Sunday, June 13, 2021

Blue and grey and all the colours in between.

Last week I visited Newcastle and the North East of England. It's where I grew up, where I lived until my late twenties and where my son is now a few weeks from completing his architecture qualifications. His presence there for eight years has been simultaneously a wrench and a magnet, a tear to the heart and a stitch that binds the soul. The sense of love and loss has lingered since the evening I left him at his halls with two suitcases, a wedge of cash and strict instructions to spend it all on partying not books.

In truth, the rent is more than the miles between us. 

For all it is distant, Newcastle is no more than a day's journey by car, and this dreadful pandemic aside, driving north has become a regular family trip, uniting us in more ways than one. A love of the region has crossed the generations and even filtered its way into Jane who looks forward to our visits as much as me. But neither she nor my son can share the depth of belonging that comes from what I guess we call roots— a word that hints at the gravity of the ground from which we grow.

The picture above is of Tynemouth Longsands; my childhood home was a mile beyond the prominent spire on the horizon. When we visited one evening last week, Jane laughed at the 'proper hard' Geordies, taking a dip in the slate grey waters, a chill wind blowing in from Norway. I told her this was where we'd learned to swim, in costumes my mum ran up on her sewing machine. Cold came with the territory—and now I come to think, I've no fixed memory of the ocean here ever being blue.

But I have other recollections: of crabbing in the rocks, of picnics on the sands, of lifeboats and bonfires... of times with my brothers and friends, always by the sea.  And later, of days walking this coast, escaping from a father with manic depression which we didn't understand and a temper I thought that all dads had. It's strange that for a place I miss so much, the resounding echo could so easily have been one of fear.

That it isn't, is in large part a choice I made. For our memories—good and bad—are always a fiction of sorts. My narrative is that this is the place I came through; and that further north especially, in the hills and moors of Northumberland, where I found my strength, became fiercely independent, and understood that moving on requires letting go too...  

It's astonishing that I should write those words so fluidly and without prior thought; that thirty years since I left the North East something so obvious seems like a revelation. The irony is that in my pursuing a new and better future, I moved so far from the place that draws me back.  

Only recently I read that to transplant a shrub is traumatic to its growth, the more so the longer it's established— evidently, a fair proportion will not survive. To do much the same to ourselves is similarly stressful, with an equal need for care and attention to timing.

Could I move back to the place I left in order to get to where I am now?  Would returning to the land of my youth be a coming full circle or a wretched retreat? Is the pull I feel an irresistible truth, or a nostalgic lament, that like Houseman's blue remembered hills, cannot come again?

Only this week I was talking to a friend who said he felt something of the same about Devon; that he was never more at home than when the soil was iron-red; when walking the land where generations of his ancestors had lived without question.  He too felt the counterweight of a yearning to belong and the pull of a new life found and now founded elsewhere.

In a few weeks, my son will complete his training; in a handful more the lease on his flat expires. I might come home for a while, he said; he was referring to Wales. There's a part of me delighted at the prospect, and another that's willing him to remain, to find a job up north—to plant his mark in the earth which I dug up. 

The truth is, I shall pine if he stays and ache if he leaves.

Last week as we sat in the dunes watching the light fade, I was thinking of all these things. And it occurred to me, in the way that coincidence takes us unawares, that my son is almost the age I was when I left for Wales. I thought of the turns I've taken, of the skies and seas— blue and grey and every colour in-between—that have passed over my head and under my feet with the turning of the years.  

And I smiled.

There's time I reasoned, for these matters to resolve; for the roots I've laid down—and those my son will in turn—to grown deeper or be replanted as we wish.  

It was twilight when we reached the car and took the road along the cliffs, passing the streets I still know by name. Turning west I couldn't have said if I was heading for home or leaving it behind. After all these years, the sense of love and loss is as real and charged ever. 

And long may it continue—for there are few things that make me feel more alive.  


  1. Hari OM
    I understand. Truly I do. As a naturalised Aussie, I find myself back in the land of my birth. A place I had never had intention of returning to. Now I mourn the land of my heart and choice. ... at least you are in driving distance. Wherever your son chooses to practice, it is likely to be so - and may not be either of the two homes! It's a weird one, this thing called life. YAM xx

  2. Beautifully written and voices my feelings exactly. But one cannot go back - I have moved quite a few times in my life and have lived up here in the Yorkshire Dales longer than I have lived anywhere - we did contmplate going back to Lincolnshire when we retired but things change, people move on - best to have happy memories but keep moving on

  3. I wish that I did have those roots..I have moved well over thirty times, with my parents and then myself and partners following work.
    I wonder why AotearoaNZ just calls me back....

  4. I think our "home turf," wherever it may be, always stays inside us. I haven't lived in Florida for 22 years, and I was off-and-on for a while before that, but I still never feel as home anywhere as I do there. It's a love-hate relationship, too; sometimes Florida feels like a trap and sometimes like a promise.

