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Una Mullally: 10 positive things to glean from Brexit

In homage to Varda, let’s gather lessons – if not beauty and profundity – from UK chaos

Agnes Varda died last week, aged 90. Last Monday, I happened to watch her most recent documentary, Faces Places, made with the artist JR who specialises in large format black-and-white portrait photography.

The film is about both artists constructing a documentary as they go, travelling around France, meeting people, learning about their memories, making portraits and displaying them in meaningful places; women married to dockers have their portraits pasted on shipping containers, old photographs of miners are pasted on a row of terraced houses earmarked for demolition.

It’s an exercise in empathy, and if that all sounds too twee, a moment towards the end of the film utterly skewers one of the ideas the film starts out with: that we should hold on to the past, and always view it with reverential nostalgia.

But Varda is best known for her 2000 documentary, Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse released in English as The Gleaners and I. The latter gleaner is Varda.


Like the best art, it is as much about form as anything else. From gleaners in country fields and urban streets to artists using recycled materials, to Varda herself, scraps become composition. The purpose is gathering, to find something, to conjure beauty and profundity out of nothing.

Right now, a Brexit-related occupation is gleaning. What can we glean from this mess? Are there any silver linings to be had at all? Any object shining amid the junk?

When I told my editor I wanted to write a positive Brexit column, he emailed back saying "You know that Monday is April 1st?" Fair. But this is not a joke, it's trying to glean something.

In Varda’s optimistic spirit, I present: 10 Positive Brexit Gleanings.

Defence of EU

Number one: Which European country has the largest, most visible and most mobilised pro-EU movement right now? Why, England, of course! Has there even been such an impassioned defence of the European Union? A million people marched on London waving EU flags! Obviously this movement has emerged from the Big Yellow Taxi school of politics ("Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone?") but that doesn't mean it's not significant.

Ironically, right now in Europe, it's the British public who are championing the EU more than in any other member state.

Number two: Getting educated on Northern Ireland. While Irish people have held their heads in their hands for, oh, forever really, regarding British ignorance towards Ireland, at least Brexit has encouraged the British public to engage with the North. This has occurred simultaneously with Derry Girls appearing to teach English people more about Northern Ireland than their school history books ever did.

Number three: If you want to really fight fascism, you have to look it in the eye. British fascism has been bolstered by Brexit, but it’s only when things come out of the shadows that you can really fight them. British people need to get ready to fight the racists, and challenge the sectors of the British press that display fascistic tendencies. In the immortal words of Delia Smith, let’s be having you.

Number four: Speaking of the press, Brexit has been good for journalism. Could anyone have survived the last few three years without Marina Hyde’s columns, Carole Cadwalladr’s investigations or Fintan O’Toole’s writing?

Number five: The break-up of “the union”. Scottish independence and a united Ireland will probably emerge from Brexit. This is a good thing. If the English establishment really wants to value independence and “control”, then it must afford those things to its family. It is genuinely awful when a bigger, oppressive power interferes with and dictates to the whole of the UK – just ask Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Less idiotic

Number six: The disintegration of the Tory party is only ever something to be wildly celebrated. As the party fragments, hopefully less extreme and less idiotic groupings will emerge.

Number seven: The beginning of the end of the DUP. The Tory's worst mates ever, or the political wing of the Old Testament, as Patrick Kielty so eloquently put it, have embarrassed themselves in new ways that almost indicate a creativity is lurking somewhere. A completely demented political party whose Gollum-like approach to "the union" persists even when those they profess to love (rich, conservative English politicians who secretly see the DUP as Irish bumpkins) gaslight them with ignorance and apathy. Their accidental position of power and influence – the result of a billion-pound bung and Theresa May's addiction to throwing an arm around the phrase "what's the worst that could possibly happen?" – will surely never be repeated.

Number eight: Young people in politics. Call it millennial socialism, call it grassroots activism, call it being sick to the back teeth of clowns in parliament literally slagging each other off on the basis of which school they went to. Brexit matters to young people more than any other demographic, and the highly charged political atmosphere will pull more youngsters towards political engagement – just don’t mistake politics for party politics.

Number nine: Worst-case scenarios coming to pass. People can get too comfortable with “progress” and “stability”. When the worst possible stuff is actually panning out, it builds resilience and calls to attention the importance of protecting democracy, something that no matter how fine it looks, is always, always fragile.

Number 10: Perspective. Empires fall. Civilisations collapse. The sun will rise tomorrow, and for now it’s about what you do with that new day.