Flat on the floor, England lies enlaced in the serpents of its own European nightmares. (I write “England” because Scotland—small but sane—wants no part in the Brexit psychodrama.) So it’s suddenly important, perhaps helpful, to look closely at what English writers are saying about the continent they appear to be leaving. It’s safe to guess that few of them voted “Leave” in the 2016 referendum. But class counts, as usual, and many of them were stunned to find themselves outnumbered by a majority convinced that their sense of abandonment sprang from alien control of their country by a foreign clique in Brussels.
There is no shortage of writing by English authors who “love Europe.” But what does feeling oneself to be pro-European, even to “love Europe,” really amount to in modern England? The sense of Europe as a destination, as a gorgeous source of culture that every person of imagination should at least acknowledge, really belonged to pre-1939 generations and has waned, as British high and popular culture grew in self-confidence in the postwar decades—and also, as the Brexit drama confirms, in insularity. In vain the history books, especially those published since 1945, have emphasized that the English and British pasts can’t be understood without knowing how deeply what happened on one side of the Channel was shaped and influenced by events, rulers, and beliefs on the other. And they don’t just mean British expeditionary armies in 1914 or 1939. After all, Normandy and a huge region of southwestern France belonged to the English kingdom—on and off—for several medieval centuries. Was this just a colonial occupation, or was England in that period more “European”?
It would be dumb to say that Simon Winder loves Europe. He knows it far too well to have uncomplicated feelings about it. He is better described as a traveler, almost an old-fashioned antiquary, who is enthralled by Europe’s stories, rulers, and battered artifacts—cathedrals, castles, tombs, bomb-proof bunkers, and (constantly rebuilt) bridges. At the same time, because his historical reading is enormous, he knows all too well how those stories, rulers, and many of those buildings arose to the accompaniment of constant, ghastly, and unnecessary wars and the subjugation of millions of inoffensive people who only wanted history to leave them alone. It’s not that Winder spares England. He recalls plenty of contemptible or merely stupid English interventions in Continental affairs that most people don’t know about or would rather forget. But in the end, it’s just because he is a patriotic son of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.