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Writers and Intellectuals on Britain and Europe, 1918–2018 | Event Report

Writers and Intellectuals on Britain and Europe, 1918-2018

northumbria university

1st-2nd november 2018

Report by Ann-Marie Einhaus (Northumbria University)

On 1 and 2 November 2018, an interdisciplinary gathering of thirty delegates – writers and academics based in the UK, Spain, Switzerland and Germany – met at Northumbria University to explore the contributions to, and reflections on, Britain’s relationship with Europe by writers and intellectuals in the last one hundred years. The conference was made possible by generous support from UACES and from the Department of Humanities at Northumbria. UACES kindly funded travel and accommodation for two postgraduate speakers, Arianna Introna (University of Stirling) and Thomas Schillmüller (Westfälische-Wilhelms-Universität Münster), whose papers and contributions to discussion greatly enriched the programme.

The opening panel, with papers by Laura Lojo Rodríguez (University of Santiago di Compostela), Alexandra Peat (Franklin University Switzerland), Barbara Korte and Christian Mair (both Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) was a fitting snapshot of the conference as a whole, as it combined papers on a wide range of texts and media, from fiction to film, political discourse to exhibition practice. It also covered the full time span encompassed by the conference title, from the First World War into the present. Subsequent panels continued the multidisciplinary, cross-period approach of the conference, and most importantly, the lively discussion sessions following each panel brought past and present, political and literary, theoretical and practical perspectives into conversation.

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In panel session 2 on the Thursday afternoon, two parallel panels explored writers’ journeys, both actual and literary, across the European continent, and writers’ and intellectuals’ political interventions. Panel 2A took us from Scottish literati Willa and Edwin Muir’s career-defining time spent living in Czechoslovakia and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s (Margery Palmer McCulloch, University of Glasgow), to English novelist Rose Allatini’s deepening exploration of her continental Jewish family links in the 1930s and 1940s (George Simmers, Sheffield Hallam University), to contemporary Kittitian-British novelist Caryl Phillips’s European travelogue, The European Tribe, reflecting on the place of black Europeans in European history and identity (Thomas Schillmüller, WWU Münster).

Panel 2B, meanwhile, scrutinised contributions to political discourse linked to both Britain’s relationship with Europe, and Scotland’s relationship with Britain, by Liberal politician Jo Grimond (Benjamin Martill, LSE), contemporary academics and intellectuals (Simon Grimble, University of Durham) and post-Indyref Scottish literature (Arianna Introna, University of Stirling).

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A particular treat for attendees and members of the public was the public conference event ‘A British Writer in Europe: Adam Thorpe in Conversation’, hosted by Blackwell’s bookshop in Newcastle on the evening of the first conference day. Thorpe’s most recent novel, Missing Fay (2017), was hailed by Guardian reviewer Andrew Michael Hurley as a novel that ‘may well provide some of the answers’ to our attempts to ‘understand the complexities that led from “Broken Britain” to Brexit’, and his memoir Notes from the Cévennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France (2018) includes a chapter on the experience of the EU Referendum as seen by a British writer who was born and has lived abroad for most of his life.

Kristian Shaw (University of Lincoln) conversed with Thorpe about his perspectives on Brexit, on British attitudes to Europe and French attitudes to Britain, but also on how the desire to understand others and make others understand each other informs Thorpe’s work. A recurring theme of this fascinating conversation was the shared obligation to counteract climate change, a necessity experienced acutely by Thorpe in the Cévennes, and one that necessitates greater, not less, international cooperation.

Two keynote lectures scrutinised literary interventions into the relationship between Britain and Europe, past and present. Closing the first day of the conference, Jason Harding (University of Durham) gave delegates a fascinating account of T.S. Eliot’s stance on Europe from the 1940s to the early 1960s, offering insights into an area of Eliot’s cultural criticism that is little known.

Though arguing that – anachronisms aside – Eliot would have been a Remainer given his advocacy of closer ties to (notably Western) European countries by joining the EEC in 1962, Harding proceeded to give us a nuanced discussion of Eliot’s complex and certainly not unproblematic views on Europe, and on Britain’s place in Europe. Starting us off on day two of the conference, Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway) explored links between the concept of ‘culture wars’ in Britain (perhaps exemplified by Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech), the Brexit debate, and English as a discipline.

English as a subject, Eaglestone argued, can make a valuable contribution to assessing and addressing cultural divides in Brexit Britain because its remit has always been to scrutinise ideas and values as much as the language and literature in which they are expressed. Both conference keynotes are available as full audio recordings on the conference website here.

