Sarah Moss: Exiting Britain, arriving in Ireland

I remembered why we were leaving England every time I read the news, every time the nation stood on doorsteps and clapped

British prime minister Boris Johnson joins The Clapping, a ritual in which healthcare providers denied fair pay and safe working conditions receive instead five minutes of public adulation. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson joins The Clapping, a ritual in which healthcare providers denied fair pay and safe working conditions receive instead five minutes of public adulation. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

 

On Bastille Day, we moved from Coventry to Dún Laoghaire with two reluctant teenagers and a highly strung Siamese cat. Le jour de gloire est arrivé. You’re brave, people say, in tones I recognise from when I had homebirths. Are you completely insane?

Moving internationally with kids is always tricky, but without Covid-19 I think our move from Coventry to Dublin would have looked sensible. I’m a novelist, I have a new job at UCD, my partner can work remotely. One son has just finished school and the other is about to start his Junior Cert.

I’ve wanted to be here for years, since beginning to come to Irish book festivals and spend time with Irish readers and writers. I loved staying up half the night talking about books with people I’d met that afternoon, going out for a run along the shore and ending up joining the local club for their weekly 10k, finding myself generously included in “Irish women writers” before I’d even organised a PPSN.

I’ve moved enough to know that wherever you go, there you are, and I know that Irish life – any life – is darker and more complicated than literary festivals. I’m interested – always – in the darkness too. Many of my friends, experts and citizens of nowhere, are leaving England, and it seems to me that the question wasn’t why you’d leave but why, lucky enough to have a choice, you’d stay.

I think we would have come even if we’d known about Covid-19, but in any case it was too late to stop. The practicalities are inevitably harder: starting a new life with two weeks of isolation is difficult, not that we question the need. People recognised the difficulty in ways that wouldn’t have happened in England.

Sarah Moss, author and new creative writing professor at UCD. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Sarah Moss, author and new creative writing professor at UCD. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
I have thought for years that in Ireland it is normal to be kind

Our new landlords offered to leave groceries in the kitchen for us and planned their week to be available-with-distancing as we settled in. A colleague came round, masked and gloved, to hand me a kettle and a care package. Almost everyone I know in Ireland made contact with offers of help. Even the nice people at the bank recognised the strangeness of our position and adapted processes.

I have thought for years that in Ireland it is normal to be kind. Of course I worry, along with every other parent in Europe, about the kids’ social development and education. I worry that no one will be looking to make new friends when the potential cost of meeting for coffee ranges from death to a fortnight’s isolation.

I worry that we won’t see friends and family now scattered around Europe for months or years. Even so, I’m glad to be here. I dare to hope that festivals and chance welcomes and late night conversations will be possible again one day and, meanwhile, it’s easy to love the coastline and the hills.

Of course I have doubted my own sanity (more than usual, I mean), but as we prepared to move I remembered why we were leaving England every time I read the news, every time I went out, particularly on Thursday evenings when the nation stood on doorsteps and performed The Clapping, a strange ritual in which healthcare providers denied fair pay and safe working conditions received instead five minutes of public adulation, except that they weren’t actually present to receive it.

Like most acts of worship, The Clapping took place in the absence of whatever we were propitiating and, like most acts of worship, it allowed participants to feel virtuous without requiring action.

Contagion and rational thought are not natural companions in any jurisdiction, but the derangement of Brexit makes a dangerous base for other fears

People collected money for the NHS, as if it were a charity rather than part of state infrastructure, and the most sceptical lefties melted over a centenarian who walked round and round his garden because for some reason his circumambulation induced other people to give money beyond what we properly pay in tax to support this public service.

When I went running, men yelled at me out of cars, not the usual obscenities but commands to go home, as if the shrunken world demanded by Brexit voters had shrunk even more, the enemy without not now over the Channel or those awkwardly forgotten borders but in the next postcode, the next street.

