An Englishwoman's home is her castle....
(This one isn't mine....)
We have just come home. Having been away on a big adventure, on the other side of the world, we are now snuggled up by the fire, while autumn's copper and gold unfolds in the Valley around us. The children are opening up the toy cupboards to greet old friends, and our cat is tripping us up, all purrs and devotion. Hot chocolate and fruit loaf revives me, and a good soak in a lavender bath unwinds me after our long journey, but after falling asleep at 7.30am, I am wide awake six hours later, my mind whirring from the trip we've just made and all the experiences we've had.
We've been to England - back 'home' for me. Having not returned to the UK since emigrating to Australia four and a half years ago, I was wondering how a visit there would impact on me. I was slightly anxious about confronting what I might miss. As it turned out, the England I remember is quite a different place these days.
While I was delighted to return to my favourite childhood haunts with my own children - ruined castles, ancient burial sites, mystical stone circles, eccentric National Trust properties, gentle bluebell woods, quaint little villages full of secrets and treasures, Roman villas, Anglo Saxon churches and magnificent 1000 year-old cathedrals which took a century to build - I was surprised to find myself constantly unable to find my way around the places where I grew up. I kept getting lost - thanks to the modern malaise of shopping. Not my own wish to shop, but the wish to shop, which has now reached epidemic proportions.
England is being overtaken by the virus of consumerism, and towns that were once easy to find from the main roads and motorways are now obscured by the arrival of horrifyingly huge retail parks. In turn these require the building of endless roundabouts and extra roads in order to be reached, and multi-storey car parks in order to be accessed. The elegant Regency town of Cheltenham, where I spent my adolescence, has virtually burst at the seams, with shopping arcardes and superstores having rent it apart. Bristol, where my brother lives, is now attached to an entire landscape of car parks and hotel-sized retail enterprises that threaten to disorientate and nauseate even the hardiest of shoppers, and Gloucester, once home to my grandparents, has also been eclipsed by a sea of concrete and the bleeping tunes of transactions.
Bewildered by the sheer proliferation of such unabated consumerism, I found myself constantly asking - who could possibly be shopping to this extent? How would they find the time? Why would they want to spend that time shopping, especially with their children?
It got worse when we arrived at Dubai. There the shopping arcades are opulent temples to the gods of spending, pressurising all who enter to step up, look the part and leave with nothing in their minds or their wallets. This was a whole new game and it scared me because I could see how it actually affected people's thought processes, diverting their intellects and their energies into consuming. There, shopping is a way of life, and people who aren't careful or conscious are sucked right into the eye of the storm without a thought for the value of the rich and beautiful, but now disappearing, Arabic culture that pre-exists the coming of the malls by thousands of years. Or the environment.
I find it interesting that my over-riding impression of my birthplace was imprinted with shops. It's left me wondering whether it's me or England that's changed. Probably both. I remember being overwhelmed by the aggressive, commercial consumerism that typifies Melbourne when we first arrived there nearly five years ago, and have been so glad to be free of it on the isle. Perhaps England is just catching up with this kind of Americanised shopping culture, and I noticed it more on my return, partly because it sits so inelegantly within the glorious green countryside and ancient architecture, and partly because I have avoided supermarkets, let alone superstores, for nearly a decade now.
Other post-Tasmania impressions of the mother country? I found it crowded and cramped, and full of dangerously fast drivers. I found it buzzing with interesting ideas and brimming with style and individuality. I found the gardens too small, the houses too squashed together, and the parks, pubs and cafes delightful and atmospheric. Would I go back? Maybe, but not for a long long time. In many ways it all comes down to people, and while a lot of my old circle are building their lives in other parts of the world now, I still have friends and family in England, and there is nothing like spending time with people you have known for 10, 20, 30 years. In Australia people know me primarily as a mother. In England people have known me as a rock journalist, a student of Jungian psychology, an author, and much more besides. I will always miss having these people around me, as there is nothing like having that kind of shared history with friends. It cements you together. But while I would like nothing more than to have these people all around me all of the time, they would have to come and live here. For now, at least, in Tasmania we have a life we could never have were we in England. And fortunately for us, we also have an already dear set of friends with whom we are building our community - for now and hopefully many years to come.
Snow-topped mountains, wild tangles of forest and miles of empty beaches. Magical houses with enchanting gardens, and acres of bush to lose ourselves in. Summer houses for outdoor parties , weatherboard cubbies for children seeking a room of their own, and verandahs to sit and knit on with mugs of tea and thick slices of cake. Pristine rivers, pure, clear air, and valleys full of weather that changes by the hour. Places where the ringing of tills is still an alien sound, and people who have no more wish to hear it than I..... Yes, for now, Tasmania is definitely home. Sweet home.