Place confuses me. I mean “home”, “homeland”, “this place I call my own”: I’ve never got it, and probably never will. Forgive me for being somewhat autobiographical here, but about such subjects it is impossible to write in any other manner with any degree of certainty.
From being a youngling I moved around. It is only recently that my years began to outstrip my former addresses in number. It took until my low forties for this to happen. So I guess rootedness is probably not going to feature in my writing. And that is where the confusions begin. You see, no matter what I write, it is there. And I wonder: is this a common feature in poetry and of poets? Is this need to find links with a particular location – to unearth roots and give them a voice – something which many poets share?
I’ll leave those questions open. It’s either the case or it’s not for other folk. I can only write from where I stand. Which is where? OK… currently I live on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire. My family have a recorded history here going back to beyond the Domesday Book. “We” built many of the drystone walls around here, laid cricket pitches, put up churches and then chapels, worked in the mills and drove the herds. “We” are as much of this place as the rivers and the hills. If anywhere was going to be “home” it would be here. And yet, and yet… writing explicitly of this place always seems to grate somehow. It takes a real effort to find a way in, to look at the place askance. It is certainly not the easiest subject to tackle without seeming partial or devious. I could, for example, cash in on “The Brontes”, wander out on to Haworth Moor and emote romantically about the ling and the misery. That’s an extreme form of this “appropriation approach”, but the point is general. It is so hard to be sincere about a place when I both am and am not part of it.
So… what is the issue? Just step away from the (slightly mouldy) cookie jar, and write about something else. If only it were so simple. I don’t know if other writers get this, but I seem to have voices in here calling me back to this place in which a barely recognised “family heritage” lurks. I don’t know the faces or the voices of the people who constructed this millennium old edifice. They are at best names on family history websites or gravestones. On the odd occasion when something more than a name appears the ghosts take form: a nineteenth century photograph of some great, great aunt looks uncannily like my brother in drag; a cricket score book from the 1850s in which a relative scored successive ducks rings (sadly) true to family form.
The issue may be – and this occurs to me as I’m writing – that I am finally coming to understand the gravitational force of this place, and that in writing about it I am adding a little more to the pull. The irony, and the dynamic, is that I am – as I have said – a wanderer. It is just that this is the place I have been wandering from all these years. Will those voices which compel me to write about this place be their own undoing?
And then there is the centrifugal force – that which throws me away from anything approaching a settlement. There is a wanderer in my soul – one which must find its expression somewhere. As I say I cannot speak for anyone else in this. There is a hearty tradition of writers who displaced in their younger lives. Many did, and I am guessing, many will continue to do so. The twin poles of home and the far horizon are strong in their force. It is unsurprising that they drag the words out.