‘Where are you from?’ is a question I am often asked.
The thing that makes people ask this does not stand out like a sore thumb, it’s more like it stands out like a sore ear.
(I have often been asked ‘What planet are you from?’ but the reasons for that is entirely different.)
I don’t sound like I come from here, and people, used only to the limited accents they hear on TV, have difficulty placing me. Lacking the nasal inflection of more long-term residence of this continent marks me out as different. Now, it’s as plain as the nose on my face that I have no real deficiency when it comes to the organ needed for ‘nasal inflection’, but I still can’t get it right.
But as time pass I find it harder and harder to answer that simple, repetitive question. By the end of this year I will have lived longer in Australia than in the county that gave me my accent – Somerset. Does 19 years of dwelling, over 35 years ago, still define where I am from? Is the ‘from’ nothing more than a factual accounting of birthplace and the majority of childhood? Will I remain some form of outsider until my accent fades and I sound like the people around me? And what would happen if in moments of inattention, or cider induced verbal clumsiness, my Somerset accent pops back to the surface? Would this verbal chimera be a better description of where I am from than the older, single source vintage? Who knows?
Questions asked in the hypothetical bring answers in the abstract, and the reality lies untested. Bias. Wishful thinking. Image making.
‘Home is where the heart lies, but if the heart lies, where is home?’ (Fish)
I point the car south, away from the Lakes and towards Somerset. Minutes turn into hours, the miles click over, the children chatter; anonymous coffee; jelly snakes, brought for a walk on the hills but overlooked on the day. We pass through the Midlands, which, to me, are a grey space of unknown places. Only the service stations have any degree of familiarity, with an architecture that has not worn well over the years and a cheesy spread of franchise food. These grey ribbons of concrete make a mockery of the idea that it is better to travel than to arrive. After a gallon of Costa’s coffee the arrival cannot come soon enough.
We pass a sign for Gloucester and I know that the back of the journey has been broken. In the past this city marked the northern edge of all I knew, and beyond must have been the Midlands – which is laughably incorrect. Apart from a few day trips in the height of summer and an annual Scout camp, my world revolved around the edges of northern Somerset. A small place, essentially invisible to the rest of the world except for straw chewing caricature and songs about cider and tractors. In an indication that at least part of me must be rooted in this place, my toes still curl in pain at the sight and sound of such things on TV; even when the village is elsewhere, the local idiot (a phenomenon that largely disappeared with the coming of the railways) seems to be cast from the south west.
Even for a person that had such a stay at home upbringing as I did – mortgage stress and low wages effectively prevented much in the way of holidays and travel – I was surprised at how many of the place names on the journey south rang bells. Exits from the motorways would point to places I had never been, but for which I had constructed some form of mental picture. As I approached Somerset that started to change. The place names were still as familiar, but what made them different was the memory of place that went with them. Places where I scared myself witless in a kayak, places where I fished for chub with limited success, but at least no scarring. And eventually I come to places that were everyday. Places where I bought books and underpants (and was embarrassed to find I had selected them in a range of sizes as well as colours). Places where people knew what I drank and knew what our weekend bread order was. Places where people ignored me because my clothes were unkempt, my shoes were unpolished and our car was rusty and old. Places where people swore before pronouncing my surname. The place where I grew up.
If this place really was home, then it was a small place indeed. We were staying in an old converted farm house on the outskirts of Shepton Mallet, a town less than half an hour from where I was born, and I recognised very little of it. The railway bridge on the way into town was familiar, as was the general location of a second hand shop much visited by my parents. I knew that there was a fish and chip shop that was much visited by my brother, and that Babycham, a sparkling perry and the first alcoholic drink to be advertised in British TV, had been invented and brewed there, but that was about the sum of it.
