TRAVELS AROUND MY WARDROBE – NORTH ATLANTIC KNITWEAR

Not a brand name – at least as far as I know – but a geographical description of the assorted sweaters that I have accumulated over the years from around the North Atlantic seaboard. There have been many, often purchased urgently against sudden climatic variations. Spring here being deceptively cold these last few days, I once again found myself rummaging in the back of the wardrobe to unearth the bin liner than contains the winter woollens. Tipping a heap of jumpers out on the bed I recalled the provenance of each, before selecting a lightweight beige number of extraordinary softness and a label that pronounced it Jamieson’s Knitwear of Shetland. 

Eight hours steaming due north from Orkney, on the Kirkwall to Lerwick route. I remember wrestling with a door against the buffeting wind and going out onto the pitching deck in the middle of the night to be met with a wet slap of horizontal drizzle moving at speed. I was wearing a sweater from the Faroe Islands, further north again, roughly halfway between Shetland and Iceland. It was a three-ply number so rich in lanolin that the rain beaded off it. It has never been washed, and has a distinct tang of the original sheep. (The name Faroes comes from the old Norse word fær, meaning sheep, and øja, or islands.

Off the starboard bow a small white light winked in the night, and then a steady golden one came into view beyond it. I made out a looming mass of dark cliff which slid steadily past. Fair Isle, three miles long, a mile-and-a-half wide, known for its traditional knitwear patterns. The steady light must have been a cottage, and I wondered who lived there, what it looked like inside. The island was soon behind us, a tiny speck of rock in the rolling expanse of sea. And then arriving in Lerwick in the morning, oil tanks, fishing boats at anchor, grey buildings around a small harbour, their monochrome in contrast to the luminous green of the hills behind, dotted with the white specks of sheep. As we clanked over the metal ramp of the ferry and mustered in the car park I saw that the side of the ship was decorated with an enormous stencil of a Viking in a horned helmet, billowing hair and beard, arm outflung, pointing. Onwards!  

Shetland has always looked to Scandinavia due to its geographical location, and indeed belonged to Norway for a couple of centuries. The name is said to derive from the old Norse Hjaltland, which may refer to the hilt of a sword, hjalt, or to a fine type of yarn. When the original Norn language spoken by the locals gradually evolved into the Shetland dialect of Scots, the letter yogh, written as a kind of stylized 3, replaced the Norse hj sound, and the name was written as 3etland. Because of the letter’s similar shape to the Z in English, the islands became known as Zetland. To this day, Shetland postcodes begin with ZE. 

After we had driven around the harbour three times we decided to ask someone for directions. An old man was walking a dog and we pulled up next to him and asked him the way. He replied in a strange singsong dialect somewhere between Aberdeen and Bergen and was impossible to understand. My mother, who was driving, asked him to repeat it, laughing that she found his accent quite hard to follow. “Ah don’t have an accent,” he replied, deadpan. “You do.”    

We had a picnic sitting in the car on a clifftop, sheltering from horizontal rain and a buffeting wind. It was the old red Volvo, its interior littered with memorabilia from its travels. A road atlas of Scandinavia. Nord Norge veibok. Tin of travel sweets. Ice scraper. National Trust guide. Snow chains. From my position in the back seat the contents of the seat pockets provided a distraction of sorts from the squall outside. The sea churned and boiled hundreds of feet below, pounding against the cliffs, which seemed to shake with its force, and just offshore lay the low outline of the island of Papa Stour, visible through intermittent clouds of spray. The weather showed no sign of letting up, so after a while we drove slowly away, and then passed a track with a sign that said Jamieson’s Spinning Mill. Visitors Welcome. There wasn’t much else around, so we drove up it, coming to a collection of buildings huddling against the lee of the hill. 

It was very much an active factory. Looms whirred and chattered away, wheels spun, strands of yarn spooled into patterns. A handful of people attended them wearing earmuffs, blithely unaware of the three figures in dripping Haglöfs anoraks who had just wandered in. Eventually a man noticed us and wandered over, beckoning us into another room away from the clacking mechanical chorus. He was happy to show us around, and told us the history of the factory, explaining that Shetland wool was famous for its softness due to the softness of the weather – “The sheep are out in the rain so it’s like being on a permanent rinse cycle.” I had seen them out dotting the hillsides all the way there, odd, small, goaty-looking creatures with fleeces ranging from the most brilliant white to a dark chocolatey brown. There are several main colours recognised by the Shetland sheep breeding association, and if you wanted an illustration of the Norse influence in the language, they offer a good example: emsket (bluish grey), shaela (steely grey), moorit (reddish brown), smirslet (white muzzle) and sokket (white socks, of course). In the small section set aside as a kind of shop there were mounds of jumpers, piles of knitted socks, hats and mittens, in colourful Fair Isle patterns, the Icelandic yoke design with the half circle around the neck, some that looked Norwegian, and then the plain ones which resembled the natural colours of the land – a bright moss green, a faded russet brown of heather in autumn, slate grey of the cliffs, and an off-white, ecru sort of beige, which is the one I chose. 

What else do I remember of Shetland? The green tops of tiny islands, smooth as pool tables, jutting out of a heaving sea. A small ferry and an otter swimming out across the channel, its passage cutting a V-shape in the glassy water, until it stopped, the sleek head eyeing us as we watched it, droplets of water on its whiskers, and then the abrupt dark arch of its back as it dived, only to reappear again 50 yards away to observe us some more. A tearing wind on a bright, cold day, and a lone cyclist flying the St Andrew’s Cross from his recumbent, struggling to get up a hill and slowly grinding to a halt in the teeth of the wind, until he had to get off and push the thing, while in the background the sea foamed and roared. 

Gannets wheeling and diving all around us, a cliff alive with their harsh cries, the gothic mask of heavy eyeliner around pale reptilian eyes, a yellow fade of blusher sweeping back across the face, around smooth, snowy heads, folding back their wings at the last second to plunge knifelike into the waves. Gannet, gainéad, guga. They used to eat them here. Still do, in the Outer Hebrides. Every August ten men from Ness on the Isle of Lewis head to the island of Sula Sgeir, home to thousands of gannets. The hunt is centuries old – indeed most inhabitants of the North Atlantic coast relied on seabird foraging to supplement their diets until about 100 years ago – and the hunt has been assessed and pronounced ‘sustainable’ by Scottish Natural Heritage. The gannets are hooked from the cliffs by long poles, then salted and left to pickle in their own juices on the cliff before being dug up and served with potatoes. “Like very well hung duck stewed in cod liver oil,” as one Lewis resident recalled who now eschews gannet himself. 

The hotel where I had a chowder, which was a creamy seafood stew served inside a round loaf, and which was so good I can recall it still. On the way there we had been held up by roadworks out on some blasted heath, the traffic brought to a halt until an enormous man in a hard hat and orange vest walked into the road, eyed the waiting cars in a not very friendly manner, spat on his palms and then swung a sledgehammer over his head, bringing it down with a tremendous crack upon the surface of the road with the force of mjölnir – Thor’s Hammer. The tarmac splintered. He did his work as the line of cars watched, then he shouldered the hammer again and sauntered back to the verge, his colleague turned the sign to Green for Go, and we drove on. Narrow roads with passing places every few hundred yards, rising and falling across the treeless hills, and around every other bend the glimmering waters of a sheltered inlet, a voe, in local parlance, often with a solitary whitewashed cottage overlooking it or a small boat moored. Every other car or van seemed to be a Citroën; were they oddly suited to this climate? After all, we found Volvos to be the most reliable car in the mountains of Norway in winter – until we encountered a large Citroën dealership on the outskirts of Lerwick and the mystery was rather obviously explained. The sound of Grieg’s piano concerto on the car radio, and the next piece, I Høst – In Autumn – with squalls of weather and notes which cascade like fallen leaves, played by the Bergen Philharmonic, the sound of which will always transport me to the Northern Isles. 

Onto the bed I tip: 

A natural wool-coloured Guernsey made by Guernsey Woollens on the island of Guernsey, thus establishing its authentic provenance beyond doubt. A tightly twisted yarn in two-ply knit, quite a narrow fit, rather stiff until worn in, it has the traditional patterns of a Guernsey: a raised seam across the shoulders, and a garter stich ribbed section around the waist.  

A roll neck submariner sweater, MOD spec (Ministry of Defence), in off-white ecru, with long cuffs and waist. This is based on the sweaters issued in the Second World War, but the original looms were destroyed after the war, and the modern variant uses a slightly lighter knit.

The three-ply Faroese rollneck, mid-brown with white patterning. Faroese sweaters saw a surge in popularity after a certain detective from a Danish TV series in the early 2000s was seen wearing one. Hers came from Gudrun and Gudrun; mine is from Navia of Torshavn. As I said, it’s virtually waterproof. 

The Norwegian submariner, in Navy blue. Another rollneck, in a heavier knit than the MOD one, and with a ribbed fisherman’s pattern. This came from a sale bin outside an army surplus shop in Oslo on a hot July day, when no-one in their right mind would’ve been buying sweaters. It is exceptionally warm, but lacks the long cuffs that can be rolled back of the other submariner. 

A lambswool sweater by Barbour with shawl collar, which forms a high cape at the back of the neck. This came out of a sale bin in Regent’s Street, and is my first sweater made with 100% marketing nonsense, which is why I suspect it was on sale. It is black in colour, very soft, but when I picked it out of the bin I saw an odd patterned patch on one elbow. Then another, in a different colour, on the cuff. The tag explained that it had been designed to resemble a much-loved and often darned sweater. This was so ridiculous that I bought it at once. It has a few holes in it now, after 20 years of wear, but as it is pre-darned from the factory I haven’t bothered to repair it.  

A traditional Aran sweater from Inisheer on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. Although normally off-white in colour, this one is a lovely dark green shot through with a silvery grey. It’s a fairly loose knit, so good for cooler days. The myth that the cable pattern has a traditional interpretation stems from a yarn shop owner called Heinz Kiewe, who noticed the similarity of the design to traditional Celtic knotwork patterns, and wrote a book about it called The Sacred History of Knitting. Another myth was that every Aran family had their own unique pattern, which would aid with identification if a fisherman was drowned. This is thought to have originated with the play Riders to the Sea written by J. M. Synge in 1904, in which the body of an islander is identified by his knitted socks.  

I should explain, if it isn’t abundantly clear already, that I know nothing about knitting. I just like wearing the things as being particularly appropriate for the cool, damp climate where I live, on the North Sea coast of East Anglia. As a side note, the usual word for these garments in Ireland, Britain and Australia is jumper. Sweater is more commonly used in North America and in tourist shops. Nevertheless, I find myself using the terms interchangeably. Interestingly the Irish word is geansai. In Shetland they are called gansey. Further down the North Sea coast of Britain this became known as a Guernsey, just like the Channel Island. Not to be confused with the neighbouring island of Jersey, of course, which is completely different.   

TRAVELS AROUND MY WARDROBE – THE STUDLY BARBOUR

I was nine years old, soon to be ten, and had just climbed an enormous oak tree with my friend Huw. We made it back to earth covered in bits of twig and greenish dust, and lay on the sloping lawn of our prep school in the spring sunshine, looking at the clouds overhead. We were discussing his forthcoming birthday – he was a little older than I – and what presents he might get. He was excited because his father had promised him a Barbour jacket. I didn’t know what that was, so he explained that it was made of heavy-duty cotton which was waxed to make it waterproof. It had pockets everywhere, he enthused; there was even a hidden one inside called a poacher’s pocket which you could fit a whole rabbit in. As he went on, this jacket took on mythical attributes in my mind, possessing all kinds of hidden powers. It could even confer invisibility on its wearer, if you stood still in the shadows. I wanted one desperately. Huw sat up, dusted himself off and said: “Let’s go to the swings”, so we did, and flung ourselves higher and higher on them, striving to go over the crossbar but never quite daring to. 

This was the kind of boarding school that the English have been sending their offspring to for a very long time. An old Georgian manor house set in acres of countryside, nestled in a fold of the South Downs. In come a gaggle of small, uncomprehending children in the fashions of the time – jeans and trainers, sticky with sweets or gum, to be crafted into future leaders, pillars of the establishment, schooled not just academically but in the semiotic markers of class and status. Our uniform was dark corduroy trousers, navy-blue sweaters – either a Guernsey or the Royal Navy Woolly Pully with shoulder and elbow patches – and black leather shoes that we all polished once a week on Sunday mornings before chapel. Very practical, very anachronistic. It occurs to me now that the conversation that Huw and I carried out that day was undoubtedly in a screamingly posh accent, a kind of cut-glass BBC RP with the flattened vowels of wartime officers being quietly heroic, films of which were our staple entertainment at weekends when we weren’t playing war ourselves. The languid bray of Chelsea and weekends in country houses much like this one. Princess Diana looking bashful and beautiful, snapped by blurry telephoto while wearing one. That was the world in which the Barbour belonged. It was a jacket, after all, which had no less than three royal warrants. By appointment to, etc. etc. 

I read a report the other day on leadership qualities in British Army officers (of which Huw’s father was one), which quoted from a pamphlet issued to cadets at Sandhurst. “Jeans are NOT an acceptable substitute for chinos,” it extolled. “If the pockets are horizontal rather than vertical, and there are studs or rivets, they should be considered unsuitable.” The author of the report mused that this was perhaps why a group of teenagers from all backgrounds might arrive clad in jeans, trainers, sticky with gum and energy drinks, and leave a year or two later at the grand old age of 20 clad in tweed and corduroys, with neatly polished shoes, braying like 50-something businessmen at the bar of a golf club. Quite what leadership tendencies such sartorial conformity confers is moot. Chap looks the part. If it looks like rain, chuck a Barbour on and head round the links anyway. (As an aside, Huw later went on to study Russian and became something in Defence. Far-sighted lad.) 

My uncle had one, but he was not part of that world. He was a Welsh hill farmer, in a rambling, ancient house overlooking a pebble-ringing stream that cut through a verdant swathe of paddock, the grass luminous green when the sun shone, which was rarely. On the peg in the hall, chill flagstones underfoot, hung a selection of Barbours, and I remember him reaching for his one day as we headed out. It was ancient – decades old, with the kind of worn patina that only a tough outdoor life in an inclement climate can confer. The zip had long gone, but the poppers held it fast. We went driving across the hill in his old Land Rover, traversing a 45 degree slope, and sitting in the passenger seat my door suddenly flew open and I began to slide towards the open hill. A waxed cotton arm as thick as a branch reached out, grabbed my collar and casually hauled me back in to booming laughter. “Where are you off to then? You just sit there now.” 

