Isolated lights in an abyss of ignorance
‘All knowledge is enveloped in darkness.’
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
I was waiting on the tarmac concourse of the port in Plymouth to board the overnight ferry sailing to Roscoff. My hope was to catch another boat to Ireland the next evening, although I knew the ferry was already fully booked. Standing at the back of the queue of eager cyclists I had felt nervous and forlorn. Not only because of the uncertainty of my travel arrangements and the tour ahead – two weeks cycling around the North of Ireland and Northern Ireland alone – but also because my son’s father, from whom we had long been estranged had suddenly, but not wholly unexpectedly died from a heart attack on the top of Primrose Hill two weeks before. Then, I was still in shock and naturally worried about my son. My state of agitation is obvious to me now as I recall the start of my trip. For I was frustrated by the chatter of the novice cyclists in front of me and worried how the next 24 hours would unfold. More irrationally, I was annoyed by a piece of green AstroTurf laid in front of the newly erected port-a-cabin, where I had bought a cup of tea, thinking it a profligate attempt to make the café more appealing given there was no competition.
On board I stood watching the other cyclists scramble to park their bikes and unload their belongings. I was grateful when a tall, lean man said I could park my bike next to his and afterwards kindly offered to help carry my panniers. In the empty canteen we ate as the sun set. I was glad to have company. The boat loitered in the bay. Afterwards we sat out on the deck talking and smoking cigarettes, the distant lights of the city twinkling, and the next morning, following an uncomfortable night in the lounge seats, we agreed to ride into Roscoff for a coffee.
It was a glorious summer’s morning. Much like the day I had cycled off the boat the year before. Then, I had stopped in the town only briefly. Now I had the whole day to explore, and after visiting the ferry terminal, I was content to follow my new companion for he was a knowledgeable guide. We rode up to the Chapelle Sainte Barbe, a small white washed sanctuary atop a rocky spur. From there, rising above the harbour and town houses we could see the steeple of the Catholic church, and to the north, across the motionless water, the Île de Batz.
Later we browsed the market stalls along the quay selling vases and aged linen, old furniture, badges and second hand cameras, as we made our way towards the café near the harbour. The tide was out. We parked the bikes and found a table. A small fleet of pleasure boats lay in the sand. When we set off again we cycled the loaded bikes through the cobbled streets, juddering past shops selling ice cream and local specialities, hotels and houses made of stone, before stopping at an alleyway leading down to the pontoon where Mary Queen of Scots had first stepped foot in France.
Early that morning, standing on the stern of the boat, my new companion had asked about Outsider. If I was evasive it was because I was feeling overwhelmed. ‘Europe’ is referred to in the media without explanation: its meaning assumed. Yet it is a contested geographical area, as well as a more ambiguous, constantly changing, construct of our imaginations. I knew this before I began my effort to compose a version of the continent out of the opinions and stories of the people I met. My problem was, I did not yet know what was important. What aspects of Europe’s history, culture, religion and politics I should be focussing on. The uncertainties created by Brexit were further obscuring my vision and at that time, and for a considerable period after, I was both intellectually and emotionally adrift.
The winter before, seeking assistance I visited a Professor of European Philosophy at the LSE. It was an awkward meeting for he had not read my email and I knew little about him. Nevertheless he was generous with his time and recommended some books to read. I did not understand initially why, as I was leaving, he stressed on me the importance of Paul Valéry’s, The Outlook for Intelligence published in 1935. For it was not the definitive account of Europe I was expecting. Rather an essay on how people process knowledge. In which he suggests that human sensibility has been corrupted by technological advancement and an ever-increasing appetite for consumption, and ends with the advice of training our mental reflexes through reflection.
But on rereading the essay, I have come to appreciate how Valéry’s thinking is relevant in these bewildering times. The period and technological advancements may be different but Valéry’s commentary on the causes of our collective confusion remains significant. Particularly, his observations on how our constant demand for renewed stimuli in the press (and I add here social media), in daily habits and pleasures have led to widespread anxiety. Our growing, voracious appetite for sensationalism, and the amount of contradictory information produced, means we no longer know who we can trust. This ambiguity in the context of Brexit has created a maelstrom.
To address this crisis of the mind, Valéry advises developing and relying on our own intellectual capacities. He writes, that we learn more from direct observation and experience, and that the more directly we perceive events without relying on previous interpretations or ‘translating our impressions into clichés’ the more valuable our insight. He also suggests, we relearn to be patient, not to rush to conclusions, while exercising our own intellectual capacity to regain control.
Why do I recall Valéry’s words now? It is not only because the essay was recommended to me. Valéry’s observations about learning resonate with my original hopes for this blog. I am not seeking to provide quick answers or solutions. The question what is Europe is too big, the political structures and functions of the EU too complicated and the chaos created by Brexit too unwieldy, to address in quick sound bites. Instead by retelling the events I have observed and the conversations I have had, as truthfully and honestly as I can, my hope is to capture moments in time.
Following the bike trail we eventually left the town. The same one I had taken the year before. My new friend pointed out the botanical gardens and not long after a tunnel passing under the railway line leading towards a secluded beach. The bike route, which twists and turns along the east coast of Finistere had seemed arcane the first time. Now it was familiar and I took some comfort in this. For like the British nation, which has perhaps never been less sure of where it is headed, I was apprehensive about the journey ahead and feeling disorientated clung to what I thought I knew for reassurance.
We arrived at the French institution, Comptoir des Jonnies, in time for lunch. We’d passed it previously just before crossing a field of artichokes. Now the fields were bare. It was August and the crop had been harvested. We ate on the wooden veranda under bunches of onions and garlic. Presently, the owner came out carrying a plate of food and a glass of cider. He told us that until recently he had been exporting onions to the UK by boat, just as the original Onion Johnnies with their stripped vests and bicycles had done. But he said Brexit was no good for him. He’d had to stop. It was no longer profitable owing to the devaluing of the pound.
The year before, whilst in France, many of those I met said they were not sad to see Britain, and more particularly England, leave the EU. Now I wondered if the mood had changed. The owner before driving away had wound down his window and said.
‘There are many people here in France you know, hoping the UK will vote again.’
It was the view of just one man. I had not spoken with him before. But it was a reminder of the possibility that people can change their minds and owing to the speed events were unfolding, nothing was assured.
Near Plouenan, I said farewell to my new friend. I am still grateful to him for the encouragement he gave me and cycling back towards the ferry port, having purchased a ticket that morning, I felt a little more optimistic, a little more excited, about the trip ahead.