Wednesday, August 23, 2006


So the hordes return from Germany - 300,000 England fans, some say. Is it too much to hope that the scales will have fallen from their eyes and they'll see that, contrary to media-derived preconceptions, Continental Europe is an immensely civilised place, full of public services that are efficient and cheap to use, liberal opening hours, sexual liberation and grown-up conversation. I.e. not only as good as Britain, but usually rather better (OK, I'm not talking about downtown Bratislava or the Silesian coalfields, but bear with me) and that becoming European might not be the nightmare it's made out to be. After all, reading the Sun or the Daily Mail for the last fifteen years makes closer European union sound so painful and degrading that it is something not unakin to genital mutilation. There may be a few more people coming home shaking their heads and saying, 'why can't we do that here?' The hospitals, the trains, the cleanliness.

Those of us fortunate enough to travel regularly on the Continent have known all this for years, of course; and it seems that more of us are coming round to the above conclusions. 65% of Britons want closer ties with Europe, according to a recent YouGov survey. Sadly, though, we don't vote with our feet; most of us holiday in places either Anglophone (USA, South Africa) or ostentatiously Brit-friendly (the Costas). Nowhere in Europe do fewer people command a second language than in Britain. No mainstream political party dare engage actively with Europe for fear of losing votes (Cameron's recent apparent statements to the contrary are pure guff; witness the Europhobic bye-election candidates elected by the party).

This is not a British disease. Anywhere on the Continent -apart from the Schuman district of Brussels - distrust and dislike of the EU are voiced - and the Euro is widely detested as being a tool of corporate power and globalised capitalism. But nowhere, if you voice any kind of Europhilia, are you still likely to get a punch up the fuckin' bracket, to employ our delightful patois. For example, speaking French well ( or as well as a high-school kid in Toulouse, Dijon or Marseille speaks English) is seen as 'unpatriotic' or just plain pretentious; the EU is routinely ridiculed as a new Nazi superstate (I mean, is it just me, or how stupid is that?). Often, of course, this fatuous gibberish usually issues from people who see nothing wrong with becoming a client state of the US, to the degree that we are bombed on our own soil for buddying up to Washington's latest craziness. An equal partnership in Europe, it seems, doesn't hold a candle to licking American ass to certain Brits. There are people out there with the right to vote who still believe that the EU imposes a Euro-culture inimical to local traditions. Anyone who has visited a village in Burgundy or Flanders knows what total bilge this is; when challenged with the Americanisation of British culture, a much more pernicious influence, EU critics are rendered speechless. But to be fair, that doesn't just affect us. If you ever want to really, really, REALLY piss off a Frenchman, tell him how like America the outskirts of all France's towns are.
Which is why the jaunt in the summer sun of the lovely cities of Germany (all right, apart from Dortmund) might have done some good to our jaundiced, prejudiced view of Europe. It may just have tempted more people to say 'screw the tabloids' and try the likes of the Bavarian Forest or, elsewhere, France's Ard├Ęche or Slovakia's Tatra mountains. It may even have tempted a few to try and learn a foreign language.

Learning other languages is one of Britain's last taboos, seen as something on a par with deathbed granny-rape; perhaps understandable in a country whose grasp of English is getting weaker by the day. When we can't even be bothered with learning native grammar (do Welsh speakers have this problem? Just asking) how are we going to cope with the respective tongues of Goethe, Balzac or Dante?

In 1994, the Tour de France visited England. I went along, expecting zero interest in the well-heeled and conservative villages of Kent and Sussex for such a definitively alien event. The route was thronged, the atmosphere joyous; it was like nothing I had ever seen in Britain. The opening of the Chunnel that year fuelled an optimism that we were finally dumping the old saw: 'fog in Channel - Continent cut off'. We've gone backwards since then; but after Germany 2006 and the Tour returning next year, maybe we're getting in touch with our roots again. Do yourself, and everyone, a favour - learn a language this winter. French or Finnish, Spanish or Slovenian, it matters little; there's untold riches out there. "I never knew about this place," a German tourist told me in Caerleon last month. "I just came here on the off-chance. It's brilliant." When I hear someone from Caerleon saying that to a German - in German - in Regensburg or Passau, then I know the New Jerusalem is at hand. It can happen. Make it so.

1 comment:

Rhys Wynne said...

When we can't even be bothered with learning native grammar (do Welsh speakers have this problem?..

Yes unfortunatley, as native Welsh speakers are taught Welsh exactly the same first langugae English speakers are taught English (and we're taught English the same of course).
I have very litte grasp of English or Welsh grammer even though I'm equally fluent in both. This is quite a problem when trying to learn another language as an adult as grammer is quite important, and it's somehow taken for granted that wh know our grammer.
I mix a lot with adult learners through my work and my girfriend has learnt Welsh in the last few years. I'm really keen work as a Welsh tutor, as I'm sure I'd get a lot of fulfilment from it, and I know that coleg gwent for instance have to turn people away from Welsh clases as the can't meet demand. But I'm really paranoid about my lack of grammer. As I'd only be teaching absolute beginners I'd probably be learning with the students, but I now that many people on these courses are much oplder than I and will at least know Englsih grammer and this scares me!