News From Nowhere
A. L. Kennedy
A. L. Kennedy's keynote address delivered at the British Library for European Literature Night on Wednesday 10 May.
Last October Theresa May announced to her party conference: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
So I am a citizen of Nowhere. Intellectually, culturally and as member of my species, I am and must be a citizen of the world. This is simply logical and a matter of self-defence. As Primo Levi, one of the consciences of Europe, tells us “Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager.” To be in any sense healthy, I must be a citizen of the world. I belong to that Nowhere.
And as a writer, I must be a citizen of the world. Like many writers I travel the world. As a class we are exposed over and over to the unfortunate truth that our homelands are not the seat of all perfections. British writers visit countries where writers once risked their lives to write and where the importance of literature as something at the heart of healthy country, a democratic country, has not yet been forgotten. We meet writers who are in flight, who have been threatened, who are refugees – we are unable not to see them as human. We are unable to avoid reading them and hearing their voices and knowing that they are human and that the foreigners they describe also exist as humans. Although they come from Nowhere, I have met my fellow-writers in Nowhere and recognised that they are human beings.
Professionally, I inhabit Nowhere in my study at all times. Writers have the peculiar job of trying to speak to any and every person who might come across our work. In my case this might be in the original English, or in translation, because I am lucky enough to be translated. It is impractical for any author to write for a smaller audience than humanity in general. We can only write for other human beings. And to avoid this is to agree to be small, to fail and to voluntarily constrict my imagination, strangle my only access to anything approaching an infinite space.
Why am I translated? Because the world is still kind enough to read UK authors. They have not slipped us into Nowhere and turned the key. Above all, Europe reads us, although we don’t return the favour. Britain has little appetite for foreign work. Or, perhaps more accurately, British publishing has little appetite for foreign work – it might be a risk, it would involve the expense of translation. Risk and expense worry UK publishers. After the destruction of the Net Book Agreement – a destruction only quietly resisted – our publishers largely passed into a territory confined by simple calculations, by profit and loss. Translators always tend to be the unsung and underpaid heroes and heroines of international literature. In the UK they are particularly poorly rewarded and their position is always insecure. That insecurity, lack of money and therefore lack of time, undermine their ability to function and therefore what we hear from the wider world and from our nearest neighbours. And what we hear really is only a little. For more most of my lifetime as a writer, less than five per cent of all our books printed in any year are translated from any language. And yet I am a writer built out of Chekhov, Calvino, Levi, Perucho, Vian, Alfau and so many other terribly foreign and European voices. I am a writer who walked in Paris, in Moscow, in Granada and had, in a dreamlike way, already been there in books and books and books. There was no culture shock, there was only a larger and larger culture, echoing and debating and rippling before and behind me. There is so much Nowhere in my heart.
But I am perhaps strange. And I have the Scottish difficulty – that seems to lead to foreignness in a British context, to a despicable affection for Nowhere. But if I think of any deeply British author, Nowhere creeps in like Canute’s tide. Shakespeare: influenced by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus, Ovid, Cicero, Plutarch – all from Nowhere. And he was willing to set his plays in Verona, Elsinore, Venice, to endow Europeans with feelings, magpieing for words across a cosmopolitan multi-lingual London. Coleridge then: the Brownings, George MacDonald – all sadly in thrall to Swedenborg. Which links them to Borges – who is from so very far away and yet is so… remarkably human. Okay, Dickens… No: dreadfully in love with France, a traveller, gladly and willingly a personal acquaintance of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Gautier, Chateaubriand, the list goes on. And he was poisoned as boy by exposure to the wonders of Cervantes. The Shelleys? Byron? Inexcusably European. Conan Doyle, then – with apologies for his Scottishness. He’s threaded through with Poe and Vidocq and – even if he made fun of Emile Gaboriau – he’d also read him. If you prick us, we’ll bleed Europe, the world, Nowhere, universally human blood.
Will that change after Brexit? It seems clear that Brexit will leave us trapped on an apparently increasingly racist island with faltering press freedom and crumbling press reliability, adrift in a shrinking culture enthusiastically rejecting real-world knowledge of all kinds. Dark money, calculated online influencers, our public discourse bought and sold… So we’ll look elsewhere for inspiration, for facts. We did anyway. Their preciousness will increase. The urgency with which we attempt to communicate will grow. We may long for news of countries that aren’t closing libraries by the hundreds, aren’t destroying their own education system and undermining English language teaching, any language teaching, for a generation.