  5. Your words resonated with me a great deal. Only last night I was looking at property for sale in a part of Florida where I spent some of my most formative years. Those years were not only formative, some of the things that happened there to me will haunt me forever but the river we lived near and the ocean which was a few miles away sustained me in ways I can't describe. I am drawn back there again and again and again. Some of the very trees I remember as a child are still there- one a giant pine who still grows, despite the scar of a lightening strike that I can recall it getting. Its roots must be deep. So are mine. There is a peace I can feel when I watch that river flowing from the Atlantic into the deep green jungle of small islands that I cannot even describe.

  6. Wow, that's a can of worms. Roots. I have been transient all my life. 30 or so years in NZ and 18 different 'homes'. Nearly 30 years out of it and a multitude (I stopped counting, it was kind of depressing) of different homes and communities. I tried to go back to NZ every year, and know that I still feel connected there. Someone told me once about cultural cues, that when you are with people of the culture you grew up in you can read the 'cues'. I get it. That is why I feel at home in NZ and an outsider even among people who speak the same language but don't share the same cultural cues. Cultural cues are much harder to learn as an adult and one never becomes quite so adept at feeling a part of the group.

  7. What the Welsh call hiraeth. Wiki defines it as carrying sadness, but for most it is the pull of home. I live within 10 miles or so of the house in which I was born, can stand in the old village churchyard and point to the graves of many generations of my family, but I still feel the pull at a particular point of that 10 mile journey.

  8. You write with great feeling and struck a note with me. I can't understand why someone would want to stay in one place.

  9. Interesting post... because I think of the North East as home even though I transplanted myself there. I have no pull back to Birmingham - the place of my birth - at all, yet after 38 years here in the south west, Newcastle still pulls me back. To continue with your plant analogy, I think I found my 'right plant, right place' when I chose to study up north.

  10. My 'home turf' is Nottingham, where I spent the first 18 years of my life. But neither parents originally came from Nottingham - father Sussex, mother Yorkshire - and I have no family there now, nor any desire to return other than for the occasional visit (despite the fact that the city is now in many ways more attractive than in the 1960s and 70s). But still... The city evokes a feeling of familiarity deeper than I can put into words which no other place will ever conjure up in me. I've just returned from a week cycling on Orkney with a friend who spent the first five years of her life on Stronsay, and I could see the emotional pull of the islands affecting her.
    Cheers, Gail (still feeling windswept).

  11. 2 of my 3 children have left the area. I miss them terribly sometimes, but I understand that they will make their own choices and live their own lives. I know that I am so grateful for the technology that allows me to keep in touch.

  12. The Welsh word I've been searching for is of course Hiraeth, which has no English translation. That feeling of grief and loss for homeland, wherever it maybe. Modern society has moved around so much that we are torn between all these places. Friends are in Pembrokeshire at the moment and my heart yearns to be wandering round Solva and its walks.

  13. Dear Mark,

    It is quite moving to read this post and in particular, your memories and reflections on home and belonging. You must be so proud of your son for his hard work to complete his qualification in Architecture despite the challenging time in the pandemic. I cannot even begin to imagine how one writes a dissertation without having an access to the library during the lockdown, for example.

    I also have many fond memories of Newcastle as it was the closest city to Durham where I studied my postgraduate degree. I used to go there a lot mainly to visit the Laing Art Gallery. And I also love the area and the people of the North East where you grew up.

    But somehow I feel that I can never go back to the places where I used to live. 'The past is a foreign country,' goes the famous opening sentence of L. P. Hartley's novel "The Go-Between", 'they do things differently there'. I feel a sense of alienation and discontinuity whenever I tried to go back to the places where I used to live.

    I wish your son all the best whichever option he chooses whether to stay in the North or stay at home in Wales. Some people think that our life is a circle. We go back to where we started from...perhaps, it might be true. After all, homing instinct is present in all creatures great and small.

    This new post reminded me to get back to your wonderful book, Counting Steps. My reading has been interrupted recently after a few weeks of doing mundane and repetitive tasks.

    I hope you have a wonderful week.

    With warmest wishes, ASD

  14. Another lovely, reflective post Mark. My step-grandfather was a Geordie and when he and my grandmother retired to Bridlington he missed Newcastle so much that at the age of 75 he split from my grandmother and headed back north. I doubt that he ever fully rekindled the feeling of belonging he had known in his working years when they lived in Byker. Once you have gone you can never truly get back. It's the same for me with my beloved East Yorkshire - the country of my heart. In a sense, it has gone.

  15. Walked last year from WhitleyBay to Tynemouth, and again visited Tynemouth a few weeks ago - daughter at university there.
    Another blogger commented on one of my own posts pointing me to James Mitchell's film memoire of South Shield which I enjoyed: