A Song for Europe
Summer 1979. My education has been preparing me for this.
My education has admittedly also been preparing me for an eventual Soviet takeover (the Easter just past I was on an intensive Russian language week in London during which my émigré teacher told me I had to be “more precise”, not in my language usage, but my manners: too loud, too lacking in decorum); preparing me for an eventual Soviet takeover and – amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant – for the return of the ancient Roman Empire to south Belfast.
But firstly, foremostly for this.
It has, by the time school breaks up for the last summer holiday before the 1980s, been preparing me for six full years, since the year coincidentally that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, along with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark, joined the European Economic Community, which until then had consisted of West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The year of the Three Against the Six: a football match – a ‘friendly’ – between the newcomers and the existing member states; a football match that gave the world the headline, Three Two Six Nil.
Helmut Schön who trained? the Six had been manager of the briefly independent state of Saarland, which was broadly similar, though not geographically identical, to the only-slightly-less-briefly independent Territory of the Saar Basin, created after World War I, and which (Saarland rather than Basin) had played nineteen international fixtures including – in the 1954 World Cup Qualifiers – against West Germany before in 1956 becoming a part of West Germany again.
As a Northern Irish person, the product of a line drawn on a map, I had a particular interest in territories like Saarland (anthem “Saarlandlied”: to my eyes as refreshing a piece of regional self-knowledge as you could meet), whose borders down the years had slipped this way and that between one country and another.
Schön, as manager of The Six, only found room in his line-up for one player from Belgium, goalkeeper Christian Piot of Standard Liège (substituted at half time for Dino Zoff, Italy and Juventus), which was a shame. I had been hoping – in those far-off days when we got to see so little of football from elsewhere on our televisions, when the sport was essentially a written medium – to get a look at Jacky Stockman, who sounded as though he ran the chippy round the corner from my house rather than led the line for Anderlecht in the Belgian First Division. Even his nickname, “Zorro”, was like one of the names graffitied on the bricks of the chippy’s wall, the teen bulletin-board. (Sometimes the first you knew that you had been dumped was when you saw the name of the person you were going out with – thought you were going out with – in a freshly inked heart above the name of someone new.) I had a thing about Anderlecht; actually, several things (I was on the cusp of my teens, I was always having things about things), starting with the colour (purple) of their shirts. And that was before I knew that the patron saint of the municipality from which the club’s name derived, Guy of Anderlecht, was also the saint of outbuildings, stables, and sheds. (Outbuildings! Stables! Sheds, for fuck sake!)Which means I didn’t know then either – which is just as well, or I’d have developed a thing about that too – about the tradition on his saint’s day of people competing for the honour of riding into a church bareback.
(Horse’s back bare, that is. I wouldn’t want you going along and showing yourself up.)
But that was 1973 and this is 1979 and after six years of preparation, six years of us in it and it in us, six years in which I have become, in effect, a francophone sleeper, I am on my way for the very first time to what we still think of as “Europe Proper”.
Not Anderlecht (alas).
Paris. Au pair.
It has been planned as meticulously as a moon landing. (This is one small step for Glenn, one giant leap for Glenn’s kind ... First trip for me, first trip for anyone in my family.) The moon in comparison seems less alien. From the pictures on the tv they spoke English up there. The tickets – they have kept three members of the travel agent’s staff in full-time employment for the best part of a month, is my impression – nearly require a suitcase all their own.
Belfast to Larne, Larne to Stranraer, Stranraer to London, London to Dover, Dover to Calais, Calais to Paris. Four train journeys, two sea crossings, seventeen hours. Air travel has the feel of collective fiction. You all climb into the big tube, they shut the door, take an hour, while they feed you gin and pretzels, to change the backdrop, adjust the temperature on the set, then open the door and you all climb out again … Here we are! Boats and – especially – trains are different. I feel from the moment the first carriage door slams shut at York Road Railway Station that we – me and the school friend travelling with me – are enacting the connections and the distance. Each of us is seeing someone else at home, but then home, as the boats and trains have made abundantly clear to us, is a long way away and getting longer as the night stretches and we each after our own fashion get round to saying I have, you know, always kind of liked you, but just never imagined that you, you know …
No, nor me …
Isn’t that …?
Amo, amas, amat, amamus …
Even before I have stepped off the final train at Gare du Nord, I know this will be foundational; already I am telling myself I will return to it, “in my writing”, who have at this time written no more than a handful of lines falling short of a poem.
And then after one night together in Paris my more-now-than-just-school friend and I go our separate ways, to our separate jobs, and everything for me goes completely to shit in fairly short order and I end up several weeks later back in Paris without my suitcase and my passport, and my tickets, eking out what money my parents have been able to wire me while I wait for the British Embassy to provide me with the temporary papers that will get me, by train and boat and train and train and boat and train, back to Belfast.
