Was it about the powers we gain or how we use them?
Christine De Luca
The morning after, and the many more mornings to come…how do we feel? Who are we? What are we for?
Writing before the 2014 Scottish referendum, Edinburgh’s then Makar Christine De Luca anticipated the dawn of 19 September and that morning’s mixed emotions. Her finely balanced poem ends with gentle rousing: ‘there’s nothing broken that’s not repairable.’
Six years on, the repair unfinished, we have woken to moods see-sawing (according to what we had wished or voted for) between grief, disbelief, relief, despair… more days of not-quite-reckoning. Mourning. Brexit done? As cold daylight stretches in February 2020, what comes next?
Where’s the new poetry in all this? Brexit, it seems, inspires no elegies, no eulogies. As a kind of sequel to Sceptical’s poems for an election in hard times, I began a cross-border journey led by poets from Scotland to the White Cliffs. Just as I was reaching Kent I discovered Brexit Tears – thanks to a tip from Alan Spence, Edinburgh’s current Makar – adding a twist to the trail. And a new beginning.
To the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where the Brexit Tears exhibition features photographs by artist Calum Colvin in witty cahoots with poet Robert Crawford. Their ‘instagraphs’ work through a series of visual puns and word games – Leave.con, Our Island’s Tory, Resident Putin, Your Country Needs EU, Untied Kingdom…
Get Brexit Done? ‘I can’t help but think it’s more like getting breakfast done,’ writes Calum Colvin in the accompanying book, ‘it starts again the very next day’.
The playfulness of words and pictures is beguiling. Sharp bites combine with enigmatic iPhone images to trouble, tease and tickle the prickly questions still unanswered by Boris Johnson’s election victory. They also nudge suggestions of opportunities – Ecosse You’re Worth It.
But some of the best questions are found only in the book.
The question begs a response on the facing page, in small print:
BREXIT: THE DE’ILS IN THE DETAIL
A hand stretched out?
The day after Britain left the EU, Ian McEwan’s Guardian essay strikes painful chords. He finds: ‘we have a gift for multiple and bitter division – young against old, cities against the country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales.’
Who can deny the carefully tended bitter divisions that bred Brexit and Boris Johnson’s election triumph? And yet – as John Harris observes in other Guardian columns – in public meetings across Scotland and Northern Ireland, England and Wales – you will also find people willing to work together in common cause across borders, generations, party-politics and other trenches.
Despite Scotland’s binary constitutional condition, Christine De Luca’s words ring true: ‘It’s those unseen things that bind us, not flag or battle-weary turf or tartan.’
Was it about the powers we gain or how we use them?
We aim for more equality; and for tomorrow to be more peaceful than today;
for fairness, opportunity, the common weal; a hand stretched out in ready hospitality.
My country – on the brink
After the 2016 referendum Scotland’s Makar, Jackie Kay, landed firmly on Planet Farage: ‘We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it./No trees, no plants, no immigrants./No foreign nurses, no doctors; we smashed it.’
Britain’s then poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, in collaboration with National Theatre’s Rufus Norris, offered a reflective view of Britain’s diversity. The play My Country: A Work in Progress., woven from vox pop verbatim quotes, received mixed reviews. But from the beginning, Duffy’s Britannia reaches into niggling corners of the UK. She knows where we live.
I sing your thousand musics.
I speak your diverse poetries.
I am your vital quarrels with yourselves,
your turbulence, your truculence, rage and fear,
your pride, your independence, your despair.
I know your house. Your children. Know your ancestors.
In 2019 the new poet laureate, Simon Armitage, supposedly ‘declined’ to produce a work marking the still elusive ‘Brexit day’ (in fact the ‘invitation’ seems to have come from The Telegraph). He had said all he wanted to say the previous year in The Brink, a Sky Arts film exploring Britain’s peculiar relationship with Europe.
A long train ride through Kent (‘They say on a clear day you can see Brexit from here’) works enigmatic variations on themes of being English. “A shifty, sideways look,” says Armitage. Sometimes a long shot landscape, sometimes a devastating close-up, sometimes a seaside snap – all fearlessly punctuated with the word Kent.
Kent, Kent, exposing its fat little cock to the east
Kent, where the country looks over the edge,
Waits, on the brink.
Is that Europe on the other side?
The Alhambra? La Scala? The Palace of Versailles?
No, just a super tanker treading water at low tide
Being human means being human
Look further. With particularly cruel irony, Brexit day finally arrived just four days after Holocaust Day, this year coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp. Scottish Poetry Library marked it with Being a Human Being by Tom Leonard (1944-2018).
Written for Mordechai Vananu, to be read when he was installed as rector of the University of Glasgow in 2005, instead there was an empty chair. The man who spent 20 years in prison after whistle-blowing Israel’s nuclear secrets, was back in jail ‘for the crime of speaking to foreign journalists.’ explained Leonard.
The poem was one of SPL’s Best Scottish Poems 2007, chosen by that year’s editor Alan Spence: “it’s a simple, profound, direct, challenging statement of how we should be – existentially and politically – in the world: to accept the moment and fact of choice.”
