LITERARY SALON BREXIT at Den Haag’s Branoul Theatre

Last evening in the slightly ramshackle cosiness of Theatre Branoul – less than a kilometre from the Tweede Kamer where Theresa May has visited more than once to talk with Mark Rutte about the future of Britain and the EU, I enjoyed one of the most balanced, thoughtful explorations of Brexit to date.   

A programme of music and literature compiled by the New European Ensemble’s Artistic Co-ordinator, Emlyn Stam, drew on composers from Handel to Maxwell-Davies and poets and politicians from Byron to Thatcher. This eclectic mix of largely British artists, provided the audience with varied insights, often humorous, sometimes sombre, into the delicate issue of national identity.  Alexander Oliver turned his considerable talents as a reader to the flamboyance of Byron and Duffy, the cut glass clarity of Margaret Thatcher and managed a Northern Irish inflection for the ‘border issue’. Christopher Bouwman on oboe lead the musical offerings with skill supported by pianist, Ksenia Kouzmenko.

Sir Peter Maxwell’s ‘First grace of light’, oboe solo, and Lord Byron’s Satiric England got the evening off to a light-hearted start. In his typically reticent celebration of England’s virtues,  – the ‘cloudy climate’ and ‘chilly women’, ‘the taxes, when they’re not too many’, Byron gets at the heart of what one might call English nationalism. It is deeply self-deprecating but is no less strongly felt for that – ‘England, for all thy faults, I love thee still!’. Nevertheless, Byron spent much of his life in Europe and died in Greece, a war hero. In Last Leaving England, the poet mourns his departure from ‘Albion’s lessening shores’ but admits that ‘the hour’s gone by’ when these self-same shores ‘could grieve or glad mine eye.’ A sentiment with which many Brexpats may well identify.

Margaret’s Thatcher’s ‘Bruges Speech’, addressed to the College of Europe in 1988 stood in sobering contrast to the nationalist bombast of Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.  Admitting that the British are, ‘as much heirs to the legacy of European culture as any other nation’ and that Britain’s links to Europe ‘have been the dominant factor in our history’, Thatcher’s speech made it clear that ‘Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community.’ Although, much like current Dutch PM, Mark Rutte, she agreed that ‘the Community is not an end in itself,’ there is unequivocal acceptance of Britain’s role in the EU – ‘ Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community’.  It is difficult to reconcile such sentiments with the bumbling that is Brexit at present. 

And lest we forget the Northern Irish backstop issue – David Wheatley’s poem asked, ‘Are they part of us,’ something on which, the poem admits, no one really likes to comment.

        ‘But for the flags on

         the lampposts you’d hardly

         know what country it was.’


The issue of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic raises painful memories that have only recently begun to be buried. Yet Theresa May’s Brexit deal resurrects these ghosts and, as Wheatley so clearly puts it,

‘you can’t

 clean up shite that’s

 still spraying and clagging

 the eyes in your head’.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps the minor-keyed discordance of Matthews’s Night Spell and Musgrave’s Night Windows that follow, capture with music, the melancholy that underlies these brusque phrases.   

Perhaps it is to the humour of the younger generation that one must turn. A Brexit Flirtation by Elise Wouters, inspired by another saga of imaginary control and mediocre fantasy, puts it this way:

     ‘Give me a hard Brexit,

      I want a Brussels on its knees Brexit,

      Keen on a fifty shades of please Brexit,’

The young Belgian poet echoes the feelings of many Europeans when she writes, ‘I’ll have my cake and eat yours too,’ but ultimately the problem of a definite leave-taking returns, ‘The only thing I know is that I can’t quite call it quits,… let’s be friends with benefits.’

Yet it is the words of Poet Laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, in her poem, The Ex-Ministers, that questions the role of the politicians in all of this. The so-called ‘ex-ministers’, of whom there  have indeed been a few causalities in the Brexit battle thus far, have repeatedly failed to find a way forward for their country.

‘We are nothing to them now; lemmings

going over the white cliffs of Dover.’

The lack of leadership has stunned those both inside and outside of Britain. Perhaps, like Lord Byron, who, in his introduction to Don Juan, understood that in spite of ‘having got drunk exceedingly today’, ‘the future is a serious matter’, those who are responsible for the decisions that will affect Britain’s future, need, as the great poet did, to call, for ‘hock and soda water!’ For how else can one explain so sorry a state of affairs?      Souwie Buis   21st March  2019