It took me a few more years, but with my first pay packet I bought my own waxed jacket. I hesitate to say this now – the folly of youth – but it was not a genuine Barbour. It was from British Home Stores. It certainly looked the part, but didn’t really work. It had the tartan lining, for sure, but the arms were lined in some kind of synthetic material that soon became clammy. The irony – I could’ve bought a genuine one, but wanted to keep some money aside as we were planning a pub crawl. Obviously that all went about as well as can be expected. The jacket lasted a few years, survived a number of scrapes, but it wasn’t really up to containing me. 

Then, 12 years ago, I bought another, from a small shop in the lanes of Norwich that specialised in Country Pursuits – the kind of huntin’ and fishin’ shop that caters for the kind of people who drop that last letter in the right sort of way. It was part of a new line that Barbour introduced called the International, to celebrate their motorcycling pedigree, developed in 1936 as a special one piece suit for the International Six Day Trials. A similar style became popular a few years later amongst Royal Navy Submariners, which became known as the Ursula. By the 1950s, with army surplus in great abundance, the garment of choice for the British motorcyclist was a roll neck Submariner sweater with a Barbour over the top. I can testify to the effectiveness of this combination as a few years ago I wore it when riding a vintage motorcycle over the Himalayas. 

These days, marketing I suppose, you have to go through endless pages of assorted garments to find the original jackets. Barbour make all sorts of everything now, even a perfume. (Notes of gun oil with overtones of horse? I have no idea.) I even saw a dog the other day in a small seaside town that was wearing its own Barbour doggy jacket. The dog looked at me, gave a sniff and looked away. 

Because that Himalayan trip took its toll on this jacket, there’s no doubt. One of the things about waxed cotton is that it needs regular waxing to maintain its condition. Due to the shortage of Barbour wax in the Himalayas, the jacket became dry, discoloured with red dust, and creases soon turned into tears. The next year, somewhere in the mountains of Tasmania, I reached into my pocket for something and there was a great ripping sound as my hand went straight through it. The zip jammed on a windy beach in Ireland one day. The lining began to detach. I kept meaning to retire the jacket, but couldn’t bear to, so it hung on and on, looking more and more disreputable. It was on that great social leveller the London Underground one day, on my way back from Heathrow, frayed with jet lag, that I became embarrassed about the shredded sleeves before me while sitting opposite a chap who was wearing a brand new Barbour over his suit. I discretely folded my arms to try to hide them. It’s one thing to have a certain amount of wear due to an interesting life; quite another to be literally clad in rags. 

So, last weekend I went back to Norwich, and together with someone who has been through many adventures with me over the years, and who dubbed the original one “The Studly Barbour” due to its large, shiny poppers I suppose, we walked back along the lanes, together with crowds of people enjoying the spring sunshine after a winter that went on for a couple of years. We found the shop again, and I flicked through endless rails of new Barbours until, right in the back corner of the shop, I found a rail containing the one I was after. Classic Beaufort, size 40. It has a poacher’s pocket that could accommodate a hare, handwarmer pockets, a storm collar, and it may even confer the power of invisibility. I road tested it on a walk over the hill glowing luminous green, comfortable even in the tearing wind, looking down at the ruins of the old abbey far below, and thought how strange it is that things have come full circle.      

Travels Around My Wardrobe – Stormline

The weather changed in the night, the wind veering to the north-west. By morning the cars in the lane were covered in yellow leaves from the lime trees, and the light of the low November sun turned everything a deep gold, as if filtered through amber. It became necessary to unearth the winter wardrobe. 

As England is immured in lockdown yet again, this became a journey in its own right. I recalled the French aristocrat Count Xavier de Maistre, who, confined to house arrest for fighting a duel, managed to produce an entire travel book about his surroundings called Voyage Around My Room. Sifting through a sack full of woolly jumpers I found myself recalling the provenance of each, and then moved on to the jackets, beginning with a startling neon-yellow oilskin, of the kind most often seen on Deadliest Catch, or some such staple of late night TV. 

At one time my motorcycle was my only form of transport, and I rode it year round, through an East Anglian winter. After one particularly unpleasant journey which featured icy rivulets of water up both sleeves despite the dedicated Some-tex jacket, I took the advice of an old American biker and went in search of a pair of oilskins to wear over the top. Living a stone’s throw from the North Sea you’d think this was a straightforward sort of business, but the shops of my increasingly twee hometown seemed to cater solely to weekend sailors happy to spend £500 on a yachting jacket called The Solent or some such, which was rather out of my league. 

The first oilskins were basically made of canvas sailcloth, which fishermen found they could waterproof by coating them in linseed oil. These were effective but malodorous, and had a significant drawback, in that the linseed coating stiffened in colder temperatures and became a carapace. I could pick up a tin of linseed oil for a couple of quid in the ironmongers, and briefly considered a ‘traditional’ fisherman’s smock in the window of one of the boutiques, which advertised an ‘artist’s pocket’ suitable for storing paintbrushes. Perhaps not. 

Then I found a small chandlery shop in Lowestoft that was having a closing down sale. Britain’s coastal towns divide into two types, for the main part: genteel seaside resorts, offering boutiques, surfing stores with silly names and galleries with pictures of beach huts, and run down, gritty ex-fishing ports with high unemployment and consequent deprivation. Lowestoft, having briefly occupied the former category for a while in Victorian times, now lands squarely in the latter, having weathered the various economic storms of the 20th century. The government’s plan to retrain generations of Suffolk fishermen as computer operators met with about as much success as you’d expect, although it is a treat to get one on the phone when you ring a local helpline now and again. I once had a chat with an old boy about my expired library card where he said: “So I’ve now got to find your account and click that bloody new card button, wherever that are. Shouldn’t take more ’n about an half an haar. It were there, but it in’t now.”     

But there were still people going out on the boats, now and again, and a handful employed in the offshore industry, and these people needed good weatherproof gear. So up I rode to Lowstuff.     

The local council had regenerated the town centre into a bleak expanse of windswept concrete, and created a one way system which continually took motorists away from their intended direction. This was responsible for the woes of the chandlery shop; a newly dualled stretch of road directly outside, round past the dock, covered in No Stopping signs. Having ridden past it three times I eventually found a car park and walked the half mile or so back to it. And inside it was another age. 

Ropes. Brass candlestick holders. Barometers. Mariner’s knives. Assorted pots and pans suitable for galley use. Extra long seaboot socks. A sou’wester. Rollneck submariner sweaters. This was the place I was looking for. The owner watched me for a while as I wandered about, then struck up a conversation largely about incompetent town planners. He was fed up with it all – nobody came in any more, and he was selling up. 

I told him I was looking for a set of oilskins, and he said that the best ones he had, the ones all the trawlermen swore by, came from New Zealand. He pulled out a set and laid them on the counter. They were made of some poly material in bright yellow with glow-in-the-dark piping. I saw the four red stars of New Zealand and the name Stormline. This sounded promising. “And look,” he pointed out. “Neoprene cuffs!” 

I’d never considered the merits of neoprene cuffs before. “Is that good then?” I asked. He gave me a look as if to say, when was the last time you gutted a netful of cod on a heaving deck in a gale? I decided to try them on, and he dug out a pair in medium, showing me a label which said “Size: medium. Southern hemisphere size: small”. This was curious. But I was clearly a northern hemisphere model myself, and flapped around the gangways, trying out various heroic poses. 

“That’ll do yer then,” he announced. 

“I’ll take them!” I was delighted. “How much are they?”

“Fifty for cash.” 

“Done.’ 

A few days later, sitting in the living room as the rain lashed the window outside, I looked up and said “Reckon I might head out for a ride then.” 

“In that?” said my friend incredulously. 

I smiled, and a few minutes later appeared in head-to-toe neon and did my flappy dance. 

“Good lord. Well, best of luck,” they said. 

A couple of hours later I reappeared grinning broadly. Except for my feet, which were sodden, I was bone dry. Neoprene cuffs. It’s the way to go. That’s the Stormline, then.    

Amongst the Trees

I woke up dreaming of the sea. The wind had picked up in the night and was rushing through the pines, causing them to sway and hiss with the sound of small waves lapping on a shingle beach. The balcony looks out onto a tangle of branches, green light filtering through the foliage, and through the trees a variety of birds hop and flutter – laughing thrush, “vissling” thrush (it does indeed whistle, the full tune lasting some 15 minutes), a magpie with a foot-long tail and dual voice box like a tui, and two other species that might be dubbed ‘the emergency services’, one with the wailing call of a British police car, the other with the two-tone blare of a French one. At night every few seconds comes the double chirp of a nightjar. Himalayan pheasants as tame as hens nose around the balcony each morning in search of food. 

Living in a house overlooking a tree one can sometimes feel a strange wonder at these weird vegetal growths that surround you. They shower us with pollen, wrap us in their scent, cast us in a benevolent shade. And you become part of life in the branches: the little yellow-striped squirrels whose bushy tails jerk back and forth as they chirp, the innumerable birds: bulbul, sunbird, koel, hornbill. The monkeys – the black-faced langurs with two-metre tails who gallop over the tiles and then leap into the branches with a whoosh, or the smaller rhesus macaques, who peer curiously through the foliage to inspect their fellow primates observing them from the balcony. 

We were invited to a birthday party by the neighbours, which turned out to be for a young boy of around 13 years of age. A group of around 30 women and girls huddled on their haunches in a circle on the patio, shawls drawn tightly around them against the evening chill of the hills. A series of skinny girls in skinny jeans and long kurta shirts took it in turns to rather shyly dance in the centre of the circle to a variety of Indian hits played on a mobile phone, cheered on by raucous grandmas. The dances were an odd combination of the chaste and suggestive, with raunchy Bollywood moves slightly suppressed by the self-consciousness of adolescence. One of the older women had had enough of the endless coy wiggling, and stepped into the circle to perform a more indigenous version which involved much twirling and twisting of wrists – the same style of mountain dance you can see all the way from Turkey to Afghanistan. 

Eventually it was announced that the cake cutting was about to begin, and we all crowded into a tiny room as everyone sang happy birthday. I found myself standing head and shoulders above a sea of glossy black plaited hair, and realised that other than the birthday boy and one other guy, I was the only male present. As is the custom in these parts, the boy was fed large wodges of cake by a succession of aunties and sisters, who then carefully dabbed the icing on his face until he looked as if he had been hit by a custard pie. I was presented with a small slice together with a couple of biscuits and some namkeen – Bombay mix – and retired to the terrace to eat it. The cake tasted like air freshener. 

Soon afterwards dinner was served, blankets being laid out with stainless steel trays set before them. Each had three compartments into which were ladled paneer (cottage cheese) in a spicy gravy, chickpeas in an even spicier gravy, and a dish of raita, a cooling cucumber and yoghurt confection whose emollient effects were entirely negated by the addition of an eye-watering mustard. A mound of puris like deflated yorkshire puddings were used to scoop up the sauces, and we sat panting slightly and giving the occasional drawn out sniff, wondering whether it would be acceptable to blow our noses over the balcony with our fingers, in the local manner, or if we should just sit there gurgling like drainpipes. The meal was over almost as quickly as it had begun, and groups of women and children slipped on their flip-flops and made their way off into the night, along pitch-dark mountain paths. Two girls squatted at one end of the terrace and washed up thirty steel trays in a couple of plastic bowls with impressive speed. 

One of the peculiarities of Goan celebrations that I have attended – weddings, birthday parties and the like – is the presence of a compere or MC. They all have the same smarmy tone, slightly patronising, occasionally hectoring over the microphone, and the crowd somehow consent to a series of games that can only be described as ritually humiliating. At the last event I attended, a joint birthday party, the compere was a stocky guy with a mullet and designer stubble, and a name that sounded like “Goatse” – something from the early days of the internet that you really don’t want to look up. He was encased in a shiny satin dinner jacket, which must have been a torment, as the humidity was in the 90s. After a series of fairly mundane competitions such as “who has the oldest driving licence” or “the biggest shoe size”, this joker somehow ended up organising a race of all the fattest people from one side of the venue to the other. And this crowd of Goans, all in their finery, good-naturedly obliged, tottering back and forth across the sand again and again, dripping with sweat, before one welterweight lad in a dress shirt and bow tie was pronounced the winner, and collapsed into a deckchair grinning bashfully to the patter of exhausted applause. 

The day after the young boy’s party, with a combination of local grapevine and modern technology, we were informed by text message from a mutual friend in Goa that we had been invited to tea at the estate on the hilltop. We trudged uphill through dappled forests, following a trail marked by scattered piles of horse dung – most of the heavy goods are carried up the mountain by pony, although the day before I had seen an elderly guest hoisted upon the shoulders of four local lads in a palanquin. We were greeted on arrival by none other than the aunty who had done the mountain dance the previous night. It transpired that she was married to the owner of the estate – indeed the owner of the whole hill – a retired Indian Air Force officer who had spent many years touring India by motorbike. Here we had much in common, and spent a pleasant afternoon listening to bagpipe music from this region of Kumaon, swapping travel stories and discussing the longstanding and often convoluted relationship between Britain and India – one that hadn’t by any means always flowed smoothly, but which retains a deep and genuine affection to this day. Indeed in the nearby town of Ranikhet, an old hill station and army cantonment known for its tweed factory, it is possible to take out a day’s membership of the Ranikhet Club (presumably once you are suitably attired in lightweight herringbone), where you can get access to the bar and the billiards room and observe old Indian colonels with enormous moustaches addressing each other as “old chap”. 

