Borders have been much on my mind lately — and not just because of an American president’s desire to wall himself off from Mexico. In July 1997 — nine months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement — I set out to travel by train from County Derry, where I grew up, to Cork. I had to go from Belfast to Dundalk by bus: rail services had been suspended because a signal box had been blown up on the line. In October last year, on a new luxury train, the Belmond Grand Hibernian, I crossed the border twice and didn’t even register I’d done it. Ireland, post-Good Friday, is a healthier place. But what about post-Brexit? Will there be a “hard” border again? Will things get trickier for travellers? Those were questions raised by many strangers meeting on our train last October.
Kapka Kassabova, who was born in Bulgaria and now lives in the Scottish Highlands, has recently been travelling along the border zone “where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey converge and diverge”, a region she reports on in Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, which was published last week by Granta. In The Guardian at the weekend she wrote:
“It is understandable that borders are creeping into fashion again, lubricated by the passions of various new nationalisms that aren’t at all new – in the same way that, once in the system, viruses aren’t new, just dormant or rampant depending on the general health of the patient. It is understandable because there is an overwhelming sense of fear in many – and a border appears to be ‘a kind of solution’ (the Greek poet CP Cavafy’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, from which this quote comes, is perennially fresh). But it may be useful to recall that, until 1990, for half of Europe’s people, borders were a trauma. The iron curtain was more than a figure of speech. It cut into flesh, into families, into the lives of the unborn.”
I’ve been sent a copy of Kassabova’s book (reviewed yesterday by Sara Wheeler in The Observer), but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. I have, though, read and reviewed a timely account of Ireland’s dividing zone, The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr (Faber & Faber), which was also published last week. That review is due to appear in the travel section of The Daily Telegraph next weekend.
Carr’s is a marvellous book, in which he contends that Ireland is more divided than any of us suspected — not in two but in three: north, south and borderland. The third state has its own frontier-slipping people, who have their own language. They talk of dolmens — the prehistoric tombs that dot their territory — as “domees”; they say “fornenst” for next to, or up against. Or they will if you can get them to talk at all. For the borderlanders, Carr says, are a people whose conversational tone is always closing; “who say hello in a way that makes you aware it is also goodbye.”
Both Kassabova and Carr were among contributors to a discussion on Radio 3 of borders, led by Anne McElvoy, that was first broadcast last Thursday.