Once a day I go to a café at the end of the street with my no-star hotel on it and stand at a corner of the counter with a glass of beer and a ham and lettuce baguette containing more butter than I can generally swallow, but with less French (or maybe just confidence) than I need to ask to have some of it removed.
Which is where I am when I hear for the first time the other guy from Anderlecht, Jacques Brel …
Oh, I have heard versions of his songs – staples, some of them, of Saturday night British tv variety shows – but they were pale, pale, pale imitations compared to this, whose words come from somewhere so deep, deep within that a few of them only just make it to the surface of his lips.
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte … pas
I feel as though I have aged forty years in four minutes. I feel as though I have absorbed a whole history of song – chanson; a whole history of love, of Europe even.
I look around the café at the women and men with their cups of coffee and their all-white cigarettes, their Mondes and Figaros and Libés, their complete acceptance of this moment and me, and Jacques Brel, in it.
I make a silent vow,
Non, je ne vous quitterai jamais …
I aged forty years in forty years.
The European Economic Community became just the European Community before in 1993 being absorbed completely into the European Union. If you listened carefully you could almost hear the borders dissolve. The United Kingdom blew very briefly hot, then cold, then colder, and colder, and colder, then in June 2016 held a referendum in which a majority of the electorate – though not in Scotland, or Northern Ireland – voted to leave. The One Against the Twenty-Seven.
I felt anger, bewilderment, I felt shame at the politics that had driven the Leave campaign. That is not who we really are, I wanted to say, in fact did say, mostly to people who already agreed with me, which may have been part of the problem.
The Christmas before last I had a drink with the woman who was my travelling companion on that first trip to Paris. (People we were at school with then were grandparents now. We shook our heads in disbelief at that.) Neither of us had ever made that journey again by train and boat and train and train and boat and train, though we had been back there, each of us in our separate lives, many, many times. I wondered if we – the bigger we, I mean, not just my friend and me – had been guilty of taking too many things for granted. Unlike the untold thousands for whom “Europe” was a life or death trek. Distance measured in literal feet, one in front of the other in front of the other, for days, weeks on end, in burning calves and splinted shins, and backs breaking under loads that didn’t even begin to tell the story of the life left behind, and hearts sideways with the fear that at any moment it could all be snatched away. Not the possessions, but the steps themselves, the destination, the life.
I had been right about that first Paris trip, though, I did return to it: one short story, one loosely-based-on section of a novel … this. The novel section also included a riff on Saarland, which I had visited finally, and which, finding it more than lived up to its former football manager’s name, I had fallen in love with. (Even in my fifties I had not stopped having things about places and things.) I had been calling the novel Iterations as I was writing it, but the name changed in the course of revision to Where Are We Now?, not so much a nod to David Bowie as a direct borrowing from his late-career song about age and change and memory – memory of, among other things, the Berlin he was living in at the time of his great late 70s trilogy, Low, Heroes, and The Lodger.
Publication was set for the second week of March. There was to be a small party in my favourite bookshop in Belfast.
And then all of a sudden there wasn’t.
All of a sudden, whichever way you turned, things were shutting up, closing down: bookshops, bars, bakeries, borders … the queues of people trying to get in matched only by the queues trying to get out, to get back. The twenty-seven-country bloc that had collectively determined there could be no “hard border”, on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit, fragmented in the face of Covid-19 and threw up barriers between one another. In Ireland itself members of the Garda Síochána – the South’s police force – stopped cars and questioned drivers crossing from the North.
And all of a sudden I was back in 1979 again, not Paris now, but Dallas, or that amalgam of California studio lots and pan-Texan exteriors that represented Dallas for sixty minutes each week on our television screens. Sue Ellen Ewing is paying a woman to stay away from her husband, JR, handing her half as much money as they had initially agreed. “What do you think I am?” the woman says. “We’ve agreed what you are,” Sue Ellen says, “now we’re just haggling about the price.”
Once you have conceded a principle – the free movement of people, say – all the rest is just negotiation.
That bewilderment I had felt at the time of the Brexit vote spread: how quickly so many of the things that we all cherished most and prided ourselves on became dispensable.
Europe seemed smaller.
Smaller and the countries it comprised scared of everyone who was not them.
It has recovered now, after a fashion: grants and loans have been agreed to aid the collective recovery of all member states.
For a short time, though, a veil was lifted and something much less attractive was revealed.
I can call Jacques Brel up when I care to on YouTube. (I did it again, for four minutes, just there.) Any day now I will turn ten years older than he was when he died, the year before I first went to Paris. So much of the story he wasn’t here to see. So much I will not be around for either, starting sooner than it is comfortable to contemplate.
His was my requiem for the Brexit moment. Now I listen, I think he could be singing to all of us inside the union and out:
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte … pas
30 July 2020