The noises began three nights ago, with a strange ambient music faintly audible from the hill across the valley, perhaps two kilometers away as the crow flies, but much further by foot. There was no beat, just a series of chords, often in the minor key, somehow creating an uneasy atmosphere, as if in a film when something dramatic is about to happen. It put me in mind of ‘Wandering Soul’, the American psychological warfare experiment in Vietnam, where helicopters flew over the jungle at night playing a recording of eerie sounds – ominous music, random howls and shrieks, and then messages in Vietnamese purporting to be from the spirit world. This had been put together by a dedicated team of psychologists in the Psy-Ops department of the Pentagon. The theory was that most Vietnamese believed in ghosts – in the absence of a proper burial a spirit would wander – so this would somehow demoralise the Viet Cong, crouching below in the darkness, and convince them to desert. Clearly it didn’t work.

By morning the DJ had moved on from ‘Wandering Soul’ to more mainstream Indian hits, featuring a lot of autotuned singing and thumping Punjabi beats. This began at seven in the morning and continued all day. It was, inevitably, a wedding. The music would stop for an hour or two and then resume, wafting around the valley as the wind direction shifted. At one point there was what sounded like a brass band, who weren’t bad, but undoubtedly sounded a great deal better from two kilometres away. I wondered if the DJ had any idea how far the music carried, or indeed if it would have made any difference to them; knowing this country, probably not. 

It is sometimes said that the British invented bureaucracy and the Indians perfected it. One of the best examples of India’s utter dysfunctionality in this regard is the recent introduction of “the C Form”. This is the form that foreign tourists have to fill out upon arrival at a guesthouse or hotel, and it has been shambolic. A heavy-handed campaign by the government threatening enormous fines for failure to complete one within 24 hours of a guest’s arrival has meant that one of the first things you are confronted with, having driven for hours and staggered up a hill, is a badly designed, repetitive and counter-intuitive form that nobody knows how to fill out. If, for example, you are staying with friends or relatives, should you fill one out? Nobody knows. Best to be on the safe side. So your friend or relative dutifully logs on to the stunningly inept government website, to be confronted with the first question: Name of guesthouse. OK, they think. I’ll put my address. Next question: Guesthouse registration number. At this point they may be tempted to try to find the relevant website for registering a guesthouse. Good luck with that. 

So you go back to the paper forms, which are a necessity given that many places have no internet connection. And after the standard question of name, home address, permanent address, temporary address and associated phone numbers, you come to marital status. Single, I always put. But, in a clever attempt to catch you out, the next question is, Married or Unmarried. Gosh, well… so I used to be single but am now married? It was a rushed wedding – must’ve happened since I answered the last question. Anyway, moving on. Date of arrival in India. Where from? (City.) OK, I put London. Next question is simply, Place. Oh well, the leafy suburb of Heath Row, don’t you know. Zip code? LOL 5R5LY. 

In Goa, which has more foreign tourists than anywhere else in the country (about 2 million a year), the sheer mind-boggling amount of forms that were deposited at the few police stations allocated to process them led to serious storage problems – they simply didn’t know where to put all these millions of mouldering forms. So they decided to “Go Online”. As with most government websites anywhere, the site is virtually unusable, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who ever had the mad idea of trying to apply for a tourist visa to India. Fill out endless pointless questions. Are you, or have you ever been, a Pakistani? No? Are you sure? Failure to declare Pakistaniism is a punishable offence! Ah, but what if your grandma was an East Pakistani from what is now Bangladesh, hmm? No, she was from Wales. It’s in the… OK, scroll down every country in the world, avoid The United Arab Emirates pitfall for the unwary, the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, and whatever diminutive landfalls remain of the former empire, and pick United Kingdom. Yes, but what about grandpa? Repeat the above process, avoiding the United States, etc. 

Are you in service? Yes/no. Military service, domestic service, government service, BDSM relationship service? If so, please choose position from following menu. Let’s just put no for that one. 

So we sigh, and shrug, and waggle our heads, and say what is to be done? It is how it is. And then you get woken up at 7 in the morning by a great hammering on the door from the owner of the establishment who says that you failed to list your permanent address in India, which you don’t have, because the question, subsection 2.1(b) went on to ask: If any.  

Please to be uploading passport photo. Indian tourist visa requirements demand a gigantic one – 2” by 2”, or 50mm each way for the non-imperialistic. But once you’ve arrived in India, the C Form requires a standard passport size, which cannot be more than 50kb for the online form, and is therefore so pixellated upon upload as to be unrecognisable. Never mind, that’ll do. The experienced traveller carries a sheaf of photos taken at enormous expense by a guy with a camera costing thousands of pounds who is actually a serious artist but is forced to make ends meet. So it goes. 

So we have the online illiteracy of the Goan form, and the hillside village with no network of a place such as, say, Jilling, with their paper form. And then you get in the car and carry on with your journey, at a steady 40kmh round hairpin after hairpin, for three hours, and you come to your next destination which is in the same blasted state, and here they want both the online registration and a paper form, because some pot-bellied babu in a nasty little office full of dead flies, who lives in mortal fear of actually being held accountable for a decision he has made and couldn’t find his arse with both hands in a dark room, has decided his life is easier that way.  

Now I’m no great shakes at the mathematics, but India has 7 million foreign tourists a year – and is keen to attract more, despite the best efforts of the Ministry of Tourism, which periodically prompts plaintive enquiries as to why numbers are dwindling in the editorial pages of newspapers. The Goan tourist minister has his own view: India is too expensive (despite being one of the cheapest countries in the world), and tourists should drink more feni cashew spirit, visit temples (he might at least have mentioned churches in a state famous for them) and go to carnival (crowded, hot, and a long journey over appalling roads) to truly appreciate Goenkarponn, or Goan culture. They should on no account go to any party after 10pm or smoke any hashish, because that’s illegal, etc. Somewhere in between the charter holiday mob to Goa, who stay for a couple of weeks in the same hotel then go home drunk (occasionally indulging in bouts of racist abuse at flight attendants), and the more adventurous types who try to pack a lot of sightseeing into a tight schedule (“If it’s Monday this must be Jaipur”), and those hardy souls/masochists who spend months touring India staying in a different place every night, you end up with an average of a new hotel or guesthouse every couple of days. And a new C Form for every one, complete with passport photo. So there’s 365 days in the year, right? Should I bring roughly a couple of hundred passport photos then, to be on the safe side? What’s that times 7 million? How many man hours will it take to process the C Forms for one year? Couple of years minimum, I reckon. It is the perfect Indian bureaucracy.             

  

    

 

 

 

 

      

Tales from the Hills

The train left New Delhi Railway Station at 6am and it was already hot. Six lanes of traffic nudged slowly around Connaught Place, narrowed to the width of one car by a yellow police barrier just before a set of lights which admitted only a vehicle or two at a time before cycling back to red. The consequent tailback grew to such proportions that eventually a policeman wandered over and wheeled the barrier aside, parking it next to the sleeping form of a man stretched out flat on his back on the pavement. The forecast for that day was a high of 42 degrees C, with “very unhealthy air quality”.

The station entrance was pandemonium, the masses of India engaged upon a slow shuffle up and down walkways. Due to a quirk of the system there was no central billboard indicating which platform one needed; instead you had to walk past each platform to check the sign at the entrance, and the station was huge. A porter in scarlet tunic with two suitcases on his head told us we needed platform 14. At the top of the steps a man with an air of officialdom blocked the path of the uncle in front of us and demanded his ticket. Suddenly there came a cry of “No, no, no – don’t show him anything. He’s a scammer.” It was a woman with a backpack and North American accent. “Come on, let’s go to the police station,” she challenged him, and he edged away, somehow retaining an air of wounded pride, to try his luck elsewhere.

We found our carriage and stowed the bags, glad of the air-conditioning; my shirt was already soaked with sweat. There were a group of around 15 middle-aged Bengalis in the seats around ours, all in high spirits at the prospect of holidays. They were incredibly loud. One man, perhaps in his 50s, with Nehru vest and white goatee, had clearly appointed himself in the role of class clown, and kept up a string of quips which reduced the aunties to loud squawks and hoots of phoney laughter that is the sign of the truly humourless. “Ooh, you are awful! – hee hee hee.” This went on for the next six hours.

We rolled slowly through Delhi’s interminable northern suburbs, halting briefly at a packed platform where I made out the Hindi lettering Ghaziabad Junction. The people were quite different to the Goans – many wearing kurta pyjama and several women in veils. The staff brought a thermos of hot water for each passenger, a sachet with teabag, sugar and milk powder, and a pack of Marie biscuits which were described on the label as having been invented long ago by a girl called Marie in the countryside of London, who found long lines of Englishmen queueing up to taste her biscuits. As K was showing me the packet across the aisle, one of the Bengali aunties, who had a curious duck-like pout and corresponding waddle, came and stood right between us to engage the row behind me in conversation. After trying “excuse me,” a couple of times, I hissed at her and made a shooing gesture like one would with a fly. It worked – she retreated to her seat for more squawking. The two Indian gentlemen in the seat opposite, who had been discussing linguistics in low murmurs and sketching things on a notepad, rolled their eyes at the appalling behaviour of their fellow travellers.

The flatlands of Uttar Pradesh rolled by at a steady 50mph, open fields with occasional trees. Sometimes a solitary figure crouched in the shade, or you’d see a group of distant women in vividly coloured saris making their way along a dyke. There were small ponds packed full of water buffalo lying submerged nose to tail. I was reading Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which he retraced his previous route of The Great Railway Bazaar some thirty years before. He was just setting out, passing through Clapham Junction in a thin drizzle, through the dismal suburbs of south London, and musing on how trains would take him all the way across Europe, into Turkey and then on through the Stans, all the way to the plains of India – those same plains I was trundling across now. There was a pleasing sense of things having come full circle.

Occasionally we’d pass through a settlement, a melee of motorbikes and tractors and bullock carts held at a level crossing, small, dusty towns under a broiling sun – “these towns that we live and die in”. This was rural UP, a huge, dysfunctional state with a population of over 200 million, heartland of Hindu nationalism and militant groups of gau rakshaks, cow vigilantes who had lynched people accused of transporting beef – Muslims, in other words. Dirty streets full of rubbish, the smell of spices and rancid cooking oil, filthy hotels, nowhere you’d want to stop.

By the time we rolled into Lal Kuan breakfast was served, the non-veg option being a kind of rubbery white materiel described on the lid as “omlit”, and two pre-packed slices of bread. Large buildings set back from the track proclaimed themselves as “Engineers Boarding House 2nd Class”, and “Conductors and Drivers Club”. This was clearly a railway town, and a branch line led off towards the gates of a paper factory, with small shacks nestled up close to the edge of the tracks. People lay about on charpoy rope beds in front of them: a woman brushing a small girl’s hair, two young guys watching something on a mobile phone, a boy scowling at a textbook as he chewed his pencil. In India life is lived in the open, and these scenes rolled slowly past the window like a stage set. I must have dozed off, and was woken by a jaunty automated female voice announcing that we were approaching Kathgodam, our final stop. Suddenly in the distance a huge escarpment was visible, the town nestled at the foot of it. We had reached the hills.

We emerged from the station into a car park snarl of hooting taxis and jostling passengers, the sun like a hammer on an anvil. Here again the people were different – shorter and stockier, many with an oriental cast to their eyes, speaking a soft, blurred form of Hindi: Pahari log – hill people. We found a driver and joined a long convoy of vehicles snaking up the escarpment, round endless hairpins. We passed the HMT Watch Factory, which looked deserted, and then a series of small roadside restaurants where jeeps packed full of tourists from the plains had halted for lunch. We decided to press on and soon had left the traffic far behind. We stopped in a small settlement round a lake near Bhimtal to buy toothpaste and an ice-cold bottle of 7-Up, and I noticed that despite the strong sun, I had stopped sweating; the temperature had fallen to 30 degrees C. On we went, ever higher, through forests of enormous pine trees that swayed and creaked in a breeze scented with resin. Past a small shrine the driver took both hands off the wheel and placed his palms together in the namaste gesture. Blessings for the road ahead.

The car was a small, boxy Suzuki, and it ground its way upward, in first gear round some of the bends, tyres skittering on patches of loose shale. We halted at a small junction and the driver made a phone call to summon the porters. This was as far as the car could go – the next 30 minutes up to the cottage would be on foot. Two men appeared, skipping down a narrow trail. Both were in their mid-50s. One loaded a sack with vegetables from the car boot, and set off uphill. The other, whose name was Ram Lal, unfurled an old sari and piled the two backpacks and suitcase of dry rations inside it, knotting it carefully. He then slung it about with a length of rope, and bound a strip of plastic about a foot long around the centre part. Squatting down he hoisted the load upon his back, settling the plastic strip across his forehead. The entire load must have weighed 50kg, and I offered to carry one of the bags. “No problem sar,” he said. “I can carry 100kg.”

Off we went in a slow trudge up the hillside, over rocks that glittered in the afternoon sun. Within a minute my breathing had quickened; after two I realised my heart was thumping. I had come from sea level in Goa the day before, and we were now at 6000 feet and climbing. Ram Lal halted to roll his trouser legs up above the ankle, exposing shins as narrow and brown as dry sticks, and I followed his flapping cuffs and worn tennis shoes along the narrow path. We passed small terraces of what looked like spinach, the fields interspersed with sticks from which flew strips of ragged cloth. Sometimes the trees met in a canopy overhead, draped with lianas, and the air became cool and damp. Leopards still prowl these hills, and I cast my eyes upwards into the branches overhead on the lookout for snakes. In the distance the ridges rose and fell, their spines surmounted by the serrated outline of pines, beneath which glimmered the light of the afternoon sky. This type of tree had foliage that grew from halfway up its trunk, and the effect was curious, as if the mountains and the sky overlapped.

We halted at a small terraced garden perhaps 20 metres long. A two-storey chalet stood beyond it, the entrance flanked by varnished pillars of dark wood. The only sound was of birdsong and the wind in the trees. Two dogs rushed up in silence to greet us in a parade of sniffing and wagging. This was to be our home for the next week. Biscuit-coloured brick and rough stonework dominated the interior, the existence of a fireplace in each room an indication of how cold it could get up here, although now, in late April, the daytime highs were in the mid-20s C. A cool breeze came down from the snowfields of the high Himalayas that lay just out of sight behind the ranks of forested ridges marching off into the distance.

