Homesickness

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

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This was a bit of graffiti I spotted just before moving to Missoula around the corner from my house in London. If you had to write one sentence to sum things up, this is a pretty good one.

I am editing a manuscript for Verso Books by the British writer, activist and journalist George Monbiot. When I edit, I like to listen to Classical Music. Anything with words distracts me. But today a radio programme came on NPR called ‘Wednesday Freeforms’. The DJ had an English accent and his voice gripped me. I had to stop working and listen. His choice of music—everything from 80s rave to Bjork to the Kinks to the Pet Shop Boys—whirled me back to my life in London. To the parties, the dirty streets, the music, the energy, the rain, the understatement. An image of Elephant and Castle sprung up strangely in my mind and even that brought on a strange ennui. Elephant and Castle! This brutal concrete roundabout is so ugly and non-user-friendly, that I have never held any kind of affection for it. Until now.

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E and I walked past this every time we went to her ballet rehearsal the last summer before we moved to Missoula. Why do I like this kind of landscape? What do I see in this kind of ugliness?

The DJ, Howard Kingston, mentioned he had just heard from his daughter in London. Apparently she was on a bus. “Lucky her,” I thought. But why? I don’t know why as I embark on this second year in Missoula that my love, nostalgia, affection for London is washing over me to such an extent. It is not that London is a better place to live than Missoula. It isn’t. Nor is it that I was born and bred there. I wasn’t. But there is something profound about making somewhere your home. And London is where I created a life. I had moved from Canada as a very innocent and wide-eyed colonial. Even though my mother had the vestiges of a plummy sort of British accent, I barely understood anyone.

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Victoria Park in the Autumn: even the leaves form an orderly queue before dropping!

I struggled when I got to London in 1990. I had very little money, no job, and no friends. I did have a room at the top of a stone mansion across the street from Kew Gardens for which I paid £20 a week (the cost of five lattes on Broadway Market today). This house was owned by the impossibly named Sir Arthur and Lady Rachel Drew. Lady Rachel was lovely: grey hair in a bun, always rushing off somewhere or doing her Alexander technique exercises or grinding Quinoa seeds before anyone else had ever heard of it (she was vegetarian). I adored her. Sir Arthur was something from a film: huge grey eyebrows like massive caterpillars and an accent like Rowley Birkin QC played by Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show. He was really quite sleazy which might be the contents of a story one day. They were both in their late seventies and rented me the smallest of their rental rooms (there were two others rented out to gay actors). I had hot water for an hour in the morning and no heating. I got chilblains and had to borrow blankets from a woman I worked with at my very first job in London: designing Mary Berry cookbooks.

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Columbia Road. That’s all I need to say.

I guess, creating a life gives that life more meaning. If I had been born in London, as my husband J was, I don’t think I would have such affection for it. When I walk into my front door in East London, I get a feeling of having worked for every darned brick of that house. A sense of gratitude that over time London was so good to me. The first years were so lonely and difficult. I often cried. I wrote letters to friends back home. But I liked the men and had no trouble finding lovely British boys to have dinner with. I realised quickly that I preferred British boys to Canadian ones. The accents, the reserve outside the bedroom, and the sense of humour went a long way.

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And there’s always the British seaside.

Here I am in Missoula with my London-born husband and daughter. J still has no desire to return to London. My daughter E said two days ago that she would like to be back there ‘tomorrow’. You wouldn’t know she was homesick. In fact I don’t think she is. She is so in the moment and the moments here are wonderful. She loves her friends. She likes the life. She has truly blossomed in Missoula.

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With its funfairs

It is not a good feeling being pulled between two places. Like being in love with two people, it can drive you crazy. And my homesickness (for want of a better word) for London is perhaps a trick of memory and distance. Perhaps what I am feeling nostalgic for (the Elephant and Castle roundabout for heaven’s sake!) is more about what London and her streets and smells and buildings represent than what they really are. London represents for me a life of freedom away from my family and any familiarity. A sense of total and utter independence. A sense of horizons so open, I could have walked anywhere and done anything.

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And the totally inhospitable shingle beaches.

I am a quarter of a century older than I was when I first moved to the UK, so of course I don’t feel the same levels of freedom as I did then. I am married, I have a child, I have an obviously diminishing number of ‘good’ years ahead of me. Yet, I feel London is the place I want to be as I get older. Perhaps the place one calls “home” doesn’t stem from anything as rational and reasonable as where one is born. Perhaps the ties that bind us are truly mysterious and unfathomable. Maybe being in London is just another reminder of this mystery. And maybe that’s why its call is so persistent.

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And the reminders to take your pills.

Addendum 1: The DJ who took me away from my work, as if reading this post, put on Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’. Is there another song that is so very London at its crazy, lyricial , humourous, odd and wonderful best? If he had put on ‘Waterloo Sunset’ I would have been weeping into my laptop.

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E and one of her friends reading the local rags on the way to ballet.

 Friday, September 18, 2015

Addendum 2: Today as I was posting this entry on my blog, another DJ at NPR, my friend Mike Steinberg, actually did put on ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by total coincidence. I emailed him to say I had just written that if I were to hear that song, I might just burst into tears. And he replied: “That was Ray Davies’ fault, not mine. Sister Ray takes over my show whenever he pleases.” Now that’s what I call a radio show and it’s only in Missoula. This illustrates exactly the dilemma to stay or go….

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