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Open Features: Home Sweet Home

...I can be drenched in warm sunshine and surrounded by sub-tropical flora and fauna, enjoying the best that luxury holidays have to offer, when, hey presto, into my head will pop the vision of rolling green fields under a vast East Anglian sky....

Readers will identify with Mary Basham's conclusion that the sense of belonging is as much a part of us as our own genes.

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‘O to be in England now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning unaware…..

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows’


The well-known lines are from Robert Browning’s poem Home Thoughts From Abroad, and perhaps perfectly reflect his inner feelings during the years he spent in Italy 1846 – 1861 after his elopement with Elizabeth Barrett. Their story has been hailed as one of the great romances of the Victorian literary scene, but following his wife’s death, it was England that claimed his heart and he returned home almost immediately.

Robert Browning was simply displaying the same ‘yearning’ that exists in most of us for the country, even the very place of our birth. It really doesn’t matter where I am in the world, be it some exotic island with turquoise sea and palm fringed beaches or one of the many exciting cities where even the pavements heave with history, home is home.

I can be drenched in warm sunshine and surrounded by sub-tropical flora and fauna, enjoying the best that luxury holidays have to offer, when, hey presto, into my head will pop the vision of rolling green fields under a vast East Anglian sky. It is so real I can smell the peppery scent of May blossom and the heady perfume of the wild lilac hedges.

Take it a step further and I am sipping Assam tea, eating cheese scones laced with butter and relaxing in my garden while collared doves hypnotically call to each other from the birch tree. Alternatively, walking through the market stalls in Bury St Edmunds and hearing the traders cry “pound a pound” in the Suffolk tongue, with its distinct drawl that turns “do” into “dew”.

My son in Australia has just emailed me to ask about the Cambridge Backs.

“What do they look like at the moment mother?”

“They look magnificent,” I replied, “all new green, heavy with Chestnut ‘candles’ about to light up the scene with a radiance of white and pink.”

He is enjoying sunshine almost day in day out and is determined to make a go of it ‘down under’, yet his thoughts are forever turning to the city of his birth.

I once attended a lecture at the Cambridge Senate House given by Geoffrey Howe, the longest serving Cabinet Minister during Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister. He was born in Wales but obviously had spent a lot of time in England. I remember him saying he wasn’t too sure where he belonged; a sort of split personality. He described it as something along the lines of, ‘when he steps of the train in Cardiff he feels he belongs in London, but when he walks down the platform at Paddington, he knows he belongs in Wales.’

My partner is a British citizen born in Mauritius. He has lived here for almost fifty years but says he is on ‘holiday’ in England, a long holiday. From 1960 until 1999 he returned to ‘sugar’ island just three times. Finally I prompted him to go back again for a holiday. We have been going now almost every year and I see the change come over him as soon as we land. He goes into what I secretly call his ‘French mode’, lots of expressive chat, sociable wining and dining and sniffing the air for the sweet aroma of boiling sugar cane. When we get back to England it’s straight round to the supermarket for a packet of Demerara!

So many ex-pats have told me the same thing. They know that their quality of life and standard of living are better in other parts of the world, but home is what quickens the beat of their heat and sends their thoughts into a spiral of longing.

The true name of this ‘longing’ is of course, homesickness. It might only come upon us occasionally, or can hit with such force that a person becomes physically ill, a kind of depression. The web is full of academic sites offering helpful advice on coping with homesickness, so presumably students are one of the main groups to experience the condition. In my experience it can strike anywhere, anytime that you are away from home.

Rather like swallows seem to find their way half way across the world to nest again in familiar places and salmon travel thousands of miles to spawn in the river where they were hatch, humans follow the same trends with few exceptions.

I have never honestly met any one who could claim to be totally disenchanted with the place of their birth or where they spent their early years. Is it ‘nature or nurture’ there’s the question? One thing is certain, a sense of where you belong is rooted in the majority of us with all the tenacity of a locked-in gene. Nature, nuture, who knows? It’s simple natural.

Mary Basham
April 2008

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