Wednesday, 2 October 2013

You Can Never Go Home

Procrastinating with Perry Iles

Thomas Wolfe said you can never go home. Stephen King said that home is the place where, when you get there, they have to let you in. They’re both right. As the Chinese say, you can never cross the same river twice, and the home you get back to at teatime isn’t the same place you left after breakfast. Everyone’s that bit older, but unless you’re really unlucky they’ll let you in because they’ll still remember who you are. Except for the goldfish.

Me, I remember sunsets. My father had a new upstairs bathroom built, and when they were building it I used to climb the scaffolding and sit up there watching the light fade from the day. The summer was over, autumn mists spiraled up from the river a few hundred yards away. Beyond that, trains went by on the main London line. Duxford Aerodrome, now part of the Imperial War Museum, was a functioning airfield a couple of miles beyond the railway. I’d hear propellers and jets and on the days they’d have drills the air-raid warning sirens would wind out over the flat fields. Life in the atomic age. On school evenings when my parents thought I was doing my homework I’d sit out on the scaffolding planks, smelling autumn earth and looking through the apple trees, complex black silhouettes against the impossibly garish sky.

In the winter the house I lived in — five hundred years old, low-ceilinged and creaky — was damp and cold. My father paid £1900 for it in 1949. There was no damp course, no central heating, no fitted kitchen, no fridge, telephone or washing machine. There was a shed outside for wood and coal and in the sitting room there was an open fire. My father roasted chestnuts on the hearth at Christmas and pretended Father Christmas had dropped them down the chimney. I was four or five; he’d call up the chimney and pretend to catch the chestnuts, tossing them from hand to hand, too hot to hold. Winters used to bite more harshly after the festive season, in the dark days of January when the winds blew in from the East Anglian fens. Those winds had come from Russia, a presence on the map painted pink on the school globe. A place of endless cold, endless cruelty and landscapes even flatter and less interesting than my own.

There was a bay window in our living room, the wood softened by damp and rot, the gaps in the glass letting the wind in and on nights when the easterlies raged gales of gritty snow against the windows the curtains billowed in the draughts and smoke from the fire blew back down the chimney into the sitting room. When it was bedtime I’d put my pyjamas on and throw myself between sheets that were so cold they felt wet. I’d go foetal until I got warm, then stretch my limbs out slowly until the warmth spread through the bed. In the mornings the frost drew intricate fractals on my windows, patterns I would scratch my name into as my breath steamed in the morning air.

It really was as cold as a bastard.

My mother chopped wood after breakfast, her own breath pluming around her in winter sunshine and her fingers blue with cold, the washing frozen rigid on the washing like. On Mondays she dragged an old boiler out and threw all the clothes in, adding New Super Rinso and boiling the clothes until they smelled clean. The bath was downstairs, and my mother threw the soapy clothes in and filled it with tepid water, stirred them to get the soap out then fed them one by one through an old mangle. Everything was steam, her face was red and so was mine in the school holidays when I’d help her. We kept meat and milk in the cellar. In the winter the milk sat outside the back door when we got up, frozen, the expanding ice forcing the lids from the bottles and hurling up solid creamy tubes of frozen milk with the silver lids perched on top.

In the winter of 1963 everything went crazy. The pipes froze for weeks, the snow fell and kept on falling. The tiny black and white television in the corner of our living room showed a newsreel of the sea freezing off the Suffolk coast. My father responded by buying two fan heaters and putting one in the dining room and one at the top of the stairs. He’d turn them on only when the room was in use or just before we went to bed to take the edge off the cold. The bathroom was downstairs, in an annex off the kitchen. In the winter it was a swift run from the hot bath through the cold house and upstairs to bed. In the summer there was a world of other fears. That downstairs bathroom was home to the biggest spiders I ever saw. Black and spindly against the white ceramic of the bath, or in the skylight above the toilet, casting shadows. The scurrying little eight-legged bastards ran from under the bath when the taps were turned on and my mother picked them up in yellow dusters and threw them into the garden. I would shriek and run like a girl, and my father would step on them so they looked like scrunched up cotton. I am still afraid of tomato stalks.

