Brave New Europe
It’s June 1st 2020, and Day 81 of the Covid lockdown in your outlier member state, Ireland – fyi, I date Day 1 as Thursday 12th of March when, five weeks after our Vote-for-Change / hung election, our acting-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar first announced the closure of cultural institutions and the schools and colleges, which, coincidentally, was the last day I performed at a public literary event with real people in a real room where I could see the whites of their eyes and smell the heat of their skin, the event in question being the launch of Galway writer Alan McMonagle’s sweet, disturbing second novel Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame, which despite being a homage to the doomed femmes fatales of the American dreamhouse Hollywood, also struck me as a text that one of your most inventive sons, the late Federico Fellini, would have tremendous fun turning into film.
Reassembling now, as a citizen of not just Ireland/Éire/RoI/the Republic/the South/the Free State (of which more later), but also of your possible new incarnation as an emerging suprastate, I feel duty bound to report on the specificities of lockdown Over Here. How have we done? How aligned are we with the rest of you? How characteristically “European” has our response been? Are we really an outlier, or a role model, or just an also-ran? Depends on who you talk to. My next-door neighbour was laid off at the end of March, eight-and-a-half months pregnant. She works in sales. As I was waxing lyrical about how fantastic it was to cycle around Dublin without all the cars, like being back in the 80s only with Soviet-type bread queues, and isn’t it amazing to hear the sounds of birdsong and omigod, how the Grand Canal actually smells of something, like organic matter, when there’s no carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, she was fretting about the future and how she’d be able to support her family in the months lying ahead. In turn, as she was bringing baby E. (sweet, healthy, and marvellously quiet) into the world, my other next-door neighbour was digging up his decking to make vegetable beds and polytunnels. He’s been missing human contact, he’s single and really wants to meet Ms Right – I, naughty naughty, eavesdrop his phone conversations in his garden late at night – but he’s also been enjoying the uncommonly hot August-in-May climate change weather and in his spare time has a penchant for teasing out the ideology of the lockdown, its likely consequences, the dark agendas it may be serving. He wonders about looming food shortages as the climate catastrophe intensifies and business, unchecked, returns to usual. Hence the polytunnels. A lot of his friends hail from other parts of you: Spain, France, Belgium, Romania, a sexy redhead from Austria. Some of them have been visiting him since early April. The rules say they shouldn’t, but the rules don’t understand what it’s like to be alone. Meanwhile my dad, widowed for 30 months, my god has it been that long, has seen his carefully constructed life-support systems – print studio, local restaurants, forest and beach walks, trips to the newsagent, independence goddammit – dissolve, thanks to nice-sounding but legally dodgy cocooning, leaving him frustrated but still counting his blessings, because at least he has a nice back garden and his health and my brother and me to check in on him and bring him fig rolls and quick soup and give him one of those brave new virtual hugs, six feet away hands outstretched imagining the press of his familiar, determined, ageing shoulders against our arms.
The pandemic has knitted us together. It’s torn us apart. Rephrase. The pandemic hasn’t done any of that, it’s just shown us to what extent we are capable of being knitted and torn. More importantly it has shown us who is capable of being rent, who is capable of being consolidated, and why this might be so, by revealing the deeper structural dynamics in the way “we” – Europe, what we am I talking about here, that partial “we”, Ireland, the rest of our emerging suprastate, the global human collective? – organize our world. Some things I’ve learnt, or relearnt in the sunny days of lockdown. Every human animal can get sick. Every human animal will die. Some will die sooner than others. This, Covid has shown, is not random. Poor people, black and brown people, men, older people, people in care homes, people working in low-paid service jobs with a lot of human contact tend to get the virus more, and are more likely to die from it. The average German, according to a recent article in The Guardian, is less likely to die from Covid than the average Briton, and this isn’t because of better track-and-trace technology, but what the researchers call a weird immunological “dark matter”.
Spooky, I think. Because dark matter, isn’t that the stuff in the universe that the physicists, even with their colliders, still can’t fathom? And spooky, because that’s the word another of your gifted sons, Einstein, said when he was dissing Niels Bohr’s theory of quantum entanglement, the notion that electrons across the universe can, somehow, who knows how, read each others’ minds.
