Archive for category Brexit

Danube Diary

I wouldn’t have expected, even a few months ago, to have been sailing up the Danube on a luxury floating hotel.  But my 90 year old father, who is partially sighted and deaf, needed a companion for his chosen cruise holiday, and, well, someone had to step up to the plate.  Someone had to take one for the team.  And it was fabulous.

The chances that I’ll ever be able to do it again are remote but if I could, I would, and if you can, do.  (Riviera Travel, highly recommended (no, I’m not on commission…) – everything fantastically well organised, and the boat fantastically well appointed).  

We arrived in Budapest on Day 1, too late to do any more than enjoy looking at the city lights as we had dinner.  And then the real magic thing about a river cruise – you nod off to sleep and when you wake up you open the curtains to somewhere new. 

Ezstergom, once the capital of Hungary, and now known for its basilica, the top of which apparently is and must by law remain the highest point in the country.  Then onwards, and from Hungary to Slovakia, and its capital city, Bratislava. 

That November afternoon as we sailed on up river it was unseasonably warm, and we sat out on the sun deck.  The river was so quiet, all we could hear was the low hum of the boat’s engines, and the splash of the cormorants’ wings as they skimmed the water.  I can’t remember when I last felt such peace.  

On the cabin TV there was a channel which just showed the view from the camera on the front of the boat, all day and night.  I took to leaving it on as I fell asleep, loving the tranquillity.  (It was also reassuring when we were going through some huge locks, and things got a bit bumpy). 

The first view of Bratislava from our mooring point was less than prepossessing, but the old city is beautiful.  And part of the fascination of these cities that once lay behind the Iron Curtain is the juxtaposition of utilitarian concrete blocks from the Communist era with the rich baroque heritage.  Many of the plaques in Bratislava commemorate the Second World War rather differently to those in Western Europe, mainly recording the heroism of the Red Army that liberated them from the Nazis.  But others record the corrective to that simplistic version of history, as with this memorial to Anton Petrak:

For a history buff with a particular obsession with WWII and the postwar period, this stuff is obviously richly fascinating. And our local guide added to the story, with his parents’ memories of the Prague Spring, and of how after the fall of Communism the country split (‘without so much as a referendum’, our guide said, in one of many ironic Brexit references during the trip). 

I’ll go back to Bratislava, if I can, and explore properly.  

Onwards.  En route, on the sun deck again, we glimpse a castle on the shoreline, Devin castle.

We slip quietly into Austria.  Next stop Durnstein.  We’ve lost the sun now, it’s a bit misty in the morning, which means the photos don’t do justice to the cruel crags above the village, and the ruined castle. (According to legend, Richard II of England was imprisoned there, and his loyal minstrel Blondel found him by singing outside the fortresses of Europe until he heard Richard joining in.  Well, I did say it was a legend).  

Durnstein is gorgeous, beautiful old – really, really old – buildings, and a fabulously ornate church.  Back to the boat for lunch and on to Melk Abbey.

No photos allowed inside, but a really fascinating tour of a very imaginatively organised museum within this still functioning Benedictine abbey.  

Next day we are moored at Linz.  We’ve been forewarned that we’re going to be double parked, so we don’t fling open our curtains in the morning inadequately clad, only to see the passengers on another boat staring back. Another misty morning. 

Some of our group go for a tour of Linz, but we board a coach and head off to Salzburg, which is just as fascinating and picturesque as I would have imagined. 

It’s also my first sight of Stolpersteine, literally stumbling stones, plaques set into the cobbles of the city, commemorating those of its citizens who were  murdered by the Nazis, usually adjacent to the houses where they lived.  There are over 70,000 of these across Europe, and whilst some cities have rejected this particular way of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, the project has prompted them to find alternatives, ways of giving back to those people the names and the homes and the stories that the Nazis took from them, along with their lives. 

These two Stolpersteine commemorate Catholic priests who were murdered by the Nazis.  Father Gottfried Neunhauserer died at Schloss Hartheim, used by the Nazis for their T4 euthanasia programme, and the place where thousands of prisoners from Dachau, Ravensbruck and Mauthausen were taken to be gassed.  He’d been a patient in Salzburg-Lehen mental hospital from 1920, and was taken to Hartheim in 1941 where he was murdered.

