On the last Sunday of October, four days before Hallowe’en, and the deadline for Brexit, my husband and children and I went on a day trip from London to Folkestone, on the Kent coast. We had come several times over the summer, mainly for the seaside, but also wondering if this was somewhere we could live, if (though that if was increasingly becoming a when) we left London.
There is something about Folkestone – the sense of looking up to the hills, perhaps, of being cupped on three sides, with the fourth open water – that makes me think of Belfast. It was this feeling, in an odd way, that was helping me come to terms with the fact that Belfast might not be the place I returned to.
The constituency of Folkestone & Hythe voted by a massive 61.64% to leave the EU, a margin even greater than the overall county of Kent, described on the BBC’s website as an “overwhelming” 59% Leave. This was not, as far as we were concerned, in Folkestone’s favour. But then, coming from a place like Belfast, the feeling – the frustration – of being utterly at odds with the prevailing political climate, is not, alas, unfamiliar.
That Sunday, an Italian-born artist called Manuel Vason was staging a recreation of “Folkestone’s most famous painting”. The Landing of the Belgian Refugees was gifted to the town in 1916 by its artist, Fredo Franzoni, another Italian, who himself came to Folkestone as a refugee. It commemorates, Vason’s website says, the months in 1914 just after the outbreak of the Great War, when more than 100,000 Belgian refugees arrived in Folkestone. They crossed the Channel in any boat they could find: on just one day in October came 16,000. They were welcomed with such kindness that King Albert of Belgium later said that “Folkestone had earned the admiration not only of the Belgians, but also of the whole world: yes, the whole civilised world knew how the town of Folkestone had received them with such cordiality which would never be forgotten.”
The painting shows the Mayor, in ceremonial chains and robes of red, extending his arms to greet the refugees. Behind him and his welcoming committee, the waters seethe with sailboats, rowing boats, even an ocean-going liner. The refugees, several children and swaddled babies prominent – are clambering, stunned and timid and hopeful, into their new life.
Vason, along with the arts organization Folkestone Fringe, who commissioned the work, had called for volunteers to be in the photograph, as both welcoming locals and refugees. "Come as you’d like,” the instructions said. “In the painting people are wearing a mixture of ceremonial robes and work uniforms and normal clothes, or they’re dressed for a long, cold Channel crossing, or smartly to welcome visitors. It’s up to you.”
We watched, from the walkway above, as Vason – wearing a black hoodie emblazoned with “local foreigner” in white capitals – marshalled the volunteers. The present-day Mayor, a woman called Jackie Mead, was stately in red cape and tricorn hat. Others were dressed in bright saris or black hijabs, or the uniform of the Coastwatch. There were dog walkers, toddlers in backpack-style carriers, a man in a wheelchair, a shy child in a yellow raincoat coaxed forward to stand where the two young girls of the original painting stand, straw hats and silk sashes, ushered on by their nursemaid. There was much laughter as a boat with volunteer refugees manoeuvred into exactly the right position: the maritime equivalent of a thirty-point three-point turn. Spirits were high: it was the sunniest day in weeks, the best of a long, dank autumn. At the last minute, my husband and I looked at each other and made our way down, into the throng.
At the time of writing, I haven’t yet seen Vason’s photograph, but when it is exhibited, the four of us will be in it, my daughter on my husband’s shoulders, my son in my arms, cheering for Folkestone, for safe havens, be the storms literal or metaphorical.
My husband’s grandmother, Renate Adriana Sophia Heckroth – though she changed her name to simply Nandi Heckroth – came to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Her father was a Communist, and had been briefly imprisoned for his political views; her mother was Jewish. Her parents left Germany in 1933, when it looked likely he would be imprisoned again, crossing the border to Holland on foot. They spent two years wandering around Europe seeking refuge, before settling in Dartington, Devon. When they sent for their now eight-year old daughter in 1935, she had to be smuggled out of Germany by her paternal aunt – the train to the Belgian border, and then a ferry from Zeebrugge, under an enormous coat, the family story goes, the aunt pretending she was heavily pregnant. Nandi settled quickly into school, and learned English; was by all accounts happy here, although it came at a price: she renounced Germany and all things German, refusing to speak the language or to teach it to her sons, refusing, even decades later, to have anything even German-made under her roof.
My husband had recently learned that through this grandmother, under a policy designed to help the descendants of those who fled Germany in the face of persecution, he was eligible for German citizenship, and had started the application process for a passport. A German friend and colleague was helping him with the laborious bureaucracy. He was happy, or at least relieved, at the thought of no longer being the only one in our family not an EU citizen. When I asked him how he felt about being German he said that in a funny way he’d always felt Germanic – felt an affinity, at least.