The farmhouse was down a side lane of surprising narrowness and abundant vegetation. Such road signs as were present were old and ambiguous; this was the kind of place my Mum would have called ‘the back lanes of…….’ the exact location of which would have only been known to her and her imagination. A tractor equipped with a hedge trimmer was flaying the living flesh from the tops of the leafy borders, producing that musty smell that only elder makes. I’m sure that in the background, above the mechanical din and the screams of broken buds, I could hear the ghosts of hedge layers past weeping. Maybe.
After a brief failing of confidence we arrived at the farmhouse. It was built, as they are in this part of the world, from stones the colour of pale butter. The mortar between the rough-cut stones was wonderfully imprecise, a patchwork of different blends and varieties that must catalogue a dozen renovations and restorations. Sticking out from the walls were hooks and wooden beams whose purposes had long since been forgotten. The buildings formed a square around an ornate garden, with three sides formed by converted barns and a forth being the original farmhouse. The roofs were spotted with lichen circles and bundles of moss, the products of clean air and abundant rain. Standing outside the square of buildings you could see that the land fell away in all but one direction. The only exception was the route taken by the road, which rose away behind the homestead. In all directions the overwhelming experience was green. Grass, woodlands, bushes, fields. For eyes used to the muted summer colours of Australia, such intensity was almost painful. Cones long rested from underuse were firing with machinegun regularity; for a colour associated with cool and shade it was remarkably bright. Even after the passage of 30 years it felt familiar.
But not everything was the same. Somewhere down in the valley below the buildings a buzzard was mewing like a cat. Long drawn out calls that carried clearly through an atmosphere thickened by the smell of the cut hedge and alive with the buzz of insects. The story of the buzzard is one of rare recovery. Hunted as vermin, killed by pesticides and then inadvertently starved when myxomatosis wiped out the rabbits on which it fed, the buzzard had reached its nadir when I was a kid. It was a rarity, a bird that was hanging on (just) in the western reaches of England where much of what passes for the wild could be found. Seeing one was unusual, and a likely highlight of the day. As I grew up, they grew back and are now the most common bird of prey in the UK – and of course I am now a rarity there myself. Some people now claim that the buzzard has reached plague levels, which probably shows how far we are from having any understanding of natural abundance. The bird kept calling and I kept listening, but it never became more than a speck on the horizon, a mote of wildness drifting over the fields and badly treated hedgerows.
Below the house were hazel bushes, heavy with nuts. My mother may have insisted that they were filberts – I never knew the difference and I have left it 35 years too late to ask.
A woodpecker – green – yaffles in the distance. Later in the week, it, or its progeny, terrorise the ants in the lawn near the house. With heavy beak stabs it pulls back chunks of grass to find its food. One step at a time I move closer, aware of how loud the clack of my camera shutter is. Eventually I push my luck too far and the bird takes flight, pauses on a wire fence and disappears over a hedge.
The whole scene that unfolds before me is strikingly familiar, but also noticeably strange. It feels like walking into a well-known room, maybe your bedroom, and finding the wallpaper is still the same, but all the windows are in different positions. You can see things that you know and think you understand, but sticking their heads out from deep cover are things that are different and unexpected. You know that it’s not memory that is failing, but reality that has changed. But that’s hard to accept. Memory fixes things in place, crystallises experience into certainty, and allows for no change. The world turns, but memory becomes the fixed point. It’s reassuring and simultaneously disconcerting.
At such times you need an anchor to hold you in place while your head spins.
You need family. You need friends. And luckily I had both. We mix wine with memories and add a dash of news. We share food at a long table. In hindsight it seems like a communion to real friends rather than imaginary ones, a reconnection of things shared and understood. In hindsight it seems that old friends are the best reason to come home.
For a very long time I used to take the same walk every evening. A constitutional that took me from my front door, through Stratton-on-the-Fosse, which was only ever called Stratton, and back over fields full of inquisitive cows to my front door. I suppose the whole walk took about an hour. Days of my life probably disappeared in that journey. I normally walked on my own. Now I was walking the path in reverse; starting in Stratton and heading for my old front door. And I was not alone. Two children and my best friend/wife came along too.
