Home: no place like it
Is ‘home’ the place where you live or a place in your heart? The novelist Anne Enright asks what the word means in today’s Ireland
Photograph: Catherine MacBride/FS/Getty
I was on the road a lot, for a few years, selling books like a salesman sells brushes (except these, of course, are magic brushes), and one of the great pleasures of being a writer on the move is that you can talk to anyone. People tell you things.
Sometimes, at a foreign book festival, it would be my job to talk to the money, which is how I found myself, in the years after the crash, sitting beside one or other jet-lagged Master of the Financial Universe and keeping the conversation going, which is to say talking about him.
These men have their problems too. One guy is living in Hong Kong, the tax rate is 16 per cent but he can’t let his children outdoors because of the smog. Another is based in Singapore, where real-estate prices are through the roof. He has an enthusiastic number of children who have to be educated in three or four countries, with all the attendant expenses, whether Oxbridge, or Ivy League, or some liberal-arts place in Pennsylvania that no no one has ever heard of.
It is clear this man feels guilty about the amount of money he earns, and trapped by the amount of money he needs to earn. He lives in an international space. He wakes up in the middle of the night and does not know which hotel he is in or whether the bathroom is to the left or the right. So I say, “Why don’t you go home?”
“Home?” he says. Home is New Zealand. It is a beautiful place. The schools, he agrees, are mostly free and mostly fine. But no, he cannot go home. His brother is there – an architect. An out-of-work architect. There is nothing for him to do in New Zealand. He cannot go home.
I might have pointed out that it was men like him who put men like his brother out of work, but I am struck by his melancholy, the way he lifts his eyes and sees New Zealand, somewhere on the white tablecloth between the floral display and the bottle of red wine. He looks like Odysseus remembering Ithaca, or Dorothy Kansas: he is pining for a place he is too rich to live in any more.
Of course Penelope is faithfully waiting for Odysseus to return, and Auntie Em could never stop worrying about Dorothy. Home is the place where a woman loves you from. But although it is my all-time favourite thing to do to a man, I do not ask this very rich, slightly disoriented man about his mother. He has problems enough as it is.
You see them at the front of the plane, a global community of money men, tethered to the planet at one or other tax point, effectively stateless. As the money washes over and the money washes back, they move with it, and all of them are going to retire some day to a place they can call their own. As opposed to one of the many places they just own.
At least that is what they say they want to do, but I have my doubts: I don’t think they are ever going to make it back to Kansas.
At another one of these festivals, in Germany, I meet a young woman called Alice, who is studying transnational fiction. This is a very trendy academic area – a friend in the United States says that Irish studies are in decline there, it’s all transnational studies now: migrants, emigrants; it is all about the intercultural experience; exile, alienation, flow.
Alice says this is all very well, but it suits people to say that we are free to move around now. Information moves across borders and money moves across borders and we think that people move too, but if you are, say, a Somali refugee in Dadaab refugee camp (population nearly 400,000) then a border is a very real thing and being “stateless” is very far from being trendy or unfettered.
Skilled labour moves around, certainly, but the myth of movement is also a dangerous one, and what we need to do, as Karl Marx might say, is follow the money.
Alice, by the way, despite her many university degrees, is working for this festival as an intern, which is to say for free, because no one under 30 gets paid any more, not in the arts. And I know what she means, I say, because words don’t pay either these days; they spread out like a fog on the internet, and that fog is free.
Home is a home page
But someone is making money from the internet, someone is making money from our illusion of freedom, the idea that home is a home page, that you carry yourself with you like a snail does its shell, that a virtual space is somehow your place and contains your identity (even if a million people can walk through it without wiping their shoes).
Someone is making money from our inability to be in the place where we find ourselves, without thinking about somewhere else. If only the human race could learn how to stay still.
(I write this and go into the front room, where I have built a nice fire, to see two children and an adult plugged into three different screens, and “Blarty blarg blarg blarg!’ I say and stomp around, the old nag who comes in to rail at YouTube and impound headphones and say, “Why is everyone on their own in here? Why are you not together, the way a family is supposed to be together?” before going back to check the news about Nigella, and whether I have any mail.)
