Before the world became the precarious place that it has reverted to being, I used to think, upon arriving or returning from a journey, long or short, how much of miracle it is that civilisation works so well. I play an Irish jig on the fiddle called The Wheels of the World, which is a good way of thinking about it: the well-oiled wheels of the world keeping us all moving and functioning. I marvel at how we (to some extent) have managed to figure out transportation and banking and health and accommodation and food and education, and that we can basically rub along together functionally, even if it’s a little bumpy now and then. Yes, I got stuck in Portugal in 2010 because of the ash cloud that grounded flights across Europe. I got stuck on Tory Island in 1999 because of an Easter storm and the return boat wouldn’t put to sea. I got stuck in Newcastle on my way to London in summer 2019 after lightning strikes damaged signalling. However, with sufficient money in one’s wallet, and a touch of patience, I am always staggered by how relatively smoothly trips can be made, how seamless movement between places and countries can be.
I felt this way when I returned to Scotland from Ireland a couple of weeks ago. Not that I was expecting any complications, but, in my two weeks away, there had been peregrinations from airports, train and bus stations, lifts taken and given, taxis hailed, walks had – any of which could have resulted in a wrinkle in the smooth implementation of my plans. No wrinkles appeared, and every plan flowed as anticipated. When my returning flight touched down, I felt more grateful than usual that the mechanisms holding my plans together did not snag, stick or fail.
Ukraine is the ultimate failure taking place before our eyes, a catastrophic disintegration of all systems, devastation done onto them. The very basics are gone, forcing people to leave their country by foot: the electricity cut off, food running out, no water, bombs falling from the sky. Which part of your brain must you have a cauterise to be on the receiving end, to get through what is happening and run? Which part of your brain must you have to cauterise to be on the invading end, to plan it, go through with it, then escalate it?
Ruination. It is a very complete word. It is a stand-alone word. It encompasses so much. Ruination of buildings and homes and businesses and infrastructure. Ruination of routines and systems and records. Five weeks of ruination that could take ten years to rebuild, before one even begins to think about the emotional ruination that could take generations to heal.
There I was on the runway, thinking of how my brother had collected me two weeks previously and put me on a train home. How easily I nipped to Belfast for meetings, to Dublin to socialise, trains on time, seats available, travel cheap. How privileged that I could walk along the beach to drink coffee in a café with sheet glass windows, floor to ceiling, looking onto the Atlantic while tapping on a fully charged computer.
These days it’s easy to feel guilty, it’s better to feel grateful.