The village school now sat on the edge of my old pathway, and even that has changed from the last time I had seen it. I had returned a few years earlier, just in time to see my father (which sounds far too formal) before he died. Just before I became an adult orphan, which comes to most of us, but is none the less a strange place to find yourself. The top stone stile at the entrance to the Drang, a old pathway between two roads, and the stone steps below were just as polished as I remembered them – and I could not help but think of what my contribution had been to this sheen in a hard surface. The path itself was a little overgrown, with moss and other plants forcing their way through the surface. There was a handrail along the wall on the steepest section of the path that had never been there before. Maybe the people who still use, or know about, the path have become old and few and far between. Maybe it’s a through way that has more of a past than a present or a future. Maybe it’s path that has more importance in memory than recent use.
Maybe it’s just a path.
There is an extra window, high above the front door. The bay windows to the left hand of the door have been replaced. The patchwork of stones and mortar in the walls is still clear, as is the difference between the stonework between my house and the one to the left. Only it’s not my house anymore. If ever there was a time and place where circles collide and pathways intersect it’s here and now; standing outside the house in which I was born, telling my own children about what was behind each of the windows. My brother’s bedroom. The breakfast-room; where everything happened. The lounge; where nothing happened and the best furniture in the house stood unused. My parent’s bedroom; the room into which my mother would retreat for days on end, blinded by migraine or medical electricity. A house full of memories, some which I struggle to recall, and some I wish I could forget.
To my surprise the front door of the house is opened by the current owner, understandably concerned about the appearance of a family seeming to claim ownership of his property. To my ever-greater surprise he invites us inside. This is strange and unexpected. While the bones of the house remain the same, much has changed. The stairs, which used to twist through half a circle, have changed places, walls that were made of wood have been replaced by stone and brick and most of the rooms have changed name and role. Remarkably, in the back yard the two deep, square form porcelain sinks that we moved from inside the house to outside are still being used to grow flowers. From the backyard I looked up to see my old bedroom window, but it was not there, buried by renovation and extension. Maybe that was for the best. These are old oceans in which to swim. Hot and cold. Spring and summer. My birth unremembered, my mother’s death, two days after a first kiss. The embarrassment of unkempt corners, peeling wallpaper and pervasive damp. Before I leave I pass on the story of the ‘letter box’ by the door – a window the size and shape of a letterbox that opened to a small alcove where the mail was sorted. This is the story I was told. Who knows - it may even be true.
But despite the genuine welcome of the new owners, the experience becomes increasingly strange. The place is too familiar and too different. It’s a little like the feeling on waking and being unsure if what you recall is a memory or a dream; the evidence of your eyes conflicts with the sense of your own understanding.
I was glad to step outside, where the road curved in the way it always had and the old rail bridge was still in place with its heavy shape and grey stonewalls. It is strange to think of what has changed and what has remained the same.
Away from the village we head towards Wells and Glastonbury. Old towns that, at their heart at least, seem to have changed less than I expected. We drive over the Mendips, which was where I spent much of my time as a kid. Priddy Ponds with their easy perch and more elusive rudd. The paths are less worn than I recall and the weed beds extend closer to the banks. There must be less traffic and more growth. Kids stay at home, corralled by society that disapproves of their inactivity, but is too fearful to let them roam free. The changes wrought by nature seem less shocking than those brought about by changes in fashion or the capricious nature of fashion.
Priddy, with its splashing fish and bright bodied dragonflies, seems more like home than the house that has changed for the better. A small hawk, maybe a Merlin, flashes over the pool and on the horizon Long Barrows connect the ground to the sky. Here I do not feel like a guest. Here I feel at home.
Later in the week I pull bags from the back of a taxi and unlock my front door. Here I do not feel like a guest. Here I feel at home.
As obvious as it may seem, home is a word richer with meanings and ambiguity than its four letters would suggest. But what ever it means, I’m glad to be there.