Burn, Brexit, Burn


Mika Koljera komentāru par "Brexit" latviski tulkojis Ivars Šteinbergs, taču piedāvājam iespēju lasītājiem iepazīties ar šo rakstu arī oriģinālvalodā.

I started writing a "Brexit" novel. I got halfway, about 30,000 words in, and then stopped. It wasn't that I couldn't finish it off. The whole thing was plotted out, it would have been quite straightforward to complete, as you'll see.

I stopped because I realised there must be lots of other Brtish writers writing Brexit stories and they would soon start appearing. My story would be one of those and while it might be better or worse than theirs, taken as a mass these stories would be a clear sign that Brexit was a very important and artistically stimulating chapter in the grand library of history and myth, like the Russian revolution or the fall of Camelot.

Quite simply, I stopped writing because I didn't want to add any weight to this mass. Even though its results may be significant Brexit is essentially an absurd and pathetic spectacle of inept self-harm, like watching someone slash their arms with a disposable plastic picnic knife. It is not the stuff of "The White Guard" or the "Morte d'Arthur".

My story was fairly simple. It was an allegory in the way that Orwell's "Animal Farm" is an allegory. After all, there is no more British writer to rip off than Orwell. My story was set in the early 1990s in a country pub of my acquaintance that sits on the banks of the River Severn in the west of England. I know it well. It is where I am from.

It is not a great pub and it is not a terrible pub. It is an ordinary pub with its normal cast list of regular drinkers consisting of villagers, illegal elver fishermen and workers at the local slaughterhouse. I have been in this pub many times and been told the tricks of catching elvers (baby eels, literally worth their weight in gold) while avoiding capture yourself and the many ways in which a bolt gun can be used. The pub exists in a state that might be called tolerable equilibrium. It's neither heaven nor hell. It's alright. You can get a decent drink at a decent price and have a fairly interesting conversation to pass the time of day.

A stranger arrives at the pub, a man who considers himself to be a true British patriot. He is part Nigel Farage, part travelling salesman, part football hooligan, part suburban snob. He is the force of corruption. The relationships between the regulars break down. All their worst traits are exposed and encouraged by this jingoistic buffoon. The army veteran who is a passive drunk has his martial spirit reawakened and becomes an aggressive drunk. The barmaid is vulgarized into a "tart", the slow-witted slaughterhouse worker who has found perhaps the only job in which he is capable of excelling has his dormant sense of resentment and racism fed until it is sure to explode.

This Farage figure takes over the pub. He has great plans to increase profitability, to innovate, to redecorate, to bring in a better class of customer. All these innovations happen, but in a cheap, cut-price, vulgar way, because for all his bluster he is a vulgar man. It becomes a pub of plastic Union Jacks and fake timber beams making bogus claims about its connections to the heritage of England. Such people always talk about "heritage" rather than "history" because they consider it to be more patriotic. Shakespeare once drank here – or was it Charles the Second? Someone with a famous beard, a long time ago. Buy a souvenir dishcloth.

The pub degenerates. It starts to rot, both allegorically and literally.

I was quite proud of the set-piece finale of this novel, which featured my memories of the "Mad Cow Disease" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy/BSE) outbreak when millions of cows were slaughtered and burned on huge bonfires in the countryside. I remember driving down the valley of the River Severn and seeing the sky glowing above the hills on both sides of the river. It was a dark, Satanic, mediaeval sight and yet these hills I knew so well – Haresfield Beacon, Painswick Beacon, all the way down to Dunkery Beacon, were called "beacons" because historically they were used to pass bonfire signals of great military victories over foreign powers up and down the country.

So in my Brexit novel, all the beacons would be ablaze again, burning because of the same cheap corruption and short-sightedness as exhbited by my Faragesque villain. With all my characters on self-destructive rampages of one sort or another among the clouds of smoke tumbling into the Severn Vale from the crackling corpses of the cows, piled high like some sort of Druidic sacrifice, this nauseating Farage-type would finally meet his fate in the muddy waters of the River Severn as the great tidal wave known as the Severn Bore sweeps up the channel and bears him away.

The ending wasn't completely worked out. I had a nasty feeling that like Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, his plunge into the purifying wave might not prove to be fatal. His type is persistent.  

Mad Cow Disease happened because farmers fed the dried up and ground spinal columns of cows, made into food at the slaughterhouses, to other cows. They created bovine cannibalism. The disease spread to humans via the food chain, inflicting a horrible and humiliating death. Known as classic Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD), it is a fatal degenerative brain disorder. Early symptoms include memory problems, behavioral changes, poor coordination, and visual disturbances. Later dementia, involuntary movements, blindness, weakness, and coma occur. There is no cure.

It seemed like a very good allegory for Brexit. At the time of the Mad Cow Disease outbreak, I remember seeing film of cattle foaming at the mouth, staggering around their fields, losing all coordination of their limbs and collapsing. It was horrible to think of this happening to people too. But the most terrifying thing was the uncertainty about the incubation period of the disease in humans. Scientists had very little data. No-one knew how much infected meat had made it into the food chain.

Anecdotal evidence suggested not all the meat meant for the incinerator was burned. There were a lot of cheap steaks available to buy from men in pubs if you happened to frequent pubs where, say, farmers or slaughterhouse workers liked to drink. Maybe the owners of such pubs would suddenly have very tempting roast beef meal deals as a way of bringing in new punters? What could be more British than roast beef on a Sunday? Who knows how many such meals were served?

The fear was that in a few years' time there might be a sudden and huge increase in cases of CJD in humans. It might take five years, ten years or even twenty years before the epidemic broke out. It might affect hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people. Imagine them, a cannibal zombie army, staggering around the island, being picked off by survivors with high powered hunting rifles. Something to replace fox hunting and badger baiting. A different kind of story altogether: the zombie story that is the defining story of our time.

To this day there is still a lack of clarity about the incubation period of CJD. Japanese research suggests that while many cases appear after 7 to 15 years after exposure, in other cases it can take much longer, more than 20 years. The peak of the Mad Cow episode in Britain was 1993, so I do not find it fanciful to imagine that the incubation period for that particular outbreak might have been 26 years, hitting a peak on June 23rd, 2016.

Perhaps one day I will finish that novel after all. But I think I will wait until no-one else is writing about Brexit, or a cure has been found.




Mike Collier

Mike Collier is a British- born writer and journalist. Author of books "The Fourth Largest In Latvia", "Baltic Byline" and "Up The Baltick".

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