But isn’t this all a good thing? Movement and intellectual freedom are wonderful, surely. Borders, whether real or virtual, are old-fashioned and restrictive. Can we not, like a good poem, move and stay still at the same time?
Well, yes and no, because some things move and some things only appear to move and some things stay very still indeed. The trick is to follow the money, because money moves around the world like an idea, but it comes out of the wall like a real thing.
Home used to be a place with boundaries, and these boundaries made us feel protected and held. If we call a country home, if we draw a line on the map and say, “This is us, in here,” then the question is, what does that country contain?
For the past five years Ireland has contained an enormous debt. The debt stops at the border; the money does not – or the big money does not. The big money just moves away, for a while. The big money waits for us to beg it to come back again. All is forgiven!
So we need to take down those cute Home Sweet Home signs and replace them with ones that say The Buck Stops Here.
At a festival in Mumbai I listen to an Indian architect talk about megacities and global cities, and there in the list, with Shanghai and Sydney, is Dublin. My little surge of pride is spoiled when he says that Dublin used to be a global city, because of the amount of international money that passed through it, but since the crash it is “nowhere again”. He gives a little laugh. It is full of the wrong kind of traffic, apparently. Dublin, these days, is just any other town.
It is not just the debt that puts a pin in the national balloon. The economic shift towards the east is vaguely threatening to Irish self-esteem – we may have built New York but can take little credit for Nanjing. The demographics of the United States itself are changing, while India has a boom at home and a hardworking diaspora both in the US and in Britain.
There are many other untethered souls out there, singing their sad songs, and nostalgia is not the commodity it used to be, not even Irish nostalgia, which was one of the first and most successful brands.
It made us feel so central. Ireland was the place to leave – for much of the 20th century “Ireland” was a euphemism every white person in the US could use for the place they had left behind.
But our world view has become decentred by cheap flights and broadband, by Ireland’s irrelevance to China. These days we are just part of the mix.
Debt is terrible, and it is hard to see dreams die, but apart from the money (if there is anything apart from the money) there is nothing wrong with being an ordinary country, working by ordinary rules. There is nothing wrong with reality. Or nothing much. You just have to get through it.
If life is now in the cloud, meanwhile, then what is left on the ground is just the boring stuff. Conversation, as opposed to, say, texting. Sex, as opposed to porn. Food, which is always nice to have. Other people, many of them annoying. Heating bills. The body. Being real is hard work – “here” is increasingly hard work – but the rewards are real too.
I have been at home for most of this year, and I will be at home all next year, and after some itchiness and agitation I settle into the idea of staying put: going for walks, buying briquettes, trying to be in the place where I live. Nowhere else.
There is no plane to take me to a place with more light. This is where I am. The leaves hang on from September all the way to December, and I am here to witness the drama as they flame and endure.
Every day the light is different and notable. There is a sweet spot at the end of the north pier in Bray where I turn and see the evening sky, the boats and swans, a lit Dart threading through the tunnels on its way to Greystones, and the wind is behind me for the journey back to all my care.
Happy to be here
And I am happy to be here. As every survey seems to show, people who live in Ireland are more happy than not. How mad is that? Like most Irish people, I am actually at home in this crock of a country. My goodness. I am happy in a flattened economy with zombie banks, a lost generation, a debt, a want.
I am going to wake up as Neo does in The Matrix, in a pod among millions of other pods, with tubes sucking all the goodness out of him and the realisation that life as he knows it is a dream. Ireland is a dream, people! Wake up!
But sure we knew that anyway. We knew that all along.
I remember talking to a guy in England who wasn’t going back to his family for Christmas. “I hate my family,” he said, and I wondered what that had got to do with anything. This is not something an Irish family would find relevant, or surprising.
Perhaps feeling at home is just a question of scale. Ireland is big enough to be separate, small enough that people know each other and feel connected. We make families and networks of friends, and it is hard to get away from either.
For some people home is where the hurt is, so it is important not to sentimentalise. No one can let you down like your own people. No one can break your heart like the ones you love. But it seems we feel, as a group, more loved than hurt.
There is no place like it: home is the place where people matter to us, and make us, and give us joy.