Being and Neonness

– an English translation –

If you’d been walking up Kentish Town Road in London last evening, you might have noticed a party going on inside the Owl Bookshop. We were celebrating a book by Luis de Miranda, which I translated from the French original –L’être et le néon – and which has now been published in English by MIT Press as Being and Neonness. It is a cultural, historical and philosophical exploration of neon lights as a metonymy for twentieth century identity. It has already been positively reviewed in The Atlantic and also caught the attention of Matthew Sweet at BBC Radio Three’s Free Thinking who talked to Luis about it last week. To explain the background to the translation, here is an interview I did with Luis and here is how we began the launch party.

Being and Neonness, what is it all about?

When I was studying French literature and philosophy at Bristol University, it was a somewhat schizophrenic experience, because the philosophy department, true to the analytical tradition in the English-speaking world, only considered two French thinkers, 17th century Rene Descartes and 20th century Jean-Paul Sartre, to be philosophers in the strict sense. My beloved “philosophes”, 16th century Montaigne and 18th century Voltaire and Diderot, were rather sniffily dismissed. That taught me a lesson about translation and les faux amis, false friends: a “philosophe” in French is not necessarily a “philosopher” in English.

So, in English philosophy we did read René Descartes who said essence precedes existence, “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think therefore I am”, that is “to do is to be”. We also read Jean-Paul Sartre who said “existence precedes essence”, that is “to be is to do”. So, to do is to be or to be is to do and, of course, the great American philosopher, Frank Sinatra said “Doobey Doobey Doo.”

I think you will find that this little book brings together key moments in Western 20th century culture, and mixes humour, music, poetry and philosophy in a very readable way.

A few words about the title. I expect most of you have heard of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 “L’être et le néant”, “Being and Nothingness”, which has recently been translated for a second time by Sarah Richmond, a philosopher here at UCL in London.

But what about the neon? Our book is “L’être et le néon “Being and Neonness”. Luis had an illuminating moment in Paris with a neon shop sign which prompted this whole enterprise. His title riffs on a passage from “Boris Vian’s 1947 novel. Let me read you a short extract in which Luis recounts this.

in “L’Écume des jours — literally, “the foam of days”— we discover that a fictional Jean-Sol Partre gave an imaginary lecture entitled “The Letter and the Neon,” a famous critical study on luminous signs.” What sort of light will we produce if we mix Vian’s poetic music and the real-life Sartre’s insights in a slim glass tube? In the months that followed my encounter with the neon trigger on the Quai du Louvre, the disingenuously anodyne character of neonness haunted me to such an extent that it pushed apparently more “serious” ideas to the back of my mind. I started reading Being and Nothingness, the seven-hundred-page slab that contains an entire historical era. A simplified version of existentialism has become the implicit popular philosophy of our times, encapsulated in the ideal of self-realization.

From its first sentence, […], this wordy but touching doorstop of a book brings out the twentieth century’s concern with phenomena and appearance: “Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.” To exist for Sartre refers to the fact of emerging out of a background, getting out of what there is, to stand out. To exist is like an enforceable attempt to escape the flowing materiality or immanence of things, and it requires a twofold effort, like squaring the real, or a “decompression of being,” as Sartre put it. Moreover, to exist is to remove oneself from an undifferentiated being and bring out the unheard of, perhaps the incredible—to dare the fostering of a subtler Logos, to articulate a dialectic of sense and nonsense. To exist is to bring to life, in a certain manner, invisible flows of pre-existence. Elsewhere, in Situations, Sartre wrote that “it is impossible to correctly appreciate light without knowing the darkness,” echoing what Victor Hugo wrote in 1867 about the International Exposition and the idea of the City of Light: “Paris is a sower. Where does he sow? In the darkness. What does he sow? Sparks.”

End of quote.

I will leave it up to Luis to extrapolate further on the book’s content, but I would like to say something about the translation process. As you will see on the cover, it reads “Being & Neonness, Luis de Miranda, translated by Michael Wells, revised, augmented and updated for this edition by Luis de Miranda. This acknowledges the back and forth exchanges between Luis and myself, as I translated chapter by chapter, which I would send to him and we would discuss by email. This initiated a multi-layered conversation between us about the book and the ideas in it. When MIT Press got involved, Roger Conover, the editor, suggested we read one of their recent titles “Sympathy for the Traitor” by Mark Polizzotti, which is a follow-on from one of the bibles of translation studies, David Bellos’s Is that a fish in your ear, translation and the meaning of everything.” Polizzotti considers the translator as a reader and as a new voice or writer in his or her own right.

As most of you know, I like talking and conversation, so I would like to add another label; the Translator as Conversationalist. The translator as a facilitator of the conversation between the author and the reader.

To conclude, I hope that you will read this book, which has some stimulating ideas in it about identity, creativity and it also has a political dimension. Above all, I hope you will find it enjoyable and illuminating.

Thank you.

Aura neon by Eric Michel.