Perhaps because the past is a foreign country, our leaders no longer wish to know how they did things differently there. But we can remember. It’s our job as writers to remember. But whether Brexit will mean there is a greater publication of foreign work, European work, news from Nowhere, I can’t say. There has been a tiny upswing in publication of translations, perhaps this will continue. But perhaps it is too late. Decades of absence in our literary landscape may mean readers assume many authors, books, stories were never there. This makes it much easier to assume that anywhere outside the UK is Nowhere – if a country is blank and voiceless how can it seem to real to us, how can its people? But by accident of geography, profession and culture I am at home in the culture of Europe and the world. What I reject of British culture is its rejection of the world. I am a citizen of Nowhere.
I am also, as I write this, still a citizen of Europe. I don’t have much time left to enjoy it, but I am currently part of project that aimed to keep to Europe at peace after centuries of war and eventually a second world war, begun in Europe and involving an unprecedented process of industrialised racist slaughter. In the years after World War Two, a Britain which had embraced the world, been saved by the world, its citizens meeting Nowhere at home and travelling all over Nowhere settled down to build a welfare state for all of its inhabitants. While it was still struggling to reconstruct itself, it offered material support and leant legal expertise to create a Europe designed to protect citizens’ human rights. At the time, it was somehow easy to see and appreciate these rights were vital, because they were precisely the same the rights which had been evaporated in Aktion T4, in race laws, merciless medical experimentation, slave labour, murder camps, mass graves, death marches and crematoria. I am still part of a project that aimed to encourage the reverse of that, root and branch. Out there in Nowhere is the fragile idea that Justice and mercy are all that help us survive and the conviction that we are frail, not immortal and subject to the injuries of chance and circumstance. We therefore need protection for all, because all may at one time or another need it and all are human. To quote Levi again, “… a country is considered the more civilised, the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak, or a powerful one too powerful.” This is one of the voices of Nowhere. And Levi’s is a voice that remembers the consequences of literally sending human beings to Nowhere, back where it has been decided they belong. His is one of the voices that remind us of the full consequences of giving only to those who have and taking only from those who have nothing. Beyond nothing, there is always a literal Nowhere.
The European project was, and in many ways still is, about encouraging vigorous cultural expressions of human creativity, of beauty and of personality – the stories of our humanity. The narratives that disappeared in Bebelplatz and elsewhere in the great book burnings of Nazism will never come again, but we can save what we have now. The post war efforts to unify Europe were aimed at reversing any drive towards violent ignorance, silence and fear. We have evidence from all of Nowhere that this drive always begins in the suppression of diverse voices, words, creativity, books. In the end, only one voice is permitted and that voice will only speak of entitlement, threat and hate.
The EU is not by any means perfect, but the reasons for Britain’s abandonment of EU membership, its threats to remove us all from the protection of the European Court and its hatred of Europe as an idea are clearly not based in a desire to be newly creative, outgoing, humane or just. They are simply an expression of political loathing – magnified by a corrupt and crippled media an increasingly undemocratic parliament and a handful of millionaires with specific agendas, strongly tainted by fascist world views. Their loathing is turned against the world and against our nearest neighbours most of all. But do not make the mistake of thinking that it does not also inevitably condemn us at home. The poor, the sick, the old, the refugees, the immigrants, the non-white, the non-Christian, the non-compliant – these are all citizens of Nowhere. If we were able to learn anything from the civil war and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia – we can’t, of course, because it is Nowhere – we would have some comprehension of how quickly a civil society can not just collapse but devour itself. Any illusions about normality being stable in depth, about the wisdom of relaxing our vigilance and indulging hateful rhetoric must be abandoned. Anything else is a kind of suicide – at lest intellectual and moral and – although I pray not – perhaps literal. A post EU Britain may involve a collapse of peace in Northern Ireland, an unpredictable progress towards an independent Scotland, a plunge further to the right in England and Wales, searing levels of poverty and pain – all kinds of potential mass turmoil. And even one human being beaten in the street because of who they are is one too many. One child abused at school for existing in an improper form is a tragedy. One person unreasonably loaded with concerns that render their life a prison, one person tormented in custody while they wait to be deported, back into danger – the list could go on and on and every individual example of suffering is too much. This human pain is unacceptable and, as writers, now we are so near the end of comfort for more and more of our citizens, we must do our part to resist. We must think of all those things which have, for a time, gone without saying. And we must say more and say it more often. Our silence has to be lifted now. Am I being alarmist and mistaken in this? I cannot express how deeply I hope so. But speaking now is part of what will make me mistaken and delighted to be so.
First – one of those many things that go without saying. Denial of the world is a manifestation of permanent culture shock, of a narcissism, which has become pathological. It echoes with the anxieties of public schoolboys banished from their parents and taught they’re entitled to rule without effort and to look on love as weakness. The rhetoric of Brexit, matches that of our mass media and of our small but influential Far Right. It relies on a silent assumption that somehow Britain will soon have access to a time machine and a world-beating navy. Each morning our headlines bring grubby little telegrams from an age when Britain owned the world and could colour enough nations pink for round-the-globe proof of our specialness. When you have no love, ownership must suffice. White men have burdens – and everyone else must carry them.