These small cottages dotted around the hills retain something of the lost world of the Raj – a strange fusion of British and Indian cultures, the dak bungalows and old “chummeries” where young, unmarried British officers came to avoid the heat of the plains and tire themselves out with the assorted wholesome pursuits of hunting and riding. The furnishings reflect this to this day – heavy drapes and rugs, plush, chintzy furniture and overstuffed armchairs one can sink into at the end of a long day to enjoy a peg or two of whisky. Faded photographs sometimes decorate the walls, people staring out from a sepia fog of time, in pith helmets and breeches, enormous moustaches and all too often, some slain animal laid out at their feet. In the heat of Goa the furniture is more practical; any physical contact with material causes one to sweat relentlessly, so wicker chairs or slatted wood are favoured for ventilation, with bed and sofa frames made of metal to prevent them being eaten by termites. I remember kites wheeling above the palm trees in a white-hot sky over Tarchi Bhat, the clang of corrugated iron roofs expanding in the sun, the gaudy buses parked up at the fish market, half a subcontinent and a whole world away.

Hinterland

Galway has been immortalised in word and song over the years, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and on a sunny weekend in June the streets of the city centre were full of music. Most Irish of Ireland’s cities, it often comes as a surprise to visitors just how small it really is – the population is just under 80,000 – due to the weight of its cultural heft. The pubs are legendary.

For the next few days I ambled about aimlessly, enjoying the sun, the crowds of holidaymakers, the pubs. It was a lovely city – laced through with rivers and green spaces, the expanse of Galway Bay giving the light a watery, shimmering quality. I headed out to Salthill to eat fish and chips on the seafront in the company of dozens of families enjoying a sunny Sunday, and afterwards, walking back along the waterfront through a swathe of parkland, I just lay down in the tall grass and fell asleep to the sound of a lark overhead and the shushing waves in the background. Each evening there was a different gig – known in Ireland as a ‘session’: Tigh Coili, Neachtain’s, Roisin Dubh, The Quays. Sometimes there’d be a party afterwards at someone’s house, and I’d find myself wandering home with the sun coming up, listening to the dawn chorus, feeling the softness of the brief northern summer.

I’d arranged to hire a car from a company in the city centre and made my way to their office one morning. The guy in the car hire shop was clearly struggling with a titanic hangover. He rested a hand on his forehead and winced a little as the door banged. Three Swiss were poring over a map at one end of the room, having just collected their keys.

“Excuse me,” said one. “In Northern Ireland is also driving on the left side?”

He sighed, perhaps imagining cars randomly swerving across the road on crossing an invisible border. “Sure, it’s all one country isn’t it?”

The Swiss, confronted with unaccustomed territorial complexity, decided to loudly agree.

The car was a small silver Opel with Dublin plates. In the UK it would’ve been branded a Vauxhall. I followed the road signs as best I could to get out of the city centre, and wondered at how many times I had done this – arrive in an unfamiliar city, pick up a car or a bike, and find my way to the next place. There was that quickening sense of adventure again, of getting deliberately lost. The entire country lay spread out before me. I had a large Michelin map of Ireland lying across the front seat, and in its upper quarter was a broad line in yellow highlighter marking the border with Northern Ireland.

As it turned out, the only problem I had was that the Opel’s speedometer was in kilometres, as per the Republic. In the North the signs were in miles an hour. What I found was that the Republic of Ireland cars stuck together, trying to guess at the correct speed, as the Northern Irish cars, with their British-style plates – white at front, yellow at rear – went zooming past. The Republic number plates had the county name written in Irish, and some were easier to guess than others. Ros Comáin was Roscommon. Gaillimh denoted Galway. The further north I went the more I saw Maigh Eo (Mayo) and Dún na nGall (Donegal). My own was marked Baile Átha Cliath, pronounced something like “Bally Aw Clear”. Dublin in Irish.

For now, though, I was heading through the mountains of Connemara, towards Maam Cross, then on into Joyce Country – named not after the author, but for one of the fourteen families that had long dominated the region, giving Galway its unofficial name of “City of the Tribes”. The history here ran so deep that to dip a toe in might find you plunging headlong into an ancient bog of shifting allegiances, where centuries-old feuds and rivalries still held, immortalised in the old songs; even the national anthem, the Soldier’s Song, mentioned the looming Saxon foe.

I wondered about the Irish sense of identity in the 21st century, as a modern European nation built on a turbulent history. How could a people who had long defined themselves as fighters against an oppressor continue to do so now that the conflict had died down, with the age-old enemy becoming something more ambiguous? One of the strangest things, to an outsider, was how the consequences of the Williamite War in the 17th Century were still so important, with Unionists parading to commemorate the victory over the Catholics every 12th of July. Many, of course, felt that the struggle would not be over until Ireland was united, with the six counties of Northern Ireland merging with the rest of the Republic – a prospect which infuriated the Unionists, who still (just) held a majority in the north. Could economic pragmatism surmount the populist spasm of Brexit? The intransigence of the Brexiteers, seemingly willing to jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement which had brought peace to the region, showed how dogmatic some of the ideologues had become, how polarised the positions. How to avoid creating a hard border again between Northern Ireland (UK) and the Republic (EU)? It seemed incredible that the British government had not considered such a scenario from the outset, and could now only come up with vague and contradictory platitudes in place of a solution.

Everyone of my generation remembered the news reports from the 80s. Footage of cars queuing at checkpoints as British soldiers searched them. The chequerboard fields with rising hills beyond, dotted with watchtowers. Masked men in jeans, combat jackets and balaclavas patrolling in narrow green lanes, mounting their own checkpoints. A body in a layby, face down, hands bound behind his back. “The gunmen escaped across the border into the Republic,” the reporter would often say. The bombings – 20 in one day in Belfast in 1972 – the shootings, the punishment beatings. How did it reconcile with this picture-postcard landscape?

“They haven’t gone away, you know,” people would say, with a vague threat of menace – “they” being the gunmen, the dissidents, the paramilitaries. “They” were so ordinary: they were workmen, farm labourers, acne-scarred teenagers, paunchy men in their 50s, raddled by alimony and alcohol. It was the guy sitting next to you in the bar, the man queueing behind you in the service station, the bored adolescents hanging round the bus stop, grey-faced and pasty in a land of no sun. A 1988 film by Alan Clarke called Elephant – so named because of the elephant in the room, the perpetual spectre of violence during the Troubles beneath a veneer of normality – depicted a series of murders all the more shocking for their randomness, in the banality of suburban streets familiar to any British or Irish viewer, semi-detached houses, a factory car park, a swimming pool, a garage. Two men walking through a park, one suddenly gunned down by a passer-by. A young guy walking into a taxi office and shooting the man behind the desk. Three men playing football in a muddy field, their breath smoking in the chill air, dressed like farm-workers in gumboots and boiler suits. One suddenly pulls out a revolver. His teammate, to whom he has just kicked the ball, turns to run, but is shot in the back. The killer slowly trudges away. In the distance a motorway roars.

The killings are apparently motiveless. In total 18 murders are shown, all without context or explanation – though each was based on actual police reports at the time. The camera lingers uncomfortably long on each of the victims after their death, and the effect is cumulative; stripped of any attempt at rationalisation or narrative, we only see the futility and the savagery of the reality. In a culture where murder is served up as entertainment in films and TV series, after the first shooting we wait for the storyline – who was the victim, who the killer? Where is the detective (with the inevitably dysfunctional social life) who will solve the crime and make sense of it all for us? But there is none; what follows is another inexplicable murder, and then another, and another. The only message the film imparts is that the killing must stop.


I was making for Achill Island, a remote and windswept spot off the west coast. It wasn’t far, as the crow flies, but I knew that driving in Ireland was like entering some strange time/space continuum where a journey marked as being a couple of hundred kilometres could end up taking the best part of a day. The road was narrow, lined with rhododendrons, and dipped up and down over the land, past small, white cottages with green fields beyond. Sheep drifted across the hillsides, giving high, distant cries. It was idyllic. I stopped briefly beside a river in the dappled shade of willow trees, the water the peaty colour of whiskey in a crystal tumbler, sparkles of sunshine leaping upon it. Trout were visible beneath the surface, swimming amidst the streaming weeds.

Everyone, I suspect, has an inner landscape to which they belong – a kind of imagined idyll. It might be coconut palms and golden sands, or herb-scented hillsides that shrill to the chirp of cicadas, with cliffs that plummet into an indigo sea. I had found a home in India – in the treacly heat, the vivid colours, the rural soundtrack of crowing cockerels and the scent of woodsmoke, on those drowsy, golden afternoons – which all reminded me of growing up in Africa, and the child’s sense of joy on waking up on the first day of the holiday with a summer that stretched on forever before you. Even so, there was an emotional familiarity to this landscape: these sunlit uplands, the sheep-cropped fields with their dry stone walls, the farm set in an expanse of verdant greens, the billowing white clouds. And yet it wasn’t an exclusively Irish scene at all; it could have been the north of England, or parts of Scotland, or Wales.

But it was extraordinary how quickly the landscape changed mood with the weather. J. M. Synge had spent five summers on the Aran islands, where he had written The Playboy of the Western World, and mused on how the elements had shaped the character of the locals: “The continual passing in these islands from the misery of last night and the splendour of to-day seems to create an affinity between the moods of these people and the moods of varying rapture and dismay that are frequent in artists, or certain kinds of alienation.”

Suddenly the bare grey flank of a mountain would loom ominously off to the right and raindrops would spatter on the windscreen. I drove over a high moorland road with the wind buffeting the small car. In the distance a pair of headlights would appear and then vanish into a dip. They’d reappear and vanish again. The mist would gather. Eventually the car would come into sight and as we passed each other the driver would raise a hand in greeting. Fellow travellers in rough country. A month earlier I’d been in Scotland, in a similar landscape, and had noted the same thing: the wilder the terrain became, the more people waved, brought together in solidarity. Each passer-by became a potential rescuer.


Ireland’s coast fragments in the west, splintering into hundreds of small islands, the solidity of the landmass dissipating in the nebulous, watery light of the Atlantic. Some are no larger than rocks, swept over by huge rollers. Some once had settlements that were abandoned as life simply proved too harsh to sustain. The island of Inishark, seven miles off the coast of Connemara, was often cut off for months at a time, with heavy seas making it impossible for boats to land. In 1960, after a man died of appendicitis with no way of getting medical assistance, the Irish government evacuated the last 23 residents in response to the islanders’ plea: “For pity’s sake, take us off here forever.”

Despite the difficulty of trying to scrape a living from such a barren land, writers and artists had always been attracted to the wild landscape, and the sense of being on the very periphery of things – perhaps for the very reasons Synge had outlined. It was a place that seemed to belong neither to the land nor wholly the sea; a shimmering hinterland of the mind at the edge of the known world. Achill (Pronounced with a hard k) was the largest island off the Irish coast, with a population of 2700, and Heinrich Boll, a regular visitor throughout the 1950s and 60s, captured the sense of its isolation in his Irish Journal:

Sitting here by the fire it is possible to play truant from Europe, while Moscow has lain in darkness for the past four hours, Berlin for two, even Dublin for half an hour: there is still a clear light over the sea, and the Atlantic persistently carries away piece by piece the Western bastion of Europe; rocks fall into the sea, soundlessly the bog streams carry the dark European soil out into the Atlantic; over the years, gently plashing, they smuggle whole fields out into the open sea, crumb by crumb.

Graham Greene had come here too, in the 1940s, writing The Heart of the Matter while staying in a simple stone cottage with no electricity and a cold water tap in the village of Dooagh. He was having an affair with Catherine Walston, the American wife of a British MP, which had been going on for some years in a whirlwind of exotic locations: Paris, Capri, the Riviera. They were happy on Achill, by all accounts, living a simple existence far from the constraining social mores of England, with Greene working on the outline of a new novel and playing billiards in the evenings at the local pub. They spoke of getting married, and of perhaps buying a small country hotel to run together.

Gradually, though, they drifted apart. After their relationship ended Greene never returned to Achill, finding the memories too painful. The notes that he had been writing on the island became his novel The End of the Affair.


It was late afternoon by the time I bumped over the bridge onto the island. Most of the traffic was heading in the other direction. I passed a cafe and a handful of gift shops, then the signs of settlement fell away and I was driving over moorland, the grass bent sideways by the wind. In the distance I could see a curving bay overlooking the deep blue of the Atlantic. A village stretched out along the shoreline beneath a mountain. Following the instructions I had been sent that morning, I took a right at the T-junction in Bunnacurry and descended a narrow farm lane, pulling up outside a small whitewashed cottage set back from the road.

A woman was standing in the garden, waving her arms while uttering a series of strange cries. When she saw me she said: “Quick! – help me get the sheep out.” I emerged stiffly from the car and together we wandered around the garden shooing a number of sheep this way and that. They were half-feral animals with enormous horns and matted coats, and they galloped back and forth across the lawn until we cornered them by a hedgerow and gradually ushered them out of the gate. They went clattering off along the road, bleating resentfully.

“I can’t keep them out,” she said with a laugh. “They just wriggle under the fence and then eat everything.” This was my host for the night, and she showed me into a wood-panelled kitchen that overlooked miles of bog with a distant mountain wearing a cap of white cloud. We sat and had tea at the kitchen table and talked about the island, and the outside world, while in the corner of the room the low flames of a turf fire flickered and sang. This was a place at the edge of an island, at the edge of Ireland, at the edge of Europe. Were it not for the few signs of modernity in the cottage – the flickering lights of the modem, the microwave – the sensation was of living in an earlier, more unhurried age.

In the long twilight of summer in these latitudes I headed out in search of dinner. The pub in Dugort had a sign outside it saying food was served till 9pm, but it was clearly shut. The road carried on towards Slievemore, a dark mountain raked with scree, in the lee of which lay a deserted village. The ruins of around a hundred rough stone houses were visible, some used within living memory as summer shelters for families who grazed cattle on the flanks of Slievemore, though archaeological surveys had shown evidence of settlement from early Mediaeval times, and elsewhere on the island megalithic tombs dated back 5000 years. In the low sun my shadow stretched far across the hillside before me, and I walked along the furrows between the cottages, ducked beneath a lintel and stood for a while in what might once have been someone’s living room. The only sounds were birdsong and the hiss of the wind in the grass.

