Brexit And The Birch Tree



Spring is delivered. The birch, like running cracks against polluted skies, has burst into quivering silk, its leaves busy with allusions to promise fulfilled. In silence it stole its march, though you swore that this year the first timid dusting of green would not yield its explosion without your abetting eye.

So there it is. So there. Above frothing white lilacs and candied knots of apple blossom, the tree smiles. Green and pink and white, all flourishing in harmony. A gift. Imagined, hoped for, but somehow not anticipated.

Brexit is not delivered. The word that has been on Britain's lips for three years offers no prospect. Neither, frankly, does continued membership of the EU. In an age of 'sovereign' democracy and a myriad agendas vying for our allegiance, politics has no answers, nor any grasp of compromise. The 2016 Referendum, though it has been a peg on which to hang a variety of grievances, is symptomatic of a raw disquiet so entrenched that it has rocked and wrecked people's lives. A feral code has taken over.

When the French Revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre, stated: The secret of liberty is to enlighten men, as that of tyranny is to keep them in ignorance, he did not have to reckon, wholesale, with fake news, a legion of disguised tyrannies and the hellish cacophony of modern media which makes every opinionator his own god.

On the face of it, the Referendum result was suicidal. Was any British party fit to navigate such an epic reversal? Few politicians have experience of, or likely memory of, government outside the EU umbrella. But I do recall more congenial times before the EU was hustled in on the back of the European Economic Community. During its two year span, the EEC did bring a radical improvement to our standard of living, albeit there were milk lakes and cereal mountains which we trusted were merely teething problems. What followed, for all its aims of equality and forging a future in the spirit of togetherness, left us encumbered with legislation applying from the North Pole to the Mediterranean, while failing to break the stranglehold of banks, petrochem and insurance companies.

On Margaret Thatcher's watch, the Gordon Gecko Greed is good philosophy let loose all the demons of materialism, facilitated by our membership of the EU, and forced upon us a dependency in all aspects of living, down to the next cappuccino.

The poor are as scandalously poor as ever. The rich, still richer. Healthcare, education and community support, the cornerstones of our national life, are buckling at the seams. Organisations, institutions and groups are clamouring for funds, while the voluntary sector struggles to do what it can to hold things together. The monumental effort of it all is killing the most vulnerable. The EU may have aided the regeneration of some of our cities and landscapes, but whole communities and manufacturing industries have disappeared from these shores, real jobs and authentic ways of being that conferred identity and self-respect. The North has been particularly badly hit.

It's true that advances in technology have been partly responsible for changes in job and career horizons, and that the same technology has also the potential to liberate us from drudgery and to assist in our wellbeing. But what when it is misapplied? What when it becomes a tool for manipulation and destruction by the powerful? What when it fails altogether?

Younger Britons have assumed that 'opportunity' was born with the EU. Who could blame them? Though there have been advantages for some, it has been at the expense of education in the practical skills essential for manufacturing, innovation and export, for living economically in the root meaning of the word, even for sheer survival, and has given rise to generations of hopeless jobseekers. The benefits of the EU have come with aspirations to designer lifestyles that can only be serviced by incalculable debt. The dream has taken us further and further away from our roots as human beings and any consideration for our patch of the planet and those around us.

I feel privileged to have been born in a former era when goodwill prevailed and a sense that 'we're all in this together' was genuine. But those former times aren't enshrined in a rose-tinted mist. The winters were cold and ice-ferns formed on the windows at night. Sometimes we sat in school wearing coats, trying to write neatly with gloves on. Sanitation was not all that it might have been. Electricity was by no means a given in our homes. We cooked on open fires, gas stoves, used hay boxes and pressure cookers to save money and conserve energy. Paraffin lamps and candles were still in use. There is nothing like huddling around a coal fire to foster family cohesion when central heating is lacking! We travelled on public transport. We faced virulent epidemics, scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles. There were no antibiotics. The NHS was hardly launched. Yet, in the throes of a midnight delirium, your doctor would arrive at the bedside to administer a fever-cooling injection that could save your life.

After WW2, British children grew up peacefully alongside Poles, Italians, Germans, Americans, Africans, Indians, Norwegians, Hungarians. Worldwide bonds had been formed during the years of conflict. Many were pitched from their native countries, never to return. So we were not insular. Rueful opinions, if we had them, were kept to ourselves. We were ashamed at any lack of hospitality or reluctance to admit that some foreigners came with citizens' rights. There, but for the Grace of God, went we. The Windrush immigrants were sadly disillusioned to find such poverty in this land. Living conditions did not conform to the glamorous vision of a sovereign state.

Despite it all, thoughts of privation did not enter our heads. There were real chances to improve our lot for free in further education and the workplace if we chose. We did not lust after fame, nor live life through our idols. We merely wanted to bring a bit of sparkle and stardust to our own.

