Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Coming home

I’ve just returned to England from a short business trip abroad. It was odd returning to this country from somewhere with blue skies, hot sun and waves breaking on the beach. We flew into spitting rain on a cold night. You’d think it would have been deeply depressing, and people around me on the plane made it clear that was just how they felt about it.

Somehow, though, I couldn’t share their gloom. I’ve never understood people who say they’re proud to be whatever they are – American, British, Russian, whatever. How can you be proud of something that you didn’t actually do for yourself? All most of us did to become citizens of our nations was get born, and absolutely everyone does that. There should be medals for it suddenly?

Maybe the people who get a nationality by naturalisation have more cause for pride. At least they made an effort, even if it was just completing reams of documents and arguing with bored and possibly racist bureaucrats.

No, the positive feeling I get from England is the sense that in some strange way it’s home. It’s not a glow of pride, it’s more a sense of comfort and ease. I know how the mentalities work, I know what you can banter about and (usually) with whom, I can interpret the body language, the hints, the implications. There’s something relaxing about coming back to your community, the one you belong to, whose codes you can read. And to me at least that’s a pleasure which easily outweighs a little wet and a little cold.

It became particularly clear to me in the train, on nearly the final stage of a long journey. I was sitting opposite a middle-aged man in the uniform of a train employee. Perhaps a ticket collector, clearly off duty and heading home. After letting the first ten minutes of the trip go by in silence until tiredeness forced me to give up trying to focus on my book, he asked me ‘well, have you travelled far?’ A conversation was under way.

He turned out to be a driver. I learned about the things that can make trains late: signalling problems, track problems, even problems with the trains themselves. Recently, leaves on the line have been a major difficulty. ‘It’s like trying to drive a car on black ice,’ he explained, ‘you can’t stop, and that’s if you can get going at all.’ Overall, though, we both agreed that the service on the railways is unrecognisably better than ten or fifteen years ago. In a world where we’re all perhaps too inclined to whinge about everything, it’s good to find something that satisfactory.

He hadn’t been under any obligation to talk to me. He could have kept his own counsel. But weary as I was, I welcomed this brief human contact with a complete stranger.

That can happen anywhere, but it’s easiest in your own community: there’s so much you don’t have to explain. In some hidden corner of my being, there’s something precious in that kind of contact that makes me actually rather prefer it to the sun, the sea and the sand on the beach.

So – no regrets about being home.


Bob said...

This is very nicely done, David. Chapter 5 of "The Wind in the Willows" writ larger, maybe.

David Beeson said...

Ah, to write like Kenneth Grahame! I'd love to be able to claim that. Getting somewhere near Garrison Keillor's level is aspiration enough, for now.

On the other hand, I admit that my theme here was pretty close to things that Mole might have said.