And now for something different…

I’m not normally a football fan, but I’ve been watching some of the Euros matches with my older son, who has been getting excited about major international football tournaments since 2010. He keeps asking me whom I support in games such as Netherlands vs. Austria (he assumed I’d support Austria, having spent most of my childhood there, but to my own surprise, I found myself in the Dutch camp, and I told him that was because my Dad and I would dress up in orange and cheer them on, way back in their glory days of Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten). I was very torn indeed when France played Germany, as I love both countries very much, having many friends there and having lived in both. [In the end, I sided with the Les Bleus, partly because Zoe the French cat was giving me very long, hard stares – and because I still knew most of the team from 2016, when we were still living in France.]

But – and I realise this might make me very unpopular, except I have the feeling the readers of my blog are not rabid football fans – I do not support the England team. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want them to do badly, but it’s not a matter of life and death and me automatically cheering for them against whoever they might play. Maybe if it had been a united British team, I could have got behind them, but I’m very fond of the Welsh team, and I care about the Scots as well. And if England plays against France, well…

So that got me wondering about my current conflicted feelings about Britain and living here.

It’s been almost exactly five years since I woke up, on my birthday of all days, to the news that the UK had voted for Brexit. Shortly before the referendum, I wrote about my disbelief that anyone would vote for more borders and barriers, and fall for meaningless jingoistic tubthumping, even when it goes against their own interests.

Unfortunately, that coincided with my reluctant but unavoidable return to the UK – a country that I had previously considered the closest thing to home, but one that I now struggled to recognise. Social media and a government bereft of any ideas other than blaming others (particularly foreigners) for their own incompetence has amplified the feeling of being a second-class citizen here.

To those who say: ‘Why are you still here, if you don’t like it?’, I could go into self-justification mode and list all the practical reasons.

  • When you get divorced, you don’t have as much choice of location as you might think, because if you have a joint custody of whatever percentage, you need to stay in the same country as your ex-husband.
  • Your children thought of themselves as English and wanted to do A Levels and go to British universities, in spite of living for many years abroad. (Interestingly enough, they have started being more proud of their diverse heritage and appreciate the rich culture of their ‘third’ country, France, much more in the last year or so)
  • The divorce court would be kinder to me about the financial settlement in the UK, or so I thought (that was not quite true).
  • It would be difficult to find a job in the Geneva region that paid well enough for me to raise the boys as a single mother, and if I had to move anyway, I might as well move back to the country where I had been paying into my pension for far longer and where the children spoke the language.

I could say all that and then smirk and add: ‘Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be here for much longer…’

I could describe my well-meaning but far wealthier neighbours, several of them second-generation immigrants, who are devoted Tory voters and care immensely about the Royal Family down the road in Windsor Castle. How back in the days when we could go out, I had to turn down a number of Mums’ outings, birthday parties, posh taster suppers and spa days because I could not afford them (or because I prefer paying for theatre tickets or books instead). How my boys have stopped inviting their friends to our house, because they are embarrassed that my love for interior design does not match our actual interior design (at the very least, that sofa badly needs replacing). I whisper to myself at least once a week: ‘How many more years before the youngest goes off to university and I can sell the house and move out of Theresa May’s constituency?’

So I could play the victim, blow cold and sarcastic, or simply be all practical and clinical about things… but the truth is that British culture still feels like home, even if the country no longer does.

I wonder if this is the case for those who grew up in the former British colonies and went to school learning all about the Tudors, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Despite our very diverse backgrounds and nationalities, at the Vienna International School what we all had in common were Enid Blyton’s cream teas with lashings of ginger beer, Wordsworth’s daffodils and the music of Greensleeves. We ended up knowing more about the Victorians than we did about the history of our own countries – not necessarily a good thing – and the history that we learnt was of course schewed to the British interpretation of events.

Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to live, study and work in other countries as well, so I’ve been exposed to other histories, cultures and interpretations. (An opportunity that is now becoming more and more difficult for the next generation, sadly.) I can see the best and worst that each country has to offer and still love those that are close to my heart, while acknowledging their faults. But when my son scolds me for not supporting Austria more, I suppose what happens is that I remember the xenophobia I encountered there as a child. This is not done consciously: it’s taken me a lot of thought and analysis to come to this conclusion. It is a sudden involuntary tightening round my heart based on tiny past traumas that I didn’t even perceive as traumas at the time (I was a blithely unaware child). Can you imagine how much more this is the case with England, now that I am fully grown and aware?

I love Britain, but, like a loud-mouthed, self-absorbed, drunk and loutish teenager, it does make it very hard for me to hold onto my love at times.

This is the cliche image that instantly springs to mind when I think of England…

P.S. To return to football, I do like Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips from the England squad though, both thoughtful and modest young footballers, who come from deprived backgrounds, raised by single mothers whom they visibly adore and respect.

