Simon Roberts

As the first anniversary of the Brexit referendum approaches, England's capital is still feeling its way forward. In many ways, this is an intriguing time to visit — the pound is weak, the conversations are lively, and the city remains as beautiful as ever — but many Londoners worry that their beloved hometown will be permanently diminished. One of those, the novelist Marcel Theroux, explains how he came to his vote, and contemplates London's uncertain future.

Marcel Theroux
May 15, 2017

Make of this what you will, but I finally became a convinced pro-European after a witches’ sabbath in eastern Germany.

On April 30 each year, the pretty, half-timbered towns and villages of the Harz mountains in Saxony-Anhalt celebrate the festival of Walpurgisnacht with a night of witch-themed revelry. Burghers with staid jobs as IT consultants and factory workers put on makeup and devil horns and prance around res. It’s a kind of Teutonic spring Halloween — an excuse to drink beer, eat excellent German sausages, and wear silly costumes. The spiritual center of the festivities is the Brocken, the mountain where Germany’s national poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, set a key scene of his masterpiece, Faust. In the play, Faust flies up to the summit on Walpurgisnacht to find foul-mouthed witches consorting with the devil.

The next day, I traveled to the top of the Brocken on a narrow-gauge steam train in a carriage filled with people nursing hangovers. The train chugged up through the eerie dark of the birch and fir forests, coal-scented steam billowing past the windows, until we reached the summit, a round, treeless hump still covered with a thick layer of snow.

There I found not a coven but an old Cold War listening post — a concrete box, topped with what looked like an enormous table-tennis ball, where the Soviets did the vital work of eavesdropping on what was then West Germany. The summit belonged to East Germany. The border between the two Germanys ran across the lower slopes. Under Communism, Walpurgisnacht was not observed on the Brocken.

I’ve traveled enough in the former Soviet Union to recognize the distinctive aroma of the post-Communist world: the Brutalist architecture, the neglected roads, the statues of Lenin with his arm raised as though he’s hailing a cab. But there was none of this in Saxony-Anhalt. The steam train that carried us up to the Brocken was in fine nick. Glass-bottomed cable cars whisked visitors up neighboring mountains. New German cars purred along smooth roads. A thermal spa had just opened outside the town of Thale. I was frankly amazed at the vigor and purpose that had gone into healing the divisions between the two Germanys. The Brocken, the mythical home of Goethe’s witches, had become a symbol of unification.

Until this trip, I’d been dithering about which way to vote in the British referendum on EU membership. But after visiting the Harz, I became convinced that Britain needs to be connected to the energy that overcame the historical misstep of Communism, to Germany, and to a bigger idea of Europe. I want my children to have the opportunity to live, study, and work beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. More importantly, I want them to feel like Europeans. I want Goethe — and Dante and Montaigne — to be part of their patrimony. For all of the European Union’s imperfections, I chose the status quo: to remain.

It’s an argument I lost. I woke up on June 24 in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, where I was traveling, to learn that my fellow citizens had chosen to leave. Brexit, which had seemed to fall on the continuum of unlikelihood between the moon landings having been faked and Donald Trump’s becoming president of the United States, was now a reality.

Big Ben at night, as seen from Westminster Bridge.
Alex Treadway

In the short term — and perhaps the events of this past year have taught us the folly of speculating beyond the short term — Brexit has been good news for visitors to my hometown, London, which has become more affordable to travelers thanks to the weak pound. The city, which has been on an upward curve for the past 20 years, has never looked prettier or been easier to get around. Some predict that sterling will eventually reach parity with the dollar. The city’s Michelin-starred restaurants would become bargains. English champagne, which has been winning plaudits worldwide, would be a steal.

And the continuing debate about the meaning of Brexit, about what sort of country Britain wants to be, about the split between its well-off urban centers and its rural and post-industrial rump, makes this a fascinating time to be here. Everyone has an opinion about our future, and everyone wants to share it with a visitor.

I know smart people who voted for Brexit and others who regard it as the worst thing to happen to the country in a generation. I’m trying to remain agnostic about the outcome: this is what we chose. I live in the southwest London neighborhood of Tooting, and I find it encouraging that last year the city elected our MP, Sadiq Khan, a Muslim from a British Pakistani family, to be mayor. Amid the ongoing threat of Islamist terrorism, it showed a commendable logic and pragmatism: whatever his religion, Khan was the best candidate. But I can’t escape a sense of diminishment over Brexit. It’s a decision that seems rooted in the atavistic fears that are a growing theme in global affairs — and one that strengthens the undeniably insular tendencies of the British.

Every spring, visitors will keep gathering in the Harz mountains. The steam train will pull its carriages up the steep tracks to the summit of the Brocken, where the disused spy station memorializes the unity that overcame the legacy of the Cold War. But across Europe, new barriers now seem destined to rise. And though it’s nothing but a daydream, I can’t help wishing that one of those witches with green makeup and prosthetic warts had a real spell that could undo the decisions of the past year.

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