Back in the car again, surrounded by the detritus of my day-long journey – barley sugar wrappers, coffee cups and various receipts – I followed the narrow road around the mountain. The radio was playing some lilting fiddle music, occasionally losing the signal in a cloud of static. Although I vaguely recognised the tune, when the announcer came on they spoke a strange language in which I couldn’t make out a single word. This was Radio na Gaeltachta, or Irish language radio. I became quite a fan over the next few days, even if the amount of the language I picked up was limited to “haon, do, tri” before the band launched into its next song.

I could see I was approaching a village ahead – a scattered settlement of cottages stretching along the foreshore. The lane I was on merged with another road, and there on the junction stood a larger building advertising itself as the Achill Cliff House Hotel. It looked pretty fancy, and I wasn’t really dressed for it, in leather jacket and muddy boots, but I was hoping that a place this far out would have a fairly casual approach.

They couldn’t have been more welcoming: a table was set for me by the window overlooking the bay, where the huge Minaun Cliffs marched out to sea, darkening in colour as the sun dipped towards the horizon, painting them in shades of burnt umber. The staff were charming and efficient, the roast beef was excellent. I thought of all the flyblown roadside dhabas in India, where you’d sit on a rope bed for an oily paratha or a mess of lentils and rice slopped into a steel tray, and in a pleasant state of well-being I raised my glass and silently toasted the view.

 

Heartland

I wasn’t who I thought I was, and yet I didn’t know who I was. It was interesting to realize how fragile your identity is. Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.

A. M. Homes, recalling the experience of writing her memoir of adoption The Mistress’s Daughter

 

Write hard and clear about what hurts.

Ernest Hemingway

It was ten years ago, more or less, on a beach in New Zealand, that I first realised I was falling apart. My identity, which had already gone through several fairly challenging evolutions, was pulled away from under me and I went into freefall, completely unable to catch myself. I reached out for handholds wherever I could; from a phone box on the seafront I tried calling my parents’ home, a 12 hour time zone away. There was no answer. In despair I called a friend. No answer again. There was nothing… nobody to turn to but myself. I walked over the grey shale of the beach, gulping down childish sobs, unsure of the source of this seemingly bottomless well of grief. After I while I more or less composed myself and headed back up toward the promenade.

At that moment a voice called out to me from beneath a nearby palm tree. “Hey! How are you?”

It was a German girl from the hostel I’d been staying in. She was short, happy and nut-brown, with a pageboy haircut and an attractive snub nose. She was dressed for exercise – had been out jogging, and then had halted to stretch by the tree.

I wandered over to her, hands in my pockets, shoulders slumped in misery. “I’m OK,” I said. “Actually not so good. Bad news from home.”

She looked at me searchingly and then wordlessly reached out and held me for a long time in a hug. I broke down again. Eventually I subsided, and she turned and took my arm and together we walked back like that to the hostel. She never asked me what it was about – simply reacted by instinct. It was – still is – one of the kindest gestures I think I’ve ever encountered. I never knew her name.    

I’d come to Napier purely at random. It was described as an Art Deco town, and I imagined something like Aalesund. It was pretty enough, with curling ‘30s architecture like swirls of ice cream, a palm-fringed promenade and a rather bleak and stony beach. But one evening in the hostel, idly checking my emails, I received one from a researcher in Ireland who I had contacted to try and find out more details about what had become of my birth parents. Even now I am not entirely sure why I did this; I had all the best, most rational explanations you could find, enough to satisfy the most sceptical of psychologists – to let them know I was alive and well, ostensibly – but ultimately I think it was an attempt to find the source of my inner disquiet, the crashing depressions, the sense of an absence, a hole in my life of unspoken trauma. I had everything – a loving family, an established career as a travel editor, a home in England. And yet some impetus took me off on a one way ticket as far away as I could go, and I ended up in New Zealand.


Your birth parents were called James and Mary. He was the son of a wealthy farmer in Tuam, Co. Galway, she was from a poor family in a nearby village. When her father died of cancer she was sent out to find work, and was employed as a maidservant at the farm. They were very young, teenagers, and they fell in love. When she became pregnant he went to his father and announced that he wanted to marry her. His father forbade it, and told him he could forget about ever inheriting the farm. They ran away together and took the boat to England. In Ireland abortion was illegal, and unmarried women who got pregnant were put into institutions run by the church where they were treated with appalling cruelty. After they gave birth they had their babies taken away for forcible adoption.

James and Mary arrived in London in 1973 and took a room in Kilburn. You were born in Enfield General Hospital, and spent a few minutes together with them before being taken away by the nurse and put up for adoption. They told the nurse to give you his first name and her surname.    

They found work locally – he at a nearby factory, she as a cleaner in the hospital. They moved to Tottenham and in 1975 they married. They moved back to Ireland and he took over the farm (the assumption is his father passed away). They looked after his younger brother who was described as “educationally subnormal”. They were together for 11 years and then they separated. She went back to her village.

I hope this information has been of use to you. If there is anything else I can do, please let me know.         


The trouble with Pandora’s Box is that when you don’t merely open the thing but actually blow it apart, those closest to you get hurt by the fallout. “We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love,” said Lawrence Durrell. I didn’t really understand how much at the time, or that ten years later I would still be trying to deal with it; or more accurately, blowing it apart over and over again. It was as if the constructed self of my personality was binding me too tightly – I simply couldn’t handle being me any more, whoever I was. I knew my life was valued, sacred, even – not something to be discarded lightly. And I came to realise something which years later I saw put into words:

The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for non-existence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. 

Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now

It took Tolle some months to process what had happened to him during that dark night of the soul. He came to the conclusion that his intense suffering had caused his consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and fearful self, which was a construct of his mind. The false self collapsed, and he achieved a state of consciousness, or sense of identity, which was somehow purer, uncontaminated by the endless noise and destructiveness of his mind.

When I first read those lines, it left me deeply shaken, because I realised that I too had undergone just such an experience – not once, but several times. I am going through it again now, in a way. Perhaps we never truly stop doing so. Some seem to live their lives in a state of blissful optimism, free of such agonising. Others perhaps resolve such issues earlier – or think that they have, and then find that they get sent back to repeat it long after they’d thought it nailed because somewhere along the line there was a crucial point missed, a lesson imperfectly learned. It’s disconcerting, and hard at times to see such challenges as gifts – moments of enlightenment which offer opportunity for growth. But it’s not a level playing field; we each have our own individual issues, different backgrounds. Never compare yourself to anyone else.  Everyone’s got a story. This is mine. 


The bus was entering the outskirts of a grey and rainy industrial estate. Car showrooms lined the highway, sodden flags hanging limp outside. I saw one dealership frontage marked Tuam Opel. I turned to the girl next to me and said: “Is this Tuam?”

She unplugged her earphones. “Huh?”

“Tuam. Is this Tuam?”

She smiled slightly. “Choom. Yeah, it is.” I had been saying it Twam all these years.

We entered the town centre, past rows of small shops – a florists, a pub that looked closed. A woman in her 50s was battling gusts of wind in a transparent plastic raincoat as she made her way along the pavement. There was the inevitable fortress-like church. Funeral parlour. Petrol station. So utterly banal. It looked bleak. I’m glad I’m not from here, I thought. We turned a sharp 90 degree bend and entered what looked like a housing estate, and I noticed something extraordinary. In the row of suburban semis, just like any that you might see in a London suburb, every other house was boarded up. Sometimes every third. They had plywood nailed over the windows and often graffiti across the walls. It was a dying street – evidence of the housing bubble of a decade before that had nearly brought down the whole Irish economy when it burst.

The bus stopped at the end of the road, where a couple were waiting to board. They must have been in their early 60s. He was puckish and spry, a loose strand of lank hair curling down in a forelock, wearing a beige windcheater and jeans, and he ushered his wife aboard, taking her bag. She looked tired – auburn hair going grey, a heart-shaped face now lined – an ordinary, rather dowdy Irish couple. Perhaps she had once been pretty. They settled into their seats ahead of me and I found myself studying his rather large ears. The thought occurred to me with an almost extraordinary detachment: is that James and Mary? It might well be. I felt… nothing at all. Utter dissociation.

I had often wondered – increasingly so as I aged – who I looked like. I had never seen pictures of them. We grow into our faces, as adults, the signs writ large on us of character, disposition, the mark of disappointments and griefs. But there’s also usually some shared genetic basis that can be discerned. Growing up, people had often commented on how I looked like my adoptive father, and he’d sort of give me a wink and joke about how it was the ears. But it was his way of saying, it’s deeper than that. I have, in many ways, aspects of his character that I have internalised, shared values, a kind of unspoken moral code. He’s my father. But I also had a wildness, a volatility, my fiery nature quite unlike his own. Where did that come from, I’d wonder? I had read the social worker’s reports from the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment of James and Mary. Certain lines from it stood out. “He’s quick-witted and fiery, a born rebel. Very bright, though not educated – expelled from school for refusing to learn Irish. A real live wire. If the child turns out to be anything like his father he’s going to be quite a character!” 

Well now. Quite a character indeed. Did he, I also wondered – uncharitably perhaps – have a drink problem? It is a characteristic of the Irish, as many would admit. I had battled with drink before – won, lost, won again, lost again – and yet had no reason in my upbringing for it to take such a hold. My parents drank in moderation, sensibly, my father telling me that he’d been drunk perhaps twice in his life, as a student, and had felt so ghastly that he’d never wanted to feel like that again.

But drink for me was like chucking petrol on a fire – the key into the locked down emotional cage. I’d feel liberated, lighter, happier, free. But it couldn’t last. There’d be a huge flare-up, and I’d get wilder and wilder, only to quickly crash, having burned all my resources away, leaving me bereft and utterly despondent. It unleashed a monster in me, a sinister Irish alter ego (how apt the term), which was, frankly, terrifying to see, let alone to possess. I had read reports that indicated the high prevalence of alcoholism in adopted people anyway, compared to the general population – the highest still being when it transpired that one or both of the birth parents had a drink problem. The genetic link coupled with the consequent trauma of adoption – the Primal Wound, as Nancy Verrier titled her book. She went on to say:

Adoptees’ trauma occurred right after birth, so there is no ‘before trauma’ self. [They] suffered a loss that [they] can’t consciously remember and which no one else is acknowledging, but which has a tremendous impact” on their sense of self, emotional response, and worldview.

Nancy Verrier – The Primal Wound

She also noted that, even in adulthood, adoptees may unconsciously perceive the world as “unsafe and unfamiliar,” remaining in a near-perpetual state of heightened anxiety and “constant vigilance,” – something common to sufferers of PTSD. Rejection and abandonment issues, unsurprisingly, predominate. Drinking or substance abuse was a very common way of finding escape from it – the obsessive, tormenting, negative thoughts. One adopted woman in the US who got sober found that nearly half of her support group were themselves adopted; prior to that she’d only ever met a handful of people. “I don’t do relationships,” she went on to say. “I don’t know how, because I feel so completely destroyed when they end.”

Or was adoption just an excuse, a handy calamity to possess to justify bad behaviour? I knew how manipulative alcoholics could be – they could… we could… come up with any excuse to drink again, like playing mental chess against yourself where black always wins. In the endless cycle of self-doubt it was a reasonable question to ask. In my case I felt it went some way toward explaining the inexplicable – to have been sober for 16 years, so much work done, progress made, a whole new personality carved out, and yet to still have crashed off the wagon. It felt as if there had to be some deeper reason – that I had not been fully healed and happy when sober, because always there was this thing that crept up on me. At first I pinpointed it roughly to March and the onset of spring, which seemed perverse; surely autumn was the time for bouts of astonishing gloom and uncertainty? Then I read an account by a remarkable adopted woman who described her deep sadness at not knowing why she looked the way she did. There it was, in two simple lines: “Yet every year, every single goddamn year, as my birthday approaches, the thoughts find their way in, and I am filled with a plethora of emotion and wonder.”

I was born in April.   


Ireland, it has to be said, does not have a happy history. There are places that have suffered, in history, where the air of trauma is almost palpable: Cambodia, South Africa, Rwanda. I felt the same of Ireland. The Famine, the years of occupation and conflict, the mass emigrations… all have taken their toll on the Irish psyche. Theories have been posited about the national character – that they… we… are a mercurial people due to the inclement weather, which can run through four seasons in a day. Quick to laugh, quick to anger, quick to tears of remorse and then back again to laughter. And perhaps there’s something in it. Perhaps too, the strictures of Catholicism, overlaid upon a deep and often brutal pagan mythology, led to this endless cycle of outburst, guilt and remorse. The Celts had sacrificed people in bogs. In more recent times many of the disappeared of the Troubles lie there still.

I can see her drowned

body in the bog,

the weighing stone,

the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first

she was a barked sapling

that is dug up

oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head

like a stubble of black corn,

her blindfold a soiled bandage,

her noose a ring

to store

the memories of love.

Little adulteress,

before they punished you 

Seamus Heaney – Punishment

http://creativewritingguild.com/sl/analysis/punishment-seamus-heaney-full-text/

There was something else I knew about Tuam that was on my mind as I looked out at its blustery streets. An article that I had read earlier that year, in Goa, with the egrets croaking in the palm trees outside, and the heat like an oven’s glare off the stone floor. The piece had pitched me into a cycle of mood swings lasting several days – an episode, the shrinks might call it – which was devastating yet revealing. It was in The Guardian. “Mass grave of babies and children found at Tuam care home in Ireland.” 800 skeletons of children and infants, found in a septic tank at the home, run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Catholic religious order of nuns, who received unmarried pregnant women to give birth. The women were separated from their children, who remained elsewhere in the home, raised by nuns, until they could be adopted. Those who survived.

Eight hundred. In the sewer. In one home. As Catherine Corless, the Tuam historian who discovered the records indicating the mass grave pointed out, this was no different to other homes across Ireland. They all had the same mentality: that these women and children should be punished. The scale of this national trauma is only just beginning to be understood.

Whatever I know about James and Mary, I know they had no choice but to flee to England. They did have another choice available to them, though. Those boats were full of pregnant Irish women seeking abortions in England. Still are, in fact: abortion is still illegal in Ireland. But they made the choice to put me up for adoption. Whatever I know about them, they did the best they could in appalling circumstances, wanting what was best for me, and made, perhaps inevitably from my point of view, the right decision.

