In 1939, my grandfather and his family were taken from their farm in Poland and detained for two years in a Soviet prison camp. Three years later, liberated, he met my grandmother in the east end of London, where they married and then raised my mother, before settling in Nottingham, where I was born in 1970. A half-century later, after a career in Europe’s capital, I’m preparing to start a new life in New York.
As we survey our lives at their mid-point, we begin to see the patterns. When I fell in love with the French and German languages at school, and then took them with me to university, it was no academic pursuit: I wanted to live those languages, have them become part of me, so that I could find a new home on Europe’s mainland. I’ll never forget the first time I made someone laugh in French: a bridge was crossed, and I never looked back.
When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, I fell in love again, this time with a simple idea: Europe’s moral and political mission to root itself in the shame of Auschwitz, and build from there, creating a new sense of identity where our dignity, freedom, equality and diversity might be reconciled in a project of peace. It’s been my privilege to serve that project, in various guises, for the last 25 years.
Today, many of us feel uprooted, even if we never left the towns where we grew up. A recent British prime minister poured scorn on the “citizens of nowhere”, deriding the human spirit that yearns to understand our neighbours and live beside them. It’s perhaps the most urgent question of our times, of a piece with our struggle to save our ecosystem: can we live together after all, respectful of our differences?
For me, writing must be part of the response. It’s through the written word that we name and come to terms with the world around us; through the discipline of writing that we root ourselves back in the world and rediscover its sensuality. From Zadie Smith to Richard Ford, I’ve loved the writers who reconcile personal vision with public concern.
In moments of doubt, I ask myself whether New York isn’t just one more escape. Am I running from trauma – my country’s betrayal of Europe, and the most painful political event of my lifetime – in a desperate bid to start again? But I know the real reason is better than that. My life has been a continuous uprooting, and a long attempt to find a home. Today, I want to root myself again, through writing, and to do that in a city that understands why.