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‘Call yourself English?’

Britain
Empire Day around 1950 - a flagwaving, monocultural past for which too many Britons currently feel nostalgic. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty

‘Nothing happened but the wallpaper,’ the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning said about her childhood in Illinois. I could say the same about mine in rural Yorkshire. The area was solidly conservative – traditional-minded, inward-looking and one of the safest Tory [Conservative] seats in the country. Deviations from the norm were severely punished. When a 16-year-old boy from my grammar school got his girlfriend from the High School pregnant, the pair of them were expelled and made to marry. There was also a deep suspicion of outsiders, meaning anyone who lived more than a dozen miles away. The only people of colour were the family running the Indian restaurant in nearby Skipton. Leeds seemed exotic and London – the Big Smoke – impossibly alien.

Now I live in London, one of the liveliest and most multicultural cities in the world, and feel at home there. The tie to where I grew up has loosened since my parents died and even more so since the referendum result of 2016. The Craven district, which encompasses villages like mine, was the first Yorkshire result to come through that night. The Leave margin wasn’t as great as in many parts of Yorkshire – a mere 53 per cent to 47 – and I take some comfort from that. But the outcome of the referendum made me despair, far more so than any General Election result has ever done.

I ought to have been better prepared. I’d been in Goole and Hull just a few days before, and was reminded how disenfranchised people living outside the charmed circle of the M25 can feel. Still, I’d not anticipated that Brussels, rather than Westminster, would be blamed for this; that resentment against Tory austerity would be hijacked to become a rejection of the wider world; that racism, xenophobia and post-imperial nostalgia would carry the day. Ours is a global culture, I’d thought; we’re all citizens of the world. Not according to ex-Prime Minster Theresa May. If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, she told the Tory Party conference in 2016, you’re a citizen of nowhere.

On my occasional return visits to Yorkshire I’m always asked: ‘So when are you coming back here to live?’ Anyone who moves from the countryside to a big city, or from a small nation to a larger one, will have met with this reaction. ‘Home’ is where you come from, not where you migrate to: that’s the premise and with it comes the assumption that what you’d ‘really’ like to do is return to your roots. There might be economic or pragmatic reasons keeping you away but surely, once the time’s right, when you retire, say, you’ll jump at the chance. ‘When are you coming home, mate?’ These days I dodge the question or make a joke of it: I would move back, I say, if the Yorkshire Dales weren’t so cold and wet. But it’s years since I seriously considered the possibility. Now the question I ask myself isn’t ‘Why don’t I move back?’ but, given the values I grew up with, and the pressure I was under to stay, what gave me the resources to leave?

There were surprisingly few books in the house when I was growing up – though middle-class professionals, my parents weren’t great readers. But education was prized and the hope was that I’d go to university. Underlying that was a further hope – that I’d study medicine there, train to be a doctor, qualify, marry a local girl, take over the family GP practice and buy a house close to my parents’ house, ideally next door. By the age of 15, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I did OK at science subjects but felt disqualified, temperamentally, from pursuing them further. More to the point, I’d become interested in literature and, along with that, began to feel a yearning for the wider world – to harbour a dream of elsewhere, which the future my parents were planning would stifle.

I say my parents but it was my father who’d mapped out my stay-at-home career. My mother, more ambivalent, didn’t push me to the same degree. She herself had moved away, from a small town in the south of Ireland – first to Dublin, then over the water to England – and in doing so had set a dangerous precedent. To ease her assimilation into provincial England, she underplayed her origins; Irish was a dirty word then and so, in the Methodist North at least, was Catholic. I didn’t know then that she was the 19th of 20 children (I found out only after her death). But I was deeply conscious of her foreignness. She might have been apologetic about them but to me the associations of Irishness (which included a talent for talking and writing: ‘the gift of the gab’) were romantic. Circumscribed though my upbringing was, my mother brought a sense of adventure to it. She stood for Otherness. And I wanted more of that.

