Did they think they could change the world?, I ask him. Not the world, but thought, W. says. They believed that they could change thinking, that they were the beginning of something, a new movement, that they augured what Britain might become: a thinking country, just as France is a thinking country, just as Germany was a thinking country.
A life of the mind, that’s what they’d chosen. A life of the mind for postgraduates from all over Britain, a kind of internal exile. Because that’s what it means to be a thinker in Britain: a kind of internal exile. They’d turned their backs on their families, on old friends. On the places of their birth. They’d turned from their old lives, their old jobs, old lovers. They’d travelled from the four country to be remade here, to be reborn. Essex, Essex: what joy it was in that dawn to be alive…
They learned to read French thought in French, German thought in German. They studied Latin and ancient Greek. Imagine it: a British person reading ancient Greek! They crossed the channel and studied in Paris. They plunged into Europe and studied in Rome. They visited the great archives. They read in the great libraries.
They were becoming European, W. says. Do I have any idea what that meant: to become European? Some of them even learned to speak other languages. Imagine it: a British person speaking French. Imagine it: a Briton in Berlin, conversing in German…
They went en masse to a two-week conference in Italy. Imagine it: British postgraduates en masse at a two-week conference in Italy. They played chess in the sun, and drank wine until their teeth turned red. Italy! The Mediterranean! Who among them had ever been to Italy, or the Mediterranean? Who had any idea of Italy, or the Mediterranean?
The sun burned them brown, imagine! Their pallid British bodies, brown. Their teeth, red. The sun turned them mad. They thought as Van Gogh painted: without a hat, and in the full sun. Hatless, in the full sun, they became madmen and madwomen of thought.
Essex broke them. Essex rebuilt them. Essex broke their Britishness, their provincialness. Essex gave them philosophy. It gave them politics. It gave them friendship, and by way of philosophy, by way of politics. They were close to Europe, terribly close. Like Holderlin’s Greece, Europe was the fire from heaven for the Essex postgraduate. Like Holderlin’s Germany, Britain, staid and dull, was to be set on fire by heaven.
Ah, what happened to them all, the postgraduates of Essex?, W. muses. What happened to the last generation - the last generation of Essex postgraduates?
Some escaped. Some went elsewhere. But others fell back into Britishness - fell into the drowning pool of Britishness. They drowned, gasping for air, finding no air, in Britain.
Hadn’t they seen too much? Hadn’t they learnt what they lacked? Hadn’t they a sense now of great thought, of great politics? Hadn’t their skies been full of light, full of heavenly fire?
Essex University. God, what a terrible campus! The towers are like the towers of Mordor, we agree. Like the Crags of Doom.