Does losing make you stronger? Eighteen million Germans died or were displaced during and after the second world war, all my father’s male cousins on his mother’s side amongst them. Did a winnowing happen? Did that affect genetics, toughen up the collective deutsche DNA? Are we, on your periphery, Europe, equipped with a similar-but-different advantage, our least resistant million culled by the potato blight – oops, no, by imperial laissez faire in the face of a monoculture food shortage – thereby cultivating our own strain of Strength Through Loss? Now I run the risk of sounding like a eugenicist, because by that measure, black lives, placed on the losing side for centuries, should have the toughest DNA imaginable. Maybe the dark quanta bolstering German antibodies on Covid’s illevel playing field have more recent realpolitik roots. Could regionalized government – smarter and more flexible than centralized systems – or having a Basic Law designed to prevent dictators come to power, settle the nervous system, strengthen the immune system, give you faith in your own ability to recover? Mind-bodypolitic-spirit mesh: is that entanglement too spooky a conceit for you, rational, 21st Century Europe?
Darwin’s survival of the fittest was not meant to mean survival of the strongest, or the most aggressive, but survival of those most able to fit, to adapt, to change as the world changed around them. But capitalism’s co-opting and reinterpretation of the concept, its consequent nailing of the primacy of competition into the hard wiring of our soft brains, is a difficult habit to break. I’m as susceptible as anyone. At the start of lockdown, I couldn’t help looking at the league tables. Grisly, yes, shameful, yes. Tracking the piecharts distribution of pain, scanning the global scorecards to see who was creeping up, who lagging behind. For a while, we – sorry, Europe, I’m splintering you again, by “we” I’m pretty sure I mean “Ireland” again, is that appropriate, is that still relevant? – seemed to be hovering somewhere in the middle. But like Angela Merkel said right at the beginning, the numbers aren’t neutral. Each point on the death and infection curves represents a life, and a network of love and affection and loss spiderwebbing out from it. Grandparent, spouse, sibling, friend, colleague, child.
In Italy, my pal Conor, who experienced major surgery in March, posted pictures of empty Roman streets and messages of fury and grief about the disappearance of a generation, those older people who were so hands-on with their grandchildren, so invested in every breath of their growing lives. In Greece, my colleague Paschalis, editor of a book on Irish-Greek Encounters, was talking in late February – that early? – about not being allowed out of his home, only the way he said it, it sounded like staying at home wasn’t an imposition for him or his family, but a civic mission. In Germany, newly-born K., my schoolfriend Emer’s first grandchild, spent her early weeks on planet earth in a small apartment in Berlin, in a district where the playgrounds took ages to be closed down because the local administration was, my friend said, socialist, though I think she meant the social democrats not Die Linke, and whoever it was, they didn’t want to stop people bringing their kids out into the fresh air, and Isn’t that good? I said, stupidly to K.’s grandmother, my friend Emer, and she said, But they’re kids, they’re touching everything, and that’s how the virus travels, so no, it’s not good. K.’s parents had a wedding planned back here for July, a big family event. Nobody knows if, or how, it will happen now. In the UK – oh god, Europe, does that still qualify as being part of you, of “us”? – Helen & Oli meet us on zoom every couple of weeks, and they’re busy, Helen’s a staff journalist WFH (working from home) and Oli’s a journo too, but freelance, so his job’s still his job, and it’s London, and even with lockdown threatening the extinction of the West End, there’s always something to do in London. That’s my Ireland in Europe. As for Europe in Ireland, there’s my friend Caro, who’s from Lille but lives here with her young family, and we both had the same kneejerk reaction – let’s not – about a visit we’d planned for late March, and I haven’t seen her since, or for weeks before that, and Jesus, I must ring her now, because in the face of mortality, friendship is such a fragile, necessary thing. There’s Agnieszka who used to live across the road who I never call Agnes who’s thinking of letting her hair go grey when the hairdressers open, because why not, and maybe giving up one of her three jobs when lockdown eases, because she’s loving her Saturdays walking the dog in the park, and what would they use the money for anyway, another bloody car? There’s Polish Alex down at our local café – closed for a couple of weeks now open again – and Polish Ana and Dominic and French Laurent and Mel and Danish Charlotte with the fabulous hair who work in our neighbourhood co-op, keeping our lockdown larders stocked with organic fruit and veg, only three people in at a time, because the day Leo closed the schools there was a rush of pandemic-buying, not loo paper but pulses and rice, even zero waste eco-worriers like the us who live in my house get scared, and as the next-door neighbour says, the WHO keeps telling us food might run out next, so who knows, maybe the mung beans will come in useful? Someday.
