I am not ‘from’ anywhere. I have no terroir that yielded me. I have no affinity with any particular place and I have no town that I call home. I have a house here in Essex, but that home is temporal in nature, it is not from whence I came.
Being from nowhere has, I thought, been neither here nor there for me, except when I have been asked over the years
‘Where are you from?’
Because there is no especial answer I can give, I tend to rush off a few sentences to explain oneself and one’s dilatoriness in the state of belonging to somewhere, anywhere…
Which set me thinking; if where you are from defines you in some respect, can where you are not from do the same? Can an absence of roots affect a person’s psyche less, or more, than a strong connection with place? Which is of course not a new question at all, but it is a new one for me to apply to myself.
When asked ‘Where are you from?’ I would often say ‘I was brought up in Lincolnshire, but…’ and I was quick to qualify this statement adding ‘I am not from there, I was not born there, I have no family there…’ Depending on whether or not I had warmed to my theme and the audience’s interest levels I might go on to roundly decry Lincolnshire as a place, with Little to recommend it. Or the more daring accusation perhaps, of Nothing to recommend it? Could it be that I have been partially defined by spending thirteen formative years in a place I detest?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I posted John Clare’s poem ‘The Fens’. The poet starts off in an onomatopoeic bucolic mood, evoking a place that reminds me not one jot of the fens I grew up in. Thankfully, for the sake of my sanity, that bright mood gives way to a darker reflection on the evident cost to the land of the farming gain that ‘mars the landscape every day’.
And Clare’s slipping mood mirrors how it felt to grow up there.
‘And, when again one rambles down
The path, small hillocks burning lie
And smoke beneath a burning sky’
We had the sky alright, unimaginable acres of it, not just above us but horizontally and on the floor at our feet sometimes too – as far as the eye could see in every direction. And some days it was the best thing, not just about the place but in the world. But on the many, many other days when Clare’s horizon was not ‘stooping smiles’ but the sky was sagging its miserable grey jowls everywhere, or whipping the dusty wind through you, it was desperate and oppressive.
Clare also writes of fire, and at this time of year when I was young stubble-burning was rife. His ‘burning sky’ was very apt in the 1970s; what he wouldn’t have seen was the small crop-spraying planes that flew back and forth over fields, and whatever houses happened to stand in their path, anointing us with their chemical rich load. And when the summer sky grew heavy and lowering, or even when it was in sunnier mood we would suffer biblical plagues of thunderbugs, an insect I have barely seen since those days of fenland life.
The fenscape, the space, was so vast and bare it was forbidding. You wouldn’t walk for your leisure into that wasteland because you could already see every step you might take for a hundred miles in all directions. You might be forced into a walk after the car broke down, again, in the middle of nowhere (this happened day and night and in all weathers). Under those skies you are quickly overloaded with the weight of the void. Too much freedom is an invisible cage for the mind. Humans need the comfort of a boundary that is less ephemeral than a horizon.
The odd saving grace could be found from time to time: a farmer once deciding to plant a field of peas instead of the ubiquitous funk-filled brassica, or a skylark soaring and singing high above our miserable below-sea-level existence. Sometimes a better than Turner (who we had never heard of) winter sky would appear somewhere over Swineshead on the school bus on the way home. But mainly life seemed hard, bound together with makeshift scraps of orange baling twine.
Life in Lincolnshire was your cat going missing for a week before managing to drag its rotting near-corpse home with a brick-sized brand down one flank, scorched brown flesh against its black and white pelt. Or the sickly smell of sugar beet on the wind, mixed with pesticides and rotting brussel sprouts and onions in stinking fields. It was an unknown person living down a lane behind derelict net curtains eating cat food out of a tin. It was trying not to walk too quickly and avoid overtaking the old soldier with the false leg on the way to the bus stop, in case you remind him of his loss. And lest I forget, it was the ritual banging your head on the old brick wall on the way to the school bus stop, a safe distance beyond the vicious village pond geese, to remind yourself that somewhere you still had the hope of a slight existence beyond the fens.
This is not a landscape, or a spiritual home I have to ever return to. But has its clay moulded me as much as an pastoral leafy lane with chirruping hedgerows might have? I bloody hope not.