But my abiding memory was of the apple trees; the biggest and the best one right outside the new bathroom window. In September the whole tree hummed with wasps and I’d shuffle out along the branches to pick the best apples that were always the highest. My mother called up to me to be careful and stood below me with her apron in her hands catching the apples I threw to her. We never got them all. The branches were too high. We’d wait for them to fall, all waspy and half rotten, and my mother cut the good bits out and made pies and crumbles and charlottes. In the early autumn we’d get into my father’s Ford Consul and go blackberrying in the hedgerows of Essex. I’d take a book, or a sketchpad, or I’d just sit in the car waiting to be old enough to drive it. My mother took over my playroom, strained blackberries from the clothes horse through muslin into tin bowls.

Blackberry jelly, blackberry and apple jam, fruit from the trees in the back garden, not just apples but pears and plums as well. Vegetables from my father’s allotment. This was England. No outside influences apart from the American TV shows – The Lone Ranger, Champion the Wonder Horse, Stingray, Supercar and later the Man from UNCLE and Thunderbirds. A nation in splendid isolation still, the cold war raging, the planes going over, high in the sky, propeller driven, small specks of sky-borne silver-grey carrying unimaginable destruction. This was home. You could measure how bad the storms were by knowing comparative puddle-size, how deep the snow was by how far up the wall it lay. Home, the place I had the measure of, the place I knew like the back of my hand. The local river that never flooded as bad as it had that autumn in 1961. The railway, the smell of steam engines lingering on the wind. And all this was mine. I was an only child, except I wasn’t. My father had been married before, long ago before the war, and had two children who were nearly twenty years older than me. They had children of their own, and by the time I was ten I had five step-nieces, all of whom would visit and fill the house with girly shrieks, those high-pitched teakettle screams, noise and laughter. I was a teenager by then, all hair and broodiness, playing guitar and listening to early noise. The girls sat on my father’s lap in the evening, talked through Top of the Pops except when their favourites were on, when they screamed those teakettle screams again and again. I tried to be aloof and deep and interesting, but I was fifteen so I came across as surly, unpleasant and anti-social. Those nieces grew up and had children, and then their children grew up and had children, that’s how long ago it was. Burgers were still called rissoles, Barbara Windsor made parts of my body behave in ways I couldn’t control (not personally of course, but boys could dream…), Cilla Black didn’t look quite so much like a demented chipmunk and Kurt Cobain hadn’t been born yet.

I moved out in the spring of 1973. I went back to visit, because my parents were still alive back then and they had to let me in because it was home. The fruit trees in the garden were still providing, the flower beds and the rockeries where my mother grew herbs were still there. The corrugated iron fence was getting rustier, the Bramley cooking apples on the tree next to it so heavy they would cut themselves in half as they fell off. In the last few springs before he died, my father still oiled his old push-mower and cut the lawns in strips each way so they looked neat and presentable, like a cricket pitch. My mother tended the rockeries and the flower beds, my father planted his vegetables, made trellises for the beans, strung netting to keep the birds off his raspberries.

When he died in the spring of 1980, my mother hung on in the house for a year or two in the company of an ageing poodle called Soot the Dog. Not just Soot. Always Soot the Dog. I don’t know why, perhaps it was because of his pedigree that we always had to give him his full title. When the dog died my mother sold the house and moved back to Hampshire where she was born. She moved in with her sister and they traveled the world well into their eighties. She died in 2004 and my daughter sang the theme song to Clifford the Big Red Dog all the way through her funeral service. I think she’d have liked that.

So, why am I waffling on about all this, indulgently banging on about some idyllic, white, privileged middle-class existence that occurred in an England that never really existed in the way we remember? It’s because of technology, that’s why. When I was a kid we had to watch liver sliding down a wall or whatever you did to make your own entertainment, we had to use libraries and read books and stuff because there were only two channels on the television and one of them had adverts in so my father refused to watch it. But now, technology has the power not only to entertain, but to find just about anything, including homes in South Cambridgeshire, so I looked on Zoopla one day and there it was.

My old home.

