Conforming to a well-documented pattern, my father became more conservative as he aged, although he found it hard to admit it. But in an unguarded moment, sometime in the 1980s, he confessed he had grave reservations about Asian immigration.
'A whole way of life is passing away,' he said. 'But that's human history, Dad,' I replied. When I added that I had had a happy childhood, but that I felt Australia had become much more interesting and richer since, largely as a result of immigration, he looked away and changed the subject. He never elaborated on the idea of a whole way of life.
It seems to me that a similar feeling, involving the resentment of change and a longing for the past, figures largely in the cultural and political movements that are currently happening with alarming immediacy in the Western world.
The Leave movement in Britain's Brexit had as a motto: I want my country back. Donald Trump claims he will Make America great again. And my native land has an organisation called, with unconscious irony, Reclaim Australia, which fears both Islam and a threat to 'cultural identity'.
The fear may well be about a loss of privilege as much as anything else, the loss of the security that came with the belief that one's comfortable place in the world was set and would never alter.
How far are these movements and feelings connected with a concept of home? I've recently come across a word I didn't know before, the Welsh word hiraeth. It is apparently difficult to translate, but roughly means a longing for a home that one can never return to; connected with this idea is also the notion that perhaps that home never existed at all.
Perhaps the saying there's no place like home has another truth? Open any collection of quotations and you will find a long list of references to home. One idea is that home is where you started from. Another is that home is childhood recreated.
It would seem, then, that home is a place that you leave behind. Bill Bryson, who is from Des Moines, Iowa, (well, somebody had to be, as he says) considers that you can't beat the telephone company, or make a waiter look at you unless he wants to, and you can never go home again.
"Every migrant, and every ageing person, loses a home and the past: that is simply the way things are."
Then there's the matter of homeland. Former British PM John Major once famously remarked that Britain means, presumably among other things, 'long shadows on county cricket grounds'. He also repeated George Orwