The Importance of Here

(July 2006)
Published in Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age

On a rainy Glasgow night in 1995, I took shelter in a city church. After the service, I stayed, drinking horribly strong tea. Recognising my Australian accent, a burly man hurried over. “I was oot there in Australia,” he shouted down at me, “Ten quid it cost. Too hot oot there. Full of flies. And I couldne stand that migrant hostel. Saved me money to get back quick smart.” Bafflingly, he then added: “Best three years of me life. The making of me.” In several years in Scotland, I was to meet many of these ‘returnees’, many of them expressing the same sort of ambivalence about the country they had emigrated to and found wanting. In the thirty years following World War Two, well over one million British people paid ten pounds to emigrate to Australia on the Assisted Passage Scheme. A quarter of them returned.

Fifteen years ago, I moved to Britain. It cost significantly more than ten pounds, and wasn’t as active a decision as that phrase implies. More a vague ‘yes’ to whatever opportunities turned up. In those days I was an actor in Western Australia, beginning to teeter into playwriting, with a few productions under my belt. One night I had a phone call from England—Nottingham to be precise—and a producer I’d worked with echoed down the line. Remember how the phone used to echo? An actress had pulled out of a project, did I want to come to Northern Ireland? Of course I did. I was desperate to get to the UK, schooled as I was on Enid Blighton, Jane Austen, and a whole stack of bad boarding school books. When I arrived, it was Guy Fawkes—cold, damp, miserable. I had a gum leaf with me in my bag.

The deep loneliness of this cold, new place ploughed away at me. Expecting commonality—after all, the language was the same, the food, television and books familiar—I was thrown by my own sense of ‘otherness’, and of disconnection from the landscape. In the countryside, I felt the sky to be too low, the hills too close. Working with a touring theatre company meant I had no means of making friends outside of the rather small, rabid company of actors. All that sustained me was my gum leaf, a poster of Cottlesloe Beach and, I’m ashamed to admit, daily viewings of Neighbours. At my most homesick I upped the dose, including Home and Away in my daily intake. In performance-free weeks, I caught trains and buses to places I marked with pin-pricks on a map, trying to find a piece of landscape I could breathe in. In Welsh, the word is hiraeth. Deeper than homesickness, it translates roughly as an intense longing for place, a desire for home which goes far beyond the desire for family or recognisable rituals. It is the pain of physical dislocation, of being, quite simply, in the wrong landscape.

By the time I met my husband and moved with him to Scotland, I’d settled, become used to the cold, to the humour. I had a National Insurance number and understood its purpose; could navigate my way about the country with relative ease. The landscape of England still felt odd and small, but the Scottish landscape had echoes of my own childhood environs. Lakes, hills, blue-green light, a high sky. The woods, as well as the mountains, wooed me. In Scotland, as someone clearly ‘other’, I found myself to have a certain freedom, the ability to reinvent. As Philip Larkin said in his poem The Importance of Elsewhere: “Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech/Insisting so on difference, made me welcome” I’m not the first person to find the pleasure of reinvention in a new place; it’s a common upside of migration. In Scotland, I became known as a novelist; I built a life rich with friends, music, extended family and weekend mountain hikes. It would be wrong to suggest that the place didn’t—doesn’t—have a strong hold on me. Yet, still, the light felt wrong. Although my Welsh father-in-law insists that only the Welsh can feel hiraeth, the longing for the flat, bright sky of Australia was physical, not connected to my desire for Vegemite, or for my mum.

Over a decade ago, I was in a French village with the man who later became my husband. It was the first time I had seen him in France, and I was surprised by his effusiveness, the sudden emergence of an arm-waving, voice-raising version of the quietly-spoken man I had fallen in love with. Even with my limited French, I could see that he was different there, that the self he presented in Britain was being left behind. Initially, I thought this was to do with language, the ability to be so immersed in another language inevitably producing a different quality of speech, and therefore of thought. Now, though, I suspect it has as much to do with place—light, space, the contours of the earth—as with language. Now, I observe him having a different part of himself opened by being in Australia. He, in fact, is discovering the pleasures of ‘Elsewhere.’

Perhaps hiraeth is simply to do with childhood, the landscapes which hold our earliest memories. In the book, Ten Pound Poms: Australia’s Invisible Migrants, by James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson, hundreds of British migrants speak of their adjustment to the new country. Margaret Scott, who left Britain for Tasmania in 1959, speaks of being disconcerted by the unfamiliar landscape. She says “I didn’t find it beautiful. I found it threatening. … the misery of the loss of the known, not of network and ritual but of familiar places and the sense of possession that familiarity bestows….” Later, she describes herself as being “unhappy that I couldn’t, without resorting to books, open the landscape for my children as my mother had opened Gloucestershire for me.”

