Well, I made it over here in one piece. The flight was LONG as it always is but I stuck to my plan of seeing it as a mini holiday. The food was pretty mediocre but I watched three films, a light Spanish comedy, Ocho Apellidos Vascos, Words and Pictures, a rather hard work film with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I loved. I also continued to read Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howards’s autobiography. Howard, who died recently, was an author married to the naturalist Peter Scott and then, latterly, after multiple affairs with married men, to Kingsley Amis. The book is full of encounters with literary figures, artists, playwrights and the like – from Charlie Chaplin, Laurie Lee, John Betjeman, Laurens Van der Post, members of the royal family and other glitterati. The rest of the time I slept and dozed and longed to lie down. I’m normally very organised but had run around all day like a mad thing only taking Bertie to the dog sitter a few hours before I was due to leave so I was still watering my lemon tree and washing up when the taxi came. No wonder I felt a bit tense and stiff by the time I got on the plane!
I’m now back in Nottinghamshire, the county we’ve all heard of thanks to the forest-dwelling tax evader, Robin, he of the Hoodie, with my parents. I did spend some of my childhood years in Nottinghamshire, but I don’t feel any particular allegiance to it or that it’s what the Spanish call ‘mi tierra’, which, literally translated, means my homeland or my country, but on a deeper level conveys a sense of soul connection with a place.
I flew into Manchester airport, where Eddie from Mum’s village met me, along with his dear little dog Scruffy who was rescued from a Spanish village. We travelled over the Pennines (following at one point the Tour de France route) passing through wild expanses of moorland cloaked in bracken and heather, now turning brown and gold as autumn moves into winter. It was unseasonably mild and sunny and the trees look magnificent in shades of russet, copper and gold. We passed through tiny villages with names such as Tintwhistle and Stone and past fields bordered by hedgerows and dry stone walls. I’d forgotten about hedges but now I’ve seen and remembered them, I realise how much I’ve missed them! Hedges are havens for wildlife – according to the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds, Hedges may support up to 80% of British woodland birds, 50% of British mammals and 30% of butterflies.
A good native hedgerow is made up of a mix of plants such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Crab apple, Guelder rose, Dog rose, Wild privet, Honey suckle, Hazel, Field maple and Holly. As a child I used to look for birds’ nests in the hedges and watch the parents flying in and out until the babies flew. Even in my mother’s garden we get a great selection of birds; this morning we saw goldfinches, blue tits, robins and green finches all darting around on her bird feeders. Although Australia has a rich diversity of birds, I only seem to get mynas, an introduced species, wattle birds (they can be very noisy too) and pigeons in my Melbourne suburban garden.
Much as I love Australia, the life I have created there and all my wonderful friends, I really miss the British countryside. It’s definitely mi tierra, my spiritual home. There’s something about the soft, green, gently rolling landscape that gets under my skin; it reminds me of family walks on Sunday afternoons, picnics by rivers, bike rides along country lanes, village fetes with tombolas and teas and long summer evenings when it’s light till ten o’clock.
I read an article a few years back about Sidney Nolan who moved to England in 1955 and then to the borders of Wales where he settled in 1983. He painted Australian landscapes from afar, but also travelled widely outside Europe to Africa, China and Antarctica, returning regularly to Australia to connect with the quality of light and the shape of the trees. When people talk of homesickness, perhaps what they are really getting at is a yearning for the topography of their native country. Every time I return to English I feel like doing a Pope John Paul II and kissing the ground.
I have very intermittent internet access and so am writing this from the library in Retford near where my mother lives. It’s a small market town, worlds apart from Melbourne in every way, but I’m rather fond of it. There are no shops to speak of – not even a Marks and Spencers – but there is a great little market on Thursdays and Saturdays. On Saturday I bought a wonderful 1950s style cloche hat with a flower on the front ready for Krakow and Zurich, and a red leather collar for Bertie. The hat cost just £10 and the collar £3.50; everything seems much cheaper here. My brother tells me that the cost of living is indeed higher in Australia but so are wages. Not mine, I fear! Next time I come over I’m going to bring an empty suitcase and load up with goodies.