It’s so beautiful, it reminds me of home!


Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I love London Town. So the song goes, so my heart follows. Despite the stuff and nonsense of so many of my confused compatriots at the moment, I love London and can feel a sense of homesickness when I’m away.

As a patriotic but not jingoistic Englishman, born near the Thames, son of an engineer and myself an erstwhile freelance diplomat, building bridges, physical or metaphorical, has always been my kind of thing.

London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady. In about 1970 my father took me to see our contemporary-modern London Bridge being built. It was officially opened by the Queen in 1973. We knew the old one had fallen down or at least had been sinking Venice-like into the river-bed mud. We knew its pieces had been numbered, packaged up and sent over the pond to The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, in the words of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics of what was to become the American national anthem. At about the same time, John Rennie, a Scots engineer, was designing our “New” London Bridge, which crossed the Thames from 1831 until 1967. One might surmise that the old New London Bridge was heading west to fulfil its manifest destiny, the civilising mission, to boldly go where no bridge had boldly gone before. United States Entrepreneur Robert McCulloch purchased the bridge, which became the largest antique in the world and rebuilt it to straddle the canal he dug across a peninsula, thus creating an island in Lake Havasu, on the Colorado River, the border between Arizona and California. “Neat and awesome!”, you might be tempted to exclaim.


Fast forward from the Sad Seventies to the steamy summer of 1986. I was living in Paris and the US Dollar had hit an exchange rate peak: one US would buy you 10 French Francs, Oh là là! (By way of comparison & strong Euro oblige, one single greenback will only buy you five and half equivalent French Francs in 2018.) So, thirty-two summers ago, swarms of American tourists hit Gay Paree; in their midst were busloads of mid-West high-school kids and their teachers; they had never been to a city before, let alone an international capital and were thirsty for culture, adventure and shopping. They weren’t the asses I have just found online, but from another outfit, which arranged one to two-week educational trips for American kids to Europe. I was hired as a tour guide-interpreter alongside some other bilingual students. We were each assigned a tour bus, driver and around fifty people, each high-school group of ten accompanied by a couple of teachers and the odd parent or two from back home. We showed them the sights of Paris, including multiple shopping expeditions. “Oh Mike, I just bought ten ounces of Joy for ten dollars!” exclaimed one teacher after I had herded her group through the Fragonard Perfume Museum, which is still there to this very day, near the Palais Garnier, Paris Opera. The Loire castles, complete with son et lumière, elicited a heart-felt “Humungous!” when I asked one of my rural teenage charges what she had thought of the Château de Chenonceau. Couldn’t fault her on that, it is rather ossum, n’est-ce pas! My colleague Roger, an English guy on vacation from his Cambridge studies, had a group of shy black kids from Washington on his bus. He coaxed and nurtured them, but eventually, in desperation, asked one of them why they seemed so unhappy with their French visit, despite his best efforts to interest and engage them. One diffident boy ventured that he was homesick for the shopping. Poor Roger, almost beside himself, retorted, “But you’ve hardly done anything except shopping since you got here!! What is it that you can get in Washington that you can’t get here in Paris?” he demanded. “Well, a lil’ bit of this an’ a lil’ bit of that,” came the rather sheepish reply. They did loosen up a little thereafter, pained at not pleasing their poor guide.

One of the perks for us tour guide-interpreters was that, if we could persuade at least three of the adults, i.e. teachers, parents or over-18 students, to buy tickets for a Parisian floor-show, then we would get in free. Over the week I got friendly with some of the teachers, one of whom I felt was on the same wavelength. Let’s call her Ghislaine. That wasn’t her name, which now escapes me, but I can clearly see her round, plump, smiling face and bright, intelligent eyes, framed in a tousle of curly blonde locks. (She looked like the real Ghislaine I did know, who was a teacher in a French school where I had taught in 1979). American Ghislaine and her group of students hailed from sparsely-populated Wyoming, cattle and mining country. Unlike my cosmopolitan self, none of them had been to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or London, so for them this trip to Paris was quite the thing. Ghislaine and a couple of her colleagues succumbed to my sales pitch for the Moulin Rouge, so we rocked up one evening to the show there. On the Pigalle pavement, under the red neon sails of the old red windmill, we waited in line, briefly, before two thousand people were ushered – with amazing rapidity and exquisite crowd control – or rather shoe-horned, into the theatre; each guest sat either side of a mini-table facing the stage and complete with boudoir-shaded lamp, ice-bucket, half bottle of champagne and two glasses. I sat opposite Ghislaine. The lights went down and the show began. Well, what a show! Number after exquisite number, tableau after tremendous tableau, the multitude of performers whirled and danced across the huge stage, no expense spared for costumes, sets, lighting or musical extravagance. Then a sudden quiet pause, during which a large, transparent glass tank arose from under the stage, the green water eerily lit from below. Enter from stage left a heroic, moustachioed acrobat of sorts, dressed in a 19th century style yellow leotard and black shorts, mid-riff buckled with a strongman’s belt. In one hand he held a leash, on the other end of which a rather mournful real-life alligator was trying to keep its dignity as it waddled on stage. The audience gasped, the strongman bent down and grabbed the alligator, flinging it into the raised pool, then jumped in himself after it. More gasps from the audience. Then ensued a mock mortal combat or rather a sort of semi-reptilian fisticuffs, in which the alligator conceded early, if ignominious defeat. Nonetheless, sceptics such as myself were sufficiently impressed, if not spellbound. A glance over to Ghislaine and her friends reassured me that they were delighted, intoxicated by the champagne and the culture. The curtain came down and after a few moments went up again. Gone all signs of the swimming pool and gator. We had been transported into a saloon from the American Wild West of Annie Get Your Gun, Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp! Dancing cowgirls in full petticoated skirts and cowboys in jeans, boots, ten-gallon hats, leather chaps and all the gear, high-legged it in time across the stage and back again, singing all the way. Wow! Then, from stage left a cowboy on a real-life horse comes a-gallopin’ (well, perhaps not that fast), Yee-Hawin’ and shootin’ his hand-gun as he arrived upstage centre. I glanced round to my neighbour to see how she was enjoying the show and saw streams of tears rolling down her flushed cheeks. “Oh, Ghislaine, are you okay? What’s the matter?”, I solicitously enquired. “Oh Mike, it’s so beautiful. It reminds me of home!”. The tears started rolling down mine, too. A night to remember.