I am, incidentally, totally and utterly committed to a woman’s right to an abortion. 100% Pro-Choice.

       

Arrivals

The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.

 Paul Theroux – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star


Back to a simpler, more languid existence in Goa. Time-pass, as they say here, instead of time-poor. Thunderous downpours in the steamy heat, cascades of water off giant tropical leaves, the violent green of the paddy fields. Everything is damp and redolent of mildew. The locals hang plastic sheeting on their balconies to keep out the rain and giant whorls of mould spiral up the sides of the buildings. Clothes never fully dry after washing. Puddles form in the footwell of the car – a small blue box with tiny wheels, which is rusting visibly by the day. It judders over red laterite puddles in the potholed lanes, swaying crazily. Everything here is antique, like being transported abruptly into an earlier age. All the technology is failing in this climate; my phone has developed a series of vertical lines across the screen which render it unusable. The solution is to leave it in a bag of rice for three days to dry out. The electricity goes off repeatedly. Jungle life in the monsoon. It takes time to adjust. Go slow.

It wasn’t even a month ago, in another world… a sleepless night in London, on a friend’s couch. Around midnight I awoke to the first sirens, and cursed the city’s perpetual din, its endless assault on the senses. Soon after came the chop of a helicopter’s rotors, interminably hovering, breaking away, returning. What were they looking for? I remembered this from when I used to live in London – endless police helicopters overhead. Grumpily I turned and pulled the pillow over my head, snatched fragments of sleep, tried to resist the temptation to look at my watch and the dwindling hours before I’d have to get up and make my way to the airport.

In the light of a summer dawn that poured slowly through the quiet streets I rose and pulled back the kitchen curtains to be confronted with a sickening sight – one that makes your heart immediately thump, an awful, iconic scene of our age. A column of smoke, hundreds of feet high, burnished by the rising sun, and around it like insects three helicopters buzzed, helpless at a distance. As we do now, I reached for my phone to see what had happened. Another attack? A tragedy, certainly. BBC: “Huge blaze engulfs West London tower block. Many trapped, 6 believed killed.” Now, weeks later, the authorities say we may never know how many. It was the latest in a long string of calamities that befell Britain that summer, as incomprehensible as if malignant stars had somehow aligned overhead. And each time thoughts turn to those we love, through blow after blow, until a sort of wan resignation sets in: I have watched these events from so many places; probably you are not there; you will be alright; I cannot comprehend the alternative.

The Hammersmith and City line was shut, countless roads closed. Citymapper directed me to Shepherd’s Bush Tube and the Central Line to Marble Arch. From there the coach would take me to Luton Airport. How well I know these streets, eerily empty at this hour. There is a cafe where I once sat – I forget who with or why. The coach nosed north, the wide West End streets becoming narrower, more chaotic and colourful. We passed through Kensington and then Kilburn. I took in the small shops, the new arrivals, the passers-by, people waiting at bus stops, as if I were still half-heartedly looking for someone. Once a staunchly Irish area, now it was far more multicultural – a microcosm of London itself, and how it had changed over my lifetime. This was the suburb that a young couple had come to in 1973, fleeing Ireland, the strictures of church and family, small-town scandal and moral judgement, as her pregnancy became increasingly visible. James and Mary. My birth parents.

The departure hall at Luton was packed with holidaymakers clad in shorts and T-shirts. The board was a list of familiar names – there was the Vueling flight to Roma that we had taken two years earlier. All of Europe was laid out: Sofia, Barcelona, Riga, Ibiza, Venezia. But it was easy to recognise the boarding gate for the Ryanair to Knock. These passengers weren’t dressed for a holiday; they were going home. Many carried jackets and thick sweaters, though it was 28 degrees. I recognised features familiar from my Welsh relatives – short of stature, with pale skin, light-coloured eyes, many with reddish hair and freckles – except their accents were rounder, more rapid. I found myself amongst the Irish.

Having spent much of my life as an ethnic minority, the odd one out in a crowd, even amongst my own melting-pot nationality of the mongrel British, for the first time I truly felt that I fitted in – in terms of outward appearance, at least – and then immediately wondered why I felt the need to. A sense of belonging? After a lifetime of travel that seemed an odd condition to suddenly require. I’d always been an exile, was indeed virtually brought up to be one, in schools that were essentially training for a life of colonial rule that no longer existed, ‘home’ being a far country that we visited periodically every few years – a place of odd associations, in childhood: of the smell of frying bacon, of the picture on the HP sauce bottle, of ‘the Office’ in King Charles Street, or the old biscuit tin that was decorated with a scene of Westminster Bridge circa. 1950 – empty of traffic but for a couple of postwar cars, a boy in a flat cap on a bike, a Routemaster bus, and a policeman in blue tunic and tall Bobby’s hat; this ‘home’ from where the chimes of Big Ben emanated as a prelude to the BBC World Service news and the jaunty notes of Lillibullero (an old Irish tune, ironically), a blur of short-wave static emphasising our very distance from it. It was perhaps our lot to live in exile. I had seen the city through so many incarnations of myself, so many people come and gone. London held so many memories, and yet consistently failed to live up to its own hype.

I was used to being lost; I enjoyed the sensation and had enough by way of inner resources to not feel threatened by it. But I knew that I was subject to a cyclical pattern of mood or behaviour which I was not always able to discern until the impact was observed on others; that old fear of madness again, where you lose the ground beneath your feet, are no longer quite sure who you are, and first become aware of it through the nervous glances of friends. Is he alright? 

And I knew too that I was, in a sense, playing with fire on this trip – that there was a whole Pandora’s Box of emotion, personal history and identity loosely hung together that might well fly apart. I had no idea where I was going – only that I must go. So, as always, I put on my traveller’s disguise, British passport issue. Just bumbling through… What, you want me to stand over here? Look that way? Fill in this form? Ok, sure. Tourism. A fortnight’s holiday. Yes. I am alright.

From 30,000 feet the patchwork fields of the English Midlands were laid out neatly in the sunshine; a fertile, abundant landscape, sculpted and coerced over the centuries into extraordinary productivity. On the horizon the sails of a wind farm turned lazily. In the seat next to me an Irish aunty demurely read some mildly scandalous airport novel with close attention.

After a while she closed the book, turned to me and asked: “Going home?”

I gave a wry smile. “Just a holiday for a couple of weeks, round Galway and Mayo.”

“Oh lovely. That’s the best part, I always think. I’m from Mayo myself, but live in Melbourne these days with my daughter.”

We talked about Australia for a while. “So many of the lads from our town have gone there now,” she said. “Ten years ago it was different, people were actually coming home to Ireland. But now they are leaving again, looking for work.”

“There’s a long history of it. A nation of exiles.”

“There is,” she sighed. “I’m glad I’m an old lady now. I wouldn’t want to be young these days, with all the debt and no jobs.”

“It’s the same in England,” I said. “Everyone running faster and faster just to keep their head above water. Busy busy, no security, no future. But if you’re lucky you can carve out a niche for yourself and find a life you’re happy in.”

“What is this Brexit thing all about?” she asked me. “Have they all gone mad over there?”

It was a question I was to be asked repeatedly in the coming days, and I had no answers, despite a few theories.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks this is a good idea. We’ll see what happens.”

“Isn’t that the truth of it.” She picked up her book once more.

I awoke to a very different scene outside the window. A lumpy green landscape dotted with slate-grey lakes came into view through wisps of ragged cloud. An enormous river meandered through it, and I saw small boats moored at a marina. There were tiny cottages alongside, all painted white. The fields were smaller than England, more haphazardly laid out, hummocky and rugged, demarcated with stone walls clearly visible from the air. We had begun our descent into Knock – an airport described as “boggy and foggy” – where, the pilot informed us, it was 14 degrees and raining.

It looked more like Iceland than Ireland. We walked across blustery tarmac to the tiny terminal. There was a stationary carousel for the luggage, but nobody seemed to have any. Immigration was a solitary guard in a booth who glanced at the sea of Irish faces passing him by and waved through all the proffered maroon EU passports. The arrivals hall was rural; a girl in muddy gumboots with a jumping labrador greeted her returning parents; fathers gave awkward hugs to hulking, bashful sons temporarily come home. Two backpackers with hiking poles and woolly hats marched up and down the concourse looking for an ATM. Three priests went by, young men in a Mediterranean swagger of black. Next to the currency exchange booth was an office marked “Pilgrimage Assistance”. Indeed, the airport’s entire reason for existing was due to the proximity of the shrine at Knock, known for its miracles. A local priest, Monsignor James Horan, had made it his lifetime’s work to have the airport constructed in order to ferry in pilgrims, and a statue of him just outside the exit showed a man with both arms raised aloft in victory towards a leaden sky that spat thin flecks of drizzle.

The weather thickened in the night, and the rain came down hard, drumming off the slate roof, spattering the windows, drilling vertical curtains of wet into the already sodden fields. I lay in an unfamiliar bed, listening to it fall, marshalling my thoughts, reassembling myself into consciousness. I was bound for Galway that day on the Bus Eireann from Derry, which would arrive at the village by 11.

I browsed the news on my phone as I had breakfast, the true scale of the tower block fire becoming apparent. Quite apart from the untold personal tragedies that occurred that night, I knew this would convulse an already reeling nation, becoming politicised. I was reminded of Ian Jack’s brilliant piece for Granta in 1989, Unsteady People, from when he was travelling in Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most corrupt states, as it still is today. A ferry accident at Manihari Ghat had left four hundred dead, and soon after he returned home to the UK the Hillsborough disaster happened – the aftermath and repercussions of which are still being felt some thirty years later with an endless apportioning of blame. At the time, the victims of Hillsborough – the Liverpool supporters especially – were attacked by the press for being hooligans… “drunks, beasts, uneducated, ignorant, violent”. As Jack says, the accusations would have been familiar to any citizen of Bihar, used to taking the blame for being who they are. “I am afraid we are not a steady people,” an old man had said to Jack on his visit – and indeed, as anyone who has lived in India for a while can testify, the unsteadiness can be deeply disconcerting: the total indifference to risk, the devil-may-care driving, the mercurial nature of the crowd and how quickly it can turn into a mob.

But then something shifted in the UK coverage, which highlighted just how far apart the two countries were in their approach to disaster. A ‘national tragedy’ was declared in Britain. Mourning began. Liverpudlian politicians demanded a royal visit to acknowledge the scale of the calamity. One commentator pronounced that the victims had “died for football”.

Nobody in Bihar would have suggested that the dead of Manihari Ghat had made such a noble sacrifice. Nobody would have said: ‘They died to expunge corruption, caste and poverty.’ Whatever their other faults, Biharis are not a self-deluding people.

Ian Jack – “Unsteady People”, Granta 28, 1st September 1989

I was mulling this over as I stood by the roadside in the drizzle, at the small Bus Eireann stop marked with its logo of a galloping red setter. Cars whizzed by, each a small, isolated bubble, windows up, headlights on, wipers going. There were no roadside shacks, no chai stalls, no buses pulling in with people hanging out the doorways. Life was passing by, but at a remove and a steady 100kmh. Eventually I made out the insect-antenna wing mirrors of a large coach and optimistically stuck out my thumb. 64 Gaillimh said the display. It pulled up, settled itself with a hydraulic sigh, and I boarded into a warm fug. Four Africans chatted animatedly at the front. At the rear there was a seat free next to a teenage girl who rather grudgingly moved her bag to accommodate me before plugging her headphones back in and staring glumly out the window. She checked her phone every 30 seconds for the entire journey.

Ahead of me were no less than three tweed caps, and my neighbour across the aisle was a muscular man with a crew cut, numerous tattoos and one arm in a cast. He had a harsh Northern Irish accent, and I tried not to make judgements about how he might have acquired such an injury; each week it seemed there was another kneecapping or punishment beating in the North, just as I remembered from the 80s. “They” hadn’t gone away, as various keyboard warriors on the internet were quick to point out. When I later told this story to a friend from Northern Ireland, about how I was a little ashamed of my judgmentalism but that we – in Britain at least – had been so conditioned by the coverage of the Troubles that it was hard to shake off the historical suspicion, she laughed and said: “I’d have thought exactly the same.”

We were passing through Knock, which looked rather like Assisi in a greyer latitude had it been done out in breeze-block. Dozens of small shops sold religious artefacts, and one had two life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary flanking its doorway. A church done in brutalist concrete was surmounted by a gigantic needle of a spire. A few days earlier there had apparently been a miracle: I had watched five-and-a-half minutes of shaky footage online which looked to me rather like clouds parting to reveal the setting sun, but which had been accompanied by various ecstatic cries from onlookers celebrating the Virgin making her presence known. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if it reminded me more of a Velazquez, or… was that a bit of trunk?… perhaps of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindu pantheon. Cultural contexts.

 

On the Beach

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Next, we read about the cobalt bomb, which was worse than the hydrogen bomb and could smother the planet in an endless chain reaction.

I knew the colour cobalt from my great-aunt’s paintbox. She had lived on Capri at the time of Maxim Gorky and painted Capriot boys naked. Later her art became almost entirely religious. She did lots of St Sebastians, always against a cobalt-blue background, always the same beautiful young man, stuck through and through with arrows and still on his feet.

So I pictured the cobalt bomb as a dense blue cloudbank, spitting tongues of flame at the edges. And I saw myself, out alone on a green headland, scanning the horizon for the advance of the cloud.

Bruce Chatwin – In Patagonia

At half-past five in the afternoon the temperature was still over 30 degrees, but slowly the heat began to go out of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Dogs chased each other, had stand-offs, ran through the surf barking with what could only be joy. People made their way down to the water’s edge, some taking up positions on an outcrop of rocks that jutted into the waves. They stood around in small groups, some couples quietly holding hands, eyes turned seawards. Two Goan girls picked through a rockpool, foraging for crustaceans. A bearded man of indeterminate nationality did a headstand on a yoga mat. A Russian nearby turned his back to the sea and held his phone out in front of him; on the screen I made out a woman’s face, blue-lit from her computer. She was wearing a heavy jumper, watching this Indian Ocean sunset from a wintry Moscow. Children played, turning cartwheels along the damp sand. Next to me a man watched the advancing ripples of water with an expression of solemn appreciation, as if in a gallery. And I suddenly felt connected to every single person there somehow, as fellow members of a species – all of us part of humanity, drawn together by this elemental force of the sunset at the ending of the day.


