Only Connect

On the 18th October 1910 the English author E.M Forster published “Howard`s End”. Ostensibly it is a novel about the preoccupations of two middle class families living in late Victorian England. However the philosophical themes that underpin the novel are much more profound than the surface narrative suggests. This book is much more than a peculiar curiosity from a distant era. In spite of its unfamiliar historical setting and unsympathetic characters, Forster`s prose allows us to relate to the people and their surroundings on a purely human level.

This tale has a greater resonance and meaning which is more pertinent to our contemporary existence and especially in the light of some very recent political events. “Howard`s End” is a melancholic reflection on the snobbery, xenophobia, materialism and the decline of the spiritual tradition in a modern, industrialised England. The central protagonists are an Anglo-German family called the Schlegels. Although they are wealthy and cultured, their German heritage becomes a constant barrier in society.

However the Schlegels are the classic example of insider-outsiders, their foreign origin allows them to develop a greater appreciation of the culture that they have absorbed. Unlike the “native” English, they are loath to criticise the history and culture and almost over compensate in their behaviours to prove that they belong.

Unfortunately German history is not well known in this country. It is perhaps a consequence of geographical distance, as an island nation we were insulated from the revolutions that burned through central Europe in 1848. At that time Germany was not a unitary nation but a collection of principalities ruled by dynastic families.

It was only during the time of Bismarck’s ascension that a purposeful aim for national unity was declared, alongside a greater ambition to extend the German Empire. In 1862 he delivered his “blood and iron” speech which helped crystallise the German stereotype in the English imagination. Even though Germany was the nation of Handel and Schiller, this caricature of the dictator- imperialist remained. Forster opines,

“England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries…what did it mean? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave worlds fleet accompanying her towards eternity?”

Forster also gives the reader a rare and privileged insight into the Schlegel siblings memories about their late father,

“If one classed him at all it would be the countryman of Hegel and Kant, as the idealist, inclined to be dreamy, whose imperialism was the imperialism of the air.”

Forster is keen to impress that the Schlegels are romantic sentimentalists who pine for the mountains of their ancestors. However as they are the inheritors of wealth they are isolated from the rest of society and it is this rare luxury that allows them to indulge in intellectual and artistic pursuits.

However the grubby business of money intrudes in the most disturbing and unsettling way with a near simultaneous encounter with the Wilcox family, and Leonard Bast. The Wilcox family amassed an immense fortune and property portfolio including the estate of “Howard`s End”. However they are also brutal materialists and philistines. Leonard Bast is a humble bank clerk but filled with artistic and intellectual aspiration, he longs to find his soul.

When these characters collide a cascade of misery unfolds, adultery, illegitimacy, death and prison. The only real element that is significant in its absence is love, the most simple form of human connection that eludes the entire cast.

Forster infers that this noticeable decay of feeling is the natural result of the loss of English spirituality, he despairs in the closing scenes,

“Why has not England a great mythology? … Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and fairies.”

An Edwardian novelist`s plea for connection may not be the most obvious allusion to draw in terms of the Brexit vote. However the shrill arguments that emanated from the Remainer side was a timely reminder that dull, shallow and literal people will never understand the moral, spiritual and emotional reasons behind the referendum.

The referendum itself was devised by insider-outsiders within the political world, all galvanised by a profound affection for the culture and history of this country. The first meeting was held at the Tate Britain gallery, the apex of British visual art, and a space where journalists, politicians and associated bureaucrats were conspicuous by their absence.

Three of the instigators were notable insider-outsiders, overcompensating as a consequence for their perceived lack of influence and connection to this country. Daniel Hannan was born in Peru and had first hand experience of communist dictatorship. Douglas Carswell spent most of his early life in Uganda as the son of a medical missionary. Boris Johnson was born in America to a colourful mixed heritage family with roots in Turkey and Belgium. They were all united behind a campaign to restore national sovereignty.

Clearly the base motives of an organisation that evolved from a Franco-German Iron and Steel agreement were of little benefit to the ordinary people of this country. It is naive to adhere to the notion of internationalism. It is a belief only shared by utilitarians and those who have never genuinely experienced how it feels to be on the margins of society, but who desperately want to belong to it.

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