So here we are, en route from beautiful Santa Fe to beautiful San Francisco and I, at least, have come to pay homage to old New London Bridge, on the shores of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. And here is the view from my window and it’s so beautiful, it reminds me of home, as I wipe a teardrop from the corner of my eye.


And if you want more background, the BBC has published a great piece about The Bridge that crossed an ocean! September 2018.

Everything flows, a meander around Putney, a novel by Sofka Zinovieff

A miner, Sofka and Sarah outside a colliery circa 1971.jpg

A miner, Sofka & Sarah and a National Coal board truck and driver outside Bolsover colliery in 1974.

Putney is one of the urban-suburban villages of South-West London, south of the river and just next door to Wimbledon, where I was born and brought up. It is also the title of a new novel by an old friend and accomplished writer, Sofka Zinovieff, who, as her name suggests, has some Russian in her.

Putney becomes a metonym for childhood, first love, friendship and the healing power of making art. It’s more complicated than that, though, as thirteen-year old Daphne, the main protagonist, is raped by Ralph, the thirty-year-old composer friend of Edmund, her writer father, so questions of underage sex, consent and parental protection also loom large. Literary names are clues, so let’s remember that in Greek mythology, Daphne was pursued by Apollo, who was smitten with her beauty. To escape his clutches, she pleaded with her river-god father, who turned her into a laurel bush

Daphne is a beautiful wild child, footloose and fancy-free, the daughter of freedom and adventure, but also an allegorical figure. Reading Sofka’s evocation of childhood, the discovery of passionate love, the comfort of friendship and the desire to take control of a life at its outset, flooded me with memories of that time and that place. Not so much Bildungsroman or roman à clef, this novel worked for me as a Proustian madeleine. Sofka weaves a marvellous mnemonic warp and weft of the 1970s fabric of South West London.

Putney the novel is a great read and prompted me to write a long essay, as it brought back memories of growing up in that part of the world in the 1970s. Rather than publish it in full here, I have posted two versions online: UK here and US here.



Broken British plumbing – ceci n’est pas une pipe

This is not a pipe, but my homework for the non-narrative fiction course at City University. Whoops! That should read “narrative non-fiction”, but we are allowed to submit our non-fiction pieces to the “City Writes” fiction competition as long as they are short stories with an ending. Interesting; the never-ending stream of fake news makes it hard to tell the difference between truth, fiction and facts, alternative or not.

So, are the leaks in British plumbing real or just a figment of our collective imagination? Our downstairs neighbour was having her flat renovated when Mikhail, the Ukrainian plumber, told us that our central heating pipe, which runs under her floorboards, was old and corroded and about to start leaking, so he mended it for us. I didn’t ask about the visa requirements for him to come to the United Kingdom. Had he been Polish, he wouldn’t have needed a visa as Poland is a member of the European Union. What then is the threaded connection between our heating pipe and British plumbing in general? If you have been following the hoo-ha about Europe, in the wake of the 2016 referendum, you will have read last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favour of Miller and against the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union[1] and will be familiar with the metaphor of the “conduit pipe” to describe how European Union law has been introduced into UK domestic law since the 1972 Act of Parliament took the UK into the European Economic Community. Rather like the undersea channel tunnel that connected Folkestone to Calais in 1994 some twenty years later, the 1972 Act created this conduit pipe and an unprecedented constitutional connectedness across north-western Europe and the Atlantic Isles. It turned on a tap of trust to feed the 1998 Good Friday agreement and soothe the troubles in Ulster. Constitutional constipation might be another way of describing the brokenness of our plumbing, because our body politic is suffering from terrible intestinal pains and there are no plumbers on hand – Polish or otherwise – to unblock our democratic drains. Dr Fox’s Elixir of Global Free Trade whiffs of snake oil and quackery, rather than liberating legislative laxative.

Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be an interesting subject for historians. They will ponder whether he or his successor, Theresa May, more successfully aspired to failure. In 2010, Cameron’s coalition government commissioned the “review of the balance of competences”, an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK. It reported that the balance was about right, but that did not suit Cameron’s political purposes, so he buried the findings.[2] Not many people heard about the review, fewer read it and nobody acted it on it. “The evidence submitted to the free movement of persons consultation did not support the driving premise of government policy in this area for the last few years, namely that the free movement of persons must be reduced, that it is being abused, and that it encourages benefit tourists.”[3] So European Union immigration was not a big problem. In 2014 there was the referendum on the independence of Scotland. As an Englishman, I was outraged not to be consulted about the future of the union to which I, as a citizen, belong. Whatever. The process highlighted the asymmetric devolution of the four nations, in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have national-regional parliaments, but England does not. Although the crumbling Palace of Westminster – read physical, moral and political decay here – is located in the capital of England, there is a manifest imbalance. Curiously, the F-word so despised by Margaret Thatcher in her days of hand-bagging her European counterparts, has not resurfaced in mainstream English political debate, although federalism has served democracies such as the United States of America, India or Germany fairly well.

As we disconnect the European conduit pipe from our British constitutional plumbing and throw the Brussels baby out with the bathwater, the Scots and the Welsh – keen to protect their devolution settlements – watch as the CUP-DUP tinker with their confidence and supply spanners and bleed the budget radiators for magic money. This brings us, fiction or non-fiction, to the fantastical, technologically invisible border on the island of Ireland which will enable the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, its single market and customs union, yet allow Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom and at the same time enjoy complete and unfettered access to the people, goods and services in the Republic of Eire, which is part of the same European Union. Two plus two equals five. Top-hole! Our champion in the present Conservative and Unionist Party government is the Foreign Secretary, who has made a career out of turning fiction into alternative fact. A journalist colleague in Brussels wrote that during his time as The Daily Telegraph correspondent there, Boris Johnson “never let facts get in the way of a good story.”[4]

Question: What are we to do about this constitutional chaos, democratic decrepitude and European ejection?

Answer: We all know that the British Royal Family is German. In 2014 we celebrated the tricentennial of the Hanoverian Succession, commemorating 1714 when George I became king of Great Britain and Ireland. Hailing from Germany he didn’t speak English, yet his house ruled the country until the death of his descendent, Queen Victoria, in 1901. Luckily, she had married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg Gotha, also German, and their son, Edward VII, kept the family firm going, as does the latter’s great-grand-daughter today. Back in 1847 Albert helpfully drafted a constitution for the plethora of fractious German states, so why not enter the realm of semi-fiction and get one of our royal princes to draft a new constitution. Some people like republics, some kingdoms, others prefer cloud-cuckoo land, so how about a Federal Kingdom-Republic for Citizens of Everywhere? We could elect as leader King Boris or President William Windsor the Fifth.


[1] JUDGMENT R (on the application of Miller and another) (Respondents) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Appellant). 24 January 2017.

[2] Cameron’s renegotiation and the burying of the balance of competencies review:

[3] Ibid.

[4] The road to Brexit was paved with Boris Johnson’s Euromyths, Jean Quatremer:

Review of “Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence”

We might all end up as paper-clips!

Max Tegmark is a Swedish-American professor of physics at MIT, founder of the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute and an optimist. His 2017 book, Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence, demonstrates his belief that a positive future is possible and that a conscious universe is more valuable than one made up of paper-clips.

“He finds it abhorrent and wasteful that humanity could die a “death by banality” if the objective of a goal-driven artificial intelligence turned out to be nothing more profound than “rearranging all the molecules in the universe to maximise the number of paper-clips”.

Tegmark’s institute is more focused on the future of intelligent, conscious life than the Future of Humanity Institute, based at the University of Oxford, set up by his colleague and fellow Swede, Nick Bostrom. It is a noteworthy distinction between life and humanity. Tegmark’s accessible, readable book explains cutting-edge science in a comprehensible way and belongs to a burgeoning genre of singularity titles, such as Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 Sapiens: A brief history of mankind and his 2015 Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow. They follow on from Stephen Hawking’s 1988 A Brief History of Time, Bostrom’s 2014 Superintelligence and Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 The Singularity is Near. The singularity is sometimes taken to mean the point at which artificial intelligence becomes more powerful than human intelligence. This has been interpreted in various utopian and dystopian scenarios; either the robots decide that the greatest threat to the universe is represented by humans and act accordingly or, slightly less scarily, a few mega-wealthy humans morph into super-transhumans by updating themselves periodically with the latest biomedical technology and blast off in their private spaceships to residences on Mars or some other exclusively expensive corner of the universe, while the impoverished mass of mankind scrabbles around on over-heated earth for the leftover scraps.

