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Fintan O’Toole: Brexit is like having to listen to someone else’s dreams

The epic story of liberation has become mesmerisingly tedious

One of the reasons psychoanalysts deserve their fees is that they have to listen to other people’s dreams.

"Tell a dream, lose a reader," Henry James (allegedly) advised young writers. Vivid dreams are absolutely fascinating to the people who have had them. But once you extract these phantasms from the inside of your head and try to put them into words, they very quickly fade into tedium, like delicate ancient frescoes exposed to light. Or like Brexit.

We in Ireland have endured over four years now of having to listen to someone else’s dreams of liberation, without the shrink’s compensation of being paid for every session.

To the dreamers, Brexit is a magnificent epic in which, with the jumbled logic of the reverie, all the high points of English history are happening at the same time. Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg ejaculated at the Tory party conference in 2017, is “Magna Carta . . it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crécy. We win all these things”.


But to most of us in Ireland – and I suspect to most of Europe – it is increasingly like being stuck in a lift with someone who is telling you “And then I was suddenly on this bus, but I couldn’t remember if I’d paid the fare, and the girl in the front seat had a pet wolf that turned into a . . .”

Yet even so, there are moments when you are forced to remember that “mind-numbing” and “mesmerising” mean pretty much the same thing.

I have never (yet) dropped acid but those who have talk of staring for hours at a piece of fluff on the carpet or a crack in the ceiling, lost in wonder at their infinite variety. William Blake could see "a world in a grain of sand". Brexit sometimes has the same effect, forcing us to stare at things so staggeringly dull that they induce a kind of trance-like ecstasy.

Were it not for Brexit, for example, I would never have known of the existence of the British Timber Packaging and Pallet Confederation. If you close your eyes and try to conjure it as an image, all you can see is an endless screen of beige. If you want to clear some space around yourself at a crowded party, just say “Actually, I work for the British Timber Packaging and Pallet Confederation…”

But, in the dreamworld of Brexit, the concerns of the makers of wooden pallets suddenly become momentous.It’s all about ISPM-15. (The rest of this paragraph works best if you read it to yourself in the voice of the Boring Priest from Father Ted.) Untreated wood packaging material can harbour pests which cause serious economic and environmental harm. So the International Plant Protection Convention sets out regulations for what you have to do if you are exporting wooden packaging, most commonly the pallets on which goods are stacked for loading and unloading.

There’s a 47-page explanatory document on regulation ISPM-15. It is exquisitely, lusciously, luxuriantly boring. But – spoiler alert – it comes down in the end to the requirement to bake your wooden pallets at 56 degrees Celsius for at least 30 minutes to kill the bugs.

Except – you don’t have to do this if you’re exporting or importing within the EU’s single market. The plain, uncooked wooden pallet is just fine.

You can see where this breathless tale is heading: as of January 1st 2021, the Brits will have to bake their pallets. And, as my new friends at the British Timber Packaging and Pallet Confederation told Bloomberg News last week, there is no way in hell they're going to have enough cooked timber by then. We're talking 100 million pallets that need to be debugged. We're talking giant kilns for heat treating them that need to be built and installed, not much of which is going to happen this year.

This is the bit in the dream where you’re just about to join in the orgy and a little man with a moustache in a brown shop coat appears from nowhere and says “Are you ISPM-15 compliant?” It’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crécy, it’s wooden pallets, it’s 56 degrees Celsius.

There is something wonderfully apt in this bathos. One of the attractions of Brexit is that it is supposedly less boring than the European Union. But the EU is boring precisely because it takes care of so much of the tedious stuff, the millions of micro-level anxieties attached to trade and customs and standards. The grand heroic gesture of cutting yourself free from all that “red tape” really just brings it all back home. The UK is repatriating ennui on an industrial scale.

“In dreams”, wrote W.B. Yeats, “begins responsibility”.

But who wants to be responsible for baked wooden pallets? That's not what Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and Rees-Mogg and the rest of them were put on earth to do. Responsibility is boring. Brexit is "done" and the rest is silence.

The old cliché about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose applies in a special way. Brexit’s campaigning is the bad poetry of Victorian patriotic verse. Its governance is the excruciating prose of ISPM-15. Bad dreams end up as nightmares of endless, overwhelming banality.