Nicholas Murray
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 7, 2016
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'Nicholas Murray unleashed his inner poet for his greatest nonfiction book, Crossings. An examination of borders of all kinds – cultural, political, linguistic – it is particularly poignant when he approaches liminal borders such as old age.' Martina Evans – The Irish Times

‘This impressive collection of short pieces is part travelogue and part medi­tation on other, metaphysical borders the biographer and poet Nicholas Murray has experienced.​’ – The Tablet


Crossings is a book about borders. Though many of the borders it addresses are geographical, encountered on his travels, Nicholas Murray also considers less clearly defined, more abstract borders he has crossed or confronted – cultural, linguistic, social, class, religious, sexual. Whatever kind of border we encounter, they cause us both to think of how see ourselves as individual and as members of a variety of groups. Conversely they also cause us to think about how we consider others – and the ‘otherness’ which results from their being on a different side of a border. Borders are markers of identity and, consequently, formers of societies.

Divided into two unequal parts, Crossings places Murray in the wider world, and locates him in his home. In the longer first section he transports the reader to Spain and North Africa, Gibraltar, Turkey, partitioned Cyprus, the cross roads that is Trieste, Hong Kong and Australia, and takes a trip along the Danube through the contested lands of the Balkans.

Along the way Murray writes about Voltaire and Joyce, exile, translation, the North/South divide and the social minefield of speaking at Eton school. In the shorter second section Murray explores his home patch, which happens to be the border between Wales and England, known as the English (or are they the Welsh?) Marches, a relatively short commute from his other home in multicultural London. Drawing on his long experience living as a kind of outsider on this historic, but also more domestic, border provides a fascinating counterpoint to the people, customs and mores encountered in the first part of the book.

Watch Nicholas reading from Crossings as part of Presteigne Digital 2020. Available until 31st December 2020. 


Review by Peter Wakelin, Planet

Monday, June 12, 2017

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. 

He unpacks literary associations wherever he goes. Huxley, whose biography he wrote in 2002, comes to him often, and literary life is always in his luggage. At times he goes on pilgrimage to writers' places - on the Franco-Swiss border at Ferney he considers Voltaire, who found it helpful to skip jurisdictions here when trouble came his way. On the train past Moreton-in-Marsh he hears the birds of Edward Thomas's Adlestrop as counterpoint to the stabbing he has just witnessed in the unexpected setting of a carriage on the Cotswold Line. We meet the ghosts of Kafka, Lawrence, Joyce, Traherne and many more. At St Asaph he writes sadly of the asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins, instructed by his Jesuit rector to refuse all study that might bring him enjoyment, including learning Welsh.

Murray, in a way quite alien to me, cherishes the discomforts of the journey as much as the arrival. Heading into the Balkans he write, 'There was the excitement to come of six borders to cross in the next couple of weeks' (though even his spirit is dented eventually by border bureaucrats, corrupt railway officials and armed guards). He is happy to savour the thought-provoking happenstance of detours and discoveries: 'These idle speculations are what travel is all about.' Deep inside China for nine months in the 1980s he recognises that he can never penetrate the life of such a separate culture; nearer the edges as he travels the few miles from Morocco to Ceuta to Gibraltar he sees how proximity diminishes each neighbour.

He does not ignore present anxieties. Though writing before Trump's travel bans and Brexit's threats to movement, he traces tensions that gave birth to both. He asks whether we want a border-free, homogenised globe or a series of compartments where difference is enjoyed. His instinct is for diversity, but he knows that national borders control movement mainly to deny it, excluding people not just on the grounds of nationality but religion, class and wealth. (The contrasting experiences of Muslim refugees and well-heeled foreign bankers show how differently permeable they can be.)

"I want to see fewer borders, more eager coming and going, more sharing of experience, language, culture, being. [...] But not the borderless world, the realisation on earth of globalisation's dream, of life sans frontières.

The route taken through the essays, like his travels, is unpredictable. Twenty-one under the title 'Crossings' ricochet through journeys, visits and themes; then just four reflect on the author's thirty years 'Living in Border Country' in Radnorshire. It's an unnecessary, unequal division - four-fifths to one-fifth - but then what border divides a territory fifty-fifty?

Murray realises that crossing boundaries helps him understand his life, divided as it is, not least between London and Wales. 'I can feel,' he writes, 'and have always felt, that a frontier fence runs through my own self.' He is one of nature's doubters: uncertain, tolerant, exploratory, questioning. These are qualities that make him a good companion and a thoughtful guide to a tense, pied, and complicated world.

