We are in the throes of throwing our entire lives up in the air and letting the pieces land where they will…OK, a bit dramatic, but we are preparing to leave the place that has been home for the last thirty-odd years, in which we’ve reared our two kids, three cats, any number of goldfish and our own special colony of white ants. Not to mention the possums and those ugly bush turkeys, who clearly find it – as we did – a nice comfortable family home. And this business of throwing is proving more challenging than we imagined.
Why should it? We’ve moved many times before, and it’s been good for us. What’s not to like about landing in places and jobs among people that shake up your sense the world? And it’s fun to hunt around for furniture, tizzy each new place up with a lick of paint and a splash of cushion covers, figure out where the shops/pubs/coffees are to be found and as a collateral bonus, to meet new people. But is there a limit? Do we humans have a certain number of dwellings in us? If so, what’s the magic number? Let’s see:
My first home was a tiny mews flat behind Regents Park where, if this picture is to be believed, my companions were the statues that usually adorn the Nash terraces. Clearly that was what passed for childcare in the 1940’s! After that, a flat above a shop on the other side of the park – 56a Park Road – was where we lived until I was sixteen. Then we moved to The Gun, a 400-year old pub on the Isle of Dogs. It’s now a fabulous gastropub, but back in the 60’s it was a scruffy little local in the middle of a working dock awaiting the trendiness that would not arrive for another thirty years. We couldn’t wait that long and after one year the parents, who were far too nice and trusting to run a pub, were evicted, and we fled to the welcoming arms of our lovely auntie in the ‘burbs, until they found another place.
After that was a lively college residence in Strawberry Hill, and then to a number of dodgy student dwellings in Twickenham. Next was a tiny summer sublet on 41st and Lexington NYC, that we (I’d met Bob by then) shared with about 27 of our closest friends, before we moved to Nassau, in the Bahamas. Living above Dipper Dan’s 99 flavours of ice cream was an exotic experience for us, reared as we were in a mono-confectionary vanilla Britain, that wasn’t offering hot fudge or bubble gum flavoured anything, let alone ice cream. After that we moved to a cute little flat underneath the big house owned by a cult of white-toothed American Christians. They didn’t bother trying to convert us and would have had even less success with their other tenant, a generous, troubled ex Vietnam medivac pilot, who did not so much a runner, as a flyer, cramming everything that would fit into his crop duster one dark night and taking off, hoping the nasty men who wanted money from him wouldn’t follow.
Then it was back to London and a bedsit at World’s End – the downmarket part of Kings Road Chelsea – until we got it together to buy a wee terraced house in Mortlake that we probably shouldn’t have sold for 16,000 pounds. Oops! But still young (and restless) we thought we’d try Australia, where the Victorian Education Department gave us a house on top of Wombat Hill in Daylesford, complete with a chook shed and a view for fifty miles. Three years later, in search of a place where it didn’t rain quite so much, we took our two week-old baby (!) to a flat in Zillmere in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. Finally we bought a timber Queenslander near Rosalie in the inner west… and that’s the one we’re about to leave. We were 32 and 33 last time we moved, and what a difference that makes, because now as I write out the inventory of all the moves, I’m starting to understand why I’ve lost the taste for it.
You’d think we’d be used to it, because we’ve done it so often, and we’ve loved the adventure. But as with most of life’s pleasures there is a trade off, and with every carefree move, we lose part of what makes for permanence and a sense of belonging. If you can make a life wherever you go, does home have any meaning at all? This might seem like more of the usual self-indulgent drivel for which I beg your indulgence every couple of weeks, but it actually points to a much bigger social and emotional phenomenon. The world has opened up and offered such freedom to ping around the world. Work or adventure might send you to Hong Kong or Dubai at the drop of a hat – hopefully not of an exchange rate – and moving from Melbourne to Sydney or Los Angeles to Boston is commonplace. So gathering the accoutrements of a settled life is a skill many of us have acquired – house/school/neighbours/book group – everyone has their own list of essentials, and it might be a useful exercise to compile your own. But here’s the problem. Once you begin to quantify and calculate what you think you need for a happy life, you may discover that actually, these things are incalculable. I defy you to compile an inventory of the smells and the air and the sounds and sights that give that immediate sense of being in the right place. It’s a deep familiarity of memory and people built up over years, and nothing to do with choosing a suburb or a school. Belonging is chosen for you before you are aware that that is what you are seeking.
It might be very Zen to flit from place to place gathering few possessions and commitments and discarding them easily, after all that’s what the birds do. They rebuild every year but sensibly they stick to a natural colour palette so they won’t be stuck with that burnt orange throw that is so last year! But as well as being a matter of personal choice, surely this is a culture – altering phenomenon. It’s the people and families and dare I say the generations who spend long years and make a wholehearted commitment to their place that are the glue of community. And those of us that roam freely actually want our cake (just how Grandma made it) having already eaten it! We want the things we leave behind to be the same, to give us that frisson of familiarity when we drop by our old haunts. Well someone has to stay there to keep it all going! And the casualties of a movable global population – the stability and comfort of institutions, once considered uncool and old-fashioned – might already be too far-gone for resuscitation.
If there is one thing all this moving around has taught us, you can never go back. You can stand outside the old school or the house where you grew up, but that’s all it is – a building. You will never again be that person who felt those feelings in those places. But something in us urges us to try. Randolph Stowe – acclaimed West Australian novelist – was so forcibly struck by some kind of race memory felt in the East Anglia that his forbears had left five generations earlier, that he moved back, and indeed died there. Not to go all existential on you, I have to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a point when he wrote the wonderful words that closed the book on Jay Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
NB: I am fully aware that this is a reflection from the luxurious perspective of a first world middle class existence. The families whose search for a better life is coming to such a tragic end on the shores of Lampedusa, or Christmas Island might wonder what on earth I’m going on about!
Pictures courtesy of someone with a Brownie camera and Google images