One day, during the locked-down summer of 2020, on a walk across Romney Marsh, I came across some of the unusual ‘sound walls’ that formed part of Kent’s defences against aerial attack before the invention of radar. On the fence protecting these relics from graffiti artists and other vandals, alongside a description of how the sound walls worked and how they had been restored, I discovered a faded aluminium sign, about ten centimetres across, stating “Part Financed by the European Union”. It’s as if we were ashamed to admit that we’d used European funds to save this part of our heritage.
The European flag on display in Ireland
What a contrast with the Republic of Ireland. On my first visit there I was astounded at the number of large blue flags with yellow stars flying at historic sites such as castles, abbeys and steam railways. They were accompanied by huge billboards proclaiming that these attractions had been restored with funds from the EU. I never recall seeing anything of the like in Britain, although with a little research I discovered that many such places did indeed receive EU funding. But then, maybe we’ve never taken Europe very seriously.
I am old enough to remember the ‘Fanfare for Europe’ on 1 January 1973, when the UK and Eire joined what was then called the common market. I wasn’t quite sure what it would mean, but I had high hopes that Poulain chocolate would soon appear on the shelves in Tesco and the latest singles by Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday would be available in my local record store. One benefit of EEC membership (for me) was the introduction of VAT instead of purchase tax: the price of a Mars Bar magically went down from 4p to 3½p!
Most people ignored the ‘Fanfare for Europe’
Alas, I didn’t notice any immediate change in the attitude of my peers: I was still ridiculed for liking French pop music and listening to France-Inter instead of Radio 1. The BBC and ITV continued to show Colditz, Dad’s Army and lots of war movies. Europeans were portrayed as stereotypes: the French wore berets and ate frogs and snails, the Germans were warmongers, the Greeks and Italians were lazy garlic-guzzlers and the Spanish could be summed up by the character of the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers.
Longman vs Fernand Nathan
The Longman’s French book used in my class at school depicted a surreal Paris with 1930s cars and jolly shopkeepers selling huge bags of sweets for a few centimes to crudely-drawn adolescent boys in shorts: when I saw a contemporary Fernand Nathan Série Verte English text book on a visit to a French school, I was amazed to find a realistic portrayal of British life, depicting true-to-life situations, up-to-date prices and even accurate instructions on how to use a British public telephone.
Fernand Nathan certainly made French children want to visit a foreign country in a way that Longman did not. Ask almost any French person in their 50s “Where is Brian?” and you’ll automatically get the answer “Brian is in the kitchen!” I can’t think of any textbook used in British schools that has entered into the national psyche.
Let’s hear it for the Eurovision Song Contest
But Europe has always been seen as something of a joke by the British establishment and the mainstream media. The Eurovision Song Contest sums this up nicely. From the mid-1980s, the UK stopped taking the contest seriously. Other countries might select their best-selling artists to represent them, while Britain chose unknowns or has-beens.
Worse still has been the commentary provided on BBC1 by the late Terry Wogan and his successor Graham Norton, and their remarks about the various acts. When Sir Terry started making fun of the respected Italian singer-songwriter Toto Cutugno while presenting the 1991 contest from Rome, I simply switched over to watch the rest of the show on French TV (one advantage of living in East Kent is the ability to receive a few French TV channels with just an aerial pointing the right way).
Only songs in English will do for us
On the subject of music, why haven’t major record labels attempted to release more European-language singles in the UK? The success of the occasional songs that have sneaked through – Drupi’s Vado Via in 1973, Julio Iglesias’ Volver a Empezar in 1981 and Vanessa Paradis’ Joe Le Taxi in 1988 shows that there should have been a market here for singers like Marc Lavoine from France, Paloma San Basilio from Spain, Linda da Suza from Portugal or even Toto Cutugno from Italy. Visit a record store in Britain today and you will be hard pressed to find anything by European artists, apart from songs by France’s David Guetta, all sung in English.
While chart music has long been popular with teenagers, another hobby that was once enjoyed by thousands of children and adults alike is stamp collecting. In 1956 the postal administrations of Europe got together to produce an ‘omnibus’ issue promoting philately and the closer integration and cooperation of European countries.
Encouraged by the success of the first issue, PostEurop made the ‘Europa’ stamps an annual issue, with a different theme every year: peace, history, architecture, etc. At first all countries’ stamps carried a common design, but from 1973 each country was permitted to choose its own designs, as long as they bore the Europa logo.
We’d prefer not to join in
Sadly, the UK postal administration has always been reluctant to issue Europa stamps. It printed sets in 1960 and 1961, then not again until 1969. There was then a long gap during the 1970s, although a boring jigsaw design was used to commemorate the UK joining the EEC in 1973; they couldn’t even be bothered to give the three stamps different designs.
From 1980 Royal Mail started adding tiny ‘Europa’ logos to occasional stamps that it was planning to issue anyway: a stamp depicting Charlotte Brontë, for instance, was pulled from a Victorian novelists’ set to join a European issue commemorating ‘famous people’.
‘Europe in Space’
The low point was undoubtedly in 1991 when the theme was ‘Europe in Space’. Other countries issued beautiful stamps showing planets, astronauts and satellites, illustrating how Europe has contributed to man’s understanding and exploration of the Universe. The Royal Mail produced two weird pairs of stamps with cartoon figures apparently representing ‘man looking at space’ and ‘space looking at man’. Not for the first time, the Europeans must have wondered what on earth the British were thinking about.
In recent years, the Post Office seems to have given up on Europa stamps altogether, which not only reflects the growing insularity of Britain but also seems a bad commercial decision for a company in financial difficulty. Europa stamps are widely collected across Europe and thousands of collectors want a full set of all issues. There must be a far greater market for Europa stamps than for the overpriced stickers depicting faded rock stars and children’s TV characters that gush out of the British Philatelic Bureau on an almost fortnightly basis and are derided nowadays even by most GB collectors.
At least coin collectors had something to celebrate when the UK joined the EU – the event was commemorated by a beautiful 50p showing clasped hands, a symbol of international friendship. The work of sculptor David Wynne, it was a common sight in change until the larger 50p coins were withdrawn in 1997. It even formed the basis of Dick King-Smith’s imaginative children’s book The Queen’s Nose, although when the BBC TV adaptation was made, the EEC 50p was replaced by a standard version with the figure of Britannia.
The next commemorative 50p was released in 1992 for the completion of the EC single market and the British presidency: however, it was minted in such feeble quantities that very few ever made it into circulation. The design, showing a conference table with seats and stars, was also rather uninspiring, Much more attractive was the firework pattern of 12 stars on the 1998 50p to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the UK joining the EEC. Of the ‘Brexit’ 50p issued in 2020, the least said the better.
The recent issues of commemorative 50p coins have at least sparked an interest in coin-collecting among the young, but this is nothing compared to the effect of the Euro across the Channel. What fun it is there for collectors to seek out coins from each of the EU member countries, in addition to the rare issues from Monaco, the Vatican City, San Marino and Andorra.
The sick joke of Europe
European children can learn about European history and culture by studying the coins in their pocket money, but alas they will not learn about the UK. Indeed, if my recent visits to France, Spain and The Netherlands are anything to go by, the United Kingdom is now just making Europeans laugh – and they don’t even need to create a character like Manuel!