Tegmark is the optimist to Harari the pessimist, who is more worried about the dangers posed to humanity by artificial intelligence and the need for a serious discussion about how to prevent catastrophe. Tegmark is no slouch, however, and one of the fascinating aspects of his scientific method, compared to Harari’s literary-historical approach, is his discussion of the Really Hard Problem, that is, how to explain consciousness scientifically. In Homo Deus, Harari worries that advances in computing mean that advanced intelligence has been decoupled from consciousness and that it is therefore very dangerous if non-conscious intelligent machines take decisions that may adversely affect humans.

Tegmark’s Life 3.0 pursues a less doom-and-gloom-laden exploration of what perhaps is to come. He approaches consciousness from a different angle, arguing that information is substrate-independent. For example, we understand that a “wave can travel across a lake, even though none of its molecules do”[1] or that a Mozart aria written in musical notation embodies the same information as when it is sung out loud. Tegmark’s optimism is underpinned by his use of scientific theory to test out new ideas. He explains modern theories of consciousness, which focus on activities in the brain, what are called the neural correlates of consciousness or NCCs. The current challenge is to explain how these NCCs are – or can be – PCCs or physical correlates of consciousness, “defined as the patterns of moving particles that are conscious”. Tegmark is very taken with his Italian colleague Gulio Tononi’s integrated information theory (IIT) which supports the idea that “consciousness is a physical phenomenon that feels non-physical because it’s like waves and computations: it has properties independent of its own physical substrate. […] If consciousness is the way that information feels when it’s processed in certain ways, then it must be substrate-independent; it’s only the structure of the information processing that matters, not the structure of the matter doing the information processing. In other words, consciousness is substrate-independent twice over!”[2]

So, what about the paper-clips? Well, it’s hard to compress 300 brilliant pages into a short review, but suffice to say that Tegmark feels it would be terrible if humanity’s molecules were all rearranged into said stationery. He does not explain why.

 11 February 2018

[1] Tegmark, Life 3.0 pg. 66.

[2] Ibid., pg. 303-304.


            Swimming is one of my favourite pastimes for many reasons. It keeps me fit, it gives me precious private space and it acts as a sort of punctuation to articulate the day. There is always before and after a swim. Sometimes, especially in winter, it takes me a while to convince myself that I must go for a swim. If it’s cold outside, the prospect of walking down to the baths, getting changed and diving into the water is not terribly appealing. But I know from experience that it is a question of managing perception, as the water temperature, whatever the outside air temperature, is fairly constant, between 26 and 28 degrees Centigrade, winter or summer alike. After the first surprise of immersion, your body adjusts to the water temperature and by the end of a kilometre, 50 lengths of a 25 metre pool or only 20 of a rarer 50 metre Olympic pool, the mind has completely forgotten about the initial perceived difficulties.

            In my imagination swimming reconnects me to the primal life form that crawled out of the swamp millennia ago, the faint cross-shaped patterns of the vellus hair on my upper arms suggest the paddling fins of my prehistoric ancestors, genetic tattoos of our fishy forebears. Swimming reminds me, however, that I don’t have gills and need to raise my head out of the water to breathe in fresh air. Inhaling and exhaling carefully produce a yoga-like attention to the breath, which is always calming. When I learnt to swim the crawl, after decades of breast and backstroke, my instructor told me to imagine that my body was encased in an invisible sheath and that I should attempt to keep inside it as I took each coordinated stroke, to keep my arms close to my torso and my legs as serpentine as possible. He also told me to point my fingers to the front of the pool and my toes to the back, stretching in both directions at the same time. It works wonders on the spine and was confirmed as beneficial by a more recent yoga teacher, whose exercises I have now incorporated into my swimming routine.

            During the forty-odd minutes it takes me to swim a kilometre, space-time is all my own and throughout the almost weightless progression through the invisible water, thoughts churn and coagulate, and ebb and flow until they seem to bubble and evaporate into the nothingness whence they came.

            Swimming regularly is like a surrogate religion or rather a surrogate religious practice, creating a structure, like a ritual, which allows you to follow, mindfully or mindlessly, the same set of movements, gestures and behaviour wherever you are. Swimming pools become like chapels or churches, places of worship, each with their local differences, styles, practices and customs, but all with the same central liturgy of diving, plunging, arm and leg strokes and their clergy of life-guards, pool attendants and receptionists. Praise the pool!


This was my first homework exercise for the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing course I’m doing at City University run by the fabulous Peter Forbes.

