When in Europe, dress like a walking apology for Brexit – The Guardian

When in Europe, dress like a walking apology for Brexit – The Guardian

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In the 1980s, the pornographic bookshop (bad) where we bought amyl nitrate was opposite the feminist bookshop (good), where we hung around skim-reading Spare Rib and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), to try to get dates with the clever feminists, who saw through us immediately.

The feminist bookshop (good) had a camera set up in its window to covertly photograph male fans of pornography (bad) coming and going from the pornographic bookshop. If this seems a depressing state of affairs, look on the bright side. In 1986, a small provincial town could still support two independent bookshops!

Our purchases complete, we would stand opposite the feminists’ camera position, waving our bottles of amyl nitrate around, so the feminists would know we only wanted to get high, and not degrade women by looking at pictures of them nude. How did they resist us?

Ten years ago, I inherited a vintage Singer sewing machine from my mother. During my childhood, she became expert at hand-making perfect costumes of whatever character was my current favourite. When I was five, in 1973, her Hartley Hare from Pipkins costume was perfect, functioning alcoholic eyes and all; in 1977, my mother’s Captain Britain tabard was unique, the obscure Marvel superhero being resistant to official merchandising; and I doubt there were many boys lucky enough to attend their 10th birthday party in a one-piece zip-up costume of the Welsh experimental film-maker and poet Iain Sinclair.

We made our feelings understood by pointing at the EU flag lapel badges and pretending to cry, over and over again.

This summer, I had planned to take the children, Six and Nine, to the United States on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to pay homage to the unmarked paupers’ graves of my favourite 47 significant pre-first world war blues harmonica players. It was to be a journey I am sure they would have looked back on with some fondness, or at least tolerance, in later life at least.

But I imagined a difficult American situation, where a delightful pea-soup restaurant waitress, who has been nothing other than charming this last hour, asks us in parting what we think of good ole Donald Trump, kickin’ Muslamic ass. My daughter, Six, would doubtless say “Donald Trump is a smelly poo-poo head”. It is her habit to regurgitate wholesale the adult discourse she overhears around our dinner table, without necessarily understanding it.

In the ensuing conversational difficulties, we would then be gunned down by aggrieved onlookers, and hung naked from poplar trees as a warning to any other visiting snowflakes considering casting doubt on the composition and cleanliness of the 45th US president’s head.

So instead of being murdered in a roadside diner, we are going on a self-guided tour of major European cities, before the administrative gates that make our access to them so easy are finally lowered in 2019, in an elaborate star-studded ceremony featuring Elizabeth Hurley, Ian Botham, Public Image Ltd and a racist calypso from DJ Mike Read.

Last year, when we visited France, I made sure the children always wore lapel badges, which I bought on the internet, of the EU flag. No one would be in any doubt of our political affiliations. Any awkwardness could be immediately abated by enthusiastic lapel-gesturing.

At the French holiday camp, Six and Nine made friends with some Belgian children of similar ages, Zes and Negen. And though, being English, we were unable to speak any foreign languages, least of all Belgian, we made our feelings about the complex pros and cons in the argument for European political and economic unity understood to the Walloons by pointing at the badges and pretending to cry, over and over again.

Of course, 12 months later, the situation is much worse, and the British, or more specifically the English, have gone from being regarded by the Europeans as the cool kids who gave the world the Beatles, James Bond, and football, to being a kind of embarrassing, weird family of angry and confused hooligans, whose garden is full of used nappies, old wet copies of Fiesta Readers’ Wives, and rusted tricycle frames.

A man on a secondhand record stall in the street market of a Pyrenean village last summer pretended he was not going to sell me a first pressing of Catherine Ribeiro’s 1972 classic Paix, despite my EU badge, due to assumed political differences. “Ah, Brexit,” he said, “no seminal stream-of-consciousness Parisienne street-poet space rock for you, monsieur!” But the tension was palpable. We needed to raise our game.

I realised I could use my mother’s sewing machine to clothe my very family itself, this summer, in unambiguously pro-European Union garments, exactly the sort of bespoke outfits we would need to ensure safe passage across the continent in these troubled times.


Illustration by David Foldvari.

The McCall’s Patterns M5500 Children’s Knight, Prince and Samurai Costumes kit, which I found for $8.91 on the internet, had the basic shapes I needed for my pro-European Union suits. And while European Union patterned dressmaking material is not available in and of itself, European Union flags 15ft square are available for about £1.50 each online. These were the tools!

By upscaling the size of the patterns I was also able to provide templates for my wife and I, and by the end of June I had cut and stitched four perfect medieval-style European Union two-pieces for us to wear as we make our way across divided Europe. For headgear, I copied our clearly pro-EU queen, and wove plastic yellow daisies in European Union star formations into the brims of four blue wickerwork hats. Four pairs of blue-and-yellow trainers set off our ensembles perfectly.

In Germany, the still extant Wanderjahre tradition sees young people wander the country for a fixed period, dressed in stovepipe hats and bell-bottoms, singing for their sausage suppers in inns and bars. This, I realised, could be the model for our ritual journey, our pilgrimage of contrition.

Six plays the French horn, Nine is a skilled oboist, and I own a theremin, while my wife can shriek. I have arranged a version of the song I Apologize by the 1980s Minneapolis hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü for our family quartet, and I plan to spend the summer performing it in our pro-European garb at a succession of significant European sites.

And when their children, standing in the ruins of ravaged Britain, ask my children what they did to try and sabotage Brexit, they can answer, “We stood outside the Stasi Museum, and Notre-Dame, and the astronomical clock, clad in European Union costumes that our father stitched himself, and used our oboe and our horn to apologise.”

Stewart Lee is touring his new show, Content Provider, throughout 2017

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