It was uncanny: I had spent the previous winter writing a long short story, almost a novella, about a young-ish Northern Irish mother of two moving out of London to the countryside, and feeling estranged, as if the English countryside was never where she was meant to be. She wasn’t exactly me – her children, though the same age as mine, were both boys, rather than a boy and a girl; her husband was German – but in that strange alchemical way of fiction, she was far from being not me, either. It hadn’t occurred to me, writing it, that my husband was, or could be, German, too.
I’d set the story aside in the spring, sensing there was a missing note, something I couldn’t yet hear. But my character had recently returned to me in my dreams, at unguarded moments in the day, and I knew it was time to go back to her, though for reasons unclear to me (or perhaps that I wished to remain unclear) I was hesitant, putting off the moment when I had to finish her story – or understand it.
I’d been working on another new story that autumn, instead, set in London during the Blitz. As we sat on the Harbour Arm, eating fish and chips, I thought of how Folkestone was so often where the Luftwaffe jettisoned unused bombs before heading back across the Channel. Much of the town had been obliterated; only recently regenerated. That day, the contrails of aeroplanes were stark against the high skies. I opened the PlaneFinder app on my phone and followed the flight paths of planes, visible and invisible. All the places they were coming from, and might be going. Unbidden, the Burt Bacharach love-song began playing in my head. Trips to Paris or to Rome: loved ones leaving. In his speech, Manuel Vason had said that people tend to travel for the following reasons: food and fuel, or love, or money. I thought of the places I’d left in my life, the places I’d been. The chances taken, the people loved. How, how could it not be utterly, morally wrong to take from my children, and their generation, the chance to live and love freely in twenty-seven other countries? Besides which – it hardly needs spelling out, but sometimes it’s important to say it – if little Renate had been turned away at the border, my husband, my children, none of them, none, would be here at all.
After lunch, we walked along the coastal path to the shingle bay of Mermaid beach and looked for hagstones. A hagstone, sometimes called an adder -– or a witchstone is a pebble with a naturally-occurring hole in it. In folklore they are powerful amulets: used for fertility rituals, or for protection; preventing night-terrors or warding off spirits of the dead. It is also said that if you look through them, you can see into other realms; the past or the future, or the realm of the Fae. I was lucky that day: within half an hour, I’d managed to find several. I showed the children how to squint through them, to see if we could see any real mermaids or mermen. We couldn’t: but the coast of France, so clearly delineated you felt you could reach out and touch it, seemed no less magical.
When the children grew bored of looking for mer-creatures, they joined some local kids in a game of leaping round a circle of large granite boulders. My fearlessly agile five-year old son flew from rock to rock, my two-year old scrambling doggedly after him. She’d started insisting that she was a big girl now, having been adamant, just weeks before, that she was a baby. It coincided with the first trips away I’d made without them, my first alone in five years. My life was opening up again – journeys imminent, to name but the ‘l’s, to Leuven, Lisbon, Lisburn (those latter two further apart than their pronunciation might suggest) – just as the wider world seemed to be closing down. I thought of how grateful I was, once again, for my Irish passport – my lifeline to such continued opportunities – even as the Good Friday Agreement that had provided it was under threat, disregarded in recent parliamentary proceedings.
We climbed the cliff-top path and walked back to the train station past the grand Edwardian hotels, many of which have seen better days, some of which are now apartment complexes. The Grand and the Metropole were flying the Union Jack. I remembered drawing it in school: knowing that the thicker white line needed to be closest to the flagpole. I shudder now whenever I see that flag.
Dusk was falling. The year was tilting into winter.
Everything felt like it was changing, or was about to; but then again, maybe it always does.
At the end of 2019, I wrote this:
The 31st of October came and went, and Brexit didn’t happen. The stark and chilling Get Ready for Brexit posters – the Ready in bright blood-red – on our local bus stop disappeared. Life went on. Maybe, by the time you read this, it will have happened, or – for good – not. Maybe I will be married to a German.
I am yet to go back to my story.
It was meant to be the ending to this essay. And then everything really did change.
I’m sure you’ve guessed that the coming coronavirus is going to derail this narrative. It’s already hard, now, in June 2020, to think clearly about what exactly we knew, feared, hoped, when.
The new year came, and the new 31 – of January, this time – Brexit’s next deadline. There had been so many by now – deadlines, and new deadlines, and deadlines extended. So many scrambled, emergency parliamentary votes. So many impossibilities, so many intractables, so many contradictions, so many lies. But this time it happened: the United Kingdom left the European Union.
A fortnight later, I travelled to Leuven on the Eurostar, on my Irish passport, proudly, defiantly, joining the queue to the left with the circle of stars. What a mess (I automatically thought) it all was. What a pity – what a waste. My husband, who has his own architecture practice – who had, in fact, won Young Architect of the Year just a few months earlier – was invited to take part in the Architecture Biennale, in Venice in May. But they had just that week learned, in a flurry of correspondence, that their funding was no longer valid because they were now not European. My husband’s hypothetical German passport had progressed no further, but he was trying to salvage the practice’s funding through his German-British co-director, unsure if it would be possible in time.
