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.