Brother Jakob Furtsch was murdered in Ravensbruck in 1943. He’d been expelled from his abbey in 1942, and went back to his home town, Neuensee, where he was arrested as a dissident and deported to Dachau, then to Ravensbruck. 

We also saw plaques for Rudolf Erich Muller, a Catholic convert arrested as a Jew in November 1938, deported to Vienna and then to Theresienstadt where he was murdered,  and Karl Rinnerthaler, a school janitor, who died in 1948 due to the injuries he’d received in various prisons, after his arrest in 1942 as a member of the illegal Austrian Revolutionary Socialist resistance group. 

So through chance, in just a small area of the city,  we encountered these stories which convey so much about the Nazi horror.  A victim of Aktion T4, a worker who took part in resistance activities, a Jew and a Catholic dissident.  

We’d sailed straight past Vienna on our way to Linz, so now we head back there. 

Obviously, there is no possibility of doing justice to Vienna in the time we have, though our guide is (as they all have been) well informed and does a brilliant job of showing us as much as we can in the time.  I will have to come back some time.  

That evening we have a classical string quartet performing on the boat.  Yes, they do play the Blue Danube waltz (I guess it was a contractual obligation) but also some Mozart and Haydn.  I quite fancied a bit of Schoenberg but there you go… More seriously, it was lovely, and well pitched for the audience.  (My father has fond memories of a previous Danube cruise where there were such concerts on board most days, as well as musical outings in several of the cities they visited, including one in Vienna with the orchestra all in full 18th-century costume. ) 

We’re on the last leg now.  Onwards to Budapest.  But the low water levels which have been causing problems for river traffic means that we aren’t going to get there in time for a proper visit, so instead we dock again at Esztergom and get a coach to Budapest, whilst our boat carries on (less heavy laden!) without us, to meet us again for our last night on board after we’ve toured Budapest. 

Despite this, the daylight is already fading once we have the chance to walk around the city.  We look around Heroes’ Square, and then on to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic/neo-Romanesque terrace which provides a wonderful vista of the old city, as the lights come on. Then we’re back to the boat for a gala dinner, and a performance of Hungarian folk music and dance to mark our final evening.  

We didn’t get to see the Shoes on the bank of the Danube due to the rescheduling of that final day.  Our Hungarian tour manager couldn’t speak of this, of its history and meaning, and of the fact that people still leave flowers there,  without choking up.  I will record it even though I didn’t see it for myself. 

Film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created this memorial on the east bank of the Danube.  Many Hungarian Jews were murdered even before the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944.  But in those last months of the war, as the Red Army surrounded Budapest, the murder of those who remained was regarded as an urgent priority, hampered by the fact that they could no longer deport to the death camps. So, with the help of the fascist Arrow Cross militia, 3,500 people, including 800 Jews, were taken to the banks of the river, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot, so that they fell into the river. 

This trip has been full of such contrasts.  The picturesque alongside the reminders of genocide.  The Communist concrete blocks alongside the baroque.  If I get the chance to come back to these cities, it’s these contrasts that I will want to explore. I want to find the Stolpersteine in all of these cities, as I sought out the plaques on the walls of Paris that tell of resistance and persecution. In these cities that embody our notions of culture, of beauty, of civilisation, people were rounded up, herded into ghettos, deported to camps and murdered because they were Jews, or Roma, or gay, or communist, or because they opposed the murderous ideology that would destroy people because of who they were.  That history is ever more vital, as so many European nations seem to be drawn to nationalism and xenophobia once again. 

It was poignant to be in Europe on the centenary of the Armistice, and to recall that the young men in those three nations who would be commemorated would have all fought against ‘us’.  I thought of this again watching Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall, which portrayed the 1914 Christmas truce through the voices of German, French and Scottish soldiers. 

And I thought, with sadness and anger of how our union with all of those European nations is portrayed as something that oppresses and exploits us, rather than something from which we gain immeasurably, economically and culturally and in so many other ways.  And I so wanted to dissociate myself from my government (and opposition) and from so many of my compatriots as our tour managers and guides made reference to Brexit, ironically, regretfully, in bafflement and in hurt.  