In Leuven, I stayed with Hedwig Schwall and her husband Melvyn Collier in their beautiful eighteenth-century house on Naamsestraat. Hedwig and three others bought it in 1993, to renovate it as a joint dwelling, an experiment in a new way of communal living. Whereas its first inhabitants lived under Austrian, French, Dutch and Belgian rule, during one of the most turbulent times in modern Western European history, Hedwig and her various housemates have lived in “the Quint” for almost thirty peaceful years, in lively international interaction, thanks to the stability of the EU.
At the university of Leuven, and at an evening event in Brussels, I talked about the anthology of Irish stories I’d recently edited: Being Various. It is the sixth in the Faber series started by legendary editor David Marcus, who believed that the energy of a good collection comes from the mix of brand-new and established authors. In that spirit, I had the likes of Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, and Sally Rooney alongside Jill Crawford, an MA student in Creative Writing at the time, and Sheila Purdy, who, as her seventieth birthday approached, had published just one other story. But I had wanted to do more. I wanted to broaden the scope of what an “Irish” short story is: including fiction from genres, such as crime and young adult writing, which are often omitted from so-called, or self-styled, “literary” collections, and I wanted to include the voices of authors who had come to Ireland from elsewhere, such as Chinese-born Yan Ge, Finnish-born Arja Kajermo, Nigerian-born Melatu Uche Okorie, and Kit de Waal, born in England to one Irish and one Jamaican parent. It had seemed crucial, at a time of rising right-wing rhetoric, with the mainstream media ever more intent on normalizing the ugliest types of nationalist and neo-fascist sentiment, to make a gesture of openness.
In the evenings, back on Naamsestraat, over a glass of wine, our conversations continued, freewheeling through books, buildings, communities. As I left, Mel gave me a copy of a book that he’d mentioned, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. He remembered it with admiration, but also thought it might be a product of its time: he was interested to see if I thought it still stood up.
Had it come up in connection with what was then being called the Wuhan flu? I can’t, for the life of me, remember. It seems, looking back, remarkably prescient: a portent. Or maybe it’s only in hindsight that it becomes so.
I began it on the Eurostar back. On the Beach is about the fallout of a nuclear war that has obliterated the world, except for Australasia, where the survivors wait for the swirling currents of air to bring the deadly winds their way. It will, at most, be months, it may be only weeks; they have no way of knowing; the only thing they do know is that there will be no escape. And they carry on their lives as best they can, planting bulbs for a spring they’ll never see, buying garden furniture they’ll never sit in, a pogo-stick for a child they’ll never see again. The narrative is brilliant in its remorselessness, chilling in its lightness of touch. From the very first page, you know what’s coming, and you know too it’s inevitable, and yet, like the characters, you go on in a greedy sort of disbelief, waiting for the loop-hole, for the deus ex machina, for a salvation you know isn’t coming.
When it became too much (parents discussing the most humane way of killing their baby when the sickness comes) I put in my earbuds, closed my eyes and listened to music instead. I had been listening to a lot of Nina Simone lately, and the song that automatically started to play was her version of “The Twelfth of Never”. I will love you, she sings, until such times as the bluebells forget to bloom, the poets run out of rhyme …
It’s a love song, but a sad song – maybe all the best love songs are. Even the twelfth of never comes, is the implication that haunts the song: all things must pass, even this, even us.
“The Twelfth of Never” always makes me smile, though, because I can’t help thinking of Belfast, where “the twelfth” is never “of never”, but always “of July.”. Bonfires, marching season, escalating tension, often riots, city-wide shut-down; escape, if you can. I thought of this, idly, as Northern France slipped by; I remembered going to stay with English friends in my first year of university for whom “the glorious twelfth” was in August, not July, and heralded the start of the grouse-shooting season. When I’d told my friends from home this, oh, how we’d laughed. It was the culmination of the year I’d begun to realize, or to learn, just how not-English I was; the year I’d applied for my own first Irish passport, 2001.
As the train went under the channel, as the vile, feckless, filthy tsunami of incited fear-mongering and racism and lies that was Brexit swept towards us, I did have my escape route – from that, at least. I picked up On the Beach again.
