My grandfather fought in the First World War, my Father in the Second. I narrowly escaped conscription and thanks to the European Economic Community, now the EU, I have lived my life in peace. So far.
To me Europe is as much part of my identity as it is a geographical or political entity. I consider myself European, part of the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Continent to which the offshore British Isles belong.
Growing up on the Kent and Sussex border I knew Europe better than England north of London. I had been to France, Spain, Austria and Germany long before I set foot in Wales or Scotland. When I chose to go to Nottingham University I imagined in my ignorance that I would be in the forested North rather than the industrial Midlands. Studying languages I was soon able to escape its suburbia for a summer at the University of Strasbourg, astride another border.
My first visit abroad at the age of eight seemed like an adventure even though it was a mere hop across the channel to Wissant, a seaside village between Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez, favoured by cross channel swimmers. I learned to swim here in what was called La Manche in France and across the same stretch of water claimed as the English Channel. On that first holiday with my parents and brother foreign exchange controls only allowed us one pound sterling a day to live on. We stayed at the Hotel des Bains with its smelly, outside squat toilet that horrified my mother. The hotel cooked the shrimps we caught and introduced us to yaourt ten years before yoghury was heard of at home. My brother and I felt very grown up sitting in the bar and ordering our own grenadine drinks, and I can still smell the boulangerie with its big glass jar of carambars.
Gradually our family extended its range to Normandy and Brittany where we usually stayed in rented villas. By now I was able to interpret for the various femmes de ménage who shopped and cooked for us. The same went for Spain. Before the autoroutes we took three days each way to cover the length of France and to drive over the dirt roads of the Pyrenees and down to the unspoilt fishing village of Palamos. In the evening everyone descended to the square where we danced sardanas, holding hands in one big, international circle and I discovered girls.
My love affair with France began at school in my ‘O’ Level year. I have never had pin-ups or heroes, but I copied the poems of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue and Mallarmé and pinned them on my bedroom wall. Maupassant enthralled me before I read Somerset Maughan and Ernest Hemingway, giving me a life-long interest in writing short stories myself. Anouilh’s ‘L’Alouette’ was inspiring drama and in German we studied Brecht and his ‘Life of Galileo.’ Exciting times. But in order to study modern languages at university you had to take ‘A’ level Latin which meant I never got to read any English literature until after I had graduated.
No matter. In the sixth form I went for an Easter course at the Sorbonne, conducted entirely in French. I took my baguette and bottle of red wine to the Jardin du Luxembourg for lunch, slept in the College Stanislas, De Gaulle’s alma mater, where the only washing facilities were cold taps over a row of sinks. I explored the Left Bank and got to know the metro long before I mastered the London Underground.
From Paris I took the Orient Express to Vienna to begin an exchange with an Austrian boy who to this day is still my friend. The whole family met me at the railway station but my schoolboy German had not prepared me for the Austrian dialect. When they had calmed down and resorted to careful hochdeutsch, one of the first things I requested was could I take a bath.
Over the next few weeks Toni and I had long conversations into the night in German and in English exploring religion, literature, music and life. It was stimulating comparing what we had each been taught or gleaned. My introduction to the wonders of baroque and rococo architecture in Vienna and further afield, the sheer glitter and colour and exuberance of it was overwhelming.
On only one other occasion in my life has architecture made such a deep, aesthetic and emotional impact. As a student, having spent the night sleeping in a roof top bed in Athens, I stepped out early through the suburbs towards the Acropolis. As I rounded a bend, I beheld above me on the hill, white in the sunrise the majestic Parthenon. Pictures of it had shown a stone colour but the real thing in the strong, clear morning light took my breath away. I gasped and stared and to this day it remains in my mind’s eyes a gleaming white.
Between school and university and before the term gap year had been coined, I worked in Brittany for that same villa company my parents had relied on for several years. I felt I knew the ropes and they employed me as courier and interpreter for other British holiday makers. I was nineteen, had my own motor scooter and pocket money. I slept in any villa that was unoccupied but by August all the villas were full. I took a room with a landlady in black, who spoke only Breton. In the morning I carried my chamber pot down the garden path to empty it in the toilet. Things improved when I moved in with a girl friend and her charming family. This did wonders for my French and introduced me to a different way of life altogether.
I have never returned to Athens but even before the Eurotunnel which brought Paris and Brussels closer to my home than London I must have visited Paris annually and I lived for several years in Brussels whence I was able to explore France, Germany and Luxembourg across invisible borders. Work also took me seamlessly to Lisbon, Madrid, Rome and Naples. Each city had its own food, its language but all were accessible and in time shared a common currency. These were the days of friendship, of town twinning, university exchanges and free movement.
Despite a peripatetic career which took me to Asia, Africa and Australia, it was Europe, including Scandinavia that was home and to which I returned time and again. During the 2016 referendum I was back in East Sussex. Visiting the local post office I was shocked to find that fellow villagers, not to mention the nation at large, did not share my views on the importance of the European Union. France was nearer than London as the crow flies, but they all wanted to turn their back on it. They wanted to make Britain great again. Empire, slavery, I do not know what was in their minds. I told them that a vote for Brexit was a vote for Putin who would love to sabotage the EU. They all thought I was mad.
Throughout my teenage years, another expression not then coined, I had made several exchanges with my Austrian friend. One Easter we stayed in their wooden cabin in the mountains. Water was fetched from the stream that ran through it. There, far from any fashionable resort I learned to ski. This proved useful for a later four winters when I went to work in Norway. Oslo is another city I got to know well and which grows ever more beautiful and pedestrian friendly every year. It also provided me with a wife. Norway is not in the EU but it benefits from it and obeys its rules. It underlines the short-sightedness of the insular British. On my wife’s side are nephews and nieces married to Portuguese, Chinese, and Albanian nationals. Our daughter is married to a Slovakian and living and working in France where they and their children have taken French citizenship to escape the threat Brexit might bring. While the rest of the world moves on it is to be regretted that Britain has moved back to 19th century nationalism and hatred of foreigners.
It is for this reason that I wrote my last novel in French. I am ashamed to be English.williamwoodswords.wordpress.com