So what do you think, Europe? Are we representative of your greater collective action, its track record, its failures and muted successes, during what the British administration calls a war but the Germans call a crisis (or even sometimes just a situation)? And I’m sorry again about the “we”, how exclusive it is, and perhaps ambiguous, because by “we”, I mean Ireland once more, but I don’t even know in my head what that is, I tend to see the whole island when I hear the word, but legally, and economically, and otherwise, my “we” can also be taken to refer to just the bottom bit, the headless teddy-bear, the name that comes up when I sign petitions: Republic. And these days my confusion has been confounded because it’s been so insanely easy to get all patriotic about this – omigod aren’t Irish people brilliant at pulling together in a crisis, we really haven’t lost that sense of community, have we? – and I find my own heart swelling with pride as I look at the rainbows in the windows and the lovely couple across the road helping 79-year old Eileen with her messages and all the little families cycling down the canal or through the War Memorial Gardens like ducklings in a row instead of packed into a stinking, poisonous 4x4, but of course it’s bullshit, the specificity I mean, if you look at it closely, because every other national press in the world has been saying the same thing, even in Britain, at least up until that week when Dominic Cummings and Barnard Castle made a mockery of the Thursday night claps for carers. We’re so good. We’re so kind. We’re really doing great. #We’re all in this together.
Okay, Europe. I see good things manifest. There is love, and affection. There is helping, and there’s thoughtfulness. But there’s also false pride, and the sometimes desperate need to believe in whoever’s in charge (even if they’re acting-in-charge), sheep following shepherd, because, Christ, if we don’t, who knows what will happen, and at that I can’t help thinking of Thomas Hardy from the big island across the water, Far From the Madding Crowd and Gabriel’s flock jumping off the cliff. A survey of my fellow-citizens across your bodypolitic says they found you – meaning EU – “irrelevant” during the pandemic. This, this partial “we” I’m talking about, this local neighbourliness, this patriotic buy-in, how useful is it going forward? I would ask you, Europe, but I know what you’ll say. That, hang the survey, I should lean more into my own bit of self that is not just this island (or this part of it), the bit that goes beyond the Irish child who remembers travelling to Europe, not in Europe, on family holidays, beyond the raggedy-arsed student who eschewed the chic boulevards of Paris-centre for scruffier, more-familiar feeling Belleville and who still takes the military bombast of the quatorze juillet celebrations with more than a grain of anticolonial salt, beyond the defiantly unordentlich jaywalker who gets a thrill dashing across spotless German streets when the little red Ampelmännchen says Nein, beyond the conversation partner who revels in unsureness and doubt and holding four simultaneous contradictory ideas in the company of certain Netherlands friends, the one who craves quiet and is moderate of appetite and lurks in the shadows of Italy, who yearns for her personal space to be shielded by a glass barrier a metre in diameter on the jostling streets of Spain – oh dear, be careful what you pray for – maybe you’re right, Europe, maybe I should lean into what’s beyond all that, into the Other part of me that’s not so contrarian chaotic Celtic but that’s always been proud of being a bit odd and German, the part that was seeded in the bigger landmass of The Continent, in the sands of Mecklenburg and the forests of Berlin and the waters of Poznań and who knows where before, the bit that, whenever it arrives on The Continent, feels, deep in its bones: Home.