First World War Literature: Lesser-Known Works

The 100 year anniversary of the beginning of Battle of the Somme (it dragged on for 4-5 endless months) should show the monumental stupidity and futility of war and the dangers of heeding the siren call of nationalism. Thy advanced all of five miles during those months and suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, over a million deaths (on both sides) over that period.

The First World War was a war of empire and young men were used as cannon fodder, so, not surprisingly, it was also a time of ‘rude awakening’ and cognitive dissonance for those young men. There has been a steady stream of literature depicting the horrors but above all the psychological torments of that war. I remember reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ when I was 12 and shivering. If that doesn’t make you a pacifist, nothing ever will!

Here are some lesser-known novels about the First World War, which truly question in some depth the role of individuals in history, how history shapes each one of us, how we become its pawns and whether we have any choice in the matter.

Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.
Love my old 2 volume edition of it, in black-white-red.

Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întîia noapte de război (Last Night of Love, First Night of War) – 1930

Ștefan Gheorghidiu is a rather self-important, naive young man who falls in love and marries Ela, a woman who seems his polar opposite in every respect. He becomes increasingly jealous and suspects she is only interested in his fortune, but war intervenes and he is sent to the front.

Many present-day readers feel the book delves too much into Ștefan’s tortured psychology, but that was precisely what I loved about it.  As he is confronted with the harsh realities of war, he realises just how petty his own problems are and becomes aware of the greater tragedy and absurdity of life. This book is very similar in theme to the next on the list below. It hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French version of it.

Vintage edition of Parade's End tetralogy.
Vintage edition of Parade’s End tetralogy.

Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End – 1924-28

This book doesn’t describe war scenes in great detail either – rather, it’s about the psychological effects of war on the people who live through it, on the front and beyond. Christopher Tietjens and his flight wife are very similar to the couple in Petrescu’s book, but the style is far more modernist and experimental. Tietjens is more infuriating than Stefan – a big block of an emotionally stunted man who seems to be a passive recipient of things, rather than over-agonising mentally. And yet, both novels show that sex and war are two sides of the same coin: when passion becomes obsession and we become overly focused on just one thought, one person, one ideology.

Original 1929 edition in German.
Original 1929 edition in German.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – 1929

Rather better known than the others featured here, but still not quite as popular in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be. It shows the war from ‘the other side of the barricades’, the German side, and just how unwilling and disenchanted the average soldier could be about being a cog in a very large imperial machine which had little to do with him or his life. The author makes it clear that he wants to tell the story of ‘a generation of men who even though they escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war’. The filth and squalor, the boredom and random cruelty of trench warfare are shown here quite graphically.

Padurea-spanzuratilor-402Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraţilor (Forest of the Hanged) – 1922

This is in some ways the most shocking of the books on the list. For those unfamiliar with Romanian history, before the First World War Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the ethnic Romanian men were recruited and fought on several fronts, including against Romania, which was on the side of the Allies. The author himself was considered a deserter for leaving Transylvania during the war and settling in Romania, but the real inspiration behind the story was the tragic fate of his brother, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and executed for treason for refusing to fight against his fellow Romanians. The Forest of the Hanged is a haunting image, apparently based on a picture of a forest filled with Czech soldiers who had been hanged for treason (for refusing to fight against their compatriots behind the Italian front).  It’s not great battle scenes, however: it’s about one man’s internal journey and the awakening of his conscience. There is an English translation from 1986 – out of print now, obviously.

If any publisher would like to reconsider a translation, I’m happy to offer my services. I love this book so much!

Couv_1102Didier Daeninckx: Le der des ders (The Last of the Last) – 1984

The title alludes to the fact that the First World War was initially known as the ‘War to End All Wars’. So far from the truth!

This is almost a crime story set in the confused, anarchic period just after the end of the war. A former colonel hires a former soldier turned detective (René Griffon) for an apparently banal case of suspected adultery. But what Griffon uncovers is a wide-ranging case of corruption and conspiracy, which mocks all of the idealistic principles of war and fatherland. Similar to Lemaitre’s Au-revoir la-haut, but predating it by 30 years. There is also an immensely evocative BD version illustrated by Tardi, an English version has been recently published as ‘A Very Profitable War’ by Melville House .

The Greatness of Empire

Singularly inappropriate perhaps for a Monday morning, when we are all ready to attach a new week of work and challenges.  The sun is shining, I am feeling pretty chipper on the whole, but there is always a part of me that responds anxiously to world news…

 

Once the spleen is vented out

When the ghosts are bed to rest

If the sorrow finds its match –

we shall desist.

 

With the seas sucked dry of ripples

Where secret forests live, unfold,

As each phrase falls on waxen ears –

We slacken, curled.

 

An attempt, a jealous grope this,

To woo the caverns of our mind.

Remote echo, no light to blind

The smouldering ruins of our bliss.