Britain does not break Treaties dixit Margaret Thatcher

If you, like me, are feeling bereft by the potentially imminent loss of your European Citizenship, then you might agree in finding the jokey vocabulary, which creates portmanteaus of ‘British’ and ‘exit’ and ‘British’ and ‘remain’ and ‘British’ and ‘moan’, simply irritating. Furthermore, you might find the superficiality misplaced and alarming, because the Churchillian ‘sunlit uplands’ whither Andrea Leadsom and now Theresa May seem to be leading us, seem like some sort of never-never land or the wonderland so aptly evoked by Ken Clarke, the only Conservative MP to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in the House of Commons on 21 January 2017:

“Apparently, when we follow the rabbit down the hole, we will emerge in a wonderland where, suddenly, countries throughout the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that we were never able to achieve as part of the European Union. Nice men like President Trump and President Erdogan are impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access. Let me not be too cynical; I hope that that is right. I do want the best outcome for the United Kingdom from this process. No doubt somewhere a hatter is holding a tea party with a dormouse in the teapot[1]”.

Contrariwise, I don’t believe that Theresa May is an Alice who can lead us out of the forest and I am rather amazed that she has managed to get where she is and hang on. Remember that she was only elected by her 35,453 Maidenhead constituents; not by her party and not by the country. Certainly not by the 65 million she claims in the Foreword to her White Paper[2]: The strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen”. Funny arithmetic all round here: 17 million voted Leave, 16 million Remain.

Whether you were a Thatcherite or not, it is fascinating to read her words and wonder whether Theresa May remembers what her predecessor said in April 1975:

“But for Britain to leave [the European Economic Community] would mean denouncing a Treaty.

Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade we may need to make. As Harold Macmillan said recently: ‘We used to stand for good faith. That is the greatest strength of our commerce overseas. And we are now being asked to tear up a Treaty into which we solemnly entered’.

The choice is clear. We can play a role in developing Europe, or we can turn our backs on the Community.

By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us. The European Community is a powerful group of nations. With Britain as a member, it is more powerful; without Britain it will still be powerful. We can play a leading role in Europe, but if that leadership is not forthcoming Europe will develop without Britain.

Britain, if she denounced a treaty, cannot then complain if Europe develops in conflict with Britain’s interests.”[3]

The speech has some other startling assertions, which would have those in the Leave camp growling and hurling abuse; unfortunately memories of Margaret Thatcher are selective.

So, Theresa May’s lack of leadership in Europe and her removing the United Kingdom from the European Union – and seemingly the single market – is going to deprive me of my European citizenship, which I cherish. The freedom to travel as I wish and when I wish to the other 27 member states; to work there if I wish – and that includes Switzerland, where I sometimes earn my muesli by virtue of our joint membership of the European Economic Area. If Global Britain is open for business and free trade, why are we leaving one of the biggest and richest free trade markets in the world? It simply does not add up. More funny arithmetic; the European single market has 508 million people[4], less 65 million hapless Brits soon, which makes 443 million. If we embrace free trade with the USA (326 million), Canada (37 million) Australia (25 million) and New Zealand (5 million), that only makes 393 million. Curiouser and curiouser!

The Supreme Court’s judgment[5] in favour of the Miller case was reassuring for those of us who still want to believe in the separation of powers and representative democracy, rather than mob rule in the Twittersphere. Lord Neuberger and his judges shared the fascinating metaphor of the 1972 Act taking us into the European Economic Area as a ‘conduit pipe’ by which EU law is introduced in UK domestic law[6] and enables us as “UK citizens […] to recover damages from the UK government in cases where a decision of one of the organs of the state based on a serious error of EU law has caused them loss.”

This ‘conduit pipe’ allowed us to turn on the tap of prosperity in the 1970s and catch up with the Trente Glorieuses (1945-1975) that had made France and Germany so much richer than we were. Do you remember the three-day week and the power cuts? I do – and the candles and one paraffin heater in our sitting room in suburban London in 1973.

The ‘conduit pipe’ also brought us our EU citizenship rights, the loss of which are the cause of my bereavement. How will I recover the damages?

Here are some “vivid illustrations of the variety of ways in which individual and group interests will be profoundly affected by implementation of the decision to leave the EU. Ms Mountfield for example provides a detailed breakdown of “fundamental” and “non-replicable” EU citizenship rights. The list starts with the “fundamental status” of EU citizenship (Citizens’ Directive 2004/38/EC preamble), leading to more specific rights, such as the right to move, reside, work and study throughout the member states, the right to vote in European elections, the rights to diplomatic protection and the right to equal pay, and to non-discriminatory healthcare free at the point of use. She categorises the government’s case as an assertion of -“untrammelled prerogative power to do away with the entire corpus of European law rights currently enjoyed under UK law, and render a whole suite of constitutional statutes meaningless, without any Parliamentary authority in the form of a statute.”[7]

Lord Neuberger didn’t agree with ‘untrammelled’, so let’s hope he’s right and that parliament gives the White Paper a good trammelling, but after the vote – excepted the lonely voices of Ken Clarke and Caroline Lucas and Nick Clegg – are we to surmise that our elected representatives are lemmings hurtling off their trolleys to the cliff edge?

