Wednesday, 17 October 2012

English soil, European sky

It's a curious title. I'll explain. But wait; first, let's set the scene. 

This is my sister's twenty-first birthday and we're on a train to Eastbourne. Rain clings to the windows all the way there, tenaciously elastic, with an ominous drum roll. We toast, raising Costa cups brimming with gin and tonic. "To sun tomorrow!", we stoically toast.

Her boyfriend, my father and I have conspired assiduously to plan this. We've studied towns, hotels and trains like spies. Hushed conversations; clandestine phone calls. A webpage about brewing beer left open, subterfuge. Nothing suspected. "You boys..."

Plans were set. The weeks fell away, leaving no trace but old headlines and the odd sleepy anecdote.  The work-sleep wash came to an end; a light flashed. We got out our nicest t-shirts and jumped onto that train we were talking about earlier.

So: we're in Eastbourne. Scene's set. The train sits steaming at Platform 7; all the taxis have sneaked off. We walk through the rain - now receding to a drizzle - down the Grand Parade. 

On our right: wet England. Our left: the Channel. Even in the rain it's beautiful - elaborate Victorian façades surveying the sea and the rest of Europe. Well-dressed Londoners talk loudly about absolutely nothing. Quite suddenly the rain's assault collapses into a vivid pastiche of clouds, drenched in ethereal sunlight. A hotel porter takes our dripping coats.

This is the scene. The title takes little explaining. The author stands, eating complimentary sandwiches, peering out onto a sea which is both the Atlantic Ocean and the Anglo-French border. Here lies the dilemma of a nation, he thinks; on these rough waters lie the soul and sentiment of a people. His feet on our English soil, his eyes on our European sky.

My point?

Here it gets political (yes - I always do). The offender is Euroscepticism, with all its ardent nationalism. Britannia doesn't rule the waves, chaps; God won't save the Queen. It doesn't make us less British. No sensible German truly holds Germany 'above everything in the world' and the French don't seriously want 'impure blood' watering their fields. We Europeans like our pretence almost as much as we like our history. It's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek.

So who are we, us little Brits? 

We're British Europeans.

Our food is British European. Our architecture is British European. Our White Cliffs of Dover are part of the same topographical ripple-set as the Alps. Big Ben was designed by the son of a Frenchman. London - Europe's largest city - was established by the Romans.

Say it aloud - British European - and note that the sky doesn't cave in.

And as our history, our buildings and our language are European, so are our hearts. We're lovers of the same ideals - freedom, art and great works. We all like a drink and a few fancy chocolates.

(We needn't sacrifice our love of the nations we've conceived for this - they're children of the Enlightenment, too. And, yes, Europe speaks English - whilst eating at French restaurants or driving German cars.)

Great Britain - one of the great European states - is at the heart of one of the brightest, deepest, most elaborate cultures in history. And we might allow ourselves to take pride in our Europe: Florence, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, London - our cities. Our wonderful food. Our stunning music and art; our breathtaking achievements in science, engineering and culture. Our Europe; our earth, under that ethereal European sky - which I watch from the picturesque European town of Eastbourne.

1 comment:

  1. Correction: And we might allow ourselves to take pride in our Europe: Florence, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, London, Swindon - our cities