Where are you from?
I get asked that question a lot these days and I usually have to pause for a moment. Am I from the UK? Manchester? Amsterdam? What about all those other places I have lived in and that have shaped me – St Andrews, Cornwall, Nottingham? It feels wrong to leave them out. I realise that when people ask me, they don’t want my whole life story. When you ask someone where they’re from, you’re asking because you’re trying to get a read on them, because even if you have been separated by thousands of miles your whole lives you will still try to find some connection, however tenuous. Ah yes, my sister’s husband once worked in a town not too far from there. Or, I’ve never been there, but I read an article about it in The Guardian a few years back, sounds like a lovely place! And sometimes, every once in a while, you meet someone from a place you have absolutely nothing on.
So when people ask me where I’m from I usually say, the UK. It’s slightly strange to hear myself say that. I’ve never really thought of myself as being from the UK, or Britain. Not for any ideological reason, but because for most of my life that concept has always been too large to grasp. I’m reminded of a passage in The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. On one of his many wanderings, Baker finds a mouse at the side of the road and touches it:
He was unaware of my touch, of my face a foot above him, as he bent the tree-top grasses down to his nibbling teeth. I was like a galaxy to him, too big to be seen.
For most of my life, my sense of belonging has been focused in on cities and towns: Manchester, St Andrews, Penryn, Nottingham. For the first 10 years of my life, my sense of belonging was even more focused than that. I was from a small street in a small corner of the city. The UK was simply too big to be seen.
I’ve just finished reading The Small Heart of Things by Julian Hoffman. Home and belonging are constant themes throughout the short essays that make up the book. One paragraph in particular has stayed with me:
Certain places follow us, like shadows. At times they lengthen and stretch implausibly tall until they tower over our lives, or slant decisively away, as if trying to flee. Occasionally they appear not to be there at all – so exactly is the overlay of self and place, so precise the meridian sun. Whether seen or not they are undoubtedly close, tethered by subtle threads spooling us forever back, either in memory or actuality, even dreams, to landscapes that articulate something of our selves.
Where am I from? Which places have cast a shadow over me? Even now, from the vantage point of another country, it isn’t England or Britain or the UK that I miss so much as the small repetitions – the streets, coastlines, paths, and fields I have walked often. Telling people I’m from the UK feels like a betrayal of all those places.