So if I can I will go back, to Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, and wander around in the way I enjoy, looking for the places where history bubbles up into the present. 

I’d also love to go back on the river though, to recapture that sense of peace.  

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To Hell in a Handcart

Seems to be where we’re heading.  I do try, really I do, to retain some optimism, some faith and some hope.  I think I’m just weary now, of hoping that some coherent opposition will emerge, hoping for evidence of a truly significant shift in public opinion (here and in the US), hoping that the bad guys won’t win this time.  

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up – I’m at a low ebb for personal reasons, and that’s sapped my capacity to muster up some positive thoughts.  

(The other thing, of course, that militates against my traditional end-of-year musings on the state of the world, is that by the time I have drafted anything events will have moved on, for better or (more likely) for worse, and I’ll have been left behind by them.)

To paraphrase Brando in The Wild One: “What are you despairing about?”  “What you got?”

Brexit (obvs) – is it even going to happen? I desperately want it not to happen but so much damage and division has already been created that it isn’t a straightforwardly comforting thought that there might yet be a way that we can Remain.   

If it does happen, there will be, I believe, a very great deal more long term damage, and much more profound division.  It’s not the consequences for me personally that concern me, it’s about the consequences for all of us.  But most particularly for European citizens in the UK, for anyone ‘foreign’ in the UK, for my kids’ generation whose opportunities will be so curtailed, for the poorest who will be hardest hit by recession and tightened austerity, for the sick who will suffer as the NHS runs out of resources.  

I am fearful, and I’m sad.  I recently travelled up the Danube on a cruise ship – our hotel manager and tour managers were from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary respectively, our tour guides were from Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava.  All of them mentioned Brexit, and the tone was one of bafflement, of regret, of hurt (‘You don’t want us any more’).  

I’m also angry because this whole mess could have been so easily avoided.  If the referendum had been clearly and publicly stated to be advisory (as it legally was), if under-18s had been enfranchised (as in the Scottish independence referendum), if EU citizens resident in this country and UK citizens long-term resident in Europe had been able to vote, then the outcome might well have been what the majority of MPs and Cabinet members hoped it would be.  If, when the result was known, the powers that were had said, ‘OK, we weren’t expecting this and we haven’t exactly planned for it, but now we know that is the view, we will put together a cross-party team of the very best minds we have (yes, ‘experts’), and work out how we can do this without damaging the country.  If we conclude there is no way, we will revisit the outcome, having made our findings known to Parliament and to the nation’…  But that would have taken courage and integrity, qualities in woefully short supply.

Instead, those tasked with negotiating our exit have demonstrated no understanding of the issues, no aptitude for negotiation.  They’ve faffed and fannied about for two and a half years.  They’ve been smug and arrogant and dishonest.  The only consistent thing has been the way in which everyone is to blame other than them, the EU, the ‘unapologetic Remoaners’, the business community, everyone. And at this late stage, our hapless and hopeless PM is reduced to desperate pleading with EU leaders, and – because she really can’t help herself – pronouncing even in those last ditch meetings, as if it means anything at all, that ‘Brexit is Brexit’.  

That’s just us.  But wherever we look we see the same, or worse, sometimes much, much worse.  Where do we look for comfort and hope?  

As always in dark times there are people striving to bring light.  As always when the haters are out in force there are people speaking truth and love.  As always when there’s mess there are people who will move heaven and earth to clean it up.  The light-bringers, the truth-sayers, the open-hearted, the problem solvers may not hold power but we have to hope they have influence, that their voices will be heard, in all the parts of the world where they’re most needed.  

It’s been a while since I posted anything here at all, and I’d really rather that I could have broken the silence with something stronger, something more uplifting and positive.  But that’s all I’ve got, folks, right now.  


“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

― E.B. White

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Remainers Assemble

Funny how swiftly a mood can change.  I wrote a fairly despairing piece about Brexit, just over a month ago.  It was a bit of a rant, an expression of my deep frustration at not seeing a way forward, a way out of the mess.