Of those books we did have in the house, most were about getting away and having adventures. First came the Famous Five, a bunch of middle-class kids (and a dog) gloriously unsupervised by adults. Then Doctor Dolittle, whose voyage to Africa to save monkeys dying from disease didn’t strike me as a colonialist raid but as a mercy dash by a philanthropic healer (the kind I wanted my parents to be). After that came the Swiss Family Robinson, shipwrecked on a tropical desert island en route to Australia and forced to make a new life for themselves, which they did with pioneering ingenuity. Islands featured a lot in my childhood and teenage reading: Coral Island, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies. I might not be allowed to visit my mother’s island (we went only the once, when I was small) but the literary substitutes served as well. Later, when I reached the sixth form, thanks to our English teacher (an Irishman), I began reading Irish writers, too: Joyce, Beckett, Synge, Yeats, Wilde, Sean O’Casey.

Bookshelves became my book-selves: alternative identities to be tried and tested; heroes I could emulate; minds I could temporarily inhabit. One day, perhaps, through literature, I’d find who I was and where I wanted to be. As Octavio Paz put it: ‘To read is to discover unsuspected paths that lead to our own selves.’

If I’d been luckier, my reading might have led me to post-colonial literature, or Commonwealth Literature as it was called (before Salman Rushdie, in a 1983 essay, decided that it didn’t, or shouldn’t, exist). But literature from outside the UK didn’t feature on the school curriculum, nor did it get much of a look-in on my degree course (‘English Literature, Life and Thought’) at Nottingham. I was a thoroughgoing Modernist – with Joyce, Lawrence and TS Eliot my idols – but it was years before I discovered the likes of Chinua Achebe and Mulk Raj Anand, Octavio Paz and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. I blame myself for a lack of initiative: there were so many books by Dead White European Males to get through, I didn’t look beyond them. But little or nothing in British literary culture at that time suggested that I needed to venture more widely.

Only one other continent deserved exploration: America, or rather North America, since South America (no less than Africa and India) could be ignored. By the time I left Nottingham, I’d read Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Tennessee Williams, Mailer, Roth, Updike, Bellow, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lowell, Berryman, Sexton and Plath. And over the following year, in Canada, where I did a Masters, I read a good few Canadians too, including Margaret Atwood, whose newly published account of the country’s literature, Survival, provided the lens through which I saw Canada. But whole continents of literature eluded me. And the PhD I began at University College London did little to alter that. My research topic was the Movement poets and novelists of the 1950s, the most insular group of writers in British literary history. I gave them some stick for that. But I was still pretty insular myself.

‘Of those bookswe did have in the house, most were about getting away and having adventures. First came the Famous Five, a bunch of middle class kids  (and a dog) gloriously unsupervised by adults.’  Credit: Annie Eagle/Alamy

One of the things that changed that was reading Seamus Heaney. He’d come to talk to a small group of us at UCL soon after publishing his collection North. I was enthralled, and later wrote a short critical guide to Heaney’s work. North is the most political of his collections, and views the Troubles through the lens of post-colonialism, with Ireland seen as a country subject to constant occupation and exploitation. Heaney had recently spent a year in Berkeley, and the politicized atmosphere in the Bay Area, with minorities demanding their say, left its mark on him. Reading him set me reading some of the writers with whom he felt he’d things in common, including Derek Walcott.

I had a similar kind of awakening when I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children during a holiday in Morocco in 1981 – we’d just discovered that my wife was pregnant with our first child. The book was a handsome object: a hefty hardback with uncut pages and a blue, faintly surreal cover depicting clock faces. Aptly enough, given that the text was much preoccupied with noses, it even smelled good. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked, confident that the narrator, Saleem Sinai – a cross between Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Scheherazade – would take me places I’d not been before.

Great books leave their mark on history – personal history as well as public. And for me the spring of 1981 will forever be associated with a sense of arrival. The novel won the Booker Prize in October and our first child was born a month later. Life would never be the same.

Are the English the kind of people other nations want to be friends with today? The obstacle used to be our arrogance and stiff upper lip. Now it’s our talent for making fools of ourselves.

I got to know Salman soon afterwards. By the mid-1980s I was working on the Observer book pages and he began to do some reviewing for us. I remember going to lunch with him and his then wife, Marianne Wiggins. He’d come in a shiny new car, a physical manifestation of his success. He was proud of it – the car as well as the success. Hubris, you could say, knowing what was to come soon afterwards. But ‘good luck to him’ was all I thought at the time. Fiction was thriving: publishers’ advances had become more generous and the Booker had brought glamour to a previously unglamorous profession.

