On a pale English winter’s morning, a few weeks ago, I was walking along the River Thames from my hotel to the smug, prosperous town of Marlow. The sky was its habitual grey, as opaque and formidable as the side of a battleship and somewhere behind this wall, only vaguely visible, was a low hanging sun, too weak to make shadows. It cast the entire landscape in a strange cool light. There was the familiar sheiks of wild fowl shattering the stillness in the fields and the lazy progress of the River as it heads down to London and out to the North Sea. I was trying reach a state of boredom, that elusive goal in this period of my life, and I thought this environment might help me achieve it through its familiarity and omnipresence during my youth. I planned to do familiar things in this small town, visit the newsagents and pharmacies, look through the thrift stores and, absurdly perhaps, buy an old fashioned scone to eat on the edge of the River.
I had some lines of a poem on my mind by T.S. Eliot that I had acquired through a novel I’d liked years ago “We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.” These words, or approximations to them, were stalking me on the walk, a little out of reach in my memory and they were not fully formed until I was home in New York and had Google to help.
They are pretty well known, but new to me was that Eliot was born an American and became British as an adult and that by chance had taught in High Wycombe just a few miles from where I was staying. He would have been familiar with the Chiltern Hills that are to the north and the woods all around with Oak, Black Poplar trees and the elegant Willows whose leaves skim the steely surface of the river, the fields with sheep and goats, the nettle patches and hedgerows that were now rigid with frost. He was also clearly aware of the complicated feelings that arise after leaving your home as an adult, the irrational and powerful pull that the place of your childhood and adolescence possesses.
Over the decades I’ve lived in New York these feelings have been triggered unexpectedly by an irreverent British TV show, an English musician or a friend passing through. However my visits to the UK tend to be fleeting, a rush through cities and countryside in rental cars or taxis’ in pursuit of hurried pleasures, an art show, a celebrated restaurant, a music festival or a walk along some famous cliffs. I’ve never taken the time to audit this place by myself for many years and this type of scrutiny was my objective.
The footpath is muddy in places and I needed to take wide leaps thankful for bringing hiking shoes. Occasionally I pass people who are alarmed by my morning greeting and don’t quite know how to respond, some mumble, some ignore it and occasionally (but not often) I receive friendly smile. Many have dogs, which seem more social and yet their owners mysteriously apologize for their pet’s curiosity which I assure them is really not necessary. All around is a tangle of woods the colors of tweed, the palette of my childhood where everything and nothing seemed possible and so they remain the colors of doubt for me, I’m thankful not to see them regularly. On the river there is little activity this time of year, it must be bitterly cold in the steel hulls of the houseboats yet I’m surprised to smell the sweet smoke from wood burning fires and see dim lights behind cotton curtains, outsiders in the truest sense with an enviable sense of freedom unknown to most of us.
The news warn us of a winter of discontent, strike action is proposed for the railroads, ambulance drivers, airport security in a single program. This unhappiness can be seen on the faces of the people in the high streets, white in these winter months and then later when I visited my elderly mother I receive a list of grievances; her sister couldn’t afford a dress for her granddaughters wedding that was paid for by the charity of her guests. Other tales of poverty and woe which were presented with solutions that to her were ingenious but to me seemed close to begging, leaving me dispirited and low and in a great hurry to leave.
The following day I took a taxi to the fast train service into London. My driver was from Pakistan and almost immediately told me how much he wants to return to his home country after spending all his life in the UK. His wife isn’t so interested and I suggest to him that that is not surprising bearing in mind how women can be treated in Islamic societies. This was a mistake. He is not the first driver I have had to listen to a tiresome catalogue of conspiracy theories and alternative news perspectives; Osama Bin Laden? Died many years ago of cancer, 9/11? An American hoax, the new monologues of the by-passed workers. But the idea of moving to Islamabad after a lifetime in suburban England might be a culture shock for him way beyond my move to the USA in the 1990’s. What I didn’t tell him, as we sped far too recklessly through the tight lanes of Berkshire, is that his very complaints of England and the desire to leave is something characteristically English and I felt he was too integrated, too ingrained already to make such a move, I feared it would remain a fantasy.
But to return to those lines of T.S.Eliot and knowing the place for the first time, perhaps this was less my intent and it was a more conceited, self-centered one, in knowing my own relationship to it. Taking these walks over complex Edwardian locks and bridges along the Thames in the fresh cold air of winter I realized a truth which is that I had aspirations beyond this Island with its ingrained class hierarchies and expectations.
For one, I reminded myself, I couldn’t participate in the masculine language of Pubs and when one evening I went to watch a soccer game where the minimalist grunts of greetings, the inane linguistic codes, those permissible dumbed down opinions passed around like sharp punches was a culture I never participated in and it left me an outsider, a stranger on a bar stool. I sensed there was some discomfort in the bar with me being there but I wasn’t about to explain myself, to be an object of curiosity, I was not prepared to be categorized and felt the less I said the louder my presence became. But I stayed, eves dropping on the conversations. There seemed to be a cultural requirement to present yourself in a slightly stupid way, to possess a simplistic world view despite background, experience and education. When I left for the USA close friends turned against me because they believed I had turned against them, leaving England made them assume I was seeking something better, when in fact I was seeking something different. Until them I hadn’t appreciated how closed and vulnerable English society could be.
I had a sharp reminder of this a little later than evening when I put on the BBC news. The big news item was that during an event in Buckingham Palace a young Black women called Ngozi Fulani, who works in providing support for women of African and Caribbean decent against sexual and domestic violence, had been repeatedly pressed on “where she came from” by a member of the royal household called Susan Hussey who had been the Queens’ lady in waiting. Hussey was 83 years old and had been in the sphere of the Royal family her entire adult life and resigned under pressure the following day. Immediately the Royal family stressed that racism was not acceptable and one observer noted that they are now acting like a modern corporation rather than an ancient institution. I fell to sleep with mixed feelings and sympathy’s, it’s too easy to both make accusations and to make apologies.
I too have been in a party where I’ve met someone and have perhaps insensitively asked whether they were born in the USA or come from elsewhere with a motive purely to engage in conversation, maybe even find something in common. I’ve also been scolded because I’ve asked someone “what they do”. Apparently now I’m awkward, a social liability, and what I should do is develop the skill of making slight, vacuous, conversation that won’t be considered offensive. My guess is that this member of the royal household was not purposely or even subconsciously racist, but I imagine the scene as if I am there and it’s a little agonizing, because I have had awkward encounters with what we call the upper classes who exist in their own world and also relish in their own codes and cyphers. On reflection, I think Fulani’s perfect response should have been “where do you come from”; society must change (of course), but we all need to build armor to exist in the world and have empathy for others who exist in others.
It’s always a mistake coming back after years of exploring, of travelling and living elsewhere, being nomadic and restless and as Bob Dylan say’s there is no direction home. The countryside remains the same with slight exceptions, a few new buildings by the river, but other than that the lack of change is extraordinary making me feel small and inconsequential. I thought I might be comforted and grounded by this sense of permanence but the opposite was true. I came to seek boredom but instead found self-pity and more than once I said to myself “I wish I hadn’t come”. England is going through the same societal turmoil as the USA; smart phones are making fools out of us, the news is not trusted by those struggling to make ends meet (and so they invent their own versions as a reprimand) and we find ourselves in a culture where everyone’s sensitivities are to be danced around, including my own.
I found solace in one of Marlow’s Michelin starred restaurant’s where they squeezed me in without a reservation at three o’clock. An hour later, satiated, I was questioning myself how to get back to the hotel. It gets dark at about four thirty in the evening during these winter months and as the Thames footpath takes an hour to walk I realized it would already be a little treacherous to take. However the sky to the west was alive. All the former greyness had gone and instead it graduated from the horizon with the moist color of apricot flesh up to a steely blue ceiling without cloud or blemish. The stark forms of leafless trees were reflected in the slow moving water of the river and the air I breathed had a pleasant metallic presence. As the light faded I realized there was movement all around, the air pulsated with the movement of bird wings, the hedgerows brushed by foxes and badgers and I saw the slight forms of bats in the dark of the forest and even in this dim light the alert silhouettes of rabbits deep in the fields. There was something sinister about it all, these animals going about their killing business.