And suddenly, just in the last few weeks, the thing that I didn’t dare hope for, that I want so badly, is being talked about openly.

Stopping Brexit.

It’s not straightforward, obviously.  The loss of face for May & co. will ensure that they set their faces against it.  And, sadly, Corbyn seems unlikely to come out as a Remainer and lead the charge against the government.  I also know that if it is stopped, damage will already have been done, and recovery will take a long time.

But the tide does seem to be turning.  Surprising numbers of people who want Brexit to happen, as well as people who want to ensure it doesn’t, are now saying ‘if’ rather than ‘when’.

Those of us who voted Remain have been told, over and over again, to shut up and accept it.  To get over it.  We’ve been called whingers, ‘snowflakes’, ‘Remoaners’.  We’ve been accused of being traitors and saboteurs, of betraying the Will of the People.  Some of us had death threats.

Funny kind of snowflake, that withstands the vitriol, the hate, the threats and keeps on keeping on.  Because we had to call out the lies that tricked people into voting for Brexit, and the incompetence and ignorance that characterised the government’s attempts to negotiate with the EU.

We didn’t do that out of pique.  We’ve kept on about it because we believe that Brexit is an act of national self-harm, and that whilst we will all pay dearly for it, those who will suffer its consequences most acutely are the most vulnerable in our society (the poor, those most in need of the NHS), and the young.  We’ve kept on because we care about and love this country.

Whilst I do get tetchy about the assumption that it’s my age group that landed us in this mess, statistically there is some evidence for Brexit appealing particularly to a generation that can remember the old (blue?  black?  who knows/cares) passport, pre-decimal currency, imperial measurements, and all that nonsense.  The people who got terribly agitated because Big Ben’s bongs might briefly be silenced.   The people who want to return us to some fantasy version of the 1950s – post-rationing, pre-counter-culture.

passports

But, to put it somewhat brutally, many of those who look back with such fondness to the past won’t be around by the time Brexit really kicks in.  Whereas the generations that will have their freedoms curtailed by this ‘taking back of control’ will be losing so much and gaining what, exactly?  A different coloured passport.  Perhaps a crown crest on their pint glass.

I want freedom of movement, for myself and for my children and their children.

I want the economic benefits of EU membership, for myself and for my children and their children.

I want our nation to continue to be diverse, to embrace people from Europe (and beyond Europe) who can contribute to our economy, our culture, our health service, our education – and those who need asylum.  I want those Europeans who have made their homes here to feel secure, to feel that they are indeed at home, and welcome.

I want to be part of Europe, part of that group of nations forged after horrific conflict, based upon shared values, facing shared challenges.  The greatest challenges we face are global – terrorism, climate change, the flow of refugees from war zones and famine.  Our best hope of dealing with them is to work closely with our neighbours, not to shut them out.

I am convinced that there are many people who voted Leave – for a wide variety of reasons – who now regret that choice.  Many must have been horrified by the open racism that followed so swiftly on the vote, the abuse offered to anyone who appeared to be ‘foreign’, the glee with which they were told they didn’t belong here any more.  Others have been dismayed by the disparity between what they were promised and what the government now says about what might be delivered, and the obvious disarray of those who are responsible for negotiating on our behalf.  I am also convinced that there are many who didn’t vote, maybe because – like so many of us who voted Remain – they assumed Remain would win.  If those who voted Leave and now regret it, and those who stayed at home on polling day and wish they hadn’t, were to join forces with those who voted Remain and still believe it was the right choice…

So, strengthened by the solidarity of on-line communities that are pressing for an exit from Brexit, I will not only not shut up but will go on, and on, and on, relentlessly, until we find a way of stopping this madness.

And my vote – at local and national level – will go only to those who are pledged to the same cause.

 

A Manifesto for Europe

The EU was built on the words of Winston Churchill. It was founded on the same values that we recognise as British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect.

The European Union has enabled neighbouring nations to overcome historic differences, create new alliances and build bridges where previously there were walls.

For the past 70 years, the United Kingdom has enjoyed peace, prosperity and enhanced standing in the world as a result of its role at the heart of the European Union.