There was no shortage of cultural exchange in education or in the arts and sport. We didn't travel as widely, or as regularly, as we do now, but we appreciated and respected the native soil, tended by our ancestors, that had quartered and fed us through two world wars. We were conscious that we owed more than we were owed. We had morale. The dynamics of daily life and co-existence were, for ordinary folk, well in place. The Golden Rule was uniformly acknowledged. We understood what was demanded of us in any capacity in which we served. Live and let live was a maxim written in our DNA. Personal boundaries were sacrosanct and not threatened at every turn and whim by the violence of those who thought differently, nor engrossed by others who strove to make your life their own.

In the game of life there were winners and losers and those estates were not necessarily fixed for ever. Unlike now, when standards have soared, but social mobility has plummeted. At what point does bettering oneself and striving for prosperity become an obsession that consumes who we are, denies others their share, and rapes the earth? Not so many decades ago - looking back, I'm appalled at how abrupt the tipping point - we were aware, if only instinctively, that this life is not all and that it was ours to make good to the best of our ability.

Mr Churchill's vision for a Europe, so united in commerce and ethos that war would be unthinkable, was wonderfully conceived, but has proved strenuous to maintain. Meanwhile, the call to arms goes on in other arenas. What is sad is that it takes a common enemy to unite a nation in goodwill and purpose.

According to Robespierre, Democracy is a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are its own work, does for itself all that it can do properly, and through delegates all that it cannot do for itself.

By this token, as earnest of faith in its beliefs, it falls to the populace to set a example to their elected leaders, topsy-turvy though that may sound.

I believe in the British people and that the core strengths and values of this nation have not yet been destroyed. Beneath all the noise and chaos, I sense a gathering undertow of relief that we are being recalled to the best in our heritage, for the deeps of the psyche are what rule head and heart. Change has already taken place. Since June, 2016, like the birch tree, we have moved on. Reality overtakes the will, even while the mind protests. Before we know it, we have moved into another space and another perspective.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, how we face the challenges in our personal path will determine our future and that of the collective. When altruism and public-spiritedness are unfeigned and we defy the resistance we meet, something miraculous happens that defies logic. The effects begin to multiply as they did with the Lord's loaves and fishes.

We will always be part and parcel of Europe. It's a matter of geography and history. The humanities.





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Losing The Peace


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A reflection on challenged borders, ancestral memory and formative experience in the wake of Brexit

In 1960, I was lucky enough to be taken by a friend's family to Bavaria. It was my first trip abroad and an exciting adventure at a time when few people on this island were able to travel to other countries. Britain was slowly rising to its feet after the body blow of two world wars. The first stretch of the MI had been opened between Crick and Watford. That, in itself, was an awe-inspiring development.

I will never forget a chill night spent crossing the Channel from Dover to Ostend on a heaving tide under ragged clouds and stars. Or the revelation of sunrise over Flanders which was haunting in way I still can't articulate. History rose from the grave peopled with ghosts. The mingled bloodshed of nations in the foreign fields of that long-embattled buffer zone of the Low Countries stirred elusive fragments of memory from a life that had never been mine. The eras of Hitler, Kaiser Wilhem II, Napoleon Bonaparte, and even further back, are scored deep in their psyche.

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Nor will I ever forget my first impression of the enchanted cities of Bruges and Ghent, their Flemish step-gables wreathed in a folkloric air. The new Brussels Atomium, gleaming silver, with its connected spheres, was a startling structure to someone who had never heard of it. And the glittering heights of Luxembourg where my first night was spent off native soil I clearly recall. Next day, a brief glimpse of Saarbrücken, renowned for coal, steel and glass, then only recently having been restored to Germany, the butt, like others in that region, of disputed borders and national identity through the centuries. (Strict border controls were in force in those days which sometimes involved a lengthy wait and, if you were unlucky, the vehicle you were travelling in might be taken apart and searched for contraband.) At Stuttgart, I braved the lift to the top of the new wonder that was the 500ft television tower and took black-and-white photos, woefully lacking in perspective, of the Swabian Alps.

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From there, we journeyed down to the otherworldly beauty of the Black Forest at the German end of Lake Constance. The lake has the peculiar distinction of being the only area in Europe where no borders exist since Germany, Austria and Switzerland can lay claim to stretches of its shores. Rules regarding fishing and the movement of goods appear to be honoured with reasonable amity.

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What can I tell you of Bavaria? This was the realm of that turretted castle on the calendar sent by a penfriend, of antelope carvings and cuckoo clocks, of those fairy tale white-spotted red toadstools I'd always assumed were make believe.This was the neighbourhood of the Swiss chocolatiers, Suchard and Lindt, who put English versions in the shade! It was the province of pumpernickel, sauerkraut, weisswurst and wienerschnitzel, of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, and an eye-popping array of layered torte with cream and chocolate and fresh fruit trapped in aspic, along with equally delectable apfelstrudel. Bavarian coffee and kuchen soon became a mid-morning ritual after a brisk walk.

