeans” – the now despised “cosmopolitans” ‑ who must remain in Britain because we have no right to live anywhere else, existential exile in one’s own country is another matter. It is extreme alienation, unbearable un-belonging, existentially toxic of every day and night ‑ and soul-destroying.

Fair Europa, fare thee well ‑ and thou shalt, without us. It breaks my heart.

5/2/2020

Image: Europe, continent of rabies and intellectuals: Les intellectuels à la Café Rotonde, by Tullio Garbari (1916). Among those portrayed are the Italian theoretician of futurism Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (born Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki) and the literary critic and later socialist prime minister of France Léon Blum.