I have just moved to Ireland. I don’t intend to write a travel book, but I am thinking about places and nations and ways of representing them. There is a problem with travel writing, in that travellers write home to describe the exotic, and the only measure of unfamiliar places and people is the extent to which they are different from or similar to the domestic. To call a new place strange is to make it exotic, while to call it familiar is to erase difference, and both are objectionable. In practice, I find no literary solution. I wrote about living in Iceland, and when I described differences I observed between my understanding of life in England (Canterbury then, to be exact, a middle-class life with small children) and in Iceland (Reykjavik, with only just or not quite enough money to eat at the end of the month, again with small children), I was wrong, either because, as a foreigner, I didn’t understand Iceland well enough to write about it, or because, as a foreigner, I was falling for stereotypes and was unable to see that people are the same everywhere.
We moved to Ireland for reasons by which I am slightly embarrassed: because I had been going to Irish literary festivals for a few years and enjoying them and wanting to stay and continue the conversations; because I am fascinated by the transformation of the conservative near-theocracy I knew as a child into the progressive liberal democracy taking shape now, a process that’s as interesting for its hesitations and imperfections as for its speed; because of the mountains and the sea; because people seem welcoming and curious. All right, because of the craic, too, though I worry that the conversations, the welcome and the craic may not survive coronavirus.
I write on the last day of Ireland’s gentle quarantine for international arrivals. We are allowed out for exercise, but not to meet anyone or enter any indoor space. Even under these circumstances, I am experiencing something like falling in love with this place. After eight years in the English Midlands, we are living once again by the sea, five minutes’ walk from Dun Laoghaire pier. When one of us feels sad, we can go down to the shore and, almost always, even at high tide, see seals. The light on the water is always changing, ships come and go, there are cormorants and terns and oystercatchers about their business. In Coventry I used to run through housing estates, out along a commuter road that happened to have pavement as it crossed the fields towards a nearby village, down what had once been a country lane and is now a rat run, past a medieval castle and an old high street and back along another fast, busy road joining two towns. It was perfectly all right. I saw the seasons change, the smoky hedgerows blossom and fruit, at least until they were chopped down for HS2. There were sheep, then sheep with lambs, then sheep without lambs; fields newly green, deeply green, harvested; bare gardens, children playing in gardens, falling leaves, Christmas lights. But here I run along the shoreline, past the Forty Foot bathing place and two Martello towers, up Killiney Hill – in and out of the shade of trees, dark and bright, cool and then warm or dry and then wet again – to the point where I can, weather permitting, see all along the Dublin coast from Howth to Bray, and maybe the summits of Snowdonia, reaching above the planet’s curve. I admire, almost without coveting, Georgian pastel houses and the baronial follies engineered into the hillsides with Victorian bravado. Distracted by a new love, I find it hard to stay inside and write. I see the clouds change and wonder how the hills are looking now. I struggle to concentrate because I want to go out and hear the waves and see if there are seals on the rocks now that the tide is falling.
I am objectifying Ireland, loving it for its body, and I wonder about the politics of this new infatuation. I know now, having lived on several North Atlantic shores and in the middle of England, that I really am happier by the sea. The coast and the blue water comfort me steadily in all weathers the way I imagine religious faith sustains believers. I have always known that climbing mountains is important to me – that’s why I stay strong and fit, in the hope that the time between not being able to walk high ground and being dead will be short. (I don’t mean that people who can’t climb mountains might as well be dead, just that it comes too easily to me to want to be dead, and climbing mountains weighs on the side of wanting to be alive.) But is it enough, is it good, to love a place for its beauty, for its amenity, for what it does for me?
One of my aims as a writer and teacher is to explore ways of belonging without ownership, to think and ask others to think about how we can feel responsible for a place without needing to exclude others from it. I cannot say that I ‘love’ Ireland, or any other country, though my experience of particular landscapes is very much like falling in love. It is always frightening when someone announces love for a nation-state. I cannot imagine patriotism without at least the threat of violence.
And so I do not know how to be here – how to be both a good immigrant and a good writer – except that Keats was right that not knowing is where good writing begins.