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The towns were so quaint and characterful, evoking atmospheres of their multi-faceted history, with their cobbles and gables and half-timbering and green bottle-glazed windows, the exuberant diversity in their styles of architecture testifying to the salutary influences of other cultures. Aromas of garlic and spice, tarry coffee and baking rye bread, were all new and enthralling to an Englisch mädchen. Everywhere we went, the German people were warm and welcoming, determined to mend fences and forgive and forget. It was easy to soak up the nouns and phrases of daily currency.

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Heidelberg Old Bridge - Konrad Linck (more atmosphere than cropped photos)

The journey home took in some of the towns the cities of the Rhine, the spa resort of Baden-Baden with its springs and wells, its pleasure gardens and casino, haunt of the rich and famous. We visited Heidelberg Old Town whose venerable university was founded during the Holy Roman Empire, then on to Mainz, Coblenz and Bonn, spending our last night at Aachen (formerly Aix-la-Chapelle) before heading for Liège and the Belgian coast. At Bonn we saw the birthplace of the maestro, Beethoven, whose 9th Symphony gave rise to the European anthem based on Schiller's Ode to Joy.

Impressions of alll the cities and regions of the holiday have enriched my life. I commemorated about forty of them by sewing their woven crests on my duffel sports bag.

I can't say that the iconic cliffs of Dover were altogether an anti-climax, but rolling through the pastoral landscape of home was like coming out of a dream.

In those early decades after the wars, we were made very aware of our blessings - and they were real enough! - but seeing what had been achieved on the Continent, the general tenor and relish of day to day life there, gave the lie to some of our homespun propaganda. The driving spirit that had kept up Britain's morale through conflict had still to be invoked through the Peace if our renewal was to keep pace with other countries. It seemed the halt in progress, the loss of manpower and the cost of two world wars had hit this country particularly hard.

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The later Fifties and the Sixties saw the rise of the nuclear family and a dynamic change in our mode of thinking. In a strange way, we were untethering ourselves from the past. Customs and attitudes we had taken for granted began to dissolve and people to forsake that focus of community for all of life's ups and downs and rites of passage, the church. Our sense of pilgrimage and instinctive dependency on God was lost. The days of pulling together for the common good, of kindness, courtesy and neighbourliness, were ebbing away.

1968 saw a recall to old values in a panic attempt to boost the economy and sink the national debt with its 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign. The Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, in his poem Now and Then, wrote this:

To work then, islanders, as men and women
Members one of another, looking beyond
Mean rules and rivalries towards the dream you could
Make real, of glory, common wealth, and home.

The whole thing proved a fiasco, a turbulent comedy of errors, misapprehensions and vying factions.

Ring any bells?

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Early in the next decade, when we persuaded Europe we had prospects, we were rescued by the European Economic Community and the strikes and demonstrations eventually died down. Whether ultimately for our good or not, it rapidly changed the face of Britain for the better, bringing our standard of living up to the mark in countless ways and opening up opportunities which, as more and more countries joined and the EU was formed, gathered momentum and sent our demands and expectations sky-rocketing.

Do we have what it takes, I wonder, in the present circumstances, to strive for the Laureate's vision?

As for me, I'm eternally grateful to those generous folk, now passed on, who took me under the wing and enabled that first excursion to the Continent. It triggered new perspectives that were to change my future.

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 Footnote: This is where we stayed in the Black the main building. I don't remember the extension. It was the outpost of a convent and run by nuns who assist the staff of the present hotel. Its interior, if updated a little, looks very much as it did then. The local fare was wholesome and varied. It was here I had my first encounter with health-giving peppermint tea!

This is the first of two posts.

UPDATE: July 11, 2016  There have now been enough lamentations over Brexit. I feel that it is time to pull together and look to the future, so have decided to forego a second post on this theme.



© Rosy Cole 2016

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Latest Comments

Rosy Cole Florence
17 June 2020
Thank you for your delightful comment. It is good to reflect on a way of life that has been lost.
Stephen Evans Florence
16 June 2020
Enjoyed this so much. Charming, evocative, and lyrical.
Monika Schott PhD Farm Reflections: Lands faraway
15 June 2020
Thanks Rosy. The story had to be told and I've been the fortunate person to be able to tell it. The ...
Stephen Evans Milton: A Limerick
15 June 2020
Helpful context
Rosy Cole Farm Reflections: Lands faraway
15 June 2020
Monika has taken us on a wonderfully illuminating journey, full of interest and humanity. We are so ...