When a certain woman by the name of Diana died in 1998, and vast crowds queued up for hours to write GOODBYE in a specially laid-on, multi-volume book of condolence, and The Express screamed at the queen to SHOW US YOU CARE, my mother said to me with a disapproving shake of the head: “This country has finally gone mad.” My own brother, to my disbelief, was among the many “well-wishers” taking the time to mourn a person they did not know. I personally think the mass-hysteria exhibited at the time marked a symbolic break with the past. England, by which I mean the proverbial masses, had finally found a voice and a reason to rally en bloc that briefly uncoupled them from their atomized lives. This newfound univocal confidence was notable for two things. It liked to speak in pithy phrases, such as the sickening “the People’s Princess” (shamelessly used by Tony Blair). And it was very voluble, as though speaking in CAPITALS.
At the time of Diana’s death, this newfound popular voice was still a little unsure of itself. At first, it merely (tearfully) revelled in the (of course tragic) fact that it finally felt it belonged again after so many years of feeling alienated and insignificant. But with the help of the tabloid newspapers, it grew in confidence. And anger. Yes, it grew very ANGRY indeed.
The Express was one of the leading campaigners for Brexit (hello, red squiggly line!). VOTE TO KEEP BRITAIN GREAT, it wrote on the eve of the referendum. The Sun, always ready with a pun, wrote BeLEAVE IN BRITAIN. Here was the most momentous decision facing the country in decades, and the debate was being carried out in a niggly farrago of sound bites and patriotic phrase-mongering.
During our midday walk, I was explaining to J why so many in the UK incline towards portmanteaus, puns and binomials. It is, I argued, symptomatic of the fact that people have become increasingly infantilised. Should Britain leave the EU with mind-boggling legal, economic and social ramifications: BREXIT! Should Greece be forced out of the EU as a result of highly complex disputes about what sort of socio-economic model is best for the country and what are the implications of imposing a neoliberal agenda on it in the guise of austerity: GREXIT!
I was browsing through a few so-called words of the year, and there are plenty of portmanteaus among them: sharenting, adulting, dude food, JOMO, DadBod. The overlap between the puerile and the adult is nicely illustrated with Venn diagram-like clarity. The British tabloids also love their binomials: Naming and Shaming, Tony’s Cronies, Sam Cam, Skivers v Strivers, etc.. The latter example is particularly insidious and came to broadly frame the public ‘debate’ about the sweeping austerity cuts imposed on the welfare system under the Conservative (alt-right?) government.
In the mid-1980s, then under another Conservative government, I travelled all around Europe for one month on an Interrail Pass with my brother (the same one who would later grieve for Diana). It was my first time out of the country and I relished every whirlwindy second of it: drinking vodka with Poles in a sleeper carriage, being accosted by a gay Italian man in a Florence train station toilet, being told by a stranger in an Athens hostel that Nico was dead, falling in love with a Greek girl at a disco on a Greek island and then being chaperoned by her brothers when we met the next day, playing football with some street kids on a dusty field by a grounded ship in the Bosphorus, being rescued from sleeping rough by a Spanish nun and vowing to write her a thank you letter once a year for the rest of my life (I didn’t).
When Islamic extremists attacked Paris in November 2015, I wanted to write an impassioned open love letter to Europe. But it was too overwhelming – I couldn’t. How can you begin to retrace a lifetime of intricate connections and coincidences? My life spans Europe. My mind is Europe (including, technically, ever-latibulated England). Europe is besieged by: market forces, displaced peoples, idiocy, fear, hatred. The long-term existence of the EU is under threat. Trumpian forces are astir, historic fault lines are reopening. The pathetically formulated Brexit did not help matters.
It broke my heart to see England plumb for Brexit (Scotland and Northern Island voted to remain). It breaks my heart to see what has become of the country I once knew. Many of my relatives voted to leave, egged on by the anti-immigrant resentment served up on a daily basis by the tabloids and a handful of despicably self-serving homunculi posturing as men of stature. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the soldiers referred to the locals as Brittunculi: nasty little Brits. Perhaps they had encountered the forbears of Nigel Farrage, Boris Johnson and Paul Dacre.
I have suspected for many years that England is on its way to becoming a semi-police state: isolationist, jingoistic, chronically iniquitous. There will be a modicum of legitimacy in the form of adherence to whatever international trade agreements are in effect and a smidgen of democracy in the form of politically meaningless elections and myriad television channels to choose between (including a privatized BBC).
This, of course, is a nightmare scenario, albeit one convincingly envisioned in Children of Men, V is for Vendetta and Black Mirror. Perhaps common sense and fair play, things that England once held as valued truisms, will win out. Perhaps the tortuously long legal C-section of Brexit will give birth to a better place. But I strongly doubt it. Not while the majority of people are informed of what’s going on in the form of misleading and euphemistic portmanteaus, puns, binomials and sound bites.
Living in Lithuania I will not personally experience Brexit (although I may well suffer from its consequences). I did, however, once experience a dramatic little Grexit of my own.
Back in the mid-1980s, my brother and I fell out on a Greek island. He was upset that I was more interested in the local girl I had just met. “It isn’t working,” he said. “You have to go home.” As he was the one holding the purse strings, I reluctantly went along with my expulsion. He then gave me £5 to get all the way to London from Athens: yes, £5. The chocolate I bought for the journey melted immediately. The bread quickly went stale. The cigarettes went up in a puff of smoke. I only survived the long, arduous journey, and its many unexpected surcharges, thanks to the largesse of a couple of chess-playing Germans, a young Dutch guy who taught me how to dodge the conductor on a leg of the journey my Interrail pass didn’t cover and a kindly (and very pretty) young Norwegian woman who bought me a ferry ticket to Calais out of pity once she had heard my story.
A German MEP recently put forward a motion that every teenager in EU member states should get a free Interrail pass on their 18th birthday. The Mail called it a “£1-billion bribe…in a desperate scheme to win support for the EU.” I call it a lovely idea. Like the popular Erasmus Programme, it will help foster a shared sense of European identity among young people, just as my own youthful experiences opened my mind to a whole new world of ideas and made me feel a little less isolated in my unfortunately Anglo-Saxon island mentality. As the English metaphysical poet John Donne presciently wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a piece of the main.” He goes on: “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”
Damn if those (almost 400-year-old) words aren’t breaking news. Clod can also mean a stupid person in English. Because of a few power-wielding clods invoking rivers of blood and floods of immigrants, we are all the poorer.