Civil society, must we visit you the hard way?
Our diplomatic baggage gets lost in transit.
We don’t read much now except on the qui vive.
Our expense account is blue and zinc
and pays for a room with a view
in the capital city no one has ever located –
a midnight afterthought between Paris and Ulm,
a building made of contempt and dismay,
a million unread copies of the DNA.
Here is the philosophy of glass we so admire…
But what will you do when we put down Hegel
and our suits stop thrashing on the rack outside
and the mirror looks blankly at the clouds
and we’re not too sure what it means to say
between upset faces and empty places,
the private despair and the public indignation,
Willkommen in Europa, bienvenue à bord…
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
A poem about homogeny and Europe, the fear that the government and multinational society that is growing up around us does not actually connect people to people, even if it does provide cheap air fares and high glass buildings. The collection as a whole is shot through with philosophy and ideas of the state and super-state, Bamforth especially worrying away at the concept of Europe.
I’ve never considered myself much of a political poet, but a certain bluff Johnsonian dissidence comes to voice in ‘Transparency: An Address’ which, I should add, was written long before the recent No in France and the Netherlands put paid to the unstated principle that has dominated the European Union from its inception: we on high know what is best for you below.
The institutions of the new old Europe, several of which can be found in Strasburg, have outstripped the electorates of the European nations, even to the extent of appearing to recruit them solely as alibis for the entire project. I attempt to recreate this scenic view of Europe from the perspective of a categorically imperative fonctionnaire taking up a position ‘in the capital city no one has ever located’ − a sarcastic reference to the posters that appeared on the bus shelters when the poem was written: ‘Strasbourg, la capitale d’Europe’. My civil servant at least has a moment of doubt among the crystal palaces. (I should point out that DNA is the happy abbreviation of the local newspaper, les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace.)
The divide straddled by the paired terms of the poem is therefore less the corridor between France and Germany (though their languages tellingly crop up in the bland Ship-of-Fools’ welcome of the last line) than the gulf between an increasingly strident ‘popular’ culture, which feels itself removed from the centre of events, and the ‘elite’ spirit that ascribes itself higher status because of its civic responsibilities: after all, sentimental popular unanimity brought about the crisis that led to the idea of Europe in the first place…