A question I haven’t tackled in a while, but which Emily really made me think about.
I’m from a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. A country with a history so rich and thick it’s almost tangible, a history that I took for granted until I left it behind. There is a Neolithic settlement that was buried for thousands of years in sand and accidentally rediscovered in the mid-20th century; there is a Viking tomb, where at sunrise on Midsummer’s Day a ray of sunlight bounces off a stone one field away and lights up the entrance way. There are Roman villas, Norman churches and buildings from every period since and despite these architectural glories there are whole towns constructed from concrete. ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough/It is not fit for humans now’.
I’m from the Black Country, a former industrial heartland that got its nickname from the smoke that shrouded it in the 19th century. I fled and lost my nationally despised accent, and moved around enough to recreate myself as someone who isn’t from anywhere in particular. So I’m also from Sheffield, built on seven hills like Rome. The people are dour but friendly, with a dry sense of humour and wicked self-mockery. It’s another industrial town, but I like brick buildings and half-broken windows and ruined factories gradually taken over by weeds. I sympathise with rusting ironwork, disused railway bridges and forgotten canals.
In the north of England you become attuned to the myriad subtle beauties of grey skies with their delicate opalescence of pearl and lilac. They are a foil for the open moors, where the clear air can take your breath away and the heather paints a thousand shades of autumn over the hills. The seaside isn’t where the beautiful people go to sunbathe, it’s where the ordinary people go to sit in their cars parked on rainswept promenades, to burn their mouths on Sarson’s-drenched chips that came wrapped in newspaper. The car will smell of grease and vinegar all the way home.
Then there’s Cornwall, King Arthur’s country, a place associated with childhood holidays. There’s a particular quality to the light in Cornwall so that artists congregate there. Barbara Hepworth had a studio in St Ives and some of her sculpture is in the garden of the cottage she owned. There’s a Tate St Ives where, on a clear summer’s day, the most remarkable image is the view of the coast, all blue and gold like the colours from a medieval painting.
I’m from a country where summer really does mean cricket on the green, the pleasing sound of a leather ball struck by a willow bat. I don’t even understand cricket, but it’s a marker of my year as are punting and Pimms, hot cross buns, the start of the football season and mince pies.
I’m from a whole different array of holidays: May Day, when we danced around a maypole and no one told us it was a fertility symbol; Pancake Day (Fat Tuesday), the only day of the year when we got pancakes and we could eat as many as we wanted for dinner; May Bank Holiday, when you knew summer had started; August Bank Holiday, when you knew it had ended and we still hadn’t had more than 3 consecutive days of sunshine; Bonfire Night, when the air smelt of smoke and we were allowed up late to watch fireworks and write our names in the air with sparklers and eat potatoes baked in foil in the bonfire. Lapsang Souchong tea tastes of Bonfire Night to me now.