Sunday, 12 October 2008

Guess Where I've Been?

Strange. I was looking for an image from the hundreds I took which would encapsulate England for me: - but in the end this little gateway did it more than all the flowers and meadows and city-scapes.

It's the gateway to a Roman temple which was built in Colchester at a site which had had significance for the small collection of huts that had squatted there since long before 43AD. It was around here that Boudica challenged the Roman Empire after her treatment at their hands..

After the Romans left it fell into disrepair but a Saxon chief decided the site was a good one on which to build his own fortified encampment in the period long - and erroneously - called The Dark Ages.

Once the Normans had invaded and taken over England in 1066 orders were given for a Norman castle to be built on this same hilltop. The Norman castle in time became a hospice and then, in the Middle Ages, it was rebuilt by an English family before once more falling into disrepair and becoming a prison, then a warehouse. It has recently been taken over by The National Trust and preserved as a museum which showcases the many stages of English history from its misty beginnings to its present.

To me it epitomises so much of Britain where history is part of the fabric of life.

I spent the whole of the summer in UK and came back to China to find a virus had chewed up my computer. Once fixed, it quickly succumbed to yet another virulent invader and then, with pressure of work in a new semester, keeping up this blog became the lowest on my list of priorities.

However, this summer changed a lot of things for me. I realised that as long as I stayed in China my post-graduate studies would probably always remain more of a dream than a reality. I also realised how daft I'd been to choose to specialise in the women writers of England in the 17th Century from thousands of miles away. I thought of all the days, weeks, months I had spent chasing up information from books and pamphlets that weren't even available in Australia when, in Cambridge, I simple walked into a museum, idly asked if they had anything concerning, say, Margaret Cavendish and was given access to the full collection of the correspondence she and her husband William had before they were married. (And not one person said "Who?")

I also re-discovered the joy of like minds. Once I stepped outside the campus environs at Uni in Australia, I was back again in the world of Centrelink payments, of dole bludgers and people who thought that Literature was a dirty word and History the preserve of eccentrics.

Yet everywhere I went in Cambridge the talk was of the past - it was inescapable when one was buying one's lunch in an 800 year old pub, sleeping in an old chapel, punting on the River Cam underneath the bridge that Newton built, or visiting at the college that Erasmus attended, or crossing the very gutters which gave us the idiom of Hobson's choice.

Even when I left Cambridge and went to Warwick and further afield I was still surrounded by people whose knowledge of the subject which had always set me apart from most of those with whom I mixed, was instead a bonding feature. I no longer felt like a nerd. Anyone else who has ever been considered one will get what I'm on about. When I engaged in long conversations with totally random people I was free to talk about stuff I knew about without being considered a show-off. It was totally liberating.

Since I've been back I have even gained the courage to join a blog group called "I judge you when you use bad grammar " - a site I wouldn't even have clicked on to before I left for fear that someone might discover my search history and consider me an elitist. Yet, having clicked on I found that this site is fun and funny and while I still not might actually post on it much, I get great joy out of the empathy I feel with other people who also laugh out loud when they see a sign outside a fish and chip shop that says 'we sell "fresh" fish!'.

Another way this summer changed me was to give me reassurance. Since I have been out of the West I mainly keep up with the news through the Internet. And its usually Australian news and blog sites that I access.

What this has done for me is to depress me unutterably. The West has come to seem like some vast Dantean dream where paedophiles give art shows and cops are all corrupt and progress is an unstoppable Leviathon which is transforming our landscape and way of life beyond all recognition. Love and peace and justice are words that belong to the Hippy movement of the 60's, people who disagree with one have the right to abuse, slander and defame, strangers are The Enemy and everyone is suspicious of everyone else. Indeed, on one of the sites for which I write occasional articles the Battle of The Sexes is daily and acrimoniously fought tooth and claw, religious fundamentalism seems to be considered the norm and all Immigrants should be thrown into the seas.

What I found this summer was that my impressions were a load of cobblers. Gender wars were a non-event, policemen were still polite and helpful to the general public at least, strangers were still kind, people still went out of their way, and the sleepy hamlets of England's green and pleasant lands were still as green and pleasant as they had been when I was a little girl. Yep, the primary school I remembered was still there and though the actual town in which it was situated might now be rather seedy, 5 miles out of it were still the green meadows and little cottages I remembered. Not a single bus driver, train conductor, shop assistant or teenager was rude to me, and, all in all, there was no evidence that we were all going to hell in a handcart.

But perhaps the main thing this summer did for me was to stem my rootlessness just a little. I have always dreaded the polite enquiry - de rigeur as a prelude to every conversation in China, especially - "Where do you come from?" as a sort of multiple choice one. Depending on the circumstances, geography or time some people know me as "That Aussie" others as "The girl from South Africa", some as "The chick that comes from PNG" of "The Pommie bird" but, by far the greatest majority as "that foreigner".

While it is still impossible to point to any particular place and claim that I am a product of that environment or culture, going back to UK did at least pencil in a sort of provenance. Stepping out of the bus in Coventry where George, my father, was stationed briefly during WW2, I was confronted by a statue of an Air Force officer, hand negligently in pocket, familiar cap at a jaunty angle, and immediately felt kinship. The famous George Hotel in Grantham that my Great Grandmother ran might have been subsumed into a large shopping complex, but it was comforting to know that my Grandmother had shimmied out of its window from under her mother's watchful eye and run down that same street to elope with my grandfather. Even when I had to spend a night sleeping on Birmingham station which, though refurbished and updated and split into two, still stands, it was with a kind of wonder that I realised that it was here my father would have disembarked from boarding school in his school holidays. A trainride listening to a group of people on their way to Crufts brought back memories of reading my mothers first prize-winning essay in an ancient school newspaper, of the first time her father took her with him on that very trainline to show Brian O'Rouke, their famous bulldog. While the spinney that I used to play Roundheads and Cavaliers in with my cousin Julian, now tamed and tidied, still held the echoes of our childhood laughter.

So, as much as anything, I guess, this summer taught me irrevocably, that there is "some part of me that is, forever, England."