Wild(e) Ideas on Brexit Vote Day Three


Dear readers of my blog,

returning from Marseilles on Sunday last, where I had attended the spring conference of the Relais de la Mémoire, I had just a little bit of respite, staying at home for merely one or two hours more, only to learn the next day that my early train had been cancelled. This piece of news from one of the regular commuters to Norden immediately brought back the main hitch of our journey to the Mediterranean. We were only fifteen minutes late in Frankfort for the TGV to Marseilles, and at the information desk a friendly lady told us that we would be held up in Lyons that evening – only two hours by TGV from Marseilles!

We had not anticipated such an adventure, while having been kept in the dark by the very unfriendly conductor on the train to Frankfort about “such internal matters” not concerning the traveller as catching a connecting train at the next station. It was another chapter of our Relais de la Mémoire story – at least as epic in the event as the preparations of going to Newcastle last November had been before the fact. Interestingly, then, both train journey and flight went smoothly. So I have fond memories of taking a group of students to England for the first time since I started full-time teaching in 2004.

At the same time, I became very much aware of the pre-Brexit stress when the Prime Minister still used to end her statement at the dispatch box by a reference to “delivering Brexit” to the people who had voted for it. One of her own right honorable friends said this week she may have given voice to that conceit well over a hundred times in Parliament. I think he said it with a straight face, indicating in an undertone, however, his exasperation with the still unresolved question.

Charles Ives, the American composer, in 1908 wrote a now famous piece called “The Unanswered Question”. In some versions it is only 4:35 minutes long, and I remember to have played the double-bass in the orchestra when it was performed at Münster University in 1982. At the time, I didn't think of real occasions when such a piece of music might make sense in a larger context. We performed it with the solo trumpet standing opposite the orchestra way up in the hall, and I thought with the strings mostly playing ostinato notes it was the trumpet whose questions we failed to answer. In fact, the woodwind section voices more hectic tonal questions only to have the whole fade away in pianissimo strings.

In our period of digitization when you see quite a few MPs fingering their smartphones while sitting through the debates the analogous mode of discussing and deciding such a difficult subject as Brexit seems to be beyond most of them. Otherwise they would be able to agree on more than on naying both the “deal” and “a no-deal Brexit”. They would be able to accept one another in a way to give the country a chance rather than trying to find another Prime Minister without losing power.

Interestingly, the idea that this is the basic flaw of what is going on at the moment – a lack of acceptance of and respect for other people's ideas – occurred to me this morning in class when a student asked me for an equivalent of the German verb “eingehen auf”. He couldn't make head or tail of what the dictionary said. My students had written individual responses to questions about Tanya Josefowitz' memoir “I Remember” which deals with the flight of her family from Nazi Germany who as Russian Jews had been served an expulsion order in early 1938. They had become “undesired people” whom nobody accepted any more, and then it is a Gestapo man at Saarbrücken who helped them to cross the border to France.

It is a concern these days in Germany for some politicians that expulsion orders for unrecognized refugees are kept secret – as if the rule of law was in danger if such orders were divulged by those working in the interest of human rights.

To return to Brexit Britain. On this very day, they were to have left the EU, just as Oscar Wilde voluntarily left the country of his choice once released from prison in May 1897. It is inevitable, in this blog post, on Oscar Wilde, to bring him in – not least since there is a serious flaw in the idea that one could ever leave one's past completely behind. This is as wrong in a public sphere as it is wrong in one's private life.

Wilde only left England for good, always to be haunted by the events of his double life there. And whatever scrapes British Prime Ministers may have been up to in the 43 years of EU membership until the Brexit Referendum in June 2016, they have received retaliation in the form of a unified EU approach to the Irish question in particular ever since. And this did happen not least despite the current Prime Minister being a no-nonsense person who only sought to “deliver” what she had never asked for herself.

At the outset, she was anything but reckless, but having got so far her stubbornness makes her an almost comical character in that she fails to understand that the has become an unaccepted person – a persona non grata – in her own camp. She ought to release herself from the No. Ten Gaol – which, unlike Wilde, she could do herself by simply stepping down at once, and perhaps go and get to the Continent as soon as possible. This is also what Edward VIII did in the abdication crisis.

It is kind of ironic that also on 29th March the Ostfriesenzeitung published my review of Sebastian Barry's novel Days without end, translated into German by Hans-Christian Oeser. It is a novel in which any Romanticism one might have had for the “Wild Wild West” tends to evaporate given the sheer violence with which Americans of both sides fought each other in the Civil War. Worse still, they didn't shy away from exterminating the indigenous population afterwards – with the Irish always part and parcel of the violent picture – as both victims and perpetrators.

The friendship the first-person narrator Thomas McNulty tells the reader about is one between two Irishmen who later live together as man and wife – as an actually betrothed couple – prefiguring today's society by more than one and a half centuries. At the time, the Irish question was still very much an unanswered one, just as it has become again recently – with the main Irish protagonists in Westminster absenting themselves from last week's debates. So I do not really know what is in the offing for the next two weeks until 12th April – the ultimate date set by the EU.

I do hope, however, that one idea I found compelling in the debate on Wednesday that having Britain represented in Europe while her future is being discussed – by fighting the European Elections of 23rd May 2019, that is – will eventually find favour with a majority of the Westminster MPs. Who else but the people by means of their votes could tell the “democrats” in the House of Commons which road to take? The road not taken here in terms of Robert Frost might mean to give up any Brexit scenario for the sake of keeping the country on the road towards one future at all.

I wish you a pleasant weekend rather than a journey without end,

Jörg W. Rademacher

29th March 2019


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