Morning and evening and all times of the day and night, the ingredients for burning.
I’d pass the milk bottles, lined up as neat as you like, on my way home from school: soon the rags would appear, and the petrol, the sun would dip, and the action would begin – although I’d be off and away and home safe by then.
Or, the buildings themselves, which supplied ample wood and kindling, gas pipes and oil pipes. When I was in my pram and my mother bouncing me – bad suspension, in those days – around Derry city centre, she would stop to admire a window display. A dress here, a bag there. The shop gone the following day: a rotten hole in a row of smiling teeth. This happened a run of times, until she began to doubt herself, to wonder if she possessed the evil eye, the ability to ill-wish a shop, a business, a building. She lowered her eyes, she began not looking at window displays she passed, for fear of what might happen. But the burning had nothing to do with her: the wood was dry, and up it went in a flame.
Or, the fortified army checkpoint at the border, where we endured delays and body searches and car searches, amid a miasma of petrol fumes. The Donegal beach calling us on a warm day – but first and always, this rite of passage. One night, they took a man from his house – a Derry man, a Catholic, a caterer who fed the soldiers at the local army base – and strapped him into his car, and ordered him to drive to the checkpoint. When he arrived, he shouted a warning – too late: they detonated the bomb and the caterer was killed, along with five soldiers, and the checkpoint exploded in a ball of fire, and was wiped from the landscape.
Or, the libraries that were burned as a matter of course, their books shrivelling as the fire and scorching passed from shelf to shelf.
I come from a city where people, books, and buildings have burned.
This was the way of it, in the course of the Troubles. And is: although we are told that this bloody phase in our history is concluded, to accept such a narrative would be a burlesque, a challenge to the evidence provided by our senses. The Troubles continue in another vein – is the truth. Their flames lick through our psychology and scorch our peace of mind.
Such life experiences and such knowledge render me a European. For what is the history of Europe if not one of burning? Libraries in Smolensk and Leuven and Tours and Berlin and Naples and scores of other cities burned during the Second World War. Pilots above Hamburg and Dresden reported the stench of roasted human bodies rising high into the air above the fire storms engulfing these cities. ''What is Europe now?'' Churchill asked, as he surveyed the ruins of post-war Europe. ''It is a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.'' We are Europeans, and century by century we have burned our neighbours: their bodies, and their buildings, and their books; and they have burned us, and ours.
It is this history that renders the modern and enduring European project worthy of one’s allegiance and support. I feel at once an impulse – a defensive move – to qualify and explain: to offer a breadth of context that underscores my disapproval of the neoliberal economic impulses that guide the European Union. I deplore its enthusiastic manufacture of armaments, I deplore its fisheries policies, and the range of refugee regulations devised in our name, and applied in the Mediterranean. I remember the wars in Bosnia, the democratic sickness in Poland and Hungary.
But as we burned in Derry, so they burned elsewhere in Europe: and the merest glance at these histories of burning underscores the European achievement of maintaining a state approaching peace for almost eighty years, of reinvesting repeatedly in the vision of reconciliation that makes peace possible. For there is no inevitability about any form of peace: we must commit to it again and again.
Given all this, how could I not feel emphatically and instinctively European? How could I not respond to this history, and recognise in it my own local history? I grew up in a city that, scorched as it was by actual violence and tense with the threat of violence, invested emotionally and intellectually – and naturally – in the vision of the future articulated by John Hume: of a society that could learn from the past, that would embrace reconciliation, that could grow as a result. Central to this vision was the impulse behind the foundation of what is now the European Union: of a shared place, of a commonwealth. We have every right – we have a duty – to criticize the EU for embracing neoliberal economics, and much more: but there was a utopian thread in that founding vision; and the thread is holding.
There is nothing utopian about Northern Ireland, of course – but a thread is holding there, too. After a fashion – although the impact of Brexit on the tentative peace has of course been profound. There is much to discuss: the constitutional position of Scotland, the wilful English ignorance of Ireland in general and of Northern Ireland in particular, the Pontius Pilate-like washing away of responsibility for history, the insularity and political venality that have accompanied Brexit – but it seems to me that the sense of shock at the prospect and now the reality of Brexit derives most of all from a widespread sense of identification with the European project, with the ongoing European story. It is an emotional reverberation which will not be stemmed.
I write this in Derry, on an evening in January 2020: the British news barely mentions Brexit at all now – it is all Megxit, instead – and the Irish news frets about economic impacts and trade flows. But here, the sense I divine all around me, and the sense I feel myself, remains one of deep shock, of disbelief that in just a few weeks, this city and Northern Ireland will find itself removed from the European Union against its will.
My awareness of Europe – its past, and my clear sense that the present will not cohere without an understanding of history – has always guided my writing. It provides a necessary spacious hinterland. Were I asked to encapsulate my purpose, my cri de coeur as a writer, I should say that mine was a project to consider how past and present fit together, to illuminate the truth that our present lives can be both guided by and prised from our history, our knotted and tormented past.
I observe the synchronicities at play in my overlapping – local, and Irish, and European – identities: the borders raised and erased; the conflict stoked and stilled for now; the tensions that writhe at home and in Europe, the rivalries at work between nations, the tentative and strategic and enduring friendships and alliances. I watch Europe manifest in my writing and reading, and in my life. Sections of my latest novel The Jewel are set in a Berlin art gallery; elsewhere in the book, I evoke – I took pleasure in evoking – the bitter scent of pink chestnut blossoms in a Munich springtime, the roar of the Isar river high and grey and cold with snowmelt. Recently, I wrote a short story set in Denmark during the Second World War; and read work by Aleksandar Hemon and Jenny Erpenbeck and Elfriede Jelinek. My first novel Inch Levels will be published in French in 2021: in the summer of 2019, I drove the French translator around Donegal and Derry, introducing her to the landscapes in the book, and answering her questions, seeing places through her eyes, observing them as if for the first time, imagining the book in its new identity, as a new creation.
In the spring of 2019, I called into the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, and sat for a little while in the sunny courtyard, chatting to a friend undertaking a residency in the college. Afterwards, I rejoined my partner and we walked slowly up the hill towards the Panthéon. Crowds were gathering, the air was filling with the smell of burning, and people were stopping, looking at their phones. We walked to the crest of the hill, and saw the flames leaping from the roof of Notre Dame below: the crowds were completely silent, until the flames caught the spire and it fell into the inferno; then a collective cry, and silence again. Later, I read – disbelievingly – opinion pieces scolding those who grieved for the building: “save your grief for humanity, for the living,” snapped the columnists, as if this were an either/or choice. I am neither French nor Parisian: but I need no lessons in the manifestations of grief, how flames in a building will scorch and burn the human heart too.
That night in Paris, I could hardly sleep – but in the morning, we saw that the cathedral had not in fact died in the night. We burn, and we witness the burning, and we continue our work.