Planet 226

Peter Wakelin reviews
Crossing: A Journey through Borders
by Nicholas Murray


Seren, £9.99

I opened this book of essays with a heavy heart. I was bothered by the coldly abstract cover and the blurb’s threats of ‘theory’, ‘polarised debate’ and ‘liminal spaces’, but as I had recently curated an exhibition about border country I felt a duty to read more about borders, ‘the most contested and sensitive concepts of our time’. To my relief, this is no clinical dissection but a vivid journey of the mind. Nicholas Murray is a charming, easy, enlivening companion across actual and metaphorical borders. He tells stories, recalls deep knowledge and sparks ideas as we go. The essays trample happily over booksellers’ categories of travel, reportage, memoir, politics and biography. They visit all sorts of borders along the way – not just of territory but class, political allegiance, sanity, even life and death (he writes a fierce, touching account of an aged friend’s ‘care pathway’ between residential homes and hospitals).

But even his most conceptual borders resound to his appreciation of place – Labour Party schisms are conjured in the meeting halls of 1970s Bermondsey; his journey to depression as a young man was in the hop fields of Kent. When he talks about the boundaries of class, the place is Eton, where he has been invited to speak. He begins this excursion into privilege at the grim border zone of Slough, from whence he is borne up a tree-lined avenue to afternoon tea, enjoys a discussion among exquisitely mannered young men in tailcoats, is entertained to supper and gives his lecture on Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy to a packed, appreciative audience. Then comes the moment when he transgresses, after all his welcome in this elevated country, by asking hesitantly if there might possibly be a fee.

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