Besides, I liked Salman. He was excellent company, a brilliant raconteur and mimic. Sure of himself, yes, a touch arrogant even. But why not? He’d written a terrific novel. And he was one of a generation of remarkable novelists (the generation to which I belonged) who were born and/or lived in the UK but whose names sounded strikingly un-English: Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, Romesh Gunesekera, Timothy Mo, Ben Okri, Tibor Fischer, Caryl Phillips, Louis de Bernières, Lisa St Aubin de Terán. Salman was quick to notice the significance of this. As he put it in an article for The Times (3 July 1982): ‘The Empire writes back with a vengeance.’

For me, the 1980s were a period of opening up. It wasn’t just that I was discovering writers outside the canon. I began to approach books in a new way, not just as texts to be analysed, deconstructed and appraised, but as distillations of human experience inviting recognition or acknowledgment: a ‘Yes!’ in the margin when they articulated a feeling or thought I’d not seen in print before; an underlining of phrases that made something beyond my own experience palpable and comprehensible. For the first time I was reading not academically but empathetically. It’s what literature does: takes us to new places; leaps the barriers of age, gender, nationality and ethnicity; lets us live inside the skin of others. I’d been slow to see that. But now I was messianic about it, as if books might have the power to stop wars, reverse climate change and make us better people.

‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!’ goes a line in Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December. The universe, I thought, had opened a little. I was wrong.

Salman Rushdie likes to quote that Bellow line. But it was he, more than anyone, who heard its plea go unanswered. The Satanic Verses ‘affair’ of 1988, as it’s now called, was a story about shutting down, not opening up. For those in Western democracies especially, the fatwa came as a brutal shock, shattering our assumptions that censorship, book-burning and the denial of freedom of expression were things of the past. I’d just discovered that books could be life-changing; now they’d acquired (or re-acquired) the potential to be life-ending. Under guard, in secret hideouts, Salman survived the threat. But others died, including his Japanese translator.

As with the 2016 UK referendum result, my reaction to the fatwa was a mixture of dismay and self-reproach: not just ‘How could this have happened?’ but ‘Shouldn’t I have seen it coming?’ I was on the Booker Prize jury when The Satanic Verses came out; we had it on our shortlist (it eventually lost out to Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda) but not once during our jury deliberations, nor in any of the reviews I read, did its potential for causing offence come up for discussion. We weren’t well enough informed about Islam to foresee trouble. And, secular-minded as we were, we couldn’t imagine members of any religious faith, no matter how zealous, getting wound up about a mere novel. Novelists had the freedom to imagine whatever they wanted, right?

I saw a fair bit of Salman after the fatwa, in hiding though he was. He came round to dinner a few times (our kids grew up with the idea that whenever you have a supper party, two security men with guns will be sitting in the next room watching television) and, on the first anniversary of the fatwa, the Independent on Sunday, to which I’d moved from The Observer, carried his first major article after a year of silence, the essay ‘In Good Faith’. A supporting (and supportive) interview wasn’t originally part of the deal, but Salman agreed to it and I met him at a ‘secret location’ to record it.

As the paper went to press, there were last-minute worries about my safety, since I was now implicated as an associate of his. A bodyguard was assigned to my family, and spent some days passing on tips about checking for suspicious packages and keeping a car in motion at traffic lights. The man stuck doggedly to his task for a couple of weekends, agreeing to leave us alone only during an outing to the gardens at Wisley, which he decided were probably free of Islamic extremists. Truly those were strange times. I never felt in the slightest danger but do remember thinking that, if I had to die, freedom of expression was a cause worth dying for.

Hope of a new beginning: Caribbean migrants arriving at Victoria Station, London, in 1956. Credit: Haywood Magee/Getty

An insult hurled at those of us who supported Salman was that we belonged to a ‘metropolitan elite’. Prominent Remain-voters have recently been accused of the same crime. Other adjectives are also thrown in, such as ‘Oxbridge-educated’ (not applicable in my case), ‘Guardian-reading’ (fair enough) and ‘liberal’ (a term tainted by association with neoliberalism, though, as Noam Chomsky has said, neoliberalism – free-market capitalism – ‘is neither new nor liberal’). ‘Cosmopolitan’ (another gibe) I could accept, but not ‘metropolitan’, let alone ‘elitist’.