I am losing my European citizenship, losing some of the fundamental freedoms that have enriched my life for the past 45 years. We should stop this nonsense.

“All persons more than a mile high must leave the court”.

[1] European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill

[2] The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union. Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty, February 2017

[3] Speech to Conservative Group for Europe (1) Thatcher Archive: CCOPR 314/75 (2) ITN Archive: News At Ten, 16 April 1975)


[5] JUDGMENT R (on the application of Miller and another) (Respondents) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Appellant)

[6] Ibid. paragraph 65

[7] Ibid. paragraph 269.

Theresa May’s case for withdrawal from the ECHR: Politically astute, legally dubious, constitutionally naïve

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has argued in a speech staking out her position on Brexit that, although she is in favour of the UK’s remaining in the European Union, it should withdraw from the E…

Source: Theresa May’s case for withdrawal from the ECHR: Politically astute, legally dubious, constitutionally naïve

I’m thinking of you

 In memoriam  Arthur James Wm. Wells, 1896 – 1915poppy 1915-2015

01 I'm thinking of you

I’m thinking of you, Card sent home by great-uncle Arthur

One hundred years ago, my grand-father’s only brother died in the mud in Flanders. He was 19 years old when he fell on 17 December 1915. We can imagine what Christmas must have been like for his parents and fourteen year old brother.

20150215_125508Arthur James William Wells was the elder son of James Joseph Wells, a foreman at Erith Docks on the river Thames and Annie, née Saunders (‘Lovely and ‘ot, Daisy’, which is what she used to say to my grandmother at Sunday lunch). My grandfather, Stanley Lewis Wells, was four years younger (1901-1984), too young to go to the Great War that claimed his elder brother and too old for the Second World War, which saw his elder son, Arthur Lewis Wells (born 1923), my father, in uniform. Granddad named my father and my uncle James (1930-1995) after his lost brother and father.

My father still has my grandfather’s copy of The Erithian, the magazine of the Erith County School from May 1916, which has an obituary of great-uncle Arthur:

The Erithian header

Once again it is our sad duty to record the loss of one of our Old Boys, the fourth to lay down his life for his King and country. Arthur Wells was one of the best sportsmen we have ever known and naturally he was one of the first to enlist on the outbreak of war. His love of danger and excitement led him to join the Hussars, and he went through his training as a cavalryman. He would certainly have been one of the best had he ever had the opportunity of showing how well he had profited by his training. But the way in which warfare developed made the cavalry arm of the Service of very little immediate utility, and he was drafted into the 3rd Batt. King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with whom he was serving when he met his death a short while ago.

                Though only in his twentieth year, his splendid physique made him a notable figure in any company. A natural athlete, he excelled in whatever branch of sport he took up, and was one of the best footballers – he played full-back – and beyond doubt the best cricketer the School has produced. He might have reached high honours in either of these games had he been spared to us. But far finer than his playing abilities was the truly sporting spirit in which he played. A mean action or an unfair advantage never entered the mind of Arthur Wells. He was indeed a true, manly Englishman, than which nothing finer can be said of him. We deplore his loss, both for our own and for his country’s sake.

                He entered the School in September 1908, and left to start work at Messrs. Cory’s Engineering Works, Erith, in December, 1911. His School career, though not of remarkable brilliance, was in every sense one to be proud of, and his sterling worth endeared him to fellow pupils and staff alike. He was one of the most valued members of the Green House, for whom he always did yeoman service, and his housemates felt with special keenness the sadness of his loss.

03 James, Annie and Stanley 1919

Photograph of great-granddad James, great-grandma Annie and granddad Stanley, Belgium 1919.

The only time my great-grand-parents, James and Annie left England, was in 1919, when they followed their son from the outskirts of London and travelled to Poperinge, not far from Ypres on the Belgian side of the border with France. There they visited his grave at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

In 2000, I moved to Brussels to work for the European Union. It had been a long held ambition, motivated by my upbringing and the family memories passed down of the disruption, loss and fear that the two world wars had wreaked. International reconciliation and understanding was essential to rebuild shattered Europe. Growing up in the 1960s, the European ideal of hope and shared destiny was exciting and comforting. My elder sister learned German and went on Christian youth work camps in Germany in the late 1960s, inviting her international friends one Christmas to our house in Wimbledon. My younger sister and I revelled in being spoilt by these lovely Dutch, French and German students who spoke fascinating languages. In 1971 the introduction of decimal currency in the UK and then our accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 were historic landmarks that had a profound impact on my generation, helping us to integrate with our European neighbours, providing opportunities to travel freely across the continent (the Western part, at least) that had been denied to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations in their youth. In 1979 I went to live and work in France for the first time, as an English language assistant in a provincial secondary school. Being a foreigner, I was only allowed a bank account in convertible Francs and the only money I could deposit in it was my salary.

