This week has been dominated by the EU Referendum result, and every day I’ve worn out the batteries on my radio and phone following the arguments. As a rule, I’ve tried not to include current affairs in this blog. They are divisive, and amply and much better reported elsewhere. But I remember years ago looking up an article in an old German art historical magazine in the Courtauld Library. I noticed that the bound copies went back at least as far as the 40s, and I wondered what they were writing about during the war. I imagined at the very least a heavy bias towards German painting, and perhaps a hectoring insistence on the sort of ‘blood and soil’ depictions of peasant life I’d seen in the RA’s 1900 exhibition. I was surprised then to find – as far as I could tell from my pidgin German – calm analyses of Gainsborough and Constable, with comparative illustrations of National Gallery paintings that at that very moment were sheltering in the depths of a Welsh slate-mine. It was a strange experience, to enter this world where the war was not happening, and I couldn’t decide whether it was beautiful or disingenuous. Both perhaps. Either way, if that periodical is the only document to survive into some post-electric future, our successors will have no idea that the Second World War ever took place.
So, just in case a hard copy of this blog ends up as the only piece of 21st Century Earth literature in a library on Venus, this week Britain voted to leave the European Union, a surprising result for both sides, and a remarkable thing to wake up to. Whether you believe it is a triumphant moment of national independence, or the old devouring the young like something out of Goya, is not this blog’s business. For richer or poorer, better or worse, it is a divorce with all that that entails.
It reminds me of England’s Break with Rome in the 1530s, which began not as a religious dispute but as a family falling out between King Henry VIII and the Emperor Charles V over whether Henry should be allowed to divorce his wife Queen Catherine of Aragon. Normally a royal divorce was no great matter – a reason could always be found – but in this case Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt, and the Pope who had the final say was under the Emperor’s thumb. Back when the Prime Minister was trying to secure pre-Referendum concessions from the EU, I was reading Lauren Mackay’s fascinating Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustache Chapuys. The parallels between Mr Cameron’s negotiations, and the attempts to secure King Henry VIII’s divorce struck me forcibly. In both cases any real concessions were refused on a point of rigid principle, and in both cases the reaction was extreme. Neither the Break with Rome, nor Brexit were inevitable, and both could have been avoided by a bit of pragmatic thinking on the Continent.
The Reformation parallel might very loosely fit the current division on this country between Leavers and frustrated Remainers, but I doubt the two sides will take the rest of the century to sort out their differences. I hope not anyway. At one point it reminded me of the old historiographical Court v Country explanation of the English Civil War, and two friends have in fact said that they fear civil war now, but I really don’t think it will come to that. Tho Scotland may well become independent – it was bound to happen sooner or later. Right now in this country it is everyone’s duty to get on with the situation, and to make it work. I feel, instinctively, that the future was never going to be a feather-bed whatever the result, and perhaps if we have to knuckle down to it earlier than expected it will be a good thing.
In the meanwhile I will get on with writing the post about Robert Greene which I promised you a week ago.