Still, when you’re white, male and middle-class, and edit the book pages of a London-based national newspaper (as I did until the mid-1990s), you’re bound to come under suspicion. It’s assumed you’re a gatekeeper, opposed to innovation and diversity. And no matter how open your pages are to world literature – as Boyd Tonkin’s famously were, for example, during his time as literary editor of The Independent – there’ll always be a few people who regard you as narrow-minded, bigoted and bland. In short, as an – or the – enemy.

I got off lightly, perhaps. In his book Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Gabriel Josipovici includes me among a generation of writers, including Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, whom he attacks for their English ironizing and cynicism. But it’s a mild swipe, and he and I have had friendly dealings ever since. More annoying was what James Kelman had to say in Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political, a book published in 1992 but which I didn’t come across till years later: ‘Some of you may know of a recent controversy featuring the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. He described Joseph Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist and was attacked for it by, amongst others, Blake Morrison, a poet and critic who reviews current writing for mainstream media outlets.

Now, quite simply, Blake Morrison is prejudiced. As someone who greatly admired Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – in truth more than I admired the Conrad novels I’d read – and had no memory of attacking him, I couldn’t understand what this was about. That I admired James Kelman’s fiction, for its demotic energy and heft, made the attack all the more painful. Then I realized his mistake. He’d confused me with Craig Raine, who (I dimly remembered) had attacked Achebe for criticizing Conrad. When I wrote to Kelman pointing out his mistake, he was apologetic – genuinely so, I think, not just from fear I’d pursue some libel action – and promised to change the offending passage if ever the book was reprinted. I suppose ‘Blake’ and ‘Craig’ sound a bit alike. And perhaps to a Scot, all Englishmen are tarred with the same brush. But I felt maligned and it took me a while to see the comedy of the error.

In 2003, after eight years as a freelance writer, I went back to university, as a professor of creative writing at Goldsmiths. As I soon discovered, academics and creative-writing tutors speak different languages: theirs is a scholarly discipline, ours is practice-based; they engage with theory, we – more editors than teachers – are hands-on. The disparity took some getting used to. But we made the effort to understand each other. I was – still am – lucky in my colleagues.

One of those colleagues was the professor of post-colonial studies, Bart Moore-Gilbert, who began his inaugural lecture, given soon after I arrived, by inviting his audience to choose between the two texts he’d brought along, one drily theoretical, the other about sex. (No prizes for guessing which we went for.) I liked Bart, who among other things had written a monograph on Hanif Kureishi, but I knew next to nothing about his life. At some point round the same time, I was one of the judges for the 2009 Wasafiri life writing prize. The clear winner among the anonymous entries was a piece written from the point of view of a boy at an English boarding school, who is summoned to the headmaster’s study to be told that his father has been killed in a plane crash in Africa.

The piece, it turned out, was by Bart. Encouraged by his success, he applied to do a creative writing PhD at Goldsmiths, which in 2014 came out as a book, The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets. There’s a major irony at the heart of the book: Bart’s discovery, while researching it, that his father had served with (and may have acted brutally on behalf of) the Indian police force; the post-colonialist son learns that his dad was a colonialist oppressor. Of all Bart’s books, this was the one he had to write. Tragically, within a year of its publication, aged only 62, he was dead from kidney cancer.

At least Bart didn’t live to see Brexit. I sometimes think of others who didn’t live to see it, and how they’d have voted, from Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark (surely all Remainers) to little Englanders such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and my dad (all Brexiteers). What about Seamus Heaney, who when Andrew Motion and I included him in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, famously protested, in a verse letter, ‘My passport’s green’? If he’d hung on to his British passport and been entitled to vote, he’d surely have opted to Remain.

And as someone who’d played a part in creating the climate for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and who felt strongly attached to Europe (not least to the poets of Ancient Rome and Greece), he’d have had strong feelings about the border and the backstop. Living authors haven’t been slow to denounce Brexit: the writers have spoken, and they’ve done so in unison. But I’d love to have heard Heaney (and Pinter, Lessing, et al) weigh in. The long-dead would have views too. John Donne, for instance: ‘If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.’

One bizarre foreshadowing of the current era comes in Salman Rushdie’s 1983 essay ‘A General Election’, reprinted in Imaginary Homelands, where – while contemplating the then-forthcoming UK election – he posits a fiction ‘so outrageously improbable that any novelist would be ridiculed if he dreamed it up’.3 At the centre of it is a Prime Minister called May whose ‘cruelty’, ‘incompetence’ and erosion of workers’ rights does nothing to damage her popularity and who – with the Labour Party ‘hopelessly divided’ – wins a second term in office. The first name of this fictional Prime Minister May is Maggie, not Theresa.

