On the 8th of July (in 8 days time – yikes!), I’m moving to New England, USA, with my husband and my little girl.
I’ve lived in ‘old’ England since I was 5 years old, so, no matter how much I love my new home (and I will love it, I do already), I know that I’ll feel homesick too and that I’ll miss lots of those things that make England special.
I hope that, as with many writers who moved away from their home, I’ll come to a deeper and richer understanding of this special island, that distance will offer perspective. And I hope that this will deepen and enrich my writing too.
Here are some thoughts on what I’ll miss. Vx
1. The rain
I LOVE the rain. I love the sound it makes as it hits the leaves and the earth, the roof, the windows, how it feels on my bare arms. I love jumping in puddles. I love the smell of the soil after a good downpour. I love how the rain nourishes the earth and makes everything glow.
Most of all, I love how, when it rains, the world folds in on itself and becomes more intimate.
Rain, English rain, makes me want to write and read and dance. It makes me feel alive.
Mama & Tennessee puddle jumping.
I’m moving to the land of confidence, assertiveness and self-promotion…all wonderful qualities which, I am sure, the English could benefit from. But I still love how the English blush at compliments, how they shrug and make a witty joke about themselves and stumble over their feet and don’t take themselves too seriously. My husband says my face goes all weird and screwed up and incredulous looking whenever he tells me that I look beautiful:). We naturally warm to people who don’t take themselves too seriously: they make us feel at home, understood and so less alone. These very real people make for the best characters in fiction too.
3. “Gosh, what miserable weather!”
Over the past thirty years, I must have spent at least a hundred hours talking about the weather.
It’s terribly hot, isn’t it?
Hasn’t it been frightfully wet?
Wasn’t it glorious yesterday?
Where did our summer go?
Did you hear that wind last night?
The irony, of course, is that English weather is pretty mild – and for mild read dull. When it rains it never rains that hard, when the sun comes out, it’s never that hot, when the snow comes, it melts pretty quickly and, as for the wind, apart from a few trees falling down and a few roofs being blown off, I don’t think we’ve ever had anything close to a full blown hurricane or tornado. But still, even in its mildness, English weather is temperamental. It’s shy one moment and tap-dancing the next, it switches from moody to giddily happy in the space of an hour. And so we like to talk about it in the same way we like to talk about a dear old aunt who’s full of flair and character – and ultimately harmless.
I’m going to the land of clearly defined seasons: hot summers, glowing autumns, deeply cold winters and wet, soggy springs (I gather that January-March is called ‘stick season). I can’t wait, but I’m also a little apprehensive – my body has been set on ‘mild’ for the last thirty years…I’ll keep you posted.
A picture taken on one of my walks around Wellington College.
4. Radio 4
I have a radio in every room of the house and they’re all tuned to Radio 4: this most wonderful of radio stations has been the theme tune of my life. It’s one of the things I miss most when I’m travelling. I know there’s the awesome BBC World Service and that I can catch up on programmes through the BBC’s iPlayer Radio. But it’s just not the same.
Putting on Radio 4 has become such a habit that I don’t even notice myself doing it. I switch it on when I’m cooking and having a bath and brushing my teeth and getting Tennessee dressed and driving the car and (rarely) doing the housework.
The presenters feel like part of my extended family. John Humphrys is my clever, slightly scary but nevertheless gorgeous radio grandpa; listening to Mariella Frostrup talking about books in her sexy, husky voice makes me consider, every now and then, whether I might just be batting for the other side; listening to Kirsty Young interviewing people on Desert Island discs makes me feel like the world is a better place; the lyrical rhythms of The Shipping Forecast reminds me that, no matter how far I am from it, the sea is part of my soul.
My trusty Roberts Radio – a wedding gift though I always get to choose the channel:).
I grew up in Oxford so cycling is as natural to me as walking. One of the first things I asked Hugh when he visited St. Pauls’ School in New Hampshire, our new home, was whether people cycled. He nodded but I could feel the hesitation. He’d basically seen a few people on mountain bikes. In England, people cycle everywhere and, more often than not, they cycle on old rust heaps with loud bells and big baskets.
My mother still cycles around Oxford and she’s in her 70s. I cycle, every day, to the coffee shop where I write in Crowthorne. I take Tennessee everywhere on the back of my bike and we have the most wonderful conversations about what we see on the way. I cycle in wind and rain and snow (not that any of these are that extreme…see above). Cycling makes me feel happy. It makes me feel part of the world rather than removed from it, as I do when I’m in a car. It’s a wonderfully sociable way of travelling.
One of my favourite picture books (I’ve read it a zillion times with my little girl, Tennessee Skye), is Quentin Blake’s Mrs Armitage on Wheels. This is a picture of the gorgeously bonkers Mrs Armitage: it sums up my feelings about ‘English’ cycling perfectly and echoes point 10 about odd bods (see below).