The only option for writers of all orientations and genders, all races, all religions and none must be to resist this. The idea that our democracy is special, is impregnable against all threats, has made us lazy. Lack of money has made most of us anxious – we have to support families and write what sells, what’s acceptable. But the step beyond self-censorship is silence. European democracies are beginning to treat us a state on the verge of failing, as somewhere whose writers need support. Europe is already beginning to support dissident voices in the UK. This can seem bizarre – but only from a safe, white perspective.
The detention of British poet Talha Ahsan in the UK for 6 years without trial doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that happens here. It did. So did his extradition to solitary confinement in a US supermax facility. At which point I’ll mention that Talha has Asperger’s and, even for someone without that difficulty, long-term solitary confinement is held by all civilised observers to be a form of torture. Talha eventually agreed to a plea bargain after a total of 8 years in prison and, thank goodness, at his sentencing Judge Janet C. Hall took pains to declare him no danger and to say that “There was no way to rationalise the sentences” Talha – young, Muslim, computer literate and interested in human rights, was an easy target. The easy targets get hit first. As a writer, his voice could be heard beyond his cell. He was even able to win a Koestler Award for his work. As writers, we have a duty to speak on behalf of all the targets – whether they are relatives, friends, members of our community, fellow-citizens, or simply fellow-human beings. This involves a degree of risk, but we must hope it avoids greater risks later. The necessity of hearing all our nation’s voices and all the voices of the world has gone without saying, as has the idea of the safety it brings us. So now we have speak of it more often, more loudly and in more places, bringing news from Nowhere. This is my news from Nowhere.
And Nowhere is an interesting word. If we were to translate it into ancient Greek, we would get ou-topos, literally no-place. In the 16th Century, Englishman Thomas Moore coined the term Utopia from that Greek root. His Utopia was simply a fictional location. But, of course, ou-topos sounds awfully like eu-tops – a good place. This allows two locations to coexist within one word: an impossible place that doesn’t exist and a perfect place of pleasantness, generosity and beauty. For the UK, naturally, Nowhere cannot be Utopia and Utopia is Nowhere – it’s Greek, that’s European. Maybe we could tolerate Ancient Greek – as taught in the better schools – but not the modern language in which living foreigners complain about Goldman Sacks.
But within almost every one of our words, there’s oozing and creeping foreignness. “Locations” – that reeks of Latin and therefore Italy. (Although Latin is also blessed by the better schools.) Pleasantness – the ness ending is awfully Germanic – and pleasant – horribly French. We can spend any amount of time boasting about how large a vocabulary English has, but that’s a consequence of its multiple thefts of Hindi and Persian and Norse and Germanic words and all manner of other words and the doubling up of terms produced by the legal and administrative consequences of a Norman invasion. The syllables in which we express our British thoughts are not British, they are a gift from Nowhere. The place names of quintessential Britishness – of wicks and wealds, of chesters, hoes, kyles and gates – tell stories of migration, invasion, settlement and the mingling of peoples. Many of the typefaces in which we write are rom Nowhere: Garamond, French – Bembo, from Pietro Bembo, Italian – and on and on Nowhere advances. Our letterforms have their origins in pictographs related to ancient gods and hieroglyphs, to the craftsmanship of European stonecutters and monks. The wriggles of our n and m first represented water in Middle Eastern deserts. Our A is the horned head of a foreign sacred Ox, inverted, Our capital E – vertical spine with long stroke, short stroke, long stroke, reaching forward – that letter was first an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph showing a figure with arms upraised and meant “you give joy with your presence”. Those letters were perfected on papyrus, vellum and in stone across Europe. Every shape on this paper came to me from the world and through Europe. The concepts I express, that we express, those are human. To reject the world, to reject the part of the world which is Europe, is to deny the fact of our deep cultural interconnection and to deny our communal humanity at our deepest emotional and intellectual levels. It goes without saying that this is dangerous – I’m saying it anyway. I’m saying it in these multinational letters, using these multinational words.
And I don’t have time here, but you can find all manner of research telling you about the human benefits of reading. If you want to hold back the effects of dementia, be kinder, bring children and parents closer, develop social skills, confidence and therefore a lack of alarm around strangers – read. Read. Just read.
And in fiction, above all, we learn that others are as feeling, complex, frail, beautiful, wicked and extraordinary as us. When we close up our libraries, diminish the range of books published and on bookshelves and keep out the humanity of the world, we loose an immeasurable treasure. We also render ourselves stupid and dangerous. Closed from the world, it’s easier to tolerate and even embrace the idiocy of Britain as perfection and the world as Nowhere. So no need for foreign aid, no need for diplomacy, no need for human rights, no need for international law, cooperation, understanding, or even curiosity.