My friend, a fellow runner and also a doctor working in a “hot” Covid clinic, found a note from her neighbour telling her that she had “been reported” for taking longer than an hour to run one evening after a particularly bad shift (the same neighbour naturally clapped on Thursdays). Contagion and rational thought are not natural companions in any jurisdiction, but the derangement of Brexit makes a dangerous base for other fears.

I witnessed the rise of a new set of folk beliefs. Rainbow flags appeared in front windows crossed with Union Jacks: no reason, I supposed, a person couldn’t combine support for gay pride with British nationalism, but it seemed an unusual combination. It wasn’t gay pride, of course, it was a repurposing of the rainbow flag for unspecified Covid-related purposes. Children, indefinitely denied education, friendships and, in too many cases, food, were instead encouraged to chalk rainbows on the pavements. Beside them they wrote in bright, uneven letters, Stay home, save lives.

Bunting and rainbows seemed to me a more frightening response to a pandemic than open despair would have been, a masochistic celebration of suffering that fitted horribly well with the Brexit narrative.

Come the new public holiday for VE day, I felt entirely alienated from my country. There was an accumulation of bunting, whole houses festooned from gutter to doormat with flags. Had our neighbours kept boxes of nationalist tat in their attics all along, or was it produced in Chinese factories, ordered online and driven around the country by “key worker” drivers risking their health for “essential goods”?

There were Blitz singalongs, and I marvelled again at a country that finds its highest purpose in nostalgia for aerial bombardment. Photograph: Getty
There were Blitz singalongs, and I marvelled again at a country that finds its highest purpose in nostalgia for aerial bombardment. Photograph: Getty

People who had spent weeks behind net curtains set out tables on the pavement and gathered to drink all day, as if enough Union Jacks would see off germs. There were Blitz singalongs, and I marvelled again at a country that finds its highest purpose in nostalgia for aerial bombardment.

Next morning the new slogan chalked brightly on the pavement was Thank You for the War. Thank who, Hitler? Had they noticed that the E in VE day stands for Europe? It didn’t seem to matter how many died, it was deviant not to engage in fervent worship of the failing state and its false history, deviant to imply that war is a bad thing or that nurses should be properly paid and equipped without relying on charity. If you don’t like it, Brexiteers had repeatedly told me, you can leave. I don’t like it. I’ve left.

I had not, of course, anticipated Covid-19, but the evolution of British nationalisms in the past few months has not made me wish I could rewrite my new novel, which is partly concerned with Englishness, Scottishness and Britishness under the pressures of isolation. At first the idea for Summerwater seemed simple. I am the one who organises holidays in this house, which means that generally we go where I choose. I have moved often and rarely go back, but I was born near Loch Lomond and have returned there all my life.

Climbing mountains is the one activity that all four of us enjoy so that’s what we do on holiday; the West Highland way passes that shore, with trailheads for Ben Lomond and the Trossachs all along the road, and I have friends near enough to visit and lessen the pressure of the nuclear family holiday. I rented a cabin at the end of the road.

I knew it was remote but I thought there was wifi and I remembered having a phone signal along there. I was wrong on both counts, and there was no television reception either. It rained, all day, every day, for seven days. Sometimes it wasn’t raining very hard but it was always raining. The teenagers were pretty magnificent under the circumstances, and we climbed mountains anyway because what else were we going to do, sit in a cabin all day?

I went out early each morning to run. The boys, too young to enter the pub, skulked in the car park with their phones for the wifi and by evening we were happy enough to sit eating and watching the other families on the park through the French windows that made every cabin both an audience and a stage set.

I started to make up stories about them, wondered if they were making up stories about us, wondered why we all sat watching each other and not speaking. Every night the occupants of the cabin next to ours managed somehow, despite the fact that we were 10 miles down a single track road, to host a loud party that went on until dawn. I stood on the deck at 3am, staring malevolently in their direction and trying to set fire to their music system with the force of my passive aggression.

Someone should write a novel about this, I thought, the holiday that only one person really wanted on which it rains all the time and you appreciate your family but need to get away from them and you’re surrounded by other families in the same position but no one’s talking and one household is having a real live party...

Summerwater by Sarah Moss is published by Picador

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