For many British people, 31 January 2020 was a happy day, the fulfilment of long held hopes of leaving the European Union. For millions of others, including me, it was a deeply sad moment. And it won’t be the last, as the government begins to put more and more distance between Britain and the continent from which it is separated by a few kilometres of busy sea lane.
There’s nothing I can do about this except to try to make sense of it, so I’ve started to write a book. I want to think about my European home, its changing mosaic of people and cultures, its glorious achievements and its unprecedented crimes, its hopes and its hypocrisies – above all, perhaps, what that chequered history tells us about a world on the edge of environmental, social and political catastrophe. I want to defend the idea that we always have more in common than separates us, and not only with other humans but with the entire web of life on earth.
It may be a hopeless project; it’s certainly quixotic in the present climate. It’s likely that I shall prove inadequate to the task or that, if I do turn out a book, it won’t find any readers. No matter, as Beckett says: failing is better than doing nothing. And this is the time to nail my colours to the mast. This is the side I choose: the side of tolerance, of living together, of accepting our mistakes, of learning from one another, of doing better, of truth, of people not populism, of kindness; the side of radical hope, of courage and getting on with what must be done, of moderation, of listening and negotiating, of democracy even when it’s bitter, of generosity and grace, of art and culture, of getting on and doing what we can.
This is a sad day, but creativity is an old response to sadness – making something, however unpromising or useless it might seem. Humans are constructive beings, and words are my materials. So, today, as one public door is pushed shut, I open a private one onto my European home.