Review by Dylan Moore, The Welsh Agenda

Thursday, December 1, 2016

'Contemporary global politics are dominated by the worldwide refugee crisis,' asserts Nicholas Murray in the opening sentence of Crossings, an attempt to produce a multi-faceted meditation on the very idea of the border. Comprising twenty-five essays divided into two uneven sections, the book crosses literal frontiers all over the world and perambulates around the idea of borders in Murray's adopted home county Radnorshire.

Murray is a genial guide, both to places and ideas. His careful prose strikes a warm and gentle tone, easily letting the reader in; it's like reading Paul Theroux without a linear journey. Instead, we cross borders of class and privilege in Geneva and at Eton (where Murray makes the terrible faux pas of requesting a fee), get ripped off by Romanian train ticket conductors on the Transbalkan Express and make the acquaintance of Chinese hyper-capitalists. We visit the literary border country of James Joyce's Trieste, cross the left-right divide in politics and even meditate on the ultimate frontier between life and death.

As the specificities of Europe's crisis – Schengen, the collapse of respect for the Dublin Regulation, the role of Turkey – are argued over in the day-to-day media, Murray's choice to strip back the arguments to philosophical fundamentals is a useful one. What are borders? What function do they serve? Could we do without them?

We begin in Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves in Morocco. In recent year, the 'tiny thumbprint' has found itself on the frontline of an upsurge in international migration and the often ugly politics that has been its complement. Murray, an erstwhile assistant secretary of the Bermondsey Labour Party, comes across as being firmly on the liberal left when it comes to issues of migration – not that the politics is dominant or overt.

Crossings comes from oblique, unexpected angles and hits a turning point in chapter 13 –'In Praise of Frontiers'– which quotes the unlikely source of Regis Debray. As a former comrade of Che Guevara in Bolivia, the now ageing French intellectual is perhaps an unexpected advocate of the frontier. Murray himself mostly characterises borders as 'divisive, even racist, unnecessary' – but Debray comes form a culture where Utopia comes sans frontières to the extent that he can joke about it only being a matter of time before we have Customs Officials Without Borders. More seriously, Debray tackles the idea that a borderless world would be a homogenous one, and celebrates the idiosyncrasies of feeling allegiance to one's own particular quartier. 

In some ways, it's a shame Murray doesn't go further in presenting Debray's ideas or in countering his arguments, perhaps more disappointing still that Debray's book – which seems likely to have been the catalyst for his own - is the only serious reading he seems to have done on the matter. But Crossings is not that kind of book. Instead, it's experiential. Murray's thoughts about borders are not definitive. Relating his own teenage experience of feeling depressed and 'divided', his only real conclusion is that hs own being 'not an easy belonger' has led to his life split between travelling the world and 'the fugitive margins' of New Radnor. Having said that, Crossings is a book to revisit and ruminate on further, especially as world events unfold.

Review by Lucy Popescu, The Tablet

Friday, October 21, 2016

This impressive collection of short pieces is part travelogue and part medi­tation on other, metaphysical borders the biographer and poet Nicholas Murray has experienced.

 He has traversed various contin­ents, countries and counties. Borders, he muses early on, “are not attractive places. They want to instruct you, as forcefully as they can, about their importance, about what they signify, so everything about them is designed to underscore that meaning …” 

On crossing the frontier from North Africa to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, he notes how roughly the Spanish policemen treat the Moroccans: “I have seen farmers deal this way with recalcitrant sheep.”

In “The Toxicity of Borders”, he argues against Europe’s current “war” with migration, pointing out how the movement of people “enriches the collective experience, it is a prophylactic against insularity, complacency, ignorance”.

Observing some of the class boundaries that remain entrenched in Britain today, Murray recalls a talk he once gave at Eton and how he made the unforgivable faux pas of asking for a speaker’s fee: “In this place, where only the sons of Croesus can afford to lodge, payment is plainly unheard of and to request it an awful solecism.”

In “The Last Frontier”, Murray poignantly describes the limbo between life and death endured by an unnamed elderly patient in a care home: “cut off from our world, unable to speak or acknowledge her children and friends, in the fathomless, silent place granted to her by a paralysing body dementia … Silently I ask myself: will no one come to lift the barrier and let her through?”

Crossings combines philosophical reflections, the musings of other writers – from Voltaire to Bruce Chatwin – and personal vignettes to terrific effect. And Murray ends with a look back at the 25 years he has lived in the Welsh Marches, reflecting on the history of its border with England.

In contrast to the negative feelings for border posts in his opening pages, he concludes that he is “divided, not an easy belonger, preferring the fugitive margins of border country to the confident claim to a single, definite patch of turf in the centre of things”.

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