Pommies, in Australia, are famous for what the Aussies call ‘whinging’. Whether this is born of character or homesickness is debatable but, in the past, I have gone out of my way to resist the affliction. Returning to England this winter, however, my resolve was undone and I’ve been ‘whinging’ for Britain ever since.
My stepfather advised, ‘Never marry out of your class, it will lead to great unhappiness’, but, at the age of 24 and ornery, I promptly married both out of my class and country. Thirty years later I can confirm that he was wrong. Marrying outside my social class (I was upstairs, he was downstairs) has not led to ‘great unhappiness’. To the contrary, it opened my world, balanced my views, produced three spectacular children and, the clincher, I’m still married to the bugger. Not living in the country of my birth, however, (while ‘unhappiness’ would be too strong a word) recently rocked me with such a force of regret and sadness that I needed a large teaspoon of gripe water and a good lie-down in the bed I have made for myself.
Of course, spending Christmas in a farmhouse on the Welsh borders with two of my oldest girlfriends is a recipe for misgivings. Purple clouds scudding over hills of brown bracken, the crimson coats of huntsmen and steaming mulled wine at the Boxing Day meet, the smell of smoke and horse dung in the puddled yard, the walks to pubs in borrowed green gumboots, the low-beamed, twinkling camaraderie inside, the instinctive friendships between our children and, most of all, the sinking into that state of belonging so at odds with the expat experience, all tugs and tears at the heart with surprising intensity.
So much intensity that surely the attachment cannot be measured by such a short occupancy in the country of birth. I have now lived in Australia nearly twice as long as I lived in England so how do I account for the ridiculous way I feel about a bank of cowslips, the sound of a cuckoo, the smell of lilac, bumblebees, Cotswold stone, Sunday bells, drizzle, teatime, Murray mints, bright lights on wet pavements, Harrods’ Christmas lights, Paddington station, the Natural History Museum, Squirrel Nutkin and even ‘Lords a-leaping’, if it is not inherited from the collective conscious of forebears. Englishness imprinted on the heart and brain before birth.
It’s not as if my adopted country doesn’t offer a lifestyle splendid; daily doses of Australian sunshine, a house with a veranda, night-smelling jasmine, a career of impossible fun in the arts and where, with women occupying all the highest positions in the land, nothing seems impossible. And truthfully, for years, busy making my delightful bed, I’ve ignored the small tugs of isolation and disconnection. But once home, somewhere between the communal peeling of Christmas potatoes and a gallop over the Brecon Beacons with my childhood besties, I realise the true price of my Faustian deal; opportunity and success overseas in exchange for the interconnectedness of an extended family life.
At the time, this deal was a no-brainer. How could one value at 20 the concept of ‘interconnectedness’? If anything it was the very reason one got the hell out. Too bloody much of it. Divulging information on who one danced with often provoked such killjoy spoilers as: ‘I knew his father. He had a famously small cock.’ And what was a girl of my limited education to do with herself in England? Career options were never discussed. Primogeniture meant little sharing in the spoils. Inverted snobbery when crossing the class divide to work provoked little jabs: ‘Oh we’ve got the posh one in today. Mummy bought her hat for Ascot yet?’ My fate was already cast. I was pretty enough to make a good marriage and, like all the female ancestors before me, enjoy the spoils of his home and his endowments. A crack opened up when I got a bit of modelling and I fled. Before long I found myself on the conveyor belt to Hollywood. I think I must have looked over my shoulder and shouted ‘help’ a few times at the receding shoreline, but by then it was all moving too fast to get off. Finally leaping off, I found myself in love, up the duff and on the far side of the moon.
Poor mum! It really is a mother’s worst nightmare to have a daughter marry an Australian. My eldest daughter moved to England three years ago so I know how she felt. Part of me hoped my daughter would slip back in with the tribe where I had left off. For all the reasons I found to leave, I am envious of the wide net of interconnectedness between families whose history, schools and privilege binds them. I am envious of the seemingly vast pool of aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and their inter-woven lives and generations. But that breadth of kinship just doesn’t happen everywhere or overnight. My daughter, Aussie that she is, sticks with her own tribe and, not knowing any of my children’s friends’ families, I somehow doubt I will find myself saying, ‘I knew his father…’ And while they are, no doubt, quite relieved about that, I am not so sure.
Still, for all the visceral pleasure and excitement of seeing family and friends, returning home after long absences is surprisingly difficult socially. Hitting terra firma, I am bursting with tales of adventure, and rich with exotic and curious cargo; Australian husbands, children, narratives of natives (recent film and TV work), and endless recordings of habitat and fauna (photos). But, perhaps as Captain James Cook found, once the exotics have dazzled and a summary of rather unrelatable tales expounded, there follows some polite applause after which the court returns to its own noisy and absorbed interchange. And it’s then that you realise that for all one’s possibly riveting and brilliant life on the other side of the moon, you have lost the precious language of belonging: gossip.
Back in Australia, my daughter is returning from England for a holiday. Her homesickness, she says, has become physical. She aches for the crunch of gum nuts under foot, the smell of brine on the wind, the heat on her back and the ease and interest of interconnected relationships. She has her first day back already planned. Straight from the plane to Bondi for a swim, a latte on the promenade heaving with bronzed surfers, a visit to her sister’s new flat and the wedding of a school friend. By evening she will be too high on the drug of belonging and reconnection to feel jet lag and I, catching her infectious enthusiasm for all she has so painfully missed, will stop whinging for Britain and consider that, perhaps, the only thing better than one homeland is two.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013