For me, the landscape of my childhood was not opened by my mother, or my father. As the youngest child of five, with a divorced, shift-working mother, there was never going to be a lot of time for jolly nature walks. The landscape of my childhood was stumbled upon. If read at all, it was done so accidentally, but with a sublime freedom. My own children were born in England, not Scotland, with a Welsh father. I needed them to have—I thought—a childhood which felt like mine. Yet when I returned to Australia, I found myself full of longing, this time for the landscape I’d left behind. After more than a decade away, the light seemed too bright, the trees too dark. In the first two years, I travelled back to Britain five times, unsettling me further. There, the dull light seemed kinder. The bureaucratic tangles, which had enraged me for so long, now appeared sensible. Simply familiar, actually, whereas the Australian systems had changed, and I was the foreigner muddling along, with no idea of how to organise health care, car registration, my children’s immunisation. I experienced the unsettling discomfort of the returnee—the expectation that all will be the same, when it is not.

Before I left Britain, I’d stumbled across the story of Jessie Hunt Hickman, a woman who had been a rodeo rider, and who became a bushranger, hiding out in a cave at the back of Nullo Mountain. As the daughter of a rodeo rider, the story tugged me, and I began to work on a novel inspired by this woman. As I was writing, though, a second voice emerged, of a ten pound pom grappling with the new landscape, and with her connection to Hickman. In early, adandoned, drafts of the manuscript—my first novel written in Australia—there are long threads that rage at the Australian landscape. Without hiraeth as inspiration, I found myself casting about, furious. Australia had for so long been my muse, and I resented the longing itself: with friends, family and work in Britain, in many ways it would have been easier to stay. It was the desire for the particular shade of rock, of heavy night air, which pulled me back. When I first came back ‘home’ I walked in the Blue Mountains and was startled to find myself wishing for moss, bluebells, grazed hills. It was only when I moved back to the Hawkesbury River—less than fifty miles from the town I grew up in—that the rock, and the light, felt right.

As for my children, they have a childhood utterly unlike mine. Recently, on a woodland walk in mid-Wales, we spent a cold spring afternoon building fairy dens. After they’d propped dead wood against the side of a tree and strung it with bracken, my children set to discussing what sort of animals might like to live in their little hut. “Squirrels and possums,” my son decided. “This isn’t Australia,” his sister insisted, “we can only have squirrels.” He thought for a moment, than declared: “This is an Australian and British den. You can be both. Like us.”

During dinner with a friend, the Northumbrian poet Katrina Porteous, I bemoaned my obsession with place, my sense of being owned by certain landscapes. Surely, I complained, normal people live wherever their hats are, without waking in the night, weeping for a particular smell. Porteous insisted—as she does in her work—that longing for home is the unacknowledged human need. “More primal,” she said, “than romantic love.” Half a bottle of wine later, she added “More important, too.” Indeed, she has twice ended romantic relationships because of place—one with an American, and one with a Cambridge resident. Of the Cambridge man, she says “it just couldn’t work. I couldn’t live there, with all that waterlogged flat land, and he couldn’t live here, by the sea.”

Increasingly, we live lives of movement; emigration is a small matter, at least in terms of practicalities. We find lovers who belong to other places, we move to be with them, or they with us. Careers blossom, and invite permanent travel. Perhaps, though, Porteous is right to imply that place, and our connection to it, matters more than we can dare admit. In constantly shifting town, state, and continent—in endlessly seeking the new—we lose not just the familiar, but also the sense of physical roots.

In August last year, the Australian Visa Bureau issued a press-release promoting a recruitment program for ‘skilled labour.’ The press release was headed “Is the Ten Pound Pom Back? Almost.” Jim Hammerton, one of the authors of Ten Pound Poms, speaking of the new program said: “The new generation of migrants will still be lured by images of a sunny paradise, and like their predecessors they will need to realise that Australia is not just like ‘Britain in the sun’. In subtle but powerful ways Australia will be profoundly strange: all the smells and tastes will seem ‘wrong’; the Australians speak a different ‘English’; they live and work in different ways… perhaps most importantly, the new British immigrants will face the universal problems of all migrants: family dislocation and homesickness. Twenty-five per cent of Ten Pound Poms returned to live in Britain, mostly because of a desperate longing for family and friends or a nostalgic sense of ‘home’.”

Absence of home—the being cut loose—creates a kind of freedom. Like adolescents escaping from the parental abode, we become able to test out new identities, to find other selves lurking within. Yet without rediscovering home, I suspect that we are unable to truly grow up. Home implies not just rest and ease, but also work and commitment. Larkin ends The Importance of Elsewhere: “These are my customs and establishments/ It would be much more serious to refuse./Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” The trick, of course, is to recognise Elsewhere for what it is, and—perhaps harder—to know Here, or home, when we find it.