There was a time in the United Kingdom when we could bury our heads in the sand and go about our daily lives, for weeks on end, without hearing the word “Europe.” We are, of course – still! – part of the European Union but have traditionally, arrogantly, seen ourselves as “different.” For many living on this “Sceptered Isle,” our very island-status has made us “special.” Today, in 2016, the word “Europe” is everywhere: breakfast, lunch and dinner, weekends and holidays. You may have heard that, on 23 June, the UK population will vote in a referendum whether we remain “IN” the EU or “OUT.” It’s a heated, often bitter debate, dominated by party politics and endless projections about the economy and immigration. Much as I deplore the current campaign, I will vote “BREMAIN,” not “BREXIT” because, as long as I have been a conscious human being, I’ve felt allied to Europe, and whether I like it or not, Europe defines my professional life to a large degree.
As a family, my adventurous young parents shunted us four kids across the European continent in our Ford Taunus, pitching our green Scouts’ tent on the camping sites of Europe. I started learning German aged ten, thanks to a Munich woodcutter on a Venice campsite, and took up French, German and Latin at my comprehensive school in Cornwall. I graduated in Modern Languages at Nottingham University, lived in Germany and the USA, and moved back to the UK to start “proper work” as a reporter and producer for the BBC – in its foreign affairs department. In other words, using my languages and foreign experience. The first BBC Radio program I worked on was called “Eurofile,” in 1989, and we began by rocking from one revolution to another. Today, as well as my journalism, I run the European Literature Network in the UK, host the annual “European Literature Night” at the British Library, and collaborate with several cultural and literary organizations across the continent – including ELit Literature House Europe in Austria and now your very own Versopolis!
For my parents’ generation, growing up after the Second World War, belonging to Europe and the EU was essential and aspirational. For me, it’s part of my genetic make-up. Our growing Euroscepticism in the UK, and the hijacking of the EU Referendum debate by politicians and economists, is distressing. Therefore, to counter this trend, we have tried to create a parallel cultural narrative in the UK, over the past few weeks.
The month of May is now officially my personal “European Literature” month. This year, we launched our first ever European Literature Festival embracing more than 30 countries, 60 writers and including poetry, graphic novels, literary fiction, non-fiction, crime thrillers and translation workshops. May also saw the first ever annual Man Booker International Prize (MBI) in conjunction with the former Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which was won on May 16th by Han Kang, the Korean author, and Deborah Smith, the translator, for “The Vegetarian.”
On May 11, we held our eighth European Literature Night. In 2008, we had a dream that we could gather together the best writers from the rest of Europe in London for a one-night-only special event. It had never been done before. That event became European Literature Night (ELN), initiated by EUNIC London, the Czech Center and the British Library, taking place simultaneously in London and cities all over the continent. Our ELN evening then became a week, then a month and, this May, it was the showcase event of the European Literature Festival.
As chair of the judges, Director of European Literature Network (ELNet) and host of ELN (apologies for the acronyms – but that’s Europe for you!), May is my busiest month.
I spent two hours on the British Library stage on May 11, conducting the equivalent of a BBC Live broadcast, interviewing our six “winning” writers, selected by us from a pool of sixty-five European writers submitted by publishers and cultural organizations. Joining me on stage were: Burhan Sönmez from Turkey, Dorthe Nors from Denmark, Slovenia’s very own Gabriela Babnik, Belgium’s Peter Verhelst, Jaap Robben from the Netherlands and the Bulgarian novelist Alek Popov. They were outstanding. Read my Reviews of their six books here. The novelist Kate Mosse gave the keynote lecture to launch ELN. She said:
At a time when the countless shared histories and stories from our many friends and strangers in Europe are in danger of being lost in the politics of the EU debate, an initiative like the European Literature Festival is more important than ever.
And here we are, back to the heart of the matter, “the EU debate.” At the end of April, I organized a major debate in London called “Culture Matters: Euro Stars”. The idea emerged out of my passion for the culture and literature of Europe, and by my anger over our current culture-free EU referendum discourse in the UK. The event was packed and passionate. I had invited five of my favourite European writers and thinkers – who also happen to be some of the most influential and brilliant: A. L. Kennedy was there, the prize-winning Scottish author and broadcaster, launching her new novel, Serious Sweet; the Hungarian novelist and EUPL-winner, Noémi Szécsi, author of the wonderful The Finno-Ugrian Vampire; Geert Mak, historian, essayist, Dutch “national treasure” and author of the 2004 seminal study of Europe post-1989, In Europe; the Italian crime writer, former Senator and anti-mafia judge, Gianrico Carofiglio, who launched his fifth Guido Guerrieri novel in English, A Fine Line, and finally, my former BBC colleague, the English journalist and historian, Misha Glenny, whose early books The Fall of Yugoslavia, The Balkans and The Rebirth of History informed my early years at the BBC, and still do.
If you’d like to see our “Culture Matters: Euro Stars” debate, you can watch the video here.
I have certainly enjoyed “My European Life” these past few weeks – and hearing the word “Europe” everywhere! I may now be dreaming in EU acronyms, but let’s hope that all our “Bremain” efforts pay off, and that the next time I write for The European Review of Poetry, Books and Culture, our little island is still linked to your continent.
By Rosie Goldsmith
This blog was originally published on Versopolis. European Review of Poetry, Books and Culture.