The resemblance is spooky nonetheless. ‘Maybe,’ Rushdie wrote, before polling took place, ‘real life will turn out to obey the same laws of probability as fiction, and sanity will return’. Sadly not. In 1983 the Tories won a landslide victory. And there’s no sign of sanity returning in 2019. The era of hopeful Maybes is over. For three years we were trapped in the hive of the May-Bee. And, though the leadership of the Conservative Party has changed, there’s still no escape. In fact, the noise and anger – the fanatical buzzing – are worse than ever.

To leave or to remain. For anyone growing up in the provinces, or a small country, or an outpost of Empire, that’s always been the big question. I faced it myself, all those years ago, in Yorkshire. But Brexit has inverted the terminology. I left but I’m not a Leaver. I went away but I’m a Remainer. It’s the stick-in-the-muds who voted to leave.

In his 1982 essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’ Rushdie speaks of the ‘dream-England’ he grew up with in Bombay, a utopia composed of (among other things) Billy Bunter, Enid Blyton and Test Match commentaries by John Arlott. Many in the UK remember it too, men especially. ‘Sadly,’ Rushdie adds, ‘it’s a dream from which too many white Britons refuse to wake.’ Three decades later little has changed. In despair on the morning of the referendum result, I dashed off a poem about Brexiteers – a pastiche of one by AE Housman that begins ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, reworked as a bitter satire on misplaced patriotism: ‘Theirs is the land of lost content./They see it shining plain./The fortress-isle old lags lament/And hope to build again.’ The poem appeared in a late edition of The Guardian letters page next day (24 June 2016) but seeing it there did nothing to assuage me.

When friends say they feel like strangers in their own country, I know what they mean. Even those of us who are white, middle-class and English find the voices we hear on phone-ins or Question Time hard to comprehend. Still, at least we’ve not been told to go home or overheard people saying, as Anish Kapoor did while leaving his London flat the morning after the referendum, ‘I bet he doesn’t even speak English’. The writer Katy Massey recently compiled an anthology of life writing called Who Are We Now? which includes similar tales of prejudice and hostility.

‘Before June 2016,’ one contributor writes, ‘I felt perfectly at home here. Now I don’t know any more. I am afraid the word “foreigner” is glowing in bright letters on my forehead when I walk the streets. Should I do an accent-reduction course? Should I take my husband’s last name? Should I become English? Or should I leave?’ Another contributor writes of a confrontation with an elderly woman who asks – aggressively – where her husband comes from and is told ‘Germany’. (He has lived in Britain for decades but still has an accent.) Ah yes, Germany has nice mountains, the woman concedes, then adds: ‘If you like the mountains so much, why don’t you people go home?’

The odder your surname, the darker your skin, the less familiar your accent, the more likely you are to be addressed in that way. Politicians have legitimized it. Before Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, and Boris Johnson’s description of women in burkas looking like letterboxes, came Enoch Powell’s rivers-of-blood speech, Margaret Thatcher’s description of the country being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, and [former Tory MP] Norman Tebbit: ‘If they [Muslim women] wish to cover their faces and isolate themselves from the rest of the community and so thoroughly reject our culture then I cannot imagine why they want to be here at all. Perhaps they should just push off back to their own countries.’

‘Go home’ the bigots cry. But home isn’t a place you come from. Home is a place you make. In the 1940s my mother came from Ireland to make hers in rural Yorkshire. Though prejudice against the Irish was rife then, she never to my knowledge had anyone tell her to go home. Nor were the Poles I knew in childhood – who included Rick, a classmate at school, and Lucy, one of my first girlfriends – subjected to prejudice. Their surnames might have been difficult to spell but nobody bullied them or beat them up. That their parents were immigrants or wartime refugees was no reason to treat them differently. They were like the rest of us. Yorkshire was their home.

