I find myself on the Wirral near Neston, which is close to Chester, a city I lived in before I moved to the house in Chesterfield, which if you read my last post, I left for the last time last week. Two towns that begin with the letters C-H-E-S-T-E-R. A spooky coincidence, or a simple fact that I live on a once Roman occupied small island where you are never very far from anywhere ending or beginning in chester, caster or cester. Manchester, Cirencester, Colchester, Doncaster, Chichester, Lancaster to name a few.
So anyway, after my brief history lesson on Roman place names, I got a call last week from one of the language schools I occasionally work for telling me that I was going to Turin for six weeks. Brilliant I thought. I was suddenly on the move again and very excited. Italy! A place I’ve never been to except a brief visit to Venice once on the way to Slovenia. Turin! I’m thinking of religious relics, cycling in the Alps, hot weather, and lots of rich food. Until the assignment was pulled at the very last minute.
It’s normal in this job. I deal with it and wait for the next to turn up. Hence why I’m on the Wirral staying with Elizabeth’s very generous and patient parents waiting for whatever hand fate chooses to deal me next. Or perhaps more accurately, whatever lily-livered teacher in some part of Europe will soon burn out, falling hideously ill with a twisted intestine and requiring old Oggers here to fly in to complete their courses.
Meanwhile on the Wirral, when the wind eases off and the sun shines, it’s very pleasant. Walking down to the marshland on the Dee estuary just past the Harp pub is like walking off the end of the earth.
Mud, Military Firing Range, Quicksand
DO NOT ENTER (ever)
Reads the sign. Which limits human activity once you get past the coast path here to almost zero. A stark contrast to the interior of the peninsula which is a busy, crowded place that acts as a massive satellite commuter town for both Liverpool and Chester. The marshland on the other hand, is a very quiet and peaceful place, almost like a desert. And just as hot when the sun eventually peeps out from behind the grey Welsh clouds.
It’s been more difficult being back in the UK than I thought. Whenever I visited a foreign country as a child, I always felt anxious: the signs, the shops, the language, the customs, all scary and uninviting. Coming back here after four years in France, that same feeling of unease has returned. I feel foreign in my own country.
To compound matters when I went into the job centre two days ago, I had to do a Habitual Residency Test. It’s not as official as it sounds, it’s just protocol because I’ve been living abroad for more than six months. But I felt like I was no longer part of the British system. As though I wasn’t British any longer. An immigrant with no nationality or place of residence.
The fact is that after three weeks here, I haven’t adjusted one bit and that’s a worry. And the reason the Turin option was so appealing. Everything could therefore be pointing to the fact that my home is no longer here and that this summer could be my final farewell. It feels quite sad writing that down. And it’s all very melodramatic I know, but that’s how I feel. That feeling of being adrift in the country of my birth. As though something has dramatically changed here to make me resent it. The Englishness of England still remains, so does the warmth of the people. But what I craved before when I lived abroad in my twenties and thirties – that feeling of coming home to something better – no longer exists.
It’s possible that my idea of home has changed. A less rooted ideal where the home is not fixed but movable. And a concept that goes back to the fact that humans are intrinsically nomadic creatures and not people who build castles and stick flags in them. I’m not advocating that the whole of the human race suddenly becomes nomadic. I’m simply espousing the idea that home isn’t fixed. On the contrary. When I lived in Nottingham, I used to call the city home. When in Bristol, the same. Ditto Exeter and Lyon.
When anybody ever asks me where home is, I stare at them blankly, as though I don’t understand the meaning of the word. Which is exactly my point. I don’t. When I look at my passport, it says I’m British. But the more I look at it, the less sure I am about what that actually means. It means I’m entitled to the benefits and protection of The Crown offered to all British citizens. But even that is slightly blurred now. I received a letter today telling me that I’d failed my Habitual Residency Test and was therefore not entitled to any benefits of any kind for three months. It doesn’t actually matter as during writing this I’ve received an offer of some work in Bath starting Monday. But the letter does confirm – almost in writing as it were – what I’ve been thinking for these past three weeks. I’m not really British any more.