To Leonard being human is to exist as:
a human being
and a citizen of the world
responsible to that world
—and responsible for that world
Europe is the less
Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.
Was John Donne (1572 – 1631) – scholar, soldier, lawyer, priest – a citizen of the world? The poet, fluent in Italian and Spanish, lived, wrote and travelled during that curious time of kingdoms merging under the crown of James V1 and 1, King of Scotland, England and Ireland.
Donne’s most quoted work No Man is An Island might have been written for Brexit. The words resulted from a meditation on mortality in 1623: Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die. Almost three hundred years later, the, then London-based, German artist Wolfgang Tillmans put them to powerful good use, quoting the first lines in his poster campaign urging young people to register to vote before the 2016 referendum.
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were:
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
And so, undaunted by the referendum result, Tillmans carries on. Like Colvin and Crawford he uses images and words to communicate social, political, poetic messages. ‘I plan to take this further and to other places as right-wing populism and extremism will be with us for some time to come.’
His new exhibition Today is The First Day opened in the Wiels gallery in Brussels the day after Brexit with pictures, ‘that talk about what it means to be alive today’.
Featured image: a detail from Wolfgang Tillmans poster for the anti-Brexit campaign 2016
Brexit Tears is on until Sunday 1 March at the Storytelling Centre 43-45 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1SR
Today is the First Day is on until 24 May at Wiels Contemporary Art Centre Ave. Van Volxemlaan 354, 1190 Brussels
Further reading: Brexit Tears by Calum Colvin published by Ketillonia
Fay Young says
Seems fitting to mention a timely Edinburgh event on Saturday 15 February.
Alan Spence, Edinburgh Makar, will host a conversation with poet Bashabi Fraser discussing her new book on Rabindranath Tagore.
It’s timely, because, as Alan explains:
“Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913. Through his poems, novels, short stories, poetic songs, dance-dramas and paintings, Tagore transformed Bengali literature and Indian art. He was instrumental in bringing Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and strove to create a less divided society through mutual respect and understanding, like his contemporary and friend, Mahatma Gandhi.
“In this timely reappraisal of Tagore’s life and work, Bashabi Fraser assesses Tagore’s many activities and shows how he embodies the modern consciousness of India.
“Bashabi’s poetry collections include From the Ganga to the Tay, and My Mother and Other Mothers. She is Professor Emerita at Edinburgh Napier University where she founded the Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies.”
AT CITADEL BOOKS (41 Montrose Terrace, EH7 5DJ)
SAT. 15th February, 1pm
William Ross says
I know that you must think that I am picking on you. But let me note that never in your writings have you ever tried to understand why people ( the majority) who were not weeping on 1 Feb, voted for Brexit. We did not want to belong to a Trans-National State run by unaccountable oligarchs such as Juncker and Tusk. We actually love Europe, the continent, as much as you do. And remember who it is who is defending Europe, not Germany and Belguim I am afraid.
To mention the Holocaust in the same breath as Brexit ( as you have done in a previous piece on Ann Frank) is very poor taste and really inexplicable.
Please remember that over 1 million Scots, your countrymen and women, voted for Brexit. Nearly 500,000 were YES supporters, like me. Are they not worth any empathy?
Fay Young says
Welcome back! I’m not feeling picked on William, in fact it’s quite cheering to get a different opinion (that’s what Sceptical Scot is about)but please read the words again. It’s not about how people voted it’s about how we relate to each other. As humans with emotions in common.
I began my training as a newspaper journalist in the Fens, a part of the UK which voted overwhelmingly to Leave and revisiting old haunts, I could see why’
I know (and like) quite a few people who voted to Leave on both sides of the border, though by chance I know more Leavers in Scotland than in England. None of the Leavers I know is racist or xenophobic but the sad and dangerous reality is that police are reporting more hate crimes: racist abuse has increased since Brexit and antisemitism has risen both in the UK and across Europe.
For me, the John Donne poem is timeless. We are all part of the main. I hope that whatever Brexit brings we can rediscover our connections and address the many urgent social issues here at home, which had nothing to do with Brussels (and are not always the fault of Westminster). As Christine De Luca says, ‘We aim for more equality; and for tomorrow to be more peaceful than today/for fairness, opportunity, the common weal; a hand stretched out in ready hospitality.’ If you know of any good poems welcoming Brexit, then please add them in a comment.
William Ross says
Thanks for your sensitive reply.
I have not spent time studying John Donne but the poetry you quote is beautiful with its theme of a bell tolling. I just cannot see why our departure from the EU political system is similiar to someone dying. I am deeply concerned that much of the Continent has committed itself to a completely unworkable political structure which is a made-up “country” which represents no-one, built for a non-existent people and ran by out-of-touch elites.
You are right that Brexit has not attracted poets and artists, and in that it resembles the rather unloved Better Together campaign. Yes, not much poetry. The film ” Dunkirk”?
I am glad that you know and appreciate Leavers as I do Remainers. My brother is a vehement Remainer.
I look forward to reading more from you.
Fay Young says
Thank you William, I really appreciate the spirt of your reply too.