2018 and everything’s gone wrong.
Two years ago, my country voted to rescind our identities as European citizens in favour of becoming British subjects. A line was drawn and we were asked to take sides, although we didn’t quite know what it meant to be on either of those sides. Later that year, a racist, misogynist bully was elected as president of the United Sates. My country’s prime minister was one of the first world leaders to visit the White House. Shortly afterwards, she met the Turkish president and prime minister, and agreed a £100 million defence deal for his country to develop fighter jets. Not long after that, I wasn’t alone in standing outside Downing Street expressing disquiet at the government’s grand welcome of the crown prince bin Salman and subsequent arms sales, while staying silent on the bombing of Yemen and, more recently, capital punishment threats to women activists.
In October 2017, the Weinstein allegations came to light. Months later, our parliament launched a (still ongoing) enquiry into its own abuses.
Then, 63 people from the Windrush generation were found to have been wrongly deported. Three million citizens in the UK were also told they’d have to reapply to stay in their homes, although not how or when or whether they’d be allowed to. They became, overnight, ‘bargaining chips.’ One in 18 people escaping poverty, war and climate breakdown died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Italy, Malta and the rest of Europe fought to see who could outdo each other in the inhumanity stakes, by refusing to let rescue ships dock.
In summer 2018, the global map turned red as climate breakdown crossed its tipping point. There were fires in the Arctic and the heat killed 44 people in Japan and 70 in Quebec. The local papers ran twee, nostalgic articles about ‘the summer of 76’ but refused to mention ‘climate’ or ‘change.’ Instead, Environment Secretary Michael Gove was photographed with a cute puppy. A week after the makers of the weed killer RoundUp were successfully sued for failing to warn of its carcinogenic properties, my local MP – Minister for the Environment – tweeted about how brilliant it was.
Everyone is furious about everything.
We are learning to live with a sense of imminent and inevitable psychological and physical carnage. The knowledge that this is the norm for most humans throughout most of history doesn’t stop me from feeling slightly indignant now it’s my turn.
Our three-week ‘Farwell to the Continent’ Grand Tour is both practical (let’s go before the queues and the new driving licences and while we’re not completely hated) and ideological (but I’ve lived and worked here… I thought I could always live and work here….). It is escapism and celebration, before ‘whatever it is that comes next’ in times of near irreconcilable division.
There is also a structure to the trip. With limited time and resources, with every moment now holding mystical expectations, it can’t just be a Lonely Planet guide to the top recommended destinations. Instead, I frame it as a tour guided by five remarkable women – a chance to properly meet, celebrate and learn from Empress Matilda (c. 1102-1167), Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431), Sophie Scholl (1921-1943), Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1687) and Etty Hillesum (1914-1943).
All six had things a lot worse than a (or, at least, this) British citizen teetering on the edge of Brexit. Three of them (Jeanne, Sophie and Etty) died in violent, shocking and horrific circumstances. Anna Maria and Etty were both refugees. Matilda was taken away from their families at eight years old to new lives, one in a different country, one in a walled cell. All of their lives were affected by varying degrees of misogyny.
My chosen women show how little has changed over almost 1,000 years when it comes to women and power. Despite her years of authority and experience as Empress of Germany, Matilda was still refused the English crown. I bump into Matilda a lot in Europe. She moved England to Germany, via France and got engaged in Utrecht. Her royal cortège travelled regularly along the Rhine, as will I.
They show how dogmatic and changeable is the notion of identity and the vagaries of what makes the ‘right leader at the right time.’ There was no real concept of ‘nations’ in the time of Jeanne d’Arc (I visit Compiègne, where she was arrested, and Troyes, scene of a siege she led to force the city to accept Charles VII as King of France over England’s Henry VI).
They show us, we hope, how to respond to rapidly rising fascism across Europe. The white rose, name of the student resistance group at Munich University of which Sophie Scholl was a member, was worn recently by anti-Islam far-right protesters in Chemnitz in Germany.
And they teach us how to channel intellect with spirituality. Utrecht, where Matilda and Emperor Henry got engaged, was also home to Anna Maria van Schurman, refugee, multilingual scholar, poet, painter and the first women to go to university.
Finally, Hetty Hillesum shows us what it means to learn and practice a life of ‘self-emptying’, the ultimate ambition of many religious and spiritual seekers, and the difficulties of that life, even if we are to succeed in it. In 2018, it might be that compassion is the only way left to solve the frightening turmoil approaching.
Part One: The Channel