Only connect. It’s dispiriting to think that things have got worse since the years of my adolescence, that the dreams we had of global harmony and understanding, a world purged of racism and xenophobia, now look deeply naive. I have to remind myself that not all is gloom, and that in some respects the UK is more outward-looking than it was. A recent survey commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize reveals that sales of translated fiction were up by 5.5 per cent in 2018, with more than 2.6 million books sold – the highest figure since sales were first tracked in 2001 and part of a pattern of steady growth. At the same moment that British voters chose isolationism, so British readers are buying more novels from Europe than ever before. And not just from Europe (not just Jo Nesbø, Elena Ferrante and Scandi noir). Fiction from China, Korea and the Arab world is also reportedly in more demand. And sales of translated short stories and anthologies are up by 90 per cent.

The younger generation of students and aspirant writers I’ve worked with also give me grounds for hope. I remember, as a sixth-former, being told by the professor interviewing me for a place at Leeds University that he had never learned anything from a student. I’ve learned plenty from mine. Three in particular – all doing PhDs – come to mind: Anthony Joseph (in what became his novel Kitch) writing about Lord Kitchener, the calypso artist who arrived on the Windrush in 1948; Bernardine Evaristo (in her novel Loverman), brilliantly ventriloquizing an elderly gay Jamaican in London; and Season Butler (in her novel Cygnet) describing an island occupied, with one exception, by geriatrics – the exception being the narrator, whose wise reflections on age, race, class and global warming belie her tender youth. I feel lucky to have worked with such talents – they taught me as much as I taught them.

And that’s the point of reading widely, to learn things you otherwise wouldn’t know – not just issues affecting other cultures (from another PhD student I’ve learned about the practice of bride price in Uganda) but those that resonate with our own. Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable might have been published in 1935, but something one of its sweepers says – ‘They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt’ – echoes the experience of many immigrants working as poorly paid cleaners in the UK today. Even the opening conversation in EM Forster’s A Passage to India, published 11 years earlier, has its resonance.

Aziz and his friends are discussing ‘whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman’. They mean their colonial masters, but it’s a question that goes beyond the Anglo-Indian relationship explored in Forster’s novel. Are the British in general and the English in particular the kind of people other nations want to be friends with today? The obstacle used to be our arrogance and stiff upper lip. Now it’s our talent for making fools of ourselves.

‘Call yourself  English?’ Yes and no. It’s the country to which I’m most attached, but at some point I dropped ‘English’ for the more inclusive ‘British’. Now it too is tainted, through adoption by the Far Right. I’d not go so far as to call myself Irish, though I do now have an Irish passport. I’m tempted to call myself ‘European’ but that only invites the response ‘Where in Europe?’ It’s natural to wonder where people come from but to ask is a loaded question. There are people living in the UK who fear they’ll be discriminated against if they admit to having begun life elsewhere, just as there are countries where – because of Empire, or complicity with the US, or bombs that have been dropped – it pays not to say you’re British.

In the dreams of elsewhere I had as a teenager, none of this was going to happen. We would all be trans – transnational, that is: fluid, pluralistic, opposed to borders, indifferent to difference. How naïve that seems, now that territorial affiliations have hardened and borders are more strictly patrolled.

Still, there remains a way to roam freely: in books. It’s how I found my way as a teenager and I’m keeping the faith. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ Auden said, a line that most readers of his poetry would dispute: after 9/11 New Yorkers found solace in the ‘affirming flame’ of his poem ‘September 1st 1939’, and many of those experiencing bereavement have taken comfort from his ‘Funeral Blues’, all the more so since it featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The mistake – my mistake – has been to ask too much of poetry (and of literature overall): to expect it to make things happen externally, in politics, rather than internally, through the subtle and inevitably slower process of shaping ideas. The world hasn’t opened up as we hoped it would, but literature remains a repository of values. It teaches us that others aren’t Other and helps us to understand ourselves.

In his essay ‘The Few and the Many’, Octavio Paz considers the limited audience for poetry: does it matter that even great poets like Baudelaire and Whitman sold so few copies of their work?4 No, he decides: poetry of real merit will eventually find its way through to reach a sizeable audience. For poetry in particular, read literature in general. Quoting Juan Ramon Jimenez, Paz speaks of ‘the immense minority’. It’s a lovely phrase and consoling reminder that minorities can be massive, from those who read Auden to those who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. In these bleak times, of Trump and Brexit, of fascistic resurgence and environmental crisis, it’s easy to feel isolated and helpless. But, as literature reminds us, we are not alone.

New Internationalist issue 521 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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