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.