A Writer’s pebble-dashed vision.
I first encountered England through her literature. Walking the moors with the Brontës and their wayward brother Branwell; inhaling the sea-spray of Whitby and digging the loamy earth of Bram Stoker’s London; and sporting on lawns, catching snippets of clandestine love in E.M. Forster’s Home Counties. I fooled myself into believing that world would be there waiting for me in England, and that it would be enough to fill my nascent heart.
Mine was the romantic, mythological ‘Olde Englande’ of Kate Bush lyrics, of Tolkien, and of gentle landscapes which gave up their mysteries for the order of rustic villages where Miss Marple had everything worked out, despite the cold edge of murder and the harsh years of The Blitz.
So, brimming with this promise of green pastures, after my flight out of Sydney collected travellers in Melbourne, we ascended above amazing views of the country of my birth. Literally the first thing I saw far below was Hanging Rock, site of Joan Lindsay’s infamous picnic at which three schoolgirls and their maths mistress disappeared into the ancient heart of the continent.
The volcanic spires sent up a bright late afternoon farewell to me as we swept towards the setting sun. How apt, for a literary fool.
The endless night of my flight ended with a grey dawn over London, a city waking to just another day of commuting.
An old school friend, born in England and now living there, had arranged for me to stay with his Aunt in Warwickshire for a few days. All I had to do was get myself to Leamington Spa, after taking a connecting bus from the airport to Reading railway station.
Thoughts filled with Oscar Wilde and his famous ballad of incarceration in that town, I caught only glimpses of heritage in Reading (a pub, I think) and felt absolutely no romance.
The train swept a few silent passengers northwards, and quite soon an unmistakable vision emerged out of the dissipating fog …
I recall making an audible comment, almost a question … did I have it right? Within this mirage, were those the Spires of Oxford?
The few grey commuters about me raised their copies of the Daily Mail a little bit higher, in unison. Welcome to England, Mike.
Nevertheless, my first few nights I slept in a home down the road from Shakespeare’s Mother’s farmhouse in Wilmcote. Within days I’d wandered through Stratford-upon-Avon and soaked up the atmosphere of England’s prettiest face. The daffodils were starting to bloom, and the country held a sense of promise.
I ignored all bad-weather warnings and cynicism, and, on foot, continued my search for the beating heart of English Romanticism.
Across six years I maintained my romantic denial, even when a ‘castle’, looming out of the Scottish mist proved to be nothing but an enormous power station; even when exploring the endless layers of pebble-dashed suburbs that showed the visible canker that wars had brought to the face of England, seeking the home where my maternal Grandfather was born in East Ham.
But one day, after a day pounding the steely pavements of Sheffield, I accepted that I would need to keep lying to myself to live in this ‘green and pleasant land’.
To be fair on England, I presented myself upon its green hills complete with my own facade. You’d think that flying to the other side of the world would have broken the closet door right open … but I remained an underwritten character in a play that was going nowhere. I was a cipher. Devonshire teas and English Heritage sites were not going to jolt me out of my asexual romance with myself.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.