On liberty, Paul Eluard, and a century of exchanges
Shortly after the end of World War Two, a young English woman travelled to France as part of an exchange to stay with a French family whose family home was a stone’s throw from the huge Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge. She and her exchange partner, Odette, became life-long friends. The English woman was my mother.
How I love the word ‘exchange’, with all its connotations of getting back what you give, or perhaps more. I too participated in French exchanges - three of them, in fact, to the small town of Is-sur-Tille, near Dijon. Later, our own children were all to participate in exchanges of their own, a sort of cultural relay passing the baton over the decades.
When I travelled around Europe inter-railing with a friend in the spring of 1979, I remember the friendship, good will and respect we encountered at every turn. From the (then) Yugoslavian youth who knew no English but gave a thumbs-up and grinned at every mention of a famous English footballer to the Italian student who started talking to us in a queue at a post-office and who introduced us to her friends, the overwhelming sense was one of a Europe broadly engaged in a common pursuit. Of course, this hid a number of dark shadows hiding in the wings: the simmering tensions of the Slavic regions, the start of Margaret Thatcher’s years in power and the continuing anxieties of the Cold War.
Yet when I went on to university the following year to study English and French in the School of European Studies at Sussex (a landmark course at the time) and also at the Sorbonne, I believed that the political and cultural world I was entering represented the natural extension of the winding pleasures of the rail trip I had just taken. Studying Sartre, Freud, Descartes, as well as the classical thinkers who’d preceded them, alongside the canon of English literature opened a window on a new world. Studying in Paris, I lived in the Cite Universitaire with its South-East Asian hall, the College Franco-Britannique, American hall and so on. I lived next door to a French girl studying the cello, played football with Tunisians living in the banlieue.
Today, it feels as if that world never existed. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. For those of us who broadly believed in the open society that the European project seemed to represent, we live in troubling times. My eldest daughter followed in my footsteps and my wife’s in studying and working in first Florence then Paris, something made possible by the Erasmus programme. It seems entirely appropriate that the programme should be named after one of the thinkers who formed a central part of one of the courses I took back in the early 80s at Sussex. That it is under threat from our departure from the EU is a disgrace.
Other people such as Ian McEwan in today’s Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/01/brexit-pointless-masochistic-ambition-history-done?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Otherhave set out more cogently than I ever could the misjudgements, lies, false steps and false hopes that have led us to leave the European Union. Not least, he torpedoes that deadly three word mantra ‘Take back control’. To my mind, its opposite, ‘Relinquish control’ is not a negative. In exposing myself to the rich, varied, often problematic landscape of Europe, I allowed myself to engage in a community. At the heart of that was a notion of trust. That we are better off together than alone. The foreign country that I saw when Farage and his appalling acolytes waved their pathetic flags in the European Parliament was my own.
Paul Eluard’s famous love poem ‘Liberte’ which avoided Nazi censorship when it was published in 1942, probably did so because the censor assumed (as had been Eluard’s original intention) that its subject was a woman. In fact, it was an ode to liberty as the final line revealed. An ode to a France that wasn’t free. Such was the power of the lyric that the RAF dropped thousands of copies of it into occupied territory.
My mother, a French teacher who instilled in me a love of France, introduced me to the poem long before I encountered it at university. I think of her cycling around the flat plains of Picardy still scarred by the trenches of that earlier war memorialised at Vimy, and later walking up the steep hill to her hall of residence in Exeter, her book of French poetry in her satchel. I think her notion of liberty embraced open borders, of opening up, of letting go.
We would do well to remember this. Liberty is an exchange.