“England to me is my mother tongue / And what I did when I was young.“
“…J’ai souvent eu l’occasion de répondre, à ceux qui me posaient des questions sur mon origine, que mon pays c’est d’abord et avant tout l’enfance, puis, en second lieu, ma langue.“
Birmingham, 3rd January 2009
Dear Everyone I’ve Ever Met,
On New Year’s Eve, I was back in Oxford. Stepping off the train into the cold grey afternoon was like breathing a sigh of relief. Everything was once again familiar. The Business School’s copper ziggurat , the low forest of bicycles arrayed outside the station (none of which seem to have moved since I left), the signs on the front of the buses lead towards familiar places… Abingdon, Wheatley, Temple Cowley.
Avoiding the streaming traffic and noise of Frideswide Square, I slipped through the churchyard of St Thomas the Martyr, with its gravestones and 12th century priest’s door, and turned into my old street. Nothing’s changed much in three months, of course.
That night we played old-time jazz in the village pub in Cassington, and saw in 2009 with a New Orleans-style rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The pub had good ales on tap, the village was built of Cotswold stone. The local accents burred westwards as the night went on. Strangely, it felt like I was home.
Although, at the same time, I am not “home” at all. I’m a New Zealander. The place where I put my feet is an obscure south-east corner of the Hauraki Gulf, with its particular configuration of water, tides, rocks and islands. NZ writer Emma Hart, blogging this weekend at Public Address, talked about her own turanga waewae – the highway south of Christchurch that is the “back-bone of my childhood” :
…it’s how a landscape should be. That’s where I feel I stand strong, with the sun on my face, the sea on my right hand, and the mountains on my left.
Our emotions and memories are so often bound up in landscape: places where significant things happened, places linked to people we love, or places where we return to gain strength. But our memories of those places are twisted.
As we remould our memories, adding new layers of meaning, it seems we quickly reach a point at which our image of a place no longer resembles its reality. What we are left with is language: words that attempt to evoke the importance of certain times and places.
Last year in May, I returned to wander around my old school, a place where so much growing up took place. Suddenly, it seemed the school was strangely small, that it couldn’t live up to the significance I’d given it through repeated exercise of memory.
There’s a sense now of being burdened by the clutter of places that make up a personal history. Like a refrigerator covered with so many postcards that you can’t tell its a fridge any more. There’s pictures of dining tables in Basel, a view of Lake Taupo from my grandfather’s house, a snapshot of desert in Arizona, a place near Queenstown called Paradise, snow-covered ridges in the Vosges, cloisters in Oxford.
Is there a point at which our spiritual scrapbook gets too full? Is it possible to cherish all these places and yet still keep adding more pivot points to your life? Can we stretch our roots too far?
In just over two weeks, I leave the UK to live in France. Once again uprooted, pushing onwards into a new place. It’s exciting. But at the same time, there is a little voice asking if it is time to settle down. I’ve still got a whole bunch of old postcards to sort out. At the same time, I’m still writing new ones.
Hope everything is going well in your parts of the world!
Lots of love from,
(Sorry, if this post comes across as self-regarding waffle, that’s because it probably is.)