We are living through a freeze-frame here, as Thursday 23rd June creeps towards us. Some of us remember being asked, way back in 1975, whether we wanted to be part of Europe. Yes, we said – especially we the young, voting for the first time in our lives. We are the post-war generation: blessed with the astonishing gift our parents and grandparents gave us of being the first Britons in history to feel confident that we would not be at war with our fellow Europeans in our lifetimes. We have children born as European citizens, part of a forward-looking, joyfully international community that looks back at a world shaped by mediaeval boundaries as a primitive past that we have matured out of. Fragile, endangered and vulnerable though it is, we are the generations that are comfortable with our multiple identities. We belong; to our families, our friendship groups, our communities, and also to the long histories written into our DNA that we choose to respond to – as Scots who have never been north of Watford, fifth-generation Latvians, descendants of Africans, Norsemen: we all know who we think we are. And we have the right to feel part of the European family, too, not waifs pressing our noses to the glass from our off-shore island. We can drop by, move in, invite others to pull up a chair: Europe is our home and we live here.
So you will appreciate that I was already living under a cloud of apprehension as this hateful, ridiculous referendum slouches ever nearer, and the rhetoric and the propaganda became ever more unhinged. I think this must be a little like living through the summer of 1939, and it is horrible. And then Jo Cox was murdered.
At times like this, when the world seems to teeter on its axis and faith in the essential wisdom and goodness of humans feels quite hard to hold onto, I need books to give me backbone and to give me solace. This might be a very good moment to curl up into a little ball with The Wind in the Willows (the NorthernReader Ultimate Comfort Book) and stay there until it has all blown over. Not long enough? How about all twelve Arthur Ransome novels? Or Winnie The Pooh with its extremely pertinent reminder that ‘everyone’s alright really’ (unfortunately I am not nearly as nice a person as Pooh and, even as I try reciting his helpful observation, my Inner Unpleasant Person – never very far beneath the skin – is thinking about one or two of the least savoury of the present campaigns and muttering ‘well not him, obviously’).
Perhaps I need the long view. Norman Davies’ Europe: a History has much to commend it. No-one could accuse Professor Davies of short-changing the reader – one thousand pages taking us from the Ice Age to the end of the twentieth century – a breadth that might encourage a sense of ‘this too will pass’. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses both have their multi-volumed Histories, of course, and offer plenty of opportunity to specialise as well, with histories of Early Modern, Enlightenment and Modern Europe jostling for consideration. But there is more to life than non-fiction, and there is useful perspective to be gained by a re-read of Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead, or Seamus Heaney’s marvellous Beowulf , both salutary reminders that we come from a long line of marauding chaps who like fighting. We tend to buy into the whole hero thing a teensy bit uncritically, it seems to me. How much nicer the world might be if we lost no opportunity, when reading these tales out loud, to point out that heroes (and the gods of hero cultures) are a bunch of intellectually-challenged thugs who have neither the brains nor the courage to give debate, compromise and consensus a whirl. Mothers, tell your children.
So much of European history has been a sorry narrative of fighting to the death over little indistinguishable bits of muddy ground. The role of the Captain in Hamlet is barely a dozen short lines, and no actor yet besieged his agent to get him the part, but in his brief moment on the stage he captures all the hopeless futility of war between neighbours:
Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds
Hamlet was written four hundred years ago. Shakespeare’s audience recognised the tragic idiocy of war as age-old then, and we still respond to the play today because we still live in that same world, in thrall to mediaeval notions of boundaries.
Once the Referendum votes have been cast and counted, one way or the other, the Pause button will be double-clicked. Whatever the result, we must not let hatred and fear have any resting place. We will play on.