Travelling with my parents from the age of 10, at first in France, was – I now understand – an instructive and exhilarating rebirth. People in villages, seeing our British car, would stop and wave the most joyous of welcomes, others – to our astonishment – would cross restaurants to shake us by the hand and thank us for liberating them.
Our new friends in Alsace had been able to reclaim their house, commandeered in the war by the Nazi army and fitted with gun ports under the bay windows. The family had been scattered, Maurice escaping to join the navy and Bernard, aged 14, making his circuitous way to the United States where he joined the Air Force by lying about his age. In his time their father had had to fight in both the French and the German armies, according to the shifting frontier. An uncle, mayor of another town, was one of the few men left in it: the others had been locked in the church and incinerated.
Later we navigated the endless potholes in Catalonia, where General Franco was still punishing the inhabitants for their opposition. Soon we experienced the undercurrents in Italian communities struggling above the divisions of civil war while working to overcome impoverishment. During the day there was no water, but our lives were immeasurably enriched by immersion in the glorious cultural heritage from which our own had sprung. Khrushchev’s mini-thaw allowed me to visit Poland on a bridge-building mission between universities; daily life was basic but our student hosts proudly explained the rebuilding, brick by brick, of the beautiful Old City in Warsaw, and took us to see Auschwitz. On the return journey, the train stopped long enough in East Berlin for a brief reunion with my German friend Cornelia: we had studied together in Italy. I have been immeasurably lucky and wouldn’t want to see the young in future denied life-enhancing, mind-altering experiences.
But now our benighted nation wants to betray our continental cousins, reneging on our peace and prosperity treaties and throwing away all that hard-won social and cultural capital, along with our privileged economic role in the European family unquestionably the ‘best deal’ there is. We must be mad to prefer wrecking to building.
This piece was originally published as a letter in the New Statesman. Ann Lawson Lucas is a member of the European Movement.