For my whole life I’ve been travelling from Australia to the UK. Ever since I was a young child, much too young to remember: every few years I’d get on an aeroplane with my family and fly for a whole day, up above time zones where sunrises and sunsets lose all their meaning, and land dizzy and dazed at Heathrow and emerge into the crisp, sparse air of southern England.
Sometimes these visits to the other side of the world have been for family reasons: weddings, funerals, anniversaries; sometimes we’ve gone to the UK simply because it was time to go, because in that distant country were dozens of friends and family members, and they missed us, and we missed them. For the great majority of these trips my memory is hazy and indistinct: it’s formed of sensations, up until only ten or fifteen years ago when, thinking back, I suddenly find that I can ascribe years and precise events to the trips.
Because my mother is from Surrey and grew up in London and outside Woking, most of my visits to the UK over the years have been to southern England. When I was a boy I would wave to the train drivers from the footbridge over the railway on the public footpath that led from my grandparents’ house to the village of St John’s, and the train-drivers would hoot their horns in reply – every time. My family and I would divide our time between Surrey and Kent; Kent and London; Chelsea and Bloomsbury. We’d wear ourselves out going in ever-smaller circles, trying to fit in as many visits as we could.
Then, at some stage of the holiday, my mother and my father and my brother and me would all pack our bags and get on one of those trains I used to wave at and let it take us up to Hereford, and from there to North Wales, to visit my aunt and uncle and cousins. Though my cousins have since moved out of home, my aunt and uncle are still up there, in an area whose name I can’t recall and could never pronounce, in a valley that lies in the long shadow of Offa’s Dyke. When exactly they moved to Wales I can’t recall: I have no memory of ever having visited them anywhere else except in North Wales, though I know that I must have. Memory is fallible; sometimes it just gives up. Often the human mind is so overcome by the idea of being in a foreign country that it simply neglects to remember things.
I have a few very vivid memories of visiting my aunt and uncle in North Wales: lying in bed early in the morning, staring through the skylight into the Welsh clouds, listening to the sound of children laughing in the title song to Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister on an iPod I’d bought myself duty-free in Bangkok airport; walking alone up into the hills, along more public footpaths – an institution I regarded then and regard still as the UK’s greatest glory – until I was cushioned in low clouds and stepping past the sunken ruins of ancient circular forts; listening to the polite and delicate songs of British birds in my aunt and uncle’s back garden.
Most vivid of all, though, most lasting and most penetrating, is the memory of meeting my aunt in a wood on the border between England and Wales in high summer. We, my family and I, were transferring from the care of one group of loved ones to the care of another; soon we would all get into my aunt’s car and drive into Wales. Before that, though, we had time for a walk: we turned into the woods and immersed ourselves in the shade of the trees.
I had a friend in high school who disdained the Australian bush. He couldn’t abide its wonky shapes and asymmetrical growth, the roughness and haphazardness of its growth. He stated a preference for the straight lines and neat orderliness of European trees, European forests. Yet with his comments echoing in my mind I’ve found the wooded areas of England and Wales to be anything but orderly: in spring and summer they detonate with chaotic growth, trees and shrubs and wildflowers alike splay themselves in a headlong dash for the light. To an Australian, used to the care-worn pace of growth in this continent of ancient plants and ancient soil, the palpable eagerness of European plants to grow and grow in their few brief months of opportunity is astonishing: we have nothing like it. We have nothing like the way the shade of a European woodland deepens and darkens as the leaves of the birches and oaks and other trees turn from lime-green to emerald to jade to the colour of green-dyed leather.
The particular colour of a European wood in full leaf doesn’t really exist in Australia. It’s a colour we know well, however: our visual culture is still almost entirely derived from the northern hemisphere, and an Australian could recognise anywhere the bright luxuriant green of European leaves. In Australia that’s the colour of grass after an exceptional period of rain; it’s the colour of an artificial food additive. Our forests are muted in shades of khaki and dusted lightly once a year with the brightness of pallid green leaves that have to mature and toughen and become full of toxin before they’re eaten by the multitude of hungry animals that somehow contrive to glean a living from the Australian bush. Our forests are resilient but rarely verdant.
So I met my aunt in a forest that was at once familiar and profoundly alien. Such is the nature of dual citizenship: of having family on either side of the planet. You always feel at home; you always feel, to a degree, like you miss home. I followed my aunt through the forest, and I wondered at the extraordinarily pungent smell that pervaded the forest, and she told me that it was wild garlic: I had no idea of the existence of such a thing, I was still so young back then that I didn’t think of food as a thing that grew wild anywhere. The smell made me dizzy; it made me cough; it made me understand a thing that until then I hadn’t even realised that I didn’t understand. People say that when we’re children we think we know everything; I wonder, perhaps, if it’s not so much that we think we know everything, but rather that we simply forget that there are more things to know than we can wonder at.
At some stage I broke away from my aunt: children can’t be contained to the pace of adults, not for long. I came to a stream, and I saw there a bird that was unlike anything I’d seen before or have seen since. It most immediately struck me as being like a wren, and because memory is malleable that’s still how I think of it, though I know now that it’s about twice the size. Perhaps its body-shape suggested something wren-like to me: round, with a cocked tail, and a neck so short as to be non-existent. Yet whatever it was, it was doing something no wren would ever do: it was swimming.
The stream was running swiftly, over and around rocks (streams, at least, are the same the world over), and this bird, with its dainty white bib, was standing on one of those rocks and hopping into the water; then hopping out, back to the rock; then in, and out, and in, and out. It appeared at no stage perturbed by the speed of the water, though it seemed to me that such a small bird ought to be swept downstream in a heartbeat, dashed helplessly against the rocks upon which it so nonchalantly perched. Instead it bobbed in the water like a buoy, and dived and re-emerged at its leisure.
It’s difficult for an Australian to imagine a bird from Europe, from the UK in particular, being so unusual and so exotic that simply putting its form into words is a struggle. Australian birds are colourful and loud and boisterous; their European cousins are demure, and restrained, and polite in their vocalisations. (Only much later would I spend hours marvelling at the circus-clown make-up of the Woodpeckers (Picidae) that flew to the stunted apple trees in my grandparents’ garden; later still, in Italy, I’d be rendered speechless by the sight of a Hoopoe (Upupa epops), a bird which I’d previously seen illustrated and yet stubbornly believed to somehow be a fiction.) Yet some things – many things – are stranger than we can imagine. In a forest on the border of two countries that were somehow one I was dizzy on the smell of wild garlic and watching an overgrown wren swimming like an Otter (Lutrinae) in a wild stream.
Sometimes the very fact of being in another country is so astonishing that the mind doesn’t know what to do with it. Sometimes a place you thought you knew reveals itself to be completely alien. Sometimes a place can be completely alien, and yet when you leave it and return to the home you love you nonetheless feel somewhere within you a slight tinge of homesickness.
Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org