Well, I certainly can’t go back there, that’s for sure, not unless I had half a million quid. And even then I wouldn’t want anyone to let me in that I couldn’t punch really really hard. I presume UPVC double glazing has a purpose or a reason, but it’s certainly not an aesthetic one. And those little windows with the odd purpose-built bubble in the glass looked really nasty. And they’d bashed a hole through to my playroom and the dining room was part of a “spacious kitchen-diner” now with an MFI veneer-and-MDF kitchen and striplights. Someone had bought a conservatory from Conservatories R Us and had shoved it into the back garden off the kitchen where the woodshed used to be, where my old splay-legged bath had provided homes for the spiders that could not possibly exist in that wall-to-wall pink carpet under merciless light blinding in through yellowed plastic windows. The house was centuries old; the conservatory was something horrid from the 1990s. In the sitting room the beautifully proportioned little rectangular side window had been replaced by a sort of oval porthole with a twee little nylon curtain on a twee little plastic curtain pole, and the mirror above the fireplace, where my father would trim his moustache with my mother’s nail scissors had been replaced by a hideously crenellated monstrosity that appeared to have come from one of those shops that sell things cheap because nobody likes them any more. There was a beige leather three piece suite, and I found myself hoping that whoever bought it had been ripped off at DFS during those few micro-seconds when they weren’t having a half price sale. Upstairs my mother’s oak wardrobe had been replaced by a glass-fronted fitted sliding-door thing all along one wall, and I imagined getting out of bed in a room like that and being faced with my own full-frontal early morning nakedness every day. It’d be like sharing a room with a fat orangutan. I’m sure there are beautiful things in this world but I am not one of them, and I’d sooner keep mirrors to a minimum for everyone’s sake. I checked for mirrors on the ceiling but thankfully there weren’t any. It was my parents’ room, for fuck’s sake.

There were thirty or so pictures on the website, all revealing the old place in varying degree of tastelessness. It was in bad need of an interior designer, or at least somebody gay enough to realize what horrors had taken place here. And then I found the garden and began to weep. There was not a tree left. Not one. The raised lawn my father had built was gone, the rockeries and the flowerbeds gone, the path my father had laid with old bricks and East Anglian flints and bits of broken stone was gone. I’d helped him mix the cement for the low wall each side of the path. Don’t get the lime in your eyes, boy, be careful when you mix the sand in, get it even. I remember him kneeling back with a trowel in his hand and dust in his hair, checking his handiwork, setting a stone here, a flint there, some dull red bricks, weathered and chipped. I remembered the soil, delivered by a lorry in a heap in the road, and helping get it round to the back garden in wheelbarrows to make a rockery and raised flowerbeds. Geraniums in cloches and daffodils in the spring. Afternoon shade from the trees on hot summer Sundays. Apples in the autumn and sunsets from the scaffolding.


Replaced by an easy-to-tend lawn, some grey flagstones and big plastic flowerpots and white plastic garden furniture. A shed and something called a “garden studio”. A Barbecue set on the flagstones. Actually, let’s face it, it was described as a ‘BBQ’ in the details. Bill Bryson once said that anyone who spelled barbecue ‘BBQ’ is not yet ready for unsupervised employment, but I think he said that in the days before estate agents had websites.  At the end of the garden was a new wood-effect tin and plastic garage and another tin “utility store.” Well that was it. A utility store. What the fuck was that? It’s a shed, just another shed. It had been named a utility store by the sort of person who would call a spade a hand-held horticultural earth-inverting implement. Outside the utility store was a new garden fork and a rake. Just in case you didn’t have the imagination to work out for yourself what to put in your utility store. And that was it. Imagination: a road you can’t help taking to a place you’ll never see, and my home had been turned from an idyllic memory from my imagination into a Daily Mail reader’s paradise. You could sit in the garden moaning about immigrants in between random bouts of wife-swapping. You could nod your head in shared wisdom at everything Iain Duncan Smith said as he dismantled the welfare state. You could maybe retire there and put your Nissan Urethra or your Skoda Fellatio in the garage and polish your caravan at the weekend while your wife went to Waitrose, and your wife would have a mouth like a cat’s arse and a mindset to match and you could have roast beef on Sundays and one day you’d die but you wouldn’t really notice because it’d be a day much like any other.

People noticed when my father died. He’d planted daffodils in the grass verge of the public road across from our front garden. On the day the hearse came for him they had just bloomed and were waving in the April sunshine. I stood in his bedroom looking out over the low wall to the field, the elm trees bordering the main road at the top of the village. His old room smelled of pipe tobacco and polished wood, and I looked out beyond the main road to the undulating Essex hills beyond. That horizon had framed my childhood, had given me something to strive for in the end, something to get beyond. But now the sky was blue and the clouds that scudded through it held nothing, not even the promise of rain. 


  1. What a wonderful essay. I enjoyed it immensley. And, unfortunately, it is true for us all.

  2. You always make me spit my coffee (okay, sometimes bourbon) at the screen and my cackling has my hubby seriously considering having me sectioned. Today you made me cry (Hubby was still wary) Such wonderful images. Perhaps home isn't the house, but the people who inhabit the landscapes of our childhood.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it, both. I've forwarded your comments on to Perry.

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