This is stupid. This is our loss, This is dangerous. We have to say this, we writers. We have to give up being embarrassed about what we do, apologising for thinking too much, understanding. Writers after Brexit will have this responsibility. This role in our public discourse and the place of books in our society shriveled after UK publishing passed out of its golden age – the age when it was in the hands of first and second generation Europeans, human beings who understood that Heine was right when he said that books burn first and then men. Writers after Brexit will rely on Europe for moral and intellectual support.
We will also rely – as we have done for many years – on Europe for a significant proportion of our incomes. Brexit has probably thrown European co-productions in TV and Film production into years of confusion and stasis. Those writers will be struggling, adapting work to try and please American, or Chinese sensibilities. But European cultures which have defended their publishing cultures more vigorously than the UK are already offering poetry and prose authors freedom to speak, opportunities to travel and to collaborate and a source of funds. This is, for many authors a key component of a professional life – it will become more precious.
I’ll end by talking about William Morris – the English man who wrote the novel “News From Nowhere”,
In his lecture of 1884 “How We Live and How We Might Live” William Morris spoke of machines “being used freely for releasing people from the more mechanical and repulsive part of necessary labour; it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays.” In the 21st century we are on the verge of another huge wave of automation, at least as revolutionary as that Morris witnessed. We already live in a country of zero hour contracts, set in a world where factories, warehouses and shops run as unyielding mechanisms within which human beings are exploited as no more than component parts. Corporate entities battle to exist as supranational powers, beyond the rule of national or international laws or any burdens of taxation. Meanwhile nations struggle to remain democratic and individuals fight to retain the rights of citizens, rather than be forced to support semi-fictional economies as permanently indebted and subservient customers. Our generation will have to deal with the political and human consequences of redefining what it is to work, or to be paid. And, of course, that’s not our only set of problems – risks are cascading as a result of our continued consumption of hydrocarbons and other resources, our interwoven conflicts and refugee crises and – above all this – is the specter of major irreversible climate change and its genuine threat to life on earth. These wider concerns have long been subject matter for writers. After Brexit they may well become more urgent, as we deal with an act of self-harm in a time of already escalating risk.
Morris continued his lecture with… “the material surroundings of my life should be pleasant, generous, and beautiful; that I know is a large claim, but this I will say about it, that if it cannot be satisfied, if every civilised community cannot provide such surroundings for all its members, I do not want the world to go on.” In 1890 he published his novel, we might call it a Science fiction novel, ‘News From Nowhere’ using the future as another, better country. He hoped, as an author, to lead Britain on into some kind of new light. I feel that is a good reason for any author to write. Morris set his Nowhere in 21st century London. This is a century, which currently offers us a city of illegally toxic air, mildly poisonous water, luxury gated communities, restrictions of movement in public areas and a housing market focused on the whims of millionaires. The city’s skyline is relentlessly cluttered with stacks of empty apartments, their mystery owners elsewhere, every tower a monument to money laundering and conspicuous consumption. Morris’s narrator falls asleep in Victorian London and awakes in another, better 21st Century, walks out into a clean-aired city filled with gardens and pleasant, well-built homes, naturally democratising and elegant public spaces, a Thames where Salmon can be fished – a city where money no longer exists and all is either beautiful or useful. (Although of course women don’t do much beyond having babies and raising families, serving food – anything else would be madness…) It was the best beautiful dream he could offer us. Without dreams, without our imaginations, we cannot picture the better futures we would like to make and inhabit. But, rest assured, an increasingly organised super-class and its media are dreaming on our behalf. Their dreams – our nightmares.
But because I can read I can be moved and inspired by writers – Morris and all the others. Because I can read I can visit the past, the future, the present and the non-existent – all the Nowheres. I listen to Nowhere. I live there. In this, I am like all other writers and all other readers. When I write, I make more Nowheres and speak with yet more. Before Brexit, or after it there is no alternative to this. We have to proceed in hope because despair would be an indulgence and many of us are still safe and therefore able to work. We have to keep on working to preserve safety for more and more of us. We have to remain open, as we have been in other times. It is possible for us to be eager for news of the world, demanding as Homer (of Nowhere) demanded and William Sotheby (of England) translated: “Muse, sing the man by long experience tried/ who, fertile in resources, wander’d wide.” The Odyssey, a book full of politics, war, bloodshed, foolishness wisdom, mercy, love and – at long last – a home. Speaking of these things allows us to stay morally, imaginatively and literally alive.
Address originally given at European Literature Night, hosted by the British Library, the Royal Society of Literature and EUNIC London.