In the green room at home in England, on the shelf at the foot of the narrow bed, lies a book. On the cover a Naval officer is pictured standing looking out to sea, the white top of his cap contrasting with a bilious green sky. Behind him, further along the beach, stands a woman in a red dress. She is barefoot, her arms folded about herself. Is she looking at the officer, or past him, out to sea? It is not clear. To the left, below the arc of the horizon looms the ominous black outline of a submarine, hull half-visible in the molten white waves. Above it is a curious shape in the sky, a thin pale stalk swelling outward at its top. A mushroom cloud.

On The Beach was written in 1957 by Nevil Shute not long after he’d emigrated to Australia from England. The book details the lives of a small group of people in Melbourne who are awaiting the inevitable arrival of a cloud of deadly radioactive fallout. A nuclear war the previous year in the Northern Hemisphere has contaminated life on earth, leaving only parts of the far south habitable – southern Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia. But global air currents mean that soon these locations too will succumb to radiation poisoning.

Life in Melbourne continues with a veneer of normality, despite a few changes due to circumstances. There is no fuel, for example, so people travel once again by horse and cart. Others plant gardens knowing full well that they will not live long enough to see them bloom. A group of old buffers decide that they might as well drink their way through the club’s wine cellar, since there’s no point in keeping it, and there are campaigns to have the fishing season brought forward by a few months. The Australian government issues suicide pills. Everyone adapts to the new reality in their own way.

The book opens with a description of Peter Holmes waking on a golden, sunlit morning next to his wife Mary, trying to recall the mysterious sense of happiness that he feels. Is it because it is Christmas? No – that was last week. Slowly as he becomes conscious he recalls that he has to go into Melbourne that day, to a meeting at the Navy Department. He’s hoping for a new command – his own ship. At the foot of the bed their baby daughter Jennifer awakens in her cot with a series of small whimpering sounds.

Commander Dwight Towers is the captain of one of the last American nuclear submarines, temporarily assigned to the Royal Australian Navy. He becomes attached to a young Australian woman, Moira Davidson, wry, funny and cynical by turn, thinly hiding a terrible vulnerability, who is herself coping with circumstances by drinking heavily. Towers is already married; his wife and children were living in the United States when war broke out, and they are almost certainly dead. Despite knowing this, he buys birthday presents for his children and maintains a fiction that they may be alive. Once, in an unguarded moment, he admits to Moira that he knows they are dead, and asks if she thinks he is crazy to pretend they are still alive. She replies that she does not – she understands. He kisses her in gratitude.

Shute’s characters are, as always, decent and upright individuals who are not given to great displays of emotion even when inwardly reeling. They possess a stoicism that was a characteristic of the time amongst the generation that had come through the Second World War – a quiet fortitude to their suffering, which when it occasionally slips, is all the more shocking. Moira cycles through different emotions – tearfulness, determination, and inevitably the anger and bitterness of someone who feels cheated of her future. When Peter Holmes tentatively tries to broach the subject of suicide pills to his wife, she goes into complete denial, refusing to entertain the notion. He becomes exasperated, and shouts at her about the awful sickness that they will all succumb to. Her tears and childlike naivety in response prompt an enormous welling up of compassion within him. He knows he cannot ask her to administer the pills to their baby, but is determined that they will die together as a family.

Towers embarks on a mission to check for survivors in the northern hemisphere, sailing the submarine across the Pacific, as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Returning down the coast of the United States, they halt briefly off San Francisco. Through the periscope they look out upon a deserted city. The Golden Gate Bridge has fallen. One crewmember jumps ship to spend his remaining days in his home town. Finding no trace of life the submarine returns to Australia. Towers goes on a trip with Moira, both aware of the feelings developing between them, and yet he cannot become involved with her without feeling disloyal to his wife. Nevertheless their platonic love for each other deepens, thrown into relief by the precariousness of the situation, of the fleeting sweetness of life. It is all the more moving for being necessarily chaste.

As the situation worsens and more people begin to show the first signs of radiation sickness, Towers decides that rather than commit suicide together with Moira, he will instead follow his duty to the end, take the submarine out into international waters and scuttle it, going down with his ship. In doing so he will, in his mind, be reunited with his wife and children. Moira drives up to a hilltop to watch the submarine heading out to sea for the last time. It is a testament to the humanity of the book, that even in this appalling, apocalyptic scenario, that some things still endure at the end of the world. As Moira looks out to sea, torn with emotion, she achieves a kind of peace: admiring and understanding Towers’ decision, filled with love. She imagines herself together with him as she opens the box containing the pill.

Sometimes I think of that young woman, standing on an Australian headland looking out to sea, waiting for the arrival of a cobalt-blue cloud, and it breaks my heart.


Elections in Goa. Small trucks – camionettes – drive around the neighbourhood blaring out music and speeches. Aam Admi have the best tunes, and the crew wear the white forage caps favoured by Arvind Kejriwal, the party’s leader and Chief Minister of Delhi. The BJP – Prime Minister Modi’s party – are the loudest, the volume so high that it distorts into static. It’s all quite friendly, with none of the sinister overtones that you sometimes get during elections in tropical countries, but there’s an underlying seriousness to it all. For the last two weeks, bars and restaurants have been rigorously enforcing last orders for alcohol at 10pm – these places which are so laid back for the rest of the year. The owners are all nervous, fearing a visit from the police, who normally turn a blind eye to such things. Now the shops and supermarkets have stopped selling alcohol too – there’s a ban from the 2nd to the 5th of February, although polling day is technically only on the 4th. Although it is illegal to smoke in restaurants, everyone still does, even beneath the hand-made No Smoking signs – but now all the ashtrays have been taken away. In one place the waiter mistakes our hand-rolled cigarette for a joint and tells us to be discrete as there’s a cop at the bar. It’s a temporary tightening up, an establishing of a pretence of rules more in line with the rest of the world. Democracy is a serious business, is the message.

Exactly what the rationale is for enforcing an earlier closing time for a fortnight before an election is unclear. It doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. One explanation is that voters are sometimes bribed to attend rallies with alcohol (undoubtedly true), and licensed premises have a readily available supply. But of course there would be countless ways around that, with alcohol smuggled across state borders, and the explanation is more akin to the recent, economically disastrous policy of demonetization, where the most common notes in circulation were withdrawn overnight. It served no practical purpose other than causing massive inconvenience – 90% of the money found its way back into the economy within a couple of months, making a nonsense of the claim that such a policy would wipe out black money. Psychologically, however, it was a shrewd move: it gave people a sense that they were all in it together, that the agreed menace of corruption needed addressing somehow, and this gave everyone the opportunity to do their bit, to feel that they were suffering for a greater good. It makes a population compliant.

One of the ironies of this, of course, is that the political parties regard their voters with such contempt that they can be bought by the promise of a few drinks. And yet it strikes me that this situation is not dissimilar to the one I am currently in. K’s bike developed a puncture the other night. We parked it at a small pizza place, and the next day I went to a puncture shop, who collected it and fixed the puncture. The problem I have is that the bike is at the puncture shop. K is in Pune. Given that I cannot ride two bikes at once, I shall have to ask a friend for a favour, to ride the thing back home – a favour that really only merits the offer of beer. To offer money would be insulting. To offer nothing at all would be crass. Beer is the perfect solution.

So I have visited a small shop where the owner discretely went out the back with my rucksack and illicitly filled it with Tuborg, for a suitable fee. In India there is always a way.


I have written before of my fellow foreigners here, how they are brought together in a temporary truce that transcends nationality. I’m thinking of the group of Germans who sat at the next table to me the other night – perhaps six or seven of them, most in their 50s or 60s. They were from Munich, and I eavesdropped as best I could, occasionally losing the frequency of their Bavarian accents, then tuning in again. Two ferries out on the estuary had a near miss, pirouetting silently upon the seashell-pink water, which prompted them to comment upon Indian driving generally. The ferries were “schwein teuer”, apparently – swinishly expensive. The Goan electorate might as well vote for “Koko nuss” – coconuts – or perhaps, as one sour-looking man opined, a banana. I thought, as I often do in these circumstances, of recent history, and how they had, within their lifetimes, been born into a wasteland of rubble, a nadir of barbarity, which had gone on to become the economic powerhouse of Europe, with a society almost at the zenith of what we call civilization. The paradox was heightened by the group behind me, who spoke Czech. Across the courtyard were a large Russian family. And I thought: right – so this lot here invaded that lot behind me, occupying the Sudetenland, which was part of Czechoslovakia. Then they invaded that lot over there, who repelled them, occupied half their country, then went on to later invade this lot behind me to crush the uprising in the Prague Spring. And how did all this come about? What delineates this group from that group? Language? They are not so dissimilar, and besides, it’s easy to learn another’s language – often to find that other people utter the same banalities to each other that we all do. Culture? These three groups here have a great deal more in common with each other culturally than they do with any of the Indians in whose village they are currently sitting. What an utter nonsense it all is.

Because it strikes me sometimes that to travel is to embrace strangeness, and there are times when India is deeply, inexplicably strange. Waiting for a bus in Mapusa the other day, sitting on a low wall on a steaming night with an endless stream of two-wheeled traffic snaking past, I looked around myself at all the Indians who calmly accepted me in their midst. There was a man wheeling a bicycle which had a 50kg sack of wood on the back. A group of small children came to beg, proffering little steel bowls – one spotted a couple embracing, saying goodbye to each other, and managed to insert the bowl between them before being rebuffed. Women in saris sat waiting for their bus with large bundles before them. Further along the wall upon which we sat, there was an invisible border; here, people lay stretched out asleep, curled on their sides – the inevitable accumulation of pavement dwellers of any Indian town. And I sat there among them, with 2500 rupees in my wallet – about twenty quid these days – which is several months’ salary for some of these people, and nobody did anything, hassled me, visibly resented me for it, anything. There was just a quiet acceptance that although they lived in their world and I in mine, we were sitting next to each other on the same wall, and we in fact had more in common, in our daily needs or desires, than differences between us.

There are times, though, when you know that you will never understand this country – it’s extraordinary beliefs, the pantheon of its gods, the vastness of it all. You can’t even read the simplest signs. Who are those two men in the small van waiting at the gate? Two pot-bellied uncles in white shirts who are holding mobile phones. They have been there an hour, waiting for something, watching the passing traffic. Are they police? They don’t have the worn leather jackets, moustaches, tired eyes and cigarettes of any Arab mukhabarat. They lack the safari suits, flares and Afro hair styles favoured by Zimbabwe’s CIO, who seemed to model themselves on the 70s film star Shaft. These are just two rather portly Indian men whose presence, like so much here, is inexplicable.

Riding back from Mapusa round the hairpin bends over the hill in the dark, I came down into the valley where we live. The air was cool on the hill but thickened into sultriness across the marshes. The Enfield thunked along in fourth gear like an outboard motor, the buckled concrete of the road causing the bike to pitch and yaw as if I were in a small boat at sea. The temple was glittering with lights – thousands of them in spiralling patterns, and I heard the yodelling squeeze-box notes of music, and a man singing. These songs often go on for hours, everyone packed in together in the sweltering darkness. Sounds of a small handbell being rung, then a series of explosions from firecrackers – chasing away the bad spirits. A kind of sermon began, the Konkani language utterly different to the nasal “aap” and “hai” sounds of Hindi; this was a more rounded and mellifluous tongue that might as well have been Yoruba. The man was becoming more voluble, and then the congregation began a strange kind of groaning and crying. I pulled over, switched off the bike and listened to the utter, barbaric strangeness of the sound – this mass of people wailing on a hot night, the distant hollow thunk of a man chopping coconuts with a machete, the howling dogs, the endless chirp of crickets. Goosebumps rose on my bare forearms even as sweat trickled down my chest, and I thought: you will never understand this place – the hopes and terrors of these tropical people, the things that they fear in the darkness, the lamentation of the gods. This is the world we inhabit.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

Full Circle

A thick yellow dusk, the air smelling of burnt matches, haloes of streetlights fizzing in the sulphurous fog. Shadowy figures squat on their haunches swathed in blankets against the chill of evening – on a pavement, against a wall in the shadow of a tree, one perched birdlike on the crash barrier of a dual carriageway. They have the same beadily watchful intensity as the crows, swathed in their drab plumage. After a while they begin to infiltrate your dreams; you see them even when they are not there, in this city of tattered ghosts, crouched on the periphery of things, waiting, watching. The apocalypse already happened here, slowly, incrementally. As eras have come and gone, at least eight cities have risen and fallen on this site, and now Delhi is in its ninth incarnation. These ragged survivors haunt the ruins. Everywhere you go in India there’s someone living a life of sorts just in the periphery of your vision.

The Uber driver’s name was Anand, and his profile picture showed a gaunt man in his sixties with a worried expression. His rating was 4.4 stars – not calamitous, but on his way down. I could imagine some of the scorn with which the city’s youthful nouveau riche would regard him: as a hapless rural dolt, no doubt, granting him a spiteful one star to wipe out his rating. He spoke no English at all. On the radio classic Hindi love songs played, slow and measured, crackling with the static hiss of a gramophone. His shoulders were as narrow and thin as a coathanger, covered in an ancient beige sweater above which poked the frayed collar of his shirt. His ears were as thin and flat as minute steaks. He clutched nervously at the steering wheel with his farmer’s hands as he peered through the windscreen, and suddenly remembered something: one hand strayed to a small icon on the dashboard, touching it as he murmured a prayer, seeking protection from the innumerable dangers ahead. He drove with an old man’s caution, which I was glad of, belatedly swerving out of the way of vehicles that came at us with headlights on full beam. In the jams everyone leant on their horns incessantly, avoiding each other’s eyes. Stinking, shrieking, demented city. No space to think or reflect – only survive.

