Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Paul Scraton

Paul Scraton | 4th December 2017

Somehow, inexplicably, Shadows & Reflections season is already upon us again. As the year draws to a close, we ask our friends and collaborators to look back on the past twelve months and share their significant moments. Without further ado, here’s the very first entry of 2017, from Paul Scraton:

On a wet and misty November day, I walked with the writer Marcel Krueger along a short stretch of the Irish border, just north of Dundalk. During the week, the newspapers in both Ireland and the United Kingdom were filled with stories about the potential “hard border” on the island after Brexit, but as we skirted deep puddles on the country lanes and looked out across the landscape of what is known as the Gap of the North there was little clue as to where the dividing lane lay. We turned to the map. For a little while, the border was actually the lane along which we were walking. One side the Republic, the other the North. A few steps later and it left the lane without warning; a speed limit sign placing us now firmly on one side rather than the other. As we continued along we tried to guess where we were, using the number plates of cars parked in the bungalow driveways as some kind of rough guide. On the map, the line was clear. In real life, it was invisible.

That evening, in a pub on the quayside in Dundalk, with a view across the river to Carlingford and beyond to the Mountains of Mourne, we talked borders with the writers Garrett Carr, who had walked the entirety of the Irish border for his book The Rule of the Land, and the novelist Evelyn Conlon, who grew up in its shadow. At some point in the discussion we left Ireland behind, our conversation taking us along other borders in Berlin and the German countryside, deep in the forests of Bulgaria or in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Moving through Europe over the past couple of decades, it might have been possible to imagine that borders – especially hard ones, with their watchtowers, checkpoints and atmosphere of suspicion – might be in retreat. In Dundalk we agreed that this had just been an illusion. Hard borders still exist. They are just located somewhere else.

In Berlin the legacy of a once-hard border can still be read on the streets of the city, where the old boundary between East and West is marked with a line of cobblestones laid in the ground. We cross it nearly every day, on the way to school or work, and though the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was ever up, its influence lingers as a boundary between prosperous neighbourhoods and areas of high unemployment, in the different bulbs in the street lights in each half of the city, and sometimes too in the attitudes of Berliners, whether they can remember living in a divided city or not. The border itself is marked not only with those cobblestones but also memorials. They tell the stories of the Berlin Wall, from tunnels and dramatic escapes to the lives lost in the attempt to get from one side to the other. They intrude on our daily routines. They urge us to remember.

On the very first page of Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, set in the borderlands between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, she writes: It may be that all borderlands hum with the frequencies of the unconscious. It is something I feel strongly here in Berlin, as I walk the former borderline. It was there in Ireland, in the Gap of the North but also on the streets of Belfast and in the exhibitions of the Ulster Museum, where they attempt to tell the story of “the Troubles” in a language acceptable to all sides. It could also be found on the island of Usedom, divided between Germany and Poland, where the border is open, but still very real.

It was on Usedom that I reached the end of the journey for Ghosts on the Shore, my book about the Baltic coast. Despite the open border on the island, it remains possible to pick up Kassabova’s frequencies. They echo in the stories of the wildlife which still refuses to cross the former no-man’s land in the forest. They haunt the hillside of the forest cemetery, where the dead of the WWII bombing raids are buried across the border from where they died in what is now another country. And they travel through time via the folkloric tales of the 17th century, the end of the Thirty Years War, and a time that established in both law and the imagination the concept of sovereign states and the lines on a map that separate them.

Fences come down in one part of the world. Fences are erected in others. I wrote once that some borders feel natural, including rivers and seas, mountain ranges and deserts. But there is nothing really natural about a border. They are all imaginary, in the sense that at some point they are the product of someone’s imagination. They are willed into existence and they can be willed into obsolescence. But even at a moment when you think they are gone, or at least, that they no longer really matter, they can always be brought back.

Walking in Ireland, it was impossible to comprehend what a “hard border” might look like. How do you close off all the lanes and pathways, the fields and open country, or the makeshift bridges that have been laid across the streams? But then again, when I walk the path of cobblestones in Berlin, it is hard to imagine how they could have divided a city in two, how they ever thought they could block off all the streets and rivers, the sewage pipes and underground train lines. And yet they did, with at least 140 people losing their lives at that border in the 28 years of its existence. Just because it was imagined, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t deadly serious.

All borderlands hum with the frequencies of the unconscious.

During those years of division, the Baltic coast of East Germany was also a borderland, lined with watchtowers and patrolled by guards and informers who attempted to blend in with the holidaymakers. Today, in the south, it is the Mediterranean that marks Europe’s borderland, a place far more deadly than the Berlin Wall or the Baltic ever was. The Med has always been, for sun-starved northern Europeans, a place of holidays and escape; of olive groves and sandy beaches; of romance and booze and sunburned memories of whitewashed resort towns and high rise hotels in Spain or Greece, Italy or France.

The Mediterranean is all those things. And it is also a place where, at the time of writing, over 3,000 people have died this year alone, attempting to cross.

In Ireland, Germany and Poland, there are always clues at the border, always places where it is possible to work out the location of where things change. In so many of my journeys in recent years it feels as if I have been stalking Europe’s borders – some more visible than others – as I moved along and between these imagined dividing lines. But when I stood on the beach in Spain, or on the cliff-top in Croatia, did I also think I was looking at a border? I don’t think I did. Like most people, I like a room with a sea view. The coastlines of southern Europe are some of the most beautiful places I have ever experienced. And yet, in all their beauty, those coastlines look out over one of the deadliest borders in the world.

The true invisible border is the one that is out of sight. The one we do not think of or the one we can safely pretend doesn’t exist. But it is not possible to pretend that three thousand people, dead in the sea, didn’t really exist. Their voices are the frequencies of the borderlands we cannot afford to ignore.


Based on the number of deaths to attempted crossings, the Mediterranean is one of the deadliest borders in the world. For more information, please visit the Missing Migrants Project from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). For more on the experience of migrants making their way to Europe via irregular routes, please visit Alison Killing’s interactive, multimedia project Migration Trail.

Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast by Paul Scraton is published by Influx Press. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova is published by Granta. The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border by Garrett Carr is published by Faber & Faber.

Paul Scraton on Caught by the River/on Twitter