Last week I spoke about the tendency of many, including myself, who discover a sense of belonging far from where they’re actually from. Such an experience of home is intense but also fleeting, a two-week trip or a series of later returns; or it lives on just as an immensely powerful memory.
But I was immediately reminded of those lucky few with the opposite experience, people who essentially spend their lives and find their meaning in the same place, and who have felt at home from the beginning.
No one that I know of has articulated this point of view better than the British writer Peter Ackroyd. Born in London, through his smaller or larger histories or novels London is as much a character in his books as any person. As he said in a recent interview:
“London has been my constant companion all my life. It’s been the source of whatever inspiration I possess, and it’s been the landscape of whatever imagination I have as long as I’ve lived; so for me it is the natural and inevitable subject, it is the sun in my sky, and I hope and trust that I will spend the rest of my life in London.”
I have to admit that I’m slightly jealous of him here, and I wonder if anyone else out there is, too, to have been able to live with and live through a place so thoroughly, from the beginning. I’ve never felt this way about anywhere in America; whether Ohio or Georgia, Southern California or Brooklyn, none of them have ever really seeped into what I was writing. Rather, they’ve always been the equivalent of the roadside diner (or nowadays just a Panera): a place to stop and concentrate on what I’m really doing, which is usually writing about people and places far away.
While I thought for many years that I might try something like what Faulkner or Stephen King have done, putting some version of their fictional Maine or Mississippi on the map, what’s emerged instead are voices from the long past; and indeed the only time place has ever been something other than a distraction has been in feeling a sense of deep history while visiting Britain: moments in London, in Salisbury, in Cornwall or the Lakes, or most of all in Orkney.
It could simply be a matter of having always been interested in a history much older than (the European part of) my own country. There has always been a pull for things ancient or medieval, and it was hard not to be seduced, at seventeen, by the closing moments of this documentary on T. S. Eliot; yet even in my late teens my mind completely ignored the imagery of the Mississippi River and the Massachusetts coast, instead latching onto rural England, stone walls, old churches, and deep greens and browns:
I’ve no idea why such imagery (helped along by Eliot’s voice, and some late Beethoven) caught me as a young man, or why it still persists today. I’ve no idea why, more often than not, I feel most at home at some restaurant counter, reading (or writing) poetry which prompts a deep attachment to ideas of time and memory. I’m as interested in how life is lived just as much (if not more) as the art which the life produces, and these are just endless, answerless questions of origins, continuity, and how meaning finds it way in a million guises.