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Two of Friday’s three panel sessions took a closer look at Brexit and literature, and involved several creative practitioners as well as scholars and critics interested in ‘BrexLit’. Kristian Shaw (University of Lincoln) started us off on panel 3 by discussing the meaning of the term ‘BrexLit’, coined by him initially as a way of labelling literary responses to the EU Referendum, but swiftly developing to encompass earlier literary engagement with Britain’s relationship to Europe.

Shaw’s paper paved the way for a discussion of two contemporary British writers’ stances on Brexit: Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut (2017), a contemporary take on Britain’s North-South divide and its contribution to Brexit Britain as a divided nation commissioned by Peirene Press (Chloe Ashbridge, University of Nottingham), and European themes in the fiction of A.S. Byatt, who came out strongly in favour of Britain remaining in the EU in an interview for The Literary Hub in 2017 (Barbara Franchi, Newcastle University). Panel 4A gave voice to two contemporary writers themselves whose work in general engages closely with current political issues, and who have turned their attention to the fallout of Brexit.

In an exciting double feature, Ina Habermann (Universität Basel) offered a close analysis of the ways in which the history of his native Gibraltar haunts the fiction of Gibraltarian novelist, memoirist and essayist M.G. Sanchez, before hearing from Sanchez himself, who discussed his work in trying to shed light on the dangers of isolationism based on his personal experience of growing up in Gibraltar. Richard Kelly (University of Winchester) completed the panel by discussing his role as a self-confessed political novelist in connecting past and present, thrown into sharp relief by Brexit.

Panel 4B returned us once more to a crucial earlier period in British-European relations, namely the inter-war years and the 1940s. All three speakers on this panel drew on a fascinating array of archival materials in outlining the contributions of organisations like the International Federation of University Women (Catherine Clay, Nottingham Trent University), English PEN (Katherine Cooper, UEA) and individuals like journalist, critic and novelist Rebecca West (Guy Woodward, University of Durham). Papers gave thought-provoking insights in the way interventions such as the inter-war ‘Livres de Partout’ scheme (which selected books designed to familiarise readers with foreign cultures), PEN aid for European refugees 1938–1945 and West’s portrayals of Serbia and the Balkans for the British and American public as part of British propaganda efforts during the Second World War positioned Britain in relation to its European neighbours.

On Friday afternoon, conference delegates and some additional audience members also gathered for a round table discussion on the topical subject of ‘Writers on Britain and Europe now’, chaired by Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway). The discussants were Kristian Shaw (University of Lincoln), who is the author of Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction and is currently engaged in a project investigating the impact of the EU referendum on British literature, alongside three creative practitioners: the novelist and memoirist Fiona Shaw, author of the Young Adult novel Outwalkers (2018); M.G. Sanchez, author of Past: A Memoir (2016), whose recent work has scrutinised the Brexit vote and Brexit process from the Gibraltarian point of view, and Richard T. Kelly, author of Crusaders (2008), whose novels probe the nexus between politics and fiction.

Following brief introductions, the panel discussed four central questions:

  1. Do you think writers should intervene in public debates around Brexit? Is there a moral responsibility for writers to comment on current events, either in their work or in public forums?;
  2. Do you feel literary interventions into these debates have made a difference?
  3. How does your own work speak to the role of literature in defining the relationship between Britain and Europe?
  4. How important is a close relationship between Britain and Europe to your work as a writer/academic?

While Fiona Shaw, Sanchez and Kelly rejected the idea that writers have an absolute duty, a moral responsibility to intervene in public debates, it became clear that their work is driven by a strong commitment to use their platform as writers to prompt their readers to reflect and question what is happening in Britain and the world. For Fiona Shaw, the issue of understanding the dynamics behind events like Brexit is particularly pertinent for young readers, and she gave fascinating insights into her workshops with young people whose object was to allow for the development of empathy for others. For Sanchez, his Gibraltarian upbringing and the lived experience of isolation constitute the strongest prompt for urging his readers to interrogate the consequences of Brexit. Kelly and Kristian Shaw offered useful reflections on the varied nature of contemporary writers’ responses to the EU referendum.

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For those interested in finding out more, audio recordings of the two keynotes and the round table are available on the conference website at www.europeanconversations.com. The hashtag #EuropeanConversations18 offers a further overview of the various panels and papers. Last but not least, a selection of articles based on papers presented at the conference will appear as an open access Special Collection with the Open Library of Humanities under the conference title in the course of 2019-20 – please keep an eye on the @EUCon1918_2018 Twitter account for updates.


With the financial support of a UACES Small Event Grant 



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