No Land is an Island

John Donne as a young man
John Donne as a young man

Yes, you read that right — I haven’t forgotten what John Donne really wrote (No Man is an Island, in case you need reminding). I’m referring to the EU Referendum vote that will be taking place a couple of days after Midsummer’s Day, when the people currently living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be asked a simple Yes/No question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

(or, as Welsh speakers will see it, A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?)

I won’t go into the convoluted political details of why this question is being asked now. The steam coming out of my ears and the air being turned blue would thoroughly obscure any rational arguments for or against. But my concern is simply that the UK might throw the baby out with the bathwater because of the xenophobia that is being whipped up by some sections of the media.

Xenophobia is a nasty word for a nasty thing. A pity since — as I found out when I was mangling Ancient Greek as a schoolboy — xenos (ξένος) ranges in meaning all the way from ‘enemy’ via ‘stranger’ to ‘guest’, with the latter predominating in ancient classical culture (as it does in many small communities even now). If we substitute the translation of ‘fear of strangers’ with ‘fear of guests’ that sounds even more unfriendly, aggressive even. It clearly runs counter to all the sentiments in John Donne’s poem, every phrase of which deserves meditating on, though I’ll focus on just two now. “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less” has even more bite if we remember that Britain is a part of Europe no less than Sicily or Sardinia, Crete or Corsica or Cyprus, all geographically speaking not insignificant islands. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” is a self-evident statement but apparently irrelevant to believers in waves of economic migrants, floods of refugees and cohorts of terrorists invading Island Britain.

Already I’m gnashing my teeth. Let me be more positive now. “What has Europe done for us?” is the sly question that I sometimes hear. Well, since this is a book review blog I’m going to reference the UK’s indebtedness to European literary figures. Let me start with two of Britain’s immigrants: Joseph Conrad and Eva Ibbotson.

Joseph Conrad was born in the former Kingdom of Poland (a part which is now in Ukraine) and became a naturalised Briton. In great novels like Heart of Darkness he focused on a great many issues (not least man’s inhumanity to man) while showing a mastery of the English language that evokes admiration and praise. World literature would be so much the poorer without the contribution of this economic migrant and son of a political refugee. Eva Ibbotson (née Wiesner) was born in 1925 to Austrian Jewish parents, moving to England in her eighth year to escape the Nazis. Many of her novels deal obliquely with her experiences, and Journey to the River Sea expressly deals with a young girl sent abroad to live with small-minded xenophobic relatives. Imagine what would have happened to her if the UK had closed their borders to political refugees in 1933.

War has been unkind to other anglophiles. Antal Szerb, a Hungarian Catholic born to Jewish parents, was a literary scholar and academic who studied for a year in London before the war. The Pendragon Legend (a hybrid of many genres) ranges from London to a fictional Welsh castle, but Szerb also wrote semi-autobiographical accounts, literary fiction and fictionalised history set in Italy and France, much of it now translated into English. Sadly he was fated to be murdered in a concentration camp early in 1945. We would be denied his fascinating first novel, based in the UK, if he had himself been denied entry to England in the 1930s on the basis of being an undesirable alien.

Anti-European sentiment based on fear of outsiders and out-groups would have us ignore the question asked by that much-admired English poet Rudyard Kipling: “And what should they know of England who only England know?” In other words, how can a people fully understand who they are if they are unaware of how their culture has been shaped by outside influences? So let us remember the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi whose collected short stories The Periodic Table was named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, no less, as the ‘best science book ever’; and whose writings (including another short story collection A Tranquil Star) run the gamut of human experience and imagination. If British scientists see worth in a European writer’s fiction then who are the rest of us to dismiss him?

Between now and June 23rd I hope to expand my normal reading range of mostly British and American writers to include more Europeans, in translation and possibly in the original language. I’ve already reviewed work here by other European authors — from, for example, Italy (Andrea Camillieri, Italo Calvino), Spain (Carlos Ruiz Zafón) and Norway (Jostein Gaarder) — and have in mind reads or rereads of Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Marie de France and Xenophon. Whether my little gesture will persuade any of those who think the Channel Tunnel was a grave mistake remains to be seen.

