My Saturday column in The National (online edition), July 11th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
Trouble at the heart of Eutopia
AS the brutal opera of the EU-Greece stand-off shouts itself to a conclusion – and Sunday’s meeting of national leaders seems like a decisive moment – one term in the discourse constantly annoys me. And that’s “Europe” itself: the abstraction, the single entity, even the land border. I mean, really?
You can, Mr Coburn, regard the English puddle – sorry, Channel – as some profound civilisational break. Fine, if you want. But when you plaster that heaving tangle of history, culture, landmass, language, aspiration and frustration with the label “Europe”, let’s at least concede the sheer complexity of the reality behind the name.
Before you engage with the “idea” of Europe – and battalions of furrowed academics are only a web-search away to help you – it may be worth asking first some simple, personal questions. These are way at the other end of Maastricht, Lisbon, the Troika, structural adjustment, TTIP: the mega, macro-level Europe whose overall vision we are now, disturbingly, beginning to doubt.
So, the question: In what ways do you feel European? Could you ever claim this as an identity?
If I think about myself as a European, I confess it is a mad spaghetti of roots and routes, experiences and ideas. My biological grandfather, through my mother’s side, was a certain “Mr Wax” (short for, we think, Wachowski), a Prussian sailor who clearly made a serious impression on the maidens of Glasgow in the 1930s.
My mum’s grandmother – herself, again, the outcome of an all-too-brief encounter – was eventually located in Naples. In the early 1950s, my mum ended up confronting the imperious lady amid the elegant townhouses of the city’s Mergellina district.
Mother Mary ended up staying there for four years, plying her trade as a nurse in the city’s poor houses and hospitals. She was eventually engaged to a hot-shot lawyer, toured the continent with pioneering neurosurgeons, read Robert Burns to ailing Contessas in hilltop mansions on the isle of Capri…
As she tells these stories, which seem to combine Catherine Cookson with a pinch-waisted Sophia Loren, we often ask her: “Er, Mum, why exactly did you come back?” (that’s another long story).
But what this established was a regular family experience of Italian holidays. Not just my mother speaking fluent and gestural Neapolitan to delighted hoteliers, but the train trip through Europe to get there (courtesy of my Dad’s travel concessions, as a British Rail wages-clerk).
A poke of chips in the Gard du Nord was exciting enough. But most thrilling was the regular wake-up in the middle of the night, to see the blue-and-white Alps appear intermittently at the window, as our sleeper barrelled through the Simplon tunnel.
So Coatbridge existence had more than a few tracks into the heart of Europe. I won a Barclays Bank essay competition, as a 17-year-old St Ambrose Roman Catholic Comprehensive kid. The prize was in effect a “grand tour” of European capitals with a 100 other schoolkids. There was more explored than maps on that tour ... through the pink, throbbing haze, I do remember the German university town of Heidelberg being like something from a Disney movie.
And if you want to consummate anything at the end of a trip, do it in the Hotel Daniele in Venice.
When I became a creative grown-up, perhaps in sync with the increasing integration of Europe – as an infrastructure, a marketplace, a set of agreed standards – I can look back on what is, in retrospect, a reasonable European lifestyle.
There were many jaunts out to Europe with musicians, both recording and performing. In particular a support tour with Joe Jackson who seemed to mostly only want to play Roman theatres and Art Deco palaces (we weren’t complaining).
In the last decade, I’ve taken the case for play and creativity to just about every European capital. A few weeks ago I spent a week in Amsterdam with a bunch of futurists, met up with my design student daughter in Delft, and ended up at the Milan Expo talking about play, inside a pop-up exhibit sponsored by a certain D-I-Y Swedish furniture maker.
As you wheech from one place to the other (more trains, plus planes, on travel expenses) it becomes all too easy to feel like a “European” – if by that, you mean the networked, boundary-crossing cosmopolis of the creative classes.
Because the talent swirls in from all over the continent (and the world), English is the default language. The money cards work, the transport systems are usually quickly masterable. Even your smart phone can walk you to the most tastefully chosen destination. And beneath and around media chancers like me, there’s a new generation fuelled by Easyjet, Eurostar or Erasmus (the continental student study programme).
All of this is “Eutopia”, the Europe that functions – at least for those with either the resources, or the ambition, to be mobile and purposeful in this space. And if I think for a moment about my own background, from very early on, I’ve been ready and waiting for it.
TO come back to our acute political moment, I guess this is what is most frustrating about the way the EU ministers and technocrats have responded to the Syriza government’s mandates, which urge a moderation or reversal of austerity economics.
Syriza’s Greece is not anti-EU – indeed, they are in their own way, EU visionaries. “We need to fight against the idea of a Fortress Europe”, said the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during 2014’s elections for the European Parliament, and “conceive an inclusive form of community”.
I came into politics via Jim Sillars’ 1980s concept of a Scotland “independent in Europe” – which was always a connectionism, not a separatism, for me. Jim (as is his carnaptious way) now would urge a Scottish state to keep its distance from the current EU.
The facts are that it’s been captured by harsher capitalist, and supra-national, imperatives than when he first suggested his idea. When the facts change, Jim changes his mind. What do you do?
The EU can be a sair fecht. Take the trade agreements and competition policies that threaten to privatise our health services (or CalMac ferry routes) without any national-democratic say. Never mind the elite intimidation (familiar to all Yessers) of the expressed will of Greek voters.
I think its fair to ask that “European Scots” like myself should begin a real self-examination of our faith in certain European processes.
But let’s remember: a “social Europe” (Syriza’s consistent demand) was always supposed to be the complement to an “economic Europe”. And not just freedom to work anywhere, but also free access to the collective supports (education, housing, welfare) which sustain a life of enterprise, adventure and adaptation.
Like some of you I’m sure, I have had a lifetime of experiencing a sociable Europe – a Europe of encounters and exchanges, a willingness to explore differences on the basis of a common ground that’s not too difficult to achieve. This is what seems so un-European about the EU-Greek situation – and with Greece, birthplace of democracy and reasoned, patient, philosophical discussion, of all countries!
We’re all watching the clash of titans and leaders here. But I believe there is a heart of, and in, Europe, which we can access if we simply think of how deeply intertwined we all are – peoples, regions, cities, villages, individuals. Sentimental, yes. But not much else seems to be working.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).