But it’s not either/or, is it, Europe? I am Irish in Europe, I am European in Ireland. I am, using that word art students use too much in their statements, liminal. Like everyone else, full of multiplicities. Like Ireland herself, both teddy bear and torso, and neither, and more – the diaspora, remember the diaspora – more, yes, more too than a chunk of land floating on the edge of the European identity, part-in, part-out, and both and neither, connected by those most nebulous of substances, water and air, even more nebulized now because thanks to jolly old Brexit we’re losing the only literal ground of connection between us, this-us and you-us, the causeway between archipelago and continental mass, the Eurostar tunnel, that hole under the sea, as our nearest neighbour turns quicker than Cinderella’s pumpkin at midnight into a Leave-shaped landbank, a – Christ, Europe, how should I view her now, rule-less Britannia? As an obstacle course, a problem to solve, a yoke to shuck, a shared history to deny, or a thing still dripping with potential, a part of future us? Stop. Leave means leave, so leave that for now, let us instead fly high over the landbank on those nebulous tracks of connectivity, water and air and thought and aspiration and hope and maybe even – yes, lapsed Catholic though I am, I’ll say the word – prayer.
Europe, call me a lemming, but I want to believe in the best of you, the best of we. So I have determined to welcome, with caution, that big mutual debt package being haggled and tussled over at this very moment by your most technocratic whizzkids, that rescue/aid/support/call it what you want deal, that idea of sharing the fiscal burden so that – perhaps – Spain and Italy won’t get shafted again in the name of protecting the imagined entity, our currency, or be called insulting names in the process (as were “we” back in oh-nine), the package that Ursula von der Leyen states is big on a green recovery, a just transition to a low-carbon economy, and of course it is because that will involve shelling out billions not just southwards but to the Germans – and the Poles – who have shaped the proteins in my DNA, to stop them burning coal and help them build electric cars, thereby ensuring they buy-in to a possibly fairer possible suprastate, and some of it sounds good, and some of it (the cars, the risks of over-centralizing power) I’m not so sure about, but I want to know, Europe, I’m impatient, Europe, will this package, cobbled together over arduous negotiations between your 27 component parts, really herald a different “we”? Will that “we”, going forward, be relevant, will it be truly effective where it counts, not just in massaging the rise and fall of the Covid curves on the modeller’s graphs, or the U shaped bounce-back on the economists’ projections, but around how we deal with China – and Russia too – because we’re going to have to take sides there, aren’t we?, and, way more important, to what extent we can create real climate response in enough time to prevent the shit hitting the fan, to ensure our grandchildren have a future that doesn’t look like Mad Max: Fury Road or Blade Runner 2049, and how we can set in place a progressive global taxation system that takes account of wealth as well as earnings, and will we be able to drag everyone in our nexus, Orbán included, to follow Spain’s lead and set up a Universal Basic or even just a minimum income, and what – yes – what, if anything, we will do in the face of violent power-hungry men in our, and other, jurisdictions, though they’re all our, aren’t they, they’re all we, those men who call their dogs on peaceful protestors, who get their servants to kneel on men’s necks because of the colour of their skin, because they don’t want to share the cake, because they want to hold what they have because they’re used to it, because they want more, and more, and more, because they were taught to believe that that’s science, that’s reality, that’s fate, the gene is greedy and nothing will make it not so, that Darwin meant strongest when he meant most flexible, these men whose ancestors hail from us, Europe. Can that new we unlearn them and their useless lessons? Will we be – are we – prepared to step back when we’re asked to, or even without being asked, those of us who are the pale children of pale mothers, and make space, and give up chunks of our privilege to the us with other coloured skin? Is this possible, Europe, or am I just chasing shadows?
It’s a coinflip. For now, from where I am, from the tail-end of the first wave, as the lockdowns ease across your shores and cities, I cling to a tiny hope. That my heart may yet swell, my eyes yet fill. Not with pride, but with something resembling fuckit, that’s a start.
PS: March 2021, one year on. Surges, protocols, vaccine-offs. Oh, my. Oh, Europe. Oh, us.