Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Leaving Home

"Home is not a harbour
Home is where it hurts" - Camille

"There are things you just can't do in life. You can't beat the phone company, you can't make a waiter see you until he's ready to see you, and you can't go home again." - Bill Bryson

I don't want to blow my trumpet, but I can personally attest to these universal wisdoms of Bill Bryson's being true. I used to waitress in a burger restaurant to fund my summers in Edinburgh as a student (and as Sandra Bullock says, once a waitress, always a waitress), so I know something about that. I had the good fortune to share my toils with a motley crew of carefree antipodeans, one of whom, upon being summoned by a click of the fingers from an impatient member of the public, would issue forth in a sardonic South African grunt such vulgarities as "Hey pal, it takes more than two fingers to make me come." Such was my crude initiation into the hospitality industry.

I did also try to cheat the phone company, once, but they got me in the end. A word of advice to the fellow cosmopolitan Eurotraveller: don't take out a two-year mobile phone contract then leave the country after just twelve weeks, closing all your bank accounts and hoping they won't bother chasing you up. They will hunt you down, no matter what far flung corner of the earth you retreat to. Several hundred euros, an emergency BACS transfer from RBS headquarters in Portree, and some severe correspondence from a German lawyer's office later, and I was liberated, but I will not be repeating the experience.

And the bit about going home, well, anyone who's ever left the place they grew up in will know that that's true. Not having read much of Mr Bryson, I can't say with any certainty what he means by this, but I interpret it to mean something along these lines: During the early years, when your home is establishing itself as such and taking its deep-rooted place in your subconscious, you're probably too young to realise and appreciate the value of this. And rightly so. When you get a bit older, though, old enough to assess consciously your surroundings, you're desperate to escape the wretched place with its stagnation, constrictions and general lack of excitement. Finally, you make the break and find yourself out on the open road, with your life ahead of you in another place, somewhere exciting, somewhere your parents aren't (because you're going to do everything differently, and you won't end up like them) but the pay-off is that you can never return to those uncomplicated, growing-up-at-home years, those days when you only had one home and didn't ever question it.


I recently went home for the weekend - home-home, to Carrick. I have to confess that I was in such dire need of repatriation and yet my purse was so bare that I had to call upon the ever bountiful reserves of the Bank of Mum and Dad. My pitiful publishing salary can only ever cope with a couple of trips home per year (and one's reserved for Christmas), so they are far less frequent for me than for my colleagues whose families live in Hampshire, Surrey or or elsewhere in middle-class middle-England. 

I love going home. I take such innocent pleasure and delight in small, familiar things. Radio 2 on in the car on the long, scenic drive (though if I come after work it's usually dark by the time we've left Glasgow). The view from my window in the morning - a scaffolded ruin, a sea loch and a towering mountain. The badly tarmacked roads strewn with mussel shells discarded by sea birds. The absolute silence. The cosily glowing fires at the hearths of friends and neighbours where there's always a dram and a blether for those that want it. But on this trip, I realised with horror that I've become one of those ghastly tourist types who stick out a mile in their raw appreciation of the rural dwelling. They live in a horrid city, they don't have to freeze bread and milk, and they marvel at the scenery and the sight of a star or two. I love all of this, but I'd almost forgotten that there were times not so long ago when I passionately hated it.


At seventeen I wasn't daunted about moving out because, like most, I'd been desperate to go for so long. When I moved to Edinburgh, I enthusiastically went about making the city my new home. I'd left the west of Scotland backwater where I'd spent most of my childhood and was studying in a city. I was proud that I'd made it further afield than Glasgow - hell, I could have gone all the way to Exeter if I hadn't had a sudden, last-minute change of heart about removing myself as far as possible from the family seat just because I could. Others might say it doesn't really matter where you go to uni, you'll have such a great time that there'll always be a fondness in your heart for that place, but I don't think that's true. Edinburgh, with its abundance of smoke-blackened architecture, culture, literature - and probably several other tures - was exactly the right choice. I fell in love with it, and now it has consummately spoiled me for other cities. It was a strange experience at first, but all in all I was happy with the "two-homes" scenario - home in Edinburgh, and home-home in Carrick. Each of them had a different and equally worthy share of my attention. 

Now, though, when I let slip and accidentally call London "home" (as in where I currently reside rather than where the heart is), I double-take. I used to do that in Edinburgh too, but what gets to me now is the fact that I have unwittingly allowed home-home to become replaced with somewhere like London, to which I would never consciously concede that accolade. I've given this city enough of a chance by now, yet it still feels to me like one great big horrible party to which I wasn't ever invited. And the music's crap, there's nowhere to sit, and I've missed the last bus home. It makes me sad because I realise that the time when I lived full time at home-home has slipped inexorably away, and I haven't yet managed to find a permanent alternative.


At home-home this visit, it hit me with a thud that these precious weekends of isolation serve only as idyllic, snapshot breaks from the drudgery of city life, without which the remote and rural lifestyle wouldn't be half so appealing. My romantic over-appreciation of the scenery, my inability to remember how frustrating it was to live a good hour's drive away from civilisation, my cooing over lopsided new lambs at the farm, the fact that all that is no longer run of the mill for me, are all little vignettes, indicators that I no longer belong there. Though it's questionable whether I ever really did. Apart from anything else, the kids I grew up with at home-home have a born-and-bred sense of belonging which I will never attain, thanks to my stubbornly persistent home counties accent, and to being half English (which in Scotland equates to being completely English). I spoke to a stranger in the pub at home-home, who asked if I was English, and my automatic answer horrified me. "Yes," I said, then realised what I done, and revised it to "well, half and half." Then: "In fact, I don't really consider myself English." But the damage was already done. Ironically, my friends in England will testify to the fact that I trumpet about my 'Scottish roots' like a fanfare on a regular basis, but up there, back at home-home, I'm not one of the natives, however much I'd like to think I am, and that's a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. However much my childhood has shaped me and instilled in me an intrinsic love of the highland countryside, an inexplicable aversion to the southeast and an appreciation of ceilidhs, haggis and west coast colloquialisms, the bold, harsh truth is that I never really found my people at home-home (though my parents' people are some of the best around, and not only because they read my blog, through force or otherwise!). No, my people were to be found in other places in the world: one or two at big school, quite a lot in Edinburgh, some more in Germany, even a few down south.

It struck me, though, as we drove past Lettermay on our way to Glasgow from where I would catch the dreaded London train back to real life (when did life get so grey?), as Louis Armstrong growled dolefully over the car's radio speakers and I mentally said goodbye to the Goil for another half a year, that your home only really becomes home-home once you've left. The place where you grew up; the site of childhood memories painful or cherished; teenage battles with parents, brothers, sisters; the place you longed to get out of. The mythical, perfect, end-of-the-rainbow place that only really exists in your memories, that dances just in front of you as soon as you start to plan your journey, then mysteriously disappears the moment you set down your suitcase and you remember it's not a magical land but still just a rural outpost where people actually live. You have to want to leave that place for good, have to go out into the world and surround yourself with other things, in order ever to come back and truly love your home-home. The essence of home is in the leaving of it, and you can only really feel like you belong (or want to belong, which I like to think is the same thing) once you no longer live there. Perhaps Bill should think about rephrasing his words of wisdom: you have to leave home in order to be able to go home.