BREXIT FROM ABROAD
The Language of a Country Falling Apart
Dutch writer Chris Keulemans has spent the past three years at our sister organisation, Byline Festival, listening to a great national debate – going nowhere as truth crumbles.
“There are, for lack of a better word, some misconceptions about abortion.” Ed Statham is a high school student from Nutley, East Sussex. A wry smile, a quick apology – and he continues. He’s not here to crack jokes.
Together with his fellow students Hannah, Lauren, Molly and Natalie, he travelled a few miles down the road to offer us five different perspectives on abortion, one of the most hotly contested issues in Western societies today. “The largest anti-abortion groups are ruled entirely by men,” they say. And: “What does pro-life even mean in American states where the death penalty and carrying fire-arms are legal?”
It is Sunday morning. We are in the Future Dome, a circular white tent seating 200 people, at the border of the Byline Festival. To our left is the Frontline Club, a gathering place for independent journalists. To our right, the Rebel Rebel Stage, fuelled by three generations of activists connected to Extinction Rebellion.
People who are such masters of their language have allowed themselves to become so clueless about the state of their nation.
The crowd is awake. They have descended from their tents – hundreds of them – on the green slopes of Pippingford Park that surround the festival area.
I remain seated in my plastic chair, after the students have left, wondering how people who are such masters of their language have allowed themselves to become so clueless about the state of their nation.
I remember the opening ceremony of the first Byline Festival in June 2017. People were still reeling from the results of the EU Referendum. Reeling, but defiant.
In 2018, I called the festival “the most cheerfully depressing event I ever witnessed”. This year’s edition – two months before the UK might crash out of Europe with no deal – is just as exciting but more than ever: grim.
Thousands and thousands of people, eloquent and peaceful and dedicated to saving the planet, gathered under a suspiciously hot summer sun, in the dark about whatever the immediate future will hold for them.
I am a Dutch travelling writer and teacher, based in Amsterdam. Peter Jukes, co-founder of Byline Times and the Byline Festival, together with Stephen Colegrave, has been a dear friend over the past 20 years. I speak English fluently, but not as fluently as Peter – or as high school student Ed. And language counts here.
Working across Europe, my conversations with other continentals are in English. We understand each other. But that is another, purely functional, kind of English. Here, at the Byline Festival, people speak the real thing: a language of sophistication, nuance, coded messages and almost intimidating wit.
Such a rich and layered language can only spring from an equally rich and layered society. All the more unsettling then, to this observer from the mainland, to hear speaker after speaker describing – in perfect English – a country falling apart; a place where even the most basic truths are no longer reliable.
“The BBC reporting on Brexit is like a bar fight. One guy shouts: two times two is five! The other guy butts in: no, absolutely not, two times two is seven! And the BBC, frantically looking to balance the opposing views, reports: so, the truth should be somewhere in the middle.”
Patrick Howse, who worked for 25 years as a producer for the BBC, throws up his hands in exasperation. The crowd in the Forest Forum, a large tent elegantly placed between the trees, laughs – but without joy. I grew up in a time and place where all of us involved in the media knew one thing for sure: the BBC was the gold standard.
Today, Howse says that the BBC, in its coverage of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, has been “enabling fascism”. And that is just the beginning of a heartbreaking panel titled How Can We Defend the BBC? The four speakers are passionate about the virtues of public service broadcasting, now more than ever, but have no illusions that its British flagship will be saved.
They don’t even bother to mention other mainstream newspapers and broadcasting companies. The British media is consistently ranked the least trustworthy in Europe. Later that evening, the annual Bad Press Awards are on, a hilarious but shocking mainstay of the festival. It turns out to be, again, like shooting in a barrel of fish.
So where to find real and sustainable truth, among the crowds that are milling around the sunlit tents and forest paths and foodstalls and workshops? In music, maybe.
Every night, when the merciless temperature cools down, bands and DJs, young and old, icons and unknowns, start performing on all the stages the festival offers.
On the main stage, underneath the cream and purple banners of the Media Circus, people flock to see what Stephen Colegrave has brought them this year. The former punk rocker has a knack of attracting acts from a time when counterculture was irreverent and steeped in irony. Official truth was to be spat on and institutions demolished.
To see the stars of his generation (and mine) growing old on stage is tough. The reality that fired up their original songs is gone. But nostalgia is an emotion we can barely afford in these pressing times, and they know it. Just as they understand that they will not, in their fifties, come up with the anthems for a new era. So they are not here because they’re relevant, but because music is still their life. And sometimes, when the stars appear across the East Sussex sky, the old songs reveal the endurance of their inner strength and take on a new meaning.
Robert Howard, front man of the Blow Monkeys, is the embodiment of the Byline Festival spirit. Next year, he will be taking part as a speaker. Tonight, he exudes melancholy and resilience in equal parts. He is no longer the streetwise dandy of the eighties. But, the mop of hair is still there, he squeezes economic flashes of beauty from his guitar and the band is on point. Then, towards the end of the concert, he gazes out across the audience, to the rolling hills beyond and arrives at his moment of truth: Another British day / But who is going to pay / When everything falls down.
I wander off into the evening. So does Dan Gillespie Sells, the charismatic front man of The Feeling, who delivered a joyous set on that same stage last night. Apparently, he is discovering something here, at a festival he described as “a tad more Bolshevistic than the gigs we usually play”.
Before arriving here, I spent two days in Birkenhead, a town facing Liverpool across the Mersey river.
An old friend of mine, a former refugee from Tajikistan, lives there with his wife, who is from Mauritius, and their two children. They moved there from Yorkshire, where my friend says the racism in the street was so vicious that he brought his kids to school carrying a knife up his sleeve.
Speaker after speaker describing – in perfect English – a country falling apart; a place where even the most basic truths are no longer reliable.
He shows me around his neighbourhood and says everyone here is pro-Brexit and jobless. Windows are shuttered. The houses look forlorn and battered. Shops, the few that we see, are often closed or looking for a new owner. These are the people who are going to pay when everything falls down.
This is the country falling apart. Language crashes into decay and paralysis here. Powerless. Clueless.
In 2014, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation warned us that, at current rates of soil loss – driven largely by poor farming practice – we have just 60 years of harvests left, even if the climate wasn’t turning against us.
That is, says Anita McNaught, if we persist with conventional intensive farming, with monocultures raised on petrochemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers diesel powering the agricultural machinery.
The former correspondent for the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera has worked in conflict zones across the world. Today, she runs a modest farm in East Sussex, anticipating the climate crises that lie ahead. She is here to chair a panel titled Farming in a Hostile Environment and does so at a breathless pace. There is no time to lose. This country will have to learn how to feed itself before its agriculture collapses along with the climate.
And yet, there is more determination than alarm among her panellists. Farmers and agricultural scientists themselves, but also experts in biodiverse agriculture, Colin Tudge, Josiah Meldrum, Dr John Lynch and David Exwood, differ in skills and strategy but share a real optimism – pride even – in the possibilities of feeding the UK in a sustainable, resilient way. And these are not just words. McNaught and her panellists speak from a physical, grounded experience.
Outside the jam-packed tent, the abundant green of Pippingford Park lies glowing in silence, hovering over the festival. For the first time, I allow myself to admire it without a sense of guilt, as I walk over to the Extinction Rebellion stage.
Mankind has been destroying this beauty, as speaker after eloquent speaker has reminded us all weekend long. But sometimes, even at the Byline Festival, the English language is still capable of painting a future, instead of all that has been lost.
Byline Festival and Byline Times are separate organisations.