We believe:

  • In democracy and the rule of law.
  • In the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.
  • That the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union amplifies the rights, freedoms and interests of the British people.
  • That UK and EU law underpin our economic, social and political rights.
  • That the UK can only be truly global and outward facing as a fully committed member of the European Union.
  • That the life prospects of young people and future generations of British citizens are augmented by continued UK membership of the EU.
  • That the four nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are stronger when united as a sovereign country, and as a member of the European Union.
  • That continued UK membership of the EU is necessary to ensure the UK is relevant and effective in tackling global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples, and global economic adversity.

We reject:

  • All forms of hate, racism and xenophobia that have been exacerbated by the referendum campaign and ballot.
  • Nationalist protectionism, imperialism and isolationism.
  • Treating EU nationals, EU member states and the EU itself as our enemies rather than our friends

A strong, free and united European Union, with Britain at its heart, is capable of facing up to the challenges of today and tomorrow, and of playing a leading role in championing international peace and prosperity.

 

 

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So, where’s the plan?

The government doesn’t know the economic impact of leaving the EU, and doesn’t want to know. Some of the leading Brexiteers do not even seem to care. That might prove the most damning assessment of all.

(Jonathan Lis, deputy director of think tank British Influence, which researches the impacts of Brexit)

No one who reads this, or knows me at all, will be unaware that I’m a Remainer.  I voted for Britain to stay in the EU and nothing that has happened since has made me regret that at all.

I found it extraordinary and shameful that before the vote blatant lies were being presented as truths, that the electorate were being sold the highly improbable story that we could leave the EU, contribute nothing more to it, and have any of the benefits of membership that we happened to fancy.

I found it extraordinary and shameful that no one in Government appeared to have thought through what would happen if the vote went to Leave.

I find it shocking and alarming that those of us who voted to Remain are told daily that we ought to shut up because the Will of the People is that we leave the EU, and anyone with a dissenting view is a saboteur or a traitor.

I find it shocking and alarming that we have seen such an increase in racist harassment and assaults on our streets as ignorant xenophobes believe that they have been vindicated.

And I find it, frankly, embarrassing to witness the disarray, incompetence and lack of transparency in our negotiating ‘team’ and the obvious bafflement and disdain of competent politicians in the EU who are wondering how on earth the UK got itself into this mess.

Captain-Picard-Facepalm

So what happens now?

The truth is, I haven’t a clue.  I have no faith in those at present heading up the Brexit process, not enough faith in the rebels within the government or (sadly) the Opposition to take a stand and refuse to allow them to lead us off the cliff edge.  It seems to me that there are no truly good outcomes now, only marginally less awful ones.

I’m channelling W1A’s Tracy Pritchard these days…

I’m not being negative or anything, but this is only gonna get worse.

Can I just say, not being funny or anything, but I’ve got a feeling in my bottom about this and not in a nice way.

I’m pursuing two strategies to cope. Firstly, the sensible strategy. I’m reading the updated version of Ian Dunt’s splendid analysis of the situation:

Dunt new edition

Your man Dunt knows his stuff, expresses it clearly and without bullshit, and if anyone can help me to understand trade agreements and the like, it’s him.  None of this cheers me up.  But on the whole I prefer to understand the shitstorm we’re heading into.  The better we understand it now, the more chance that at some unspecified point in the future we can start to undo the damage.

On the other hand, there are times when kittens and otters are the only way to go.

 

 

You’re welcome.

 

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Triggering Article 50: a historic moment of delusional madness and national self-harm

I am bereft of words on the day our ‘divorce’ from the EU is triggered. Thankfully Gerry has found some powerful and effective words for me.

That's How The Light Gets In

‘This is a historic moment from which there will be no turning back,’ crowed Theresa May in her completely mad speech to the Commons this lunchtime. Yet in her speech and in the Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk, she reminded us of the value of what we are losing. ‘Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the cold war’, she intoned; yet the whole point of European integration has been to help maintain the peace in postwar Europe.

And after informing Tusk and the assembled MPs that the UK would not seek to remain in the world’s largest single market, she went on: ‘At a time when the growth of global trade is slowing, and there are signs that protectionist instincts are on the rise in many parts of the world, Europe has a responsibility to stand up for free trade in…

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