The day after returning from Leuven, I met up with Glenn Patterson, who was in London for a few days. We’d been meant to be having dinner with Corinna MacNeice, but her trip was cancelled at the last minute. We talked, instead, about events forthcoming in London and Belfast – it was to be a busy spring for both of us, with new books out, and the Belfast Book Festival, of which we’re both Patrons, in its tenth anniversary year. We talked about On the Beach: or, at least, we talked in the abstract about what you would, might, do differently with your life, if you knew what was coming. I hadn’t yet gone back to my story with the German husband and the move to the countryside, but after finishing the London Blitz story, I’d begun researching the Belfast Blitz, which (to my surprise) barely features in fiction. I’d been reading Mass Observation diaries, newspaper archives, historical accounts. At first, people didn’t believe it would, could happen: they believed that Belfast was too far beyond the navigation systems of the Luftwaffe planes. Indeed, for a full eight months after the first aerial bombardment of London, and of the rest of England, Belfast was untouched. There were occasional alerts, false alarms, but for the most part people just got on with their lives. We talked about this. We talked about all the circumstances, all the ways, in which life just has to go on.
The following night the budget airline FlyBe collapsed. There were other airlines, of course, other airports, but London City to George Best Belfast City Airport had been an umbilical cord for me, and now it was cut; that felt more symbolic than it had the right to be, and I felt it acutely. This was my last spring as a Londoner: one of these days would be the last day I walked these streets with them truly belonging to me.
Plans for Folkestone, all this time, had been continuing apace. My husband and I had been there, visited schools, drawn up plans for run-down houses we’d renovate, Pinterests of how we’d redo them. There were two houses we were particularly interested in, and we’d booked in viewings —
— and then that dreadful fortnight – week – last few days – in mid-March, Italy down, Ireland closing, the London I was secretly dreading leaving more of a ghost-town by the day, the children at my son’s school dwindling to a dozen, half a dozen; on the last day before we, too, kept him off, only four. The spring, the summer, collapsing, as if (I couldn’t shake off this feeling) all of it had been a fickle illusion anyway, sustained by the effort of collective imagination, which had now entirely short-circuited, failed.
I’m not going to write, here, about those weeks. What we did, how we survived them, needs its own space entirely.
When I do manage to write about it, I will want to capture something of the horror, the impotence of it all. The real tragedy of On the Beach is that it both is, and yet wasn’t, didn’t have to be, inevitable. The characters talk about the careless way the nuclear war began and escalated; they lament that if only their newspapers had told the truth, if only the politicians had been more honourable, all could have been averted: all of it.
It is hard not to feel that acutely, nauseatingly, now: with both the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, and their attitude to Brexit.
I will want to capture the horror of over a thousand people dying a day in the UK, the highest death toll in Europe, for twenty-two days in a row. The horror of suspecting that no-one in charge knows what they’re doing. The EU ventilator-sourcing schemes not joined on principle, the contracts for vital equipment given, it seemed, to mates, as favours. The horror of the lies, the lies, the lies: the lies that knew, the lies that just didn’t care, they were lies. The rules flouted, broken, by those who thought themselves above them, then revised in real time, retrospectively bent. The horror of pundits suggesting that, once again, come Brexit, medicine may be in short supply, that we should once again stockpile loo rolls, pasta, Calpol …
At the time of writing, the government is planning to open up (hairdressers, pubs, restaurants, playgrounds) whilst saying that the virus may be with us through the autumn and winter and into next spring; is denying there was ever a policy of “herd immunity” whilst admitting that its daily mortality figures may have been underestimates; is saying (and I can’t believe I’m writing this) that at least it hasn’t been as bad as it might have been a century ago.
Other things the government says: that we are pressing on with Brexit, full steam ahead, that there absolutely won’t be an extension to trade talks or to a transition period out of the EU, that there will be, contrary to all previous assurances, a hard border and full customs checks in Northern Ireland, that (chin up!) the British people are, after all, best in a crisis …
It’s impossible to keep up with it all, and this inertia, this bewilderment, is part of the problem. How many of our failures are fundamentally failures of the imagination?
You believe it will never happen, that it just can’t happen, you hope it won’t happen, it happens.
We sit on our fourth-floor terrace every evening, looking out over the tower-blocks of the inner city, our neighbours in their little boxy balconies, the dioramas of their lives, and we think of how we love the city, this city, and we wonder if we would have been, if we would be, happier in a house with a little garden by the sea. For the moment, anyway, it’s irrelevant: our precarious mortgage deal has toppled, as if it was never bricks-and-mortar, but a house of cards all along.
You live under the illusion that when this all ends, you’ll be able to go back to the point you left off, the person you were then, the plans you had, but of course it doesn’t work like that.
Online, I find Manuel Vason’s photograph, or at least a fuzzy reproduction of it, printed on 2 February in a local newspaper. And there we are, just as I said we’d be, my husband in sunglasses, holding an implausibly-small version of our daughter. Me a few people to the left, holding our son, a flash of bright blue padded coat and the Ninjago baseball cap he’s already outgrown. I momentarily see the future that was meant to happen, the future where we found the house and moved to Folkestone, the future where we’re walking down the Harbour Arm now in the summer sunshine. Refugees from the past, seeking sanctuary in some better future.