Julian Barnes: A drab uniformity is stealing across Europe

From a talk by the novelist at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature

I'm of the generation where you didn't, as an average middle-class child, go abroad much. I first went to France with my parents on a motoring holiday when I was 13 or 14. I don't think I went to any other country until I was 18, by which time I was already studying modern languages. So that was my first exposure to the other, to the fact that Britain wasn't the centre of the world. That was the first time I realised that others saw Britain differently.

I remember when I was in the sixth form there was a boy who went to America in the summer holidays. He came back with a sheepskin jacket and a copy of The Carpetbaggers. I cannot begin to describe to you how exotic that seemed, how wonderful and dangerous and different. America was 300 times further away than France. So I guess, I've always thought of my literary points of reference as being in Europe rather than in America.

The European project was, in its beginnings, both necessary and idealistic. And it always seemed a pity and a sadness that we didn't get on board at the time. It was partly de Gaulle's fault and partly our own. But I have less and less of the sense of the initial idealism still being there. It seems to me that it's the construction of a great single market to benefit large-scale manufacturers. It's turned into too much of a homogenisation.

You go down a main street in many cities in Europe and the shops are exactly the same, and the people behave in exactly the same way, and I regret that. Though I think also that Britain has been diminished by the homogenisation that has come from America as well.

Throughout the Thatcher years it was always Europe that was the great enemy, they were going to take over. But America has changed our ways as much as anything that Europe could have brought in. What we take from America is not necessarily what the French take from America. They're not so much pro-America but they're anti anti-America. They're sceptical friends. And that's what friends ought to be.

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