Home thoughts from Cambridge

Lewis Thomas 21 October 2018

It’s 6am.

Dawn is breaking over the North Sea, and the Gorillas are swimming to Port. I close the front door behind me, lock it, and walk out into the street, turning right and carrying on up the road at a quick pace. My road passes from my village’s main street to the edge of the village, eventually cutting out and turning into a track through woods and farmland. It’s on the back slope of a ridge, and it may be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I think so, anyway.

I walk up the road and hit the track, walking into the woods. There’s something about the countryside at dawn on a September morning which is quite impossible to convey- the birds are starting to sing in the trees, and deer move slowly through the fields, enjoying the brief window of light before the emerge and cars hit the road. Looking up, I can make out a Buzzard circling overhead, hanging in the air for a moment before dropping like a Stuka, screaming earthwards to grab its breakfast. Eventually, I make it through the woods and up to the crest of the ridge, standing by an old drystone wall next to the road and looking East.

We sometimes talk of the “silence” of the countryside, as if the only place where there’s noise is amidst the roar of cars and the bellow of workers in a city- go out into the fields at dawn or dusk, however, and you’ll find a whole landscape of noise. It may be the rumble of tractors in the distance, or the whisper of wind in the trees. It may be the rustle and squeak of fieldmice as they suss in the undergrowth, or it could be the snap of a Pigeon as it rises from a branch. It could even be the skritt shuffleshuffle of a Badger’s claws on stone as it sees you emerge from a track and hurtles into its sett in response.

A note about pigeons- whoever thinks they move quietly has never seen one in the wild. Much like David Niven’s line about bullets (“Anyone who says a bullet sings past, hums past, flies, pings, or whines past, has never heard one—they go crack!”). Pigeons burst into flight with an almost concussive snap- it’s a snap and a crack, then a rapid succession of noises like someone trying to whistle with their tongue pressed to their teeth, then silence as they glide for a moment. Then it’s crackcrackcrack-failed whistle-silence all over again.

Amidst all of these extra noises- the cries of the land’s inhabitants, and the sound of the world going around its business-, you have one underpinning them all. It’s a faint murmur on the breeze, almost like static on an old television. It comes and goes, and only comes fully out when all else has gone quiet, but it’s still there. It’s the sea, rolling in from the East and carrying its roar inland.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Sea made Fife- it offered the fish which built the fishing villages of the East Neuk, and it carved the cliffs and beaches which made St Andrews a natural choice for monks to gather and pray. In the later Middle Ages, it knitted the East Coast of Scotland to Scandinavia and the Low Countries, carrying Pilgrims from Bergen to St Andrews and craftsmen from the Low Countries to St Monans. In the 20th Century, it brought the Royal Navy to the Forth, with ships rising on the Stacks at Rosyth and Beatty’s Battlecruisers lying at anchor in the Firth of Forth before steaming out to make Armageddon at Jutland. Now, skylines emerge on the horizon as ships and oilrigs come into port at Dundee- the Gorillas I mentioned earlier? Huge drilling platforms, with legs the size of tower blocks which ratchet down to the seabed during drilling, and then ratchet back up into the sky when the platform moves. James VI called Fife his “beggar’s mantle fringed with gold”- it’s the sea which gave the mantle the fringe.

To look out over the land and the sea from that wall, where the ploughed fields fall steadily to the Sea, is to look out at the end of something. We’re three hundred and fifty miles North of London here- fifty miles North of Edinburgh. At the coast, the line between land and sea starts to blur, and every day we lose or gain a few dozen metres of shadowland at the margins, as the tide comes in and recedes. The Estuary goes from a puddle streaked sandy plain to a river in full flow in the space of a morning, and the light changes from a bloody wash in the morning to a golden, impossibly rich hue in the evenings. The Autumn is the best time of year to see this part of the world- the short days of winter have yet to appear, but there’s still a sense of change in the air; that the world is ratcheting around to new seasons, and every inhabitant is starting to breathe and bundle themselves up ahead of the cold. Autumn days aren’t the long days of summer, where you go to sleep and wake up to daylight, but they’re also not the short, crushing days of winter, when the cold gets into your bones and it feels as if the sun only climbs above the horizon for twenty minutes a day (and, inevitably, you’ll be indoors for those twenty minutes). They’re days of impossibly beautiful light, Haar that comes in from the sea and reduces the world to twenty feet in front of you, and a chill in the air.

