Chunnel Vision: Anthony Burgess and Europe
‘I became a European 21 years ago and was reviled by the Daily Mirror for deserting the old island. I was merely paving the way. The future of Britain concerns me less than the future of Europe, and about this latter I cannot yet make up my mind…’
Anthony Burgess wrote this for the Observer in 1989, reflecting on the decade to come. The article is in fact one of his more successful attempts at prophecy, even while he sensibly remarks that attempting to predict the future is largely futile: Burgess fears that the 1990s will contain environmental disaster, increased hedonism and selfishness, more terrorism and authoritarian police responses to it, and too much fast food. Burgess did not have chance to anticipate the 2000s, or indeed 2016, but it seems clear that he would have had much to say about the European question in advance of the referendum next week.
Burgess was a proud European, in the same way that he was a proud Mancunian, and a proud Catholic: oppositional, anti-establishment, an exiled outsider. His first trip to Europe was a walking holiday in the summer of 1939 with his fiancée Lynne and one of her friends, visiting Bruges, Ghent and Liège as the storm-clouds of the coming war gathered; his second was with the army in 1943, in the Education Corps on Gibraltar. Burgess’s times outside England grew longer: he went to Malaya in 1954 and Borneo in 1957, and after his repatriation in 1959 and his emergence as a professional writer in the 1960s left England for good in 1968. He lived at first peripatetically in a Dormobile, unhappily on Malta, then more happily in Italy, France, Switzerland and Monaco. Later, he would describe himself as ‘a stranger in the country that had begotten me. I knew the language well enough, but I had forfeited the right to a home … I had turned into a foreigner who spoke English astonishingly well.’ (‘After This Our Exile’, 1985).
And it is the problem of language that he returns to in other articles about Europe, in particular ‘England In Europe’ (1985) and ‘Chunnel Vision’ (1986), the latter about the apparently generally undesirable prospect of a rail link between France and England. Both pieces are characteristically trenchant and contrarian, and rely on the kind of rhetoric and generalisation wearyingly familiar to our contemporary debate:
‘How European is England? I, and as Englishman, would reply: hardly at all. The traditional enmity with France continues, and no country can be called European if it does not love France … When English football supporters raid Europe, they leave a trail of corpses and drunken vomit. Europe to the English is despised foreign territory …’ (‘England in Europe’)
This is more or less prophetic again, or at least shows that perhaps not as much has changed as we might like to think since the mid-1980s; but Burgess goes further and finishes his argument with a theory about the impossibility of finding common ground in the absence of proper communication:
‘We shall only see a united Europe when the whole continent subscribes to a common faith that is not consumerism and is willing to speak a common language. The English know this as well as any. They continue to play the game of being Europeans while buying Japanese electronics and American television serials. But they know that it is no more than a game. Like all games, it will cease with the blowing of a whistle. Then the unruly crowds will erupt on to the pitch and start killing each other. For the history of Europe is the history of Europeans killing other Europeans.’ (‘England In Europe’)
This is a bleak and depressing view. Burgess’s Europe is atomised and a place of conflict, and he does not see unity as being possible through political or democratic structures: rather, only the impossible dream of sharing culture and language can bring a whole continent together. Burgess of course did more than most in trying to achieve this, finding a readership in most European countries, writing in and speaking at least three European languages, and becoming a respected public intellectual in both France and England. But at the same time it is likely that Burgess would have disapproved entirely of any kind of cultural or linguistic hegemony, as his many remarks about the undesirability of ‘England becoming a feeble-lighted moon of America’ (One Hand Clapping, 1961) and, in general terms, as the variety and expansiveness of his work as a whole demonstrates.
We can only speculate as to whether Burgess would have voted In or Out in the UK EU referendum. As one who had lived through the war and seen first-hand the effects of Europeans killing other Europeans he may have elected to stay in. As one who instinctively distrusted the machinery of state and who felt outside any particularly European identity he may have chosen to get out. As a resident of Monaco he would not have been able to participate at all of course. We can be sure that he would have felt moved to comment on this looming question.