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

* * * * *

The margin between those who want to remain and those who want to leave is narrow or not depending on how the poll is conducted, as these two graphs show. The Don’t Knows could hold the balance:
ComRes analysis of telephone polls up to December 2015
Daily Telegraph EU referendum poll tracker
Daily Telegraph EU referendum poll tracker, March 2016

17 thoughts on “No Land is an Island

    1. Kudos to Cameron if he managed to negotiate some sensible concessions; but he doesn’t seem to be fighting hard enough to remain — unless he’s playing the long game. But then he’s giving mixed messages over cheap Chinese steel imports now …

  1. Very good arguments from the literary point of view. And of course there are many more for staying in. And the stay in campaign not only have their counterparts to fight against, but the media as well so much of the time.
    Having said that, this morning’s news about the government blocking the EU from raising tariffs against Chinese steel illustrates the deception we have to contend with from our so called leaders
    Keep up the In campaign 👍

    1. The British public — and I include myself in that — know too little about Europe’s politics, culture and shared values, and the relative swiftness of the decision to hold the referendum, plus the media’s continued obfuscation, compounds the literal as well as figurative insularity of Little Englanders.

  2. earthbalm

    Another well written post and your points are well made. Currently, for me, we seem to have much of the best of both worlds in the UK – the safety net of a large economic community plus the concessions e.g. currency we’ve been given as an island. My understanding is that several EU countries tried to broker a deal with Tata to continue producing steel in the UK. It’s impossible to know what to believe with so much spin.

    1. Thanks, Dale. Of course Wales itself stands to lose a great deal if Britain exits the EU, not least because there’s no guarantee a Westminster government would choose to match the funding that Wales currently attracts because of its relative economic weakness. I just hope that the current slide backwards towards a less caring society is halted and, in time, reversed. But here am I reneguing on my determination not to be political with a large P …

  3. elmediat

    A poison that seems to seep into democracies. Here in Canada, a society seeded by immigrants is not immune. I am in my sixties and a second generation Canadian with grandparents who were very young when they came from Central Europe. My wife is first generation Canadian. When the talk about putting up walls and restrictions starts being muttered, one does not know whether to laugh, cry or shout. Thankfully the current government has taken the higher road to Canadian values.

    Looking at Europe and the U.S.A. does make us nervous. Things could wrong so quickly if fear and underlying prejudices are allowed to drive the agenda.

    All the best in the coming days.

    1. Excellent points.Having recently seen a list of ministers in the present Canadian cabinet — letting the incumbent fit the brief, as it were — it seems as if your present government is starting as it means to carry on: not the jobs-for-the-boys attitude that seems to plague certain democracies. I think that unless a nation has a deep understanding of its history, and is prepared to revise it in the light of continuing research and well argued reinterpretation, then it is forever going to be subject to unsubstantiated prejudices and prey to a collective memory that doesn’t stretch beyond a living generation’s experience.

  4. It’s interesting being a foreigner in the UK as this debate is going on. I’d say it’s even a little troubling, given the kinds of attitudes that are motivating it. I definitely agree that it seems to stem from xenophobia, and I think it’s worrying that this kind of conservatism (the notion of a pure ‘nation’) should resurface in an era of increasing interconnectedness where national borders, and indeed nationality itself, are increasingly permeable.

    Using literature to explore the problem is a very interesting and worthwhile approach! It really highlights the connections between Britain and the world.

    1. Glad you approve the approach! Much of the UK’s problem is that it aligns itself with US culture with which it shares a similar language and very little else, instead of realising that its genetic make-up and much of its underlying culture stems from Europe and further abroad — Africa and the Indian subcontinent for example. Like North America itself the old so-called WASP hegemony is increasingly irrelevant as the years go by, but you mightn’t know it from certain sections of the media and from the prevailing political discourse.

      Having said which, I’ve only considered European literature in this post, which has almost exclusively dominated my reading up to now — must start casting my net further afield. (Mixing metaphors again …)

  5. Totally with you on this,Chris. It depresses me how the public and much of the media focus on the negative aspects of the union and paste over the positives. I’m desperately hoping the ‘In’ campaign will be hammering home how vital it is to our economy and our culture to stay in Europe. Scary, insular times ahead otherwise.

    1. Fingers (and several other digits) crossed, the next couple of months will see some sensible discussion of pros and cons being aired. But I’m not holding my breath, Lynn — it’s more likely there’s be a series of stunts once official campaigning gets under way that’ll grab headlines but throw no light on the issues involved. Like you I’m depressed about it all.

      1. People do need to know the facts or they won’t vote out of apathy. It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Haven’t a clue what’s going on’ and leave the decision to someone else. Apart from the xenophobes who will no doubt be out in force. I dread to think what the fallout would be if we left Europe. Worrying times.

  6. Europe and the EU are not one and the same and never have been. The EU is a political project for the benefit of corporations, not for the benefit of people.

    1. I take your general point about the EU and the geographical continent of Europe not being the same entity. And I do agree — as I also see from your blog — that we need to know what people’s basic agendas are when they argue for one stance or other. But I do think that we need to know the essential facts of this complex matter (and how we got here in the first place) before we stoop to the name-calling that has characterised much of the ‘debate’ so far. And I include myself in that criticism too.

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