6. The Post
If the Americans have the iconic, yellow school bus, we have the red Royal Mail post box. We’re letter writers and card writers (often because we’re a bit shy about saying happy birthday or good luck or well done face to face). We have post boxes on every street corner. They’re as much part of our landscape as hedgerows and Norman churches and National Trust properties. Our postmen and women are the eyes and ears of our communities and they form part of the rhythm of our days.
Almost every day, I wave at the local post man as I cycle past him on my bike. I’ll miss that.
7. “Cup of tea?”
I couldn’t have written a post about England without mentioning tea. Like most, I love a good latte: indeed, England is rapidly becoming a coffee culture. Coffee shops are also my favourite places to write. But there’s something special and deeply cultural about tea. It’s a British institution. A spiritual practice. A way of life for everyone from the bricky to the Queen of England.
I love the phrase “Cup of tea?”, offered up in that most rhetorical of ways: the English will start boiling the kettle before you’ve answered. “Cup of Tea?” is a phrase full of warmth and reassurance; it represents family and friendship; it’s a great equaliser; it’s a way of saying “sorry” or “I’m there for you” or “put your load down”; it’s provides shelter; it structures our days. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that gets us through the day.
A lovely picture from our Mad Hatter’s farewell tea party earlier this month.
8. The Theatre
Novels are my first love and, as a novelist, writing prose fiction is just about the most important thing in my life. But although British novelists are incredible, they’re not unique. I love American, Japanese, French, German, Antipodean, Hungarian, Israeli and Jamaican novels just as much as I do English ones. I suppose it’s because the novel is the most universally human of art forms: it would therefore be impossible for the English to have a special claim over them.
Plays, however, are a different matter.
Maybe it’s because I’m married to a dramatist or because I’ve had London on my doorstep or because I’ve taught plays in my English classroom for the last 12 years, but I sense that we do theatre better than just about anyone in the world. From Shakespeare to Richard Bean, from Chaucer to Simon Stevens, I believe that our playwrights have a unique way of engaging with the world.
Great British theatre reflects contemporary life, shapes public debate, moves us and make us laugh, entertains us and, when it’s very special, changes us a little bit too.
And goodness will I miss it.
My continental relatives have often jibed that the English seem to love their pets more than their fellow humans. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe it’s because, being slightly awkward, reserved, odd-bods, we find animals easier to relate to.
What’s true is that we have a love for animals that is pretty unrivalled. Our animal charities like the RSPCA and the RSPB are amongst the biggest in the world. Our homes are full of pets. People leave entire estates to their cats. Richard Attenborough, that most English of gentlemen, has a direct line to the animal world and brings animals alive to us through his warm words and images.
The English understand that animals are special. That they have a soul. That they are family.
Animals provide particular comfort to children and older people. They are more sensitive and more in tune with nature and closer to the magic of life too. It’s why I write about them. And although I know that I’m going to encounter the most awesome animals in the US (I can’t wait to see my first Moose in Maine), I will miss that particularly English way of loving and treasuring animals.
One of the many dogs I encounter on my daily walks.
10. Odd bods
I know there are odd bods the world over. To some extent, we’re all pretty strange. But there’s something special about an English odd-bod.
Although we might be wearing a Saville Row suit, although we might have the flair and elegance of James Bond, although we might be as eloquent and witty as Oscar Wilde, although we might have the poise of the Queen, there’s an undercurrent of oddity, a gangliness, an awkwardness, a glint in the eye, that runs through even these most polished of icons.
This odd-bodness shines most brightly in the everyday folk of our great island. They’re the people I love writing about. The Pegg twins next door who spy on Willoughby street through their net curtains in The Return of Norah Wells), or Mr Overend in What Milo Saw, who walks around town in his slippers.
Our best writers, from Charles Dickens to Roald Dahl, have captured these most quirky of souls and I’ve grown up with them too. My mother’s an odd bod. When I let my guard down, I’m an odd bod too. Many, many of the professors in Oxford are odd bods.
Odd bods are goldmines for writers. I can’t tell you how many stories have unfolded as I’ve encountered fellow odd-bods on trains and buses and in supermarket queues.
In our airbrushed world, odd bods remind us of what it means to be truly human and no one does this better than the English odd bod.
All this said, home is what makes adventures so powerful. T.S. Eliot wrote that human beings are as much about stillness as movement, that we live in tension between the two: we long for change and we long for familiarity; we long for roots and wings. He also said the following about home, which sums up the beautiful paradox of this term. I’ll leave you with his words:
Home is where one starts from.
I can’t wait to carry my home in my heart to my new country, America. Vx
Tennessee Skye on the back of Mummy’s bike. We’re taking the bike to America…