Anand’s phone with the satnav was upside down in its holder: left had become right, the direction we were to take reversed so that the arrow pointed downwards. Inevitably we went the wrong way at a junction and ended up on a flyover. We pointed this out to him and he embarked upon a lengthy lamentation by way of apology, saying it was all new to him; he stopped in the middle of three lanes of traffic, detached the phone and reverently handed it over, some precious, valuable thing containing incomprehensible magic. His gnarled finger extended and swiped the apps closed tenderly, as if wiping the brow of a child, showing us how it worked with a barely suppressed sense of wonder as the vehicles roared around us on all sides. He was essentially a farmer from a rural Indian village who had, from pride, desperation, or a mixture of both, decided to become an Uber driver in the unspeakable traffic of the impossible city, navigating his way through a dystopian landscape of concrete and dust that he didn’t understand.


I had left Delhi in late June, at the height of the Indian summer – dust-brown beneath the glare of a broiling sun. I landed in England at teatime on a Thursday afternoon, with trees in full bloom and green fields passing by outside the window. The sun in Delhi was something to be hidden from, the temperature over 40 degrees; people spent most of the day indoors, with curtains drawn against the heat. In London it was a balmy 22, and every patch of grass appeared to be occupied by sunbathers. At Liverpool Street Station there was the sound of a military band, playing a succession of popular hits culminating in the theme tune to James Bond. Soldiers in desert-pattern combat fatigues stood around with trays of poppies, raising money for the Royal British Legion. They wore the maroon beret of the Parachute Regiment, and they had all the exits covered. Around them swirled the travellers – stressed-looking men in suits, girls in tight skirts and high heels clipping regally along, tourists in backpacks not knowing where to go, pensioners clutching bags tightly as they shuffled across the concourse. The trains were going haywire due to flooding somewhere in Essex, and a circuitous route took me back and forth across East Anglia on a packed carriage for the best part of the afternoon, till darkness fell at 9pm, a lingering simmer dim of drawn-out northern dusk.

Outside London it seemed like a country given over to the old. At Ipswich Station I shared the lift with a woman in her late 60s wheeling a bicycle. She nodded to my backpack. “That looks heavy. Where are you off to?”

“Home to vote. I’ve just come back from India.”

She gave a cracked laugh. “You must feel right at home here then. This country’s going to be nothing but Indians at the rate we’re going.”

It was wholly unexpected. I digested the nasty little quip until the elevator stopped, then just in time, the response came. L’esprit d’escalier. As the doors opened I called out: “Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so arrogant to plunder their country for centuries then. Tables have turned, na?” (This last bit half Hindi.)

She gave me a look of disgust over her shoulder then wheeled her bicycle away down the platform, nose in the air.

“Silly season”, they call the summer months in British politics – the time when MPs head off on their holidays and nothing much happens. This time it was different. I had landed in a country that was tearing itself apart. The referendum on whether to remain in the European Union had essentially been hijacked into a debate about immigration; not so much a debate, in fact, as a series of increasingly vitriolic and xenophobic statements. Loudest of all was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who appeared on television with monotonous regularity, thin lips smacking with satisfaction, eyes swivelling with outrage, inflaming a tense situation to the best of his ability in that oddy quacking voice – duckspeak, Orwell called it in 1984. “Believe you me!” he’d quack, the Verb-Subject-Object order an archaic inverted imperative, as if to give him more credibility, in the manner of every pub bore or bristling right-wing drunken uncle. “Believe you me, the British People have had enough…” etc., etc.

It was ugly to watch, and uglier still to see the effect it had on so many of The British People he claimed to speak for. Suddenly they did believe him; they’d believe anything he said, as long as he was outraged enough. His statements made less and less sense, but contained fragments of things that people somehow related to. “The pound in your pocket… hard-working families… foreigners sponging off our NHS… decent taxpaying folk… immigrants… immigrants… immigrants…” The poisonous dripfeed landed on fertile ground, ploughed by twenty years or more of tabloid bigotry. Suddenly Britain was Going It Alone, We Could Make it, we were still Great – this last one a characteristically inept government marketing initiative, attempting to brand the entire nation with a campaign of residual greatness in All Caps. At the interminable queue for Heathrow passport control (Borders Agency staff cut by 20% due to austerity measures, departmental civil servants flown in to provide emergency cover from around the country), a sign painted on the floor of the hall, trampled over by the slow-moving shuffle of thousands of travellers, British and foreign alike, had a scuffed and muddy slogan shouting: “This is GREAT Britain!” The feeble exhortation splashed across the edge of the UK border somehow perfectly captured the mood.


In the flatlands of the Suffolk coast the landscape had an illusion of timelessness, the lap and chop of the green waves on shingle, the yellow flowers of the gorse smelling of vanilla and coconut in the summer sun. Then the heavy damps of evening beneath a yellow moon, the slowly sighing waves, the mournful cry of seabirds. It was pretty, manicured and cultivated, and yet subtly change had blurred the edges. The fields across which I looked each day towards the harbour had been reclaimed from the sea by Dutch engineers in the 16th century, who had set up a network of windmills to drain the land – the local phone book was still full of names beginning with “van” this or “de” that. The coastline itself had shifted over the years in an endless interplay of advance and retreat with the North Sea, incrementally losing a little more each year to the waves. The ancient woodland of Dunwich Heath darkened the skyline, a mass of trees steadily climbing inland, and yet just visible beyond it were the white sails of a wind farm slowly turning. In an ironic juxtaposition, off to the left one could make out the golf ball dome of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station. In England if you half-closed your eyes it was possible to blot out these signs of modernity and focus instead on the neat lawns of small, crooked cottages in villages half-smudged by twilight, and hark back to some earlier, simpler era, some idyllic pastoral vision where everyone knew their place and all was well with the world. It was this artificial construct which was being touted by the politicians as the place that we all ought to return to in order to protect it – a narrative fairytale where by closing our borders, and presumably our consciences, there would be no refugee crisis, no migrants in makeshift camps just over the border, no troubling home-grown jihadis. We’d simply pull up the drawbridge and retreat into a daze of boozy nostalgic optimism. Old ladies sat alone in million-pound houses decked with Union Jack bunting, fending off the chill with supermarket sherry.

I went to vote in the old Methodist Hall, reeling with jetlag, ruddy with sunburn, my wallet full of useless rupees, wearing the jeans and dusty boots I had flown home in. An elderly couple manned three trestle tables and a pair of curtained booths. They checked my address on the register. It was oddly anticlimatic to actually add my cross to the Remain box. Then it was done, and I retired next door to the pub. People were blaring at each other like television sets, reciting chunks of tabloidese, everybody shouting, nobody listening. Chatting to a perfectly pleasant couple taking their holiday at the seaside, I asked if they had voted. Yes, they said, both had agonised over the decision. He had grudgingly voted remain, feeling that as a former businessman, access to the European single market was crucial for the economy. But she had voted leave. Why, I wanted to know?

Well, it was awful, wasn’t it, they both opined. What was happening to us? We didn’t have Sovereignty any more! (That most meaningless of terms, which had become a buzzword for the Leave campaign.) Not that they were racist or anything, but in the high street of their home town they hardly heard English spoken! It just wasn’t right!

What was their home town, I asked?

Bury St. Edmunds. (Small East Anglian market town, overwhelmingly white.)

But surely that’s an exaggeration, I said. Hardly hearing English in the High Street. And why does it matter anyway?

Ooh! There’s Polish shops everywhere, and all these gypsies selling Big Issue, and takeaway restaurants! You go out at night and it smells of curry! You see women in burkas sometimes!

Really? Burkas? In Bury St. Edmunds?

Well, you know, these headscarves. All these Muslims. It’s just not our country any more, is it?

“We just want our country back.” Occasionally someone would venture: “Why is it taking so long? We should leave now, today. Enough is enough.” What exactly did these people think they were going to get by doing so? What did they expect to change? England had taken aim firmly at its own foot, shut its eyes and defiantly pulled the trigger while singing Rule Britannia. Now it was just going to have to hobble along as best it could.

I went back home to Goa.


The tang of salt-spray on a shimmering beach, coolness of water assuaging the smart of sun-glowing skin. Teal-coloured sea, gold flecks in suspension, glittering mica swirling around. Rollers lift gently and billow subsiding, smoothing the sand with a faint shushing sound, wiping away the footprints of small birds – pipits and waders – who cheep softly, patrolling the shore. Tiny crabs walk alongside, gathered up by the retreating flow of the waves, carried on a carpet of foam to the sea. Beyond the strand lie the straw roofs of shacks merging into the green backdrop of jungle. The faint thump of bass emerges from them.

The area around Morjim has become popular with the Russians. They are utterly different to the hippy crowd, clean-cut and square-looking. The men are beefy, short-haired and swaggering, orthodox crosses hanging round bull-necks, with the pert (pointy? Putinesque?) pectorals of a weight-lifter’s physique. Many sport urka-style tattoos – translated roughly as “thug” or “gangster” – scrolls of inky iconography across backs and tree-broad torsos, once the mark of the professional criminal in Soviet times, now (usually) a fashion statement. They speak in low, lip-twisting mutters. A group of six stand in a circle, at ease, hands behind backs, smoking, growling like bassoons – a sextet of morose Mafiosi.

Others pack up their swimwear and leave the shack, trudging across the hot sand. Then something catches the man’s eye and he halts and looks back towards the bar. “Kto?” he mutters irritably. What is it? One of the women looks back and it becomes clear. The waiter is waving goodbye to them. “Ah! Goodbye! Bye. Bye.” They remember the suitable response and give a half-hearted flap of the arm.

The women often look Scandinavian – tall, pale-eyed and lissom. They arrange their limbs languidly on the sunloungers, roll onto their stomachs and pull their bikinis up at the back to tan their bottoms, cushioning salt-tousled heads on downy arms. The waiter brings beer for the group of four in front of us, and one young woman stands up, raises the bottle aloft to some of her friends sitting in the shack and lets out a cheer: “Urrah!”

“Urrah” has been used as the battle cry of the Imperial Russian Army, the Red Army and the present-day Russian ground forces. Major Bruno Gebele of the Wehrmacht decribes the chilling effect of hearing it during the battle of Stalingrad, as a mass of snow-suited Russian infantry charged towards the German lines baying the word.

Does this girl on a beach in Goa know this? Does she understand the historical irony, now, here, in the context of present-day events? She probably wasn’t even born when the Berlin Wall came down. Perhaps she’s just a young woman having a nice time on holiday, enjoying a cold beer in the hot sun in the company of her friends. Na zdorov’ye. Cheers. Urrah.

Ideologies… stereotypes… Here, on this sun-struck tropical coast, the world comes together in a temporary truce, like a watering hole in the jungle. Looking around at the other tables in this old Portuguese restaurant, beneath the slowly circulating punkah fans, I see half a dozen nationalities. Four pear-shaped Finns, pale and puffy from winter, converse in long strings of syllables. Next to them are three French diners, two men and a woman. They are sun-wizened and lithe, like rock climbers. Behind me I can hear the strangulated English vowels of an old colonial voice – a man in his 70s wearing a safari suit. Old Africa hand. His companion is a lady of a similar age, but German. His voice has the low rumble of authority and they speak in that terse shorthand that old couples can adopt. “Jolly good bread. Pass the salt, would you?” Now he’s talking about the British Prime Minister’s recent speech on Brexit. “Europeans absolutely livid with us!” he says in Telegraphese. Epsolyutely. “Don’t blame them one bit!”

Four young Russians walk in. Early 20s at most. They are clean-cut, almost plastic-looking, like members of a youth movement. They flick through the menu, scowling at it, clearly ill-at-ease, like gap year kids who’ve ended up in a fancy restaurant by mistake and are trying to act like grown-ups. All the other tables are taken by foreigners, all of us long-stayers in Goa – we can recognise each other somehow. This is where we are hiding out from the world, and yet all the world is here too. The French are wheezing with smoky laughter at a joke. Opposite me some Londoners order another round of beer (“Cheers, squire! You’re a gent,” one says to the waiter, a sleepy boy with a wall eye, to his utter confusion). They drink out of styrofoam Australian-style beer-holders decorated with the St. George’s Cross. Another table has two Irish couples of retirement age, whose speech is a rapid Dublin blur, three times the pace of our own. One man is talking about fields, developments, two-hundred-thousand-euro a piece, building societies, agricultural subsidies. The other gets up and makes for the bathroom, five-ten of solid muscle, wrists like rolling pins and an arm-swinging gait. Two more elderly Brits come in and recognise the Irish: Howarya, roight, roight, still here then, oh yes it’s minus three and snowing at home, ugh, not looking forward to it. Everybody laughs a little ruefully. My chicken xacuti arrives – a spicy green Goan curry – and I tuck my legs up under me on the chair in the lotus position and eat with my hands, because it feels more comfortable that way.

The old hippies are still here, of course. The American guy I met last year, veteran of Altamont who was busking his way to Moscow. I shake his hand in passing, but he doesn’t seem to remember me. It doesn’t matter, he smiles – last season was a lifetime ago, and here we are again. Are we going to the gig tonight? Sure, we’ll drop by.  And there are the newcomers, the millennial hippy kids in harem pants and Om vests, the dreadlocks and laptops brigade, searching for something to believe in with an almost evangelical solemnity, documenting every step of their spiritual journey on instagram, no matter how banal. What future do they have at home, now that the politicians have destroyed it? One cannot blame them for trying to find an alternate one here, however clichéed.

Here, on the precipitous edge of now, the fronds of the palm trees sway, stirring the air. The egrets stand upon them, bobbing back and forth, gurgling to each other. I rinse the ants out of the kettle to make coffee, as I do every morning, then shave in tepid water, enjoying the coolness of the pass of the blade, the scent of sandalwood soap and coconut oil. Beyond, the world has gone mad, but here the sky is pink and lemon, and the forested rise of hills cuts off the valley from the outside. The dogs are barking at a cow wandering up the lane, the children are standing outside the temple, which is painted tangerine and lime-green, decorated with golden swastikas. The school bus arrives, its side emblazoned with a picture of Jesus. The poi guy cycles past, splay-kneed, klaxon honking, his tray of round bread rolls covered in blue plastic behind him. The marsh steams gently in the sun, cows grazing on the lush grass, wallowing up to their bellies in water, attended by egrets. The crippled boy comes lurching along the road, as he does every day, one arm limp, one leg dragging, looks up to see me smoking on the balcony, and slowly smiles.