Mr N has gone back to Australia for ten weeks. It might seem a long time, but it’s his last stint away on this project and he’s already excited about all the things we can do when he’s home for good. We’re playing a Whatsapp game, taking turns to build a list and so far we’re up to number 26. Some of these things are quite mundane, like ‘go to see Gran’ (he hasn’t seen her since before he moved to Houston, now over three years ago); some are things he/we used to do, like brewing beer, orienteering, and walking up hills; some are plans we’ve long harboured, like cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats or getting the Eurostar to Paris; you get the idea, I’m sure. Lots involve other people, friends and family. They’re not all local or even UK based, but there’s definitely a home theme. When you’re away, it does focus your mind on what you can’t have.
I’m sure this applies to most people. I love Britain, and more specifically England, not because I believe it’s the best place in the world but because I understand it, I slot in and it’s mine. When you go somewhere new, you see it with alien eyes, without this rooted context. While living in Houston, I wrote a couple of these blogs on the subject of the weird things about America that Americans don’t see (bloody massive flags everywhere, for one thing). I could’ve written about 15 more blogs on this subject alone. For me, perhaps the weirdest things about the US were: a) the irony of the Communist-feeling aura around the overt patriotism (school kids chanting daily allegiance to the flag, grown adults singing the Star-Spangled Banner with genuinely proud fists on hearts at any opportunity) and the rigidly conventional, collective teen dating rituals around Homecoming balls, football games and horror movies in a country in which being an actual commie is an anathema, and the term ‘socialist’ is an insult; and b) the depth to which religion permeates society: not just that “I’m blessed” is the usual and undeniably earnest reply to the question “how are you?” even from the homeless that I used to serve breakfast and lunch to who so clearly weren’t favoured or fortunate, nor just in the simple fact that I didn’t meet a single American who didn’t believe in god, but also in the sorrowful reaction of those to whom I ever did admit my atheism; there are plenty of religious people in the UK, but they’re never surprised to meet someone who isn’t. I don’t pretend to understand this, but I can see that these are ingrained cultural behaviours and beliefs which provide comfort and grounding and connection to something very deep.
So, there, in Texas, I missed, particularly, the feeling of home which, now here, in England, is succour to the soul, but it’s not easy to pinpoint. The weather’s often shit, but I share the obsession with it and like the sense of ‘what the hell, no-one’s to blame’ that its uncertainty brings, both to what you’re going to do with your day and, in a bigger sense, to one’s outlook on life; we Brits are good at shrugging our shoulders and accepting that it’s raining so we’re going to get wet. That doesn’t sound so great, I know, but when we do get a perfect day (and we do!), we don’t half make the most of it: there’s nowt like camping in Derbyshire (no.10 on our list) by a river when the sun shines till ten at night. It’s not quite the same as taking pleasure from banging your head against the wall just to enjoy not having pain when you stop, but you get the gist.
This is, of course, about making the most of it. And I don’t mean just the weather. I did indeed pine for home at times, but mainly I didn’t and another year or two in the States would’ve been fabulous. Now I often dream of being there, with the friends I made, enjoying the lifestyle, the bigness, the easy charm of the people, and more. Mr N, while undoubtedly missing us, appreciates the idyll that is Perth in full Summer. And I’d jump at the chance to do it again (who wouldn’t?).
But, and it’s a big but, the UK belongs to me and us, and America doesn’t. It’s a part of us that is more than just fond memories and fun and adventure; it’s roots and it’s culture and it’s temperament and it’s nurture, and it’s memories that are not all fond. So here, I’m no fan of Farage and his ilk, but I get why some people are. Not only can I vote, but I comprehend the issues I’m voting on. I might not actually be so sure who I want to vote for, yet, but I know why I’m not so sure. I can engage with the debate, have an opinion that’s valid, agree or disagree, understand more than just the headlines, and maybe even make a tiny little bit of difference. It’s my place to do so and it’s the only place I can do it. That feeling then, I suppose, is about ownership and belonging, and it sort of doesn’t matter whether I actually prefer it here or not. Maybe it takes more than two years away, or maybe, for me, it would never change, I don’t know.
I guess, though, that’s our number 27 sorted: walk down the road together in May to Green Lane polling station to vote in the General Election.