Turning forty the other day, my only wish was to revisit the town in which I grew up, and left, and hadn’t been to except in passing for almost twenty years. I suppose that as you get older, you start to look backward with rose-coloured glasses, to a time when things were different, and fuller, and better than they are today. But is it ever true?
There’s a simple comfort from living in the past. Home as a concept, a symbol, is an anchor we carry with us all our lives, an idealised, imagined place where everything is safe, if only we could go back there. So ingrained into our psyche is this longing for home that the theme of homecoming is one of the oldest in literature – The Odyssey, the Godfather of the genre, was composed a whopping 2700 years ago. I’m not alone in thinking we’ve lost something. The world sometimes feels like it’s all gone to hell.
But in the early-nineties, my hometown was heaven. It’s not just subjective: objectively, everything was great. The Cold War was over; the economy boomed; Levi 501s were finally affordable; grunge and Britpop ruled the airwaves; and moviemaking reached a pinnacle in Point Break, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Pulp Fiction. Gone were the luminous shellsuits and ubiquitous synthpop of the eighties, along with the perms and the mullets and the socks-with-sandals monstrosities. England reached the semi-finals in Italia 90, to the timeless strains of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. We had Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the best time to be alive.
Then what happened? The grunge heroes died; we saw the awful realities of Islamic terror; Keanu Reeves got old; Mel Gibson went crazy; we were embroiled in endless wars; and climate change became a watchword for everything that is wrong with the world. For the past twenty years, I haven’t just wanted to go home – I’ve been desperate to.
As I’ve bounced from place to place, never putting down roots, my life has felt temporary, transitory – because my real life, and my real home, lies far away, somewhere between memory and fantasy, in the hallowed halls of my youth. If only I could get back there.
So on my fortieth birthday last week, I did.
Why did it take me so long? Because I knew things would be different. I’ve been a fan of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley almost as long as I’ve been away from my home, and was always struck by his uncomfortable impressions of returning to Salinas after having moved away years before: ‘Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.’
I went to all my old haunts – my house, my school, the pond where I had my first kiss, the record store where I fell in love with music. Some of the places I recognised; some of them were smaller, and narrower, and uglier than I remembered; and many of them are gone, replaced by things that might be significant in other people’s lives, but with which I have no connection.
I saw faces, people, thronging the streets. I spoke to some, people who might not even have been born when I left. And one thing was inescapably clear with every word they spoke:
This was their hometown. This was their life. Not mine.
Because my hometown wasn’t just bricks and mortar, but a place in time, and that time was the 1990s. My hometown isn’t a place I can visit: it no longer exists.
I think that’s the experience of any person who leaves a place and comes back to it.
But more than the place being different, there’s a further dislocation because you’re different. When I was sixteen and broke up with my first girlfriend, I pined after her for months, and when I finally met up with her again, I discovered the horrible truth about life and relationships: that we are all in a perpetual state of change. If we’d changed together, we might have had a chance, but we changed apart, and no longer fit together. There was a time when my hometown fit me perfectly, but it’s changed, and I’ve changed, and we’re no longer right for one another. We had our time, but that time has gone.
An idea contained in another book – the fantasy novel Assassin’s Creed by Robin Hobb – helped me get over that girlfriend, and is illustrative of why we spend so much time clinging to the past – people and places and things that we think are so much better than today. The main character spends most of the book longing for his former lover, until someone gives him some hard reality, and it’s such a life-changing truth-bomb, it’s worth quoting in full:
‘You have been gone too long from her, and too much has befallen you both. And what you loved, what both of you truly loved, was not each other. It was the time of your life. It was the spring of your years, and life running strong in you, and war on your doorstep and your strong, perfect bodies. Look back, in truth. You will find you recall fully as many quarrels and tears as you do lovemaking and kisses. Fitz. Be wise. Let her go, and keep those memories intact. Save what you can of her, and let her keep what she can of the wild and daring boy she loved. Because both he and that merry little miss are no more than memories anymore.’
Yes. We don’t love the people and the places that we used to know – we love who we were when we were with those people and in those places. And if I think of my hometown, I did not spend all those years grieving for a place, but for the person I used to be, and that I lost. I mourn for the boy who was afraid of the dark, that innocent soul who thought the world would be kind, and that he would find in it somewhere to belong. I miss that sweet little fella who had to grow up and suffer all that I’ve suffered. For he is nothing more than a memory now.
There’s a danger in glamorising the past. You stop moving forward, stop engaging with the world, stop living. You become bitter and frustrated, because things are different from the ideal in your mind. Steinbeck again: ‘What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.’ We long for familiarity, for the immutable and the unchanging, but those things are an illusion. Life is change. Or as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago: ‘You cannot step twice into the same river.’ For the river is different, and so are you.
I’ve spent twenty years longing to return to a home that never really existed, and waiting to start a life that was nothing more than a dream. I’ve spent twenty years feeling like I don’t belong, that I should be somewhere else, doing something else, as someone else. No more. I’m closing the book on this chapter. It’s time to accept that this is my life. That this is where I live and this is who I am. And home, the concept of a place you can return to and feel safe, doesn’t exist. It never did. It was simply a time when I was younger, and happier, and more hopeful than I am today.
The theme of homecoming in Ancient Greek literature? It’s called ‘nostos’, from which we get the word nostalgia – sentimentality for a better, happier past. But that’s not entirely true, for the second part of the word stems from ‘algos’, meaning pain. Nostalgia is better translated as ‘the pain of homecoming’, or more pertinently, ‘the pain of longing for home’.
Don’t let that pain keep you from living.