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This item is taken from PN Review 69, Volume 16 Number 1, September - October 1989.

The Bradford Festival of European Community Literature, held this April, differed from the ruck of literary festivals in its sense of mission. This was not yet another opportunity to hear Melvyn Bragg and other Major Media Writers. Its purpose was to shake cultural hands with our "European partners", as represented by their poets. There were French, Greek, Irish, German and Dutch connections, with the challenge of translation a central theme. The programme included - or intended to include - everyone: the people of Bradford, school children, college students, the literary community at large. Its mission was didactic, addressing an actual or imagined audience, and at the same time bringing together writers for whatever synergy occurs on such occasions. By some accounts the Festival echoed - distantly - the intelligent enthusiasm we used to associate with the Cambridge Poetry Festival, whose avoidable demise is lamented.

Yet one can distrust the language that Nick Toczek and Willi Beckett, the organisers, use to recommend their endeavour. The patronage of the European Commission may encourage a Delorsian line, but the programme "Introduction" epitomises the European Vision as it relates to Culture, even in the language it deploys.

"In 1992," the organisers write, "we British will become far more directly and intimately involved with our eleven (by then, perhaps more) European partners. In terms of enterprise of every description," they continue, "this increased commitment to a truly European identity promises a vast array of new and exciting opportunities. In this respect, everyone" (their italics) "from manufacturer to hotelier, job-seeker to salesperson, tourist to shopkeeper, teacher to creative artist stands to gain from these broader horizons. In fact, through the media and the changes that'll come about in our individual lifestyles, we'll all find ourselves becoming consciously European, as well as British citizens." The organisers move on to "creating climates" and other metaphors.

In the light of these sentiments, it might be timely to consider the shadows that 1992 casts on our literary culture. However it may seem or should be, the reality of "partnership", the analogies between manufactured product and literary product, hold at best tenuously. Under cover of "partnership" new forms of concealment and protection naturally develop: they just wear different disguises.

Since the EEC Referendum and British accession to the European Community, there has been a decline in the number of literary works translated into English and published in this country, a fact lamented by Lord Weidenfeld, who was instrumental in setting up the Wheatland Foundation to encourage the exchange of literary texts between nations.

By all accounts, there is a decrease in the number of British literary authors translated into the languages of the Continents: few grants have been made available by Her Majesty's Government to counteract this growing imbalance, while the governments of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal find cultural resources for investment much easier to come by. The German literary product has been privileged throughout the world for decades thanks to enlightened interventionism of Inter Nationes in Bonn, who subsidise translation costs and buy finished copies. If there is to be a single market without distorting institutional or state advantages for any language's literary product, then the activity of all arts councils and associations throughout the community must be standardised or curbed. Otherwise German, and with increasing investment other "competing literatures", will enjoy benefits which are institutionally denied to micro-chips, automobiles and British fiction.

EEC "standardisation" requirements seem bound to destroy the Net Book Agreement, unless the Government is willing to resist rather than merely defer such apparently inevitable decisions. Further damage to the fabric of British publishing and bookselling which, after a disorienting boom, are now in recession again, will ensue.

The nations of Europe (and, indirectly, of the Commonwealth) are a vast and attractive market. Little wonder then that substantial American, Australian, Spanish, Italian, French and other capital has been invested in British publishing, without similarly concerted investment by British publishing in Europe. Capital requires not only good books but selling books. Poetry is unimportant. The struggle for margins is violent among the trading classes. "Specialist" readers, like listeners to Radio 3, exist in so sparse a diaspora that they are commercially insignificant.

The legendary Poetry Internationals - two decades and more ago - galvanized British literary publishing and focused the attention of poetry readers on the world beyond these islands. They occurred at a time of cultural curiosity, not good-will. The Cambridge Poetry Festivals, too, were fruits of passionate curiosity. They predated the mandatory directions of funding bodies that insist on attendance projections in monitoring the likely success of funded events. Many an unlikely event at Cambridge proved good box-office, because the Festival addressed the curiosity of a constituency by no means limited to Cambridge itself. That Festival was a meeting-place: writers went, whether they were performing or not, to hear, to read and to talk.

It may be, as the Bradford organisers declare, that "the European experience is upon us". It is not upon our poetry any more, or less, than it ever has been. Few European poets of moment pretend to speak for Europe or, indeed, for their countries. Many exist in antagonism or opposition to the very institutions that the EEC imitates. For British poets and readers, the experience of European writers is implicit in our literature from Gower and Chaucer onward. It enters poetry not by social meetings, festivals, translation or criticism, but by the enabling familiarity with our common European Classical and Biblical heritage, and with the always particular fruits of that heritage in specific writers. There are no national literatures except by political appropriation, at times of historical crisis or enforced change. There are 'national languages', but they seldom obey the tyranny of borders.

A language of fraternal solidarity has its place in a world of politics. If the Community is to work we are reduced to exchanging the Sign of Peace when we worship our fellow Europeans. But writers and readers of poetry should reserve a degree of charity for themselves: historically their literature has - like their language - been a discriminating receiver in which every valid new resource finds a use and a place at the right time, through the right poet.

This item is taken from PN Review 69, Volume 16 Number 1, September - October 1989.

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