So that’s the view, and that’s the village- beside the woods and the fields, it has four bus stops, a primary school, and a pub. The nearest town- St Andrews- is about three miles away. I’ve lived there since I was six- I have a few memories of where I lived beforehand, but they don’t amount to much. Golden summers in the South of England, a few incidents in the first two years of primary school, and memories of sensations: the sun on my face as I played in a garden; grazing my knee in the playground; that sort of thing. Pleasant memories on which to hang an anecdote, but not the stuff of a sustained narrative. The narrative and the memories begin properly at some hazy point in the mid 2000s, in that wee village on the East Coast. At home.

Home’s more than a place. It’s more than a house. The four walls I grew up within, with their changing coats of paint and their changing case of characters aren’t home. Home’s an idea- a sense that you have arrived somewhere where you can relax and breathe, and also somewhere where you can remember. It’s something you can make for yourself, and it’s something you can- if you’re lucky- be helped to make. If you’re lucky enough to have people who know that contentment is a better goal than excitement, and are willing to dig their heels in and fight for that home in the face of quite potent opposition and circumstances, then you’re lucky. I know I am.

I could say that home is wherever I put my head- that it’s a place defined by nice photos of roast chickens, or anecdotes about my Landlord’s sex-pest of a Wolfhound. But I’d be lying. Home is a collection of experiences and memories, and it’s more than a house. It’s the house I grew up in; it’s the beach I used to walk along with my grandfather; it’s the town I come back to, and the place that, when I see it on the news or see a photo of it, I’ll stop and think for a moment. A supervisor had a postcard of the North Sea at St Andrews on their desk, and I found myself staring at it during the supo – partly to distract myself from the evisceration, and also to remind myself of what will always be waiting for me to the North.

Put simply, I’ll always be from somewhere. There will always be a spot of soil that holds my heart, and a view that beats any other. The Third Law of Linguistics is that “nothing names itself”- we are all told where we are from, or where we belong. Sometimes it’s not where we are actually from- I come from Fife, not England; home is a village by the coast, not a flat in East London. And since I cannot control where others see my home as, I have to take ownership of what I take to be my home- what I take to be where I’m from.

I’m in my final year of Undergrad. In all honesty, I don’t know where I’ll end up after uni, or where I’ll find myself making a life- it could be in England, Scotland, or somewhere else entirely. But what I do know is that, just as I’ve managed to carve out a sort of home in Cambridge, I’ll carve out a home wherever it is I make my life. And I know that because I’ve already done it up North, and because I was shown how to do it. And of all the gifts I’ve received, I think it’s fair to say that the gift of a home, and the gift of how to find a homely place, are among the most appreciated.

There’s a story about a medieval traveller who went to Jerusalem. When asked by an official where he was from, he replied “Kent and Christendom”- and the official noted it down. But a couple of centuries later, when the traveller’s descendant went to Jerusalem and was asked the same question, he replied “England.” For the first traveller, home was somewhere extremely specific, and he could only conceive of himself as coming from the smallest of places and the largest of states- his county and his world. For the second, home was a country, with the rough edges sanded away and including an area covering thousands of square miles.

If I went to Jerusalem and was asked that question, I would say I was from the UK- I’m half Scottish and half Welsh, was born in England, grew up in Scotland, and go to university in England. Like the second traveller, I would give my origin in the simplest form possible, and I would do it for the sake of convenience- passport officers tend not to think on the level of a few square miles.

But if I was talking to someone who I wanted to know where I was really from, my answer would be simple. I’m from a village on the East Coast of Scotland, where Gorillas swim to port in the dawn, the skies break with the most indescribable colours, and the badgers are incredibly speedy. I’m from home.