I read French at university and went to live and work in Paris after graduation and spent some 15 years there. It was as translator that I moved to Brussels and there that I acquired my first television set and my first car. The television was important. In Brussels I was able to watch the BBC and in July 2000 was very moved by a report on the commemoration ceremony of the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. The wives, mothers and daughters of the men who had been victims of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II struck me with their dignity and determination, but I also felt viscerally puzzled as to why they would want to visit the mass graves that were the locus of their grief and suffering. It was the visit to pay my respects to great-uncle Arthur that helped me understand.

The car was not so important, but useful. Paul and Philip, two English friends living in Brussels, accompanied me one Sunday on the drive to Poperinge in Western Flanders near the French border. Without too much trouble we found the Military Cemetery at Lijssenthoek. Beautifully looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the rows of white gravestones commemorate some 10,000 burials. Unable to locate my great-uncle’s grave, I returned to the monumental red-brick gatehouse, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, where I found a little alcove cupboard, closed by a neat metal door. Inside was a ledger with the names of the fallen and a plan of the cemetery. Turning the pages to the letter W, I soon found the entry, which has since been digitised and made available online, for WELLS, ARTHUR JAMES. It made me shudder to read:

In Memory of



23597, 6th Bn., King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who died on 17 December 1915 Age 19

Son of James J. and Annie E. Wells, of 23, Thanet Rd., Erith, Kent.

doc5718628 AJW grave

Thanet Road in Erith is just around the corner from Lesney Park Road where my father was born, where my grand-parents lived when I was little and where we held the reception after Uncle James’s funeral in 1995. Connecting those streets on the slope rising up from the Thames to this flat field in Flanders, it all suddenly became so real; it wasn’t a story read in a book, but this 19-year old boy, who looked in photographs just like my father, was family, buried in the ground here. When I located the headstone I had another shudder, as the inscription read, AJ WELLS, the same initials as my eldest brother, Andrew Joseph. I felt for granddad, what feelings must have gone through him when he stood here in 1919, eighty-one years earlier. Then I began to understand, with all due proportion and respect, why the Bosnian women visited the mass graves at Srebrenica; the dead create a connection with place. I had family buried in Belgium.

Rupert Brooke, the young poet who wrote The Solider, an evocative poem about the First World War, death and place, also died that same year, in 1915.

If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

There’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England. This place, this cemetery in Flanders was and is part of my family story. Standing there with my two friends I felt glad and grateful that my parents’ generation had put the war behind them and created an environment in which I was free to travel and work and enjoy life in the European Union of then 15 Member States. Indeed, I was working for a Frenchman, whose boss in turn was German and my colleagues in the ‘minestrone’ translation department were a jolly mixture of all the nationalities.

A family story

Our European history is a family story and it is still essential that we remember the tens of millions of our family members, like my great-uncle Arthur, whose lives were claimed by an ultimately useless, futile war. Their untimely deaths were the result of the international political elites’ failure to communicate and cooperate, what Christopher Clark has called ‘sleepwalking’ (The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914). Today, we need to be mindful of history when we consider our relationship with our friends and neighbours in Europe and wary of the mythologizing of independence. Our European story is a family story that goes back hundreds of years, so much so that by the 19th Century the crowned heads of Europe were closely-related members of the same family. Christopher Clark reminds us, in a London Review of Books article, of the kinship links between Nicky, Willy and George[1], respectively, the Russian Czar, German Kaiser and British king.

By the turn of the 20th century, the genealogical web of Europe’s reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion. Wilhelm II and George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria’s granddaughter. The mothers of George V and Nicholas II were sisters from the house of Denmark. Wilhelm and Nicholas II were both great-great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The Kaiser’s great-great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the Tsar’s grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, not everybody was asleep to the dangers of war. In ‘The World of Yesterday’, the memoir written and published shortly before his suicide in exile in 1942 during World War II, Stefan Zweig describes his friendship with the French writer, pacifist and 1915 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Romain Rolland. For Zweig, Rolland was the ‘man who would be the conscience of Europe in its time of crisis’.[2] Rolland wrote an anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (Au-dessus de la Mêlée), moved to Switzerland where he worked for the Red Cross in Geneva and pleaded for international reconciliation.

Rolland is one of the many who believe, […], that the spiritual forces that are important and ought to prevail are the international ones; that co-operation, not war, is the right destiny of nations; and that all that is valuable in each people may be maintained in and by friendly intercourse with the others. The war between these two ideals is the greater war that lies behind the present conflict.[3]

In 2015, one hundred years after great-uncle Arthur died in the mud in Flanders, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer issued a warning that the world is at a turning point and appealed for urgent and concrete action to address human suffering and insecurity.

Rest in peace, Arthur James William Wells. Gone, but not forgotten.

poppy 1915-2015

[1] The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One by Miranda Carter
Fig Tree, 584 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 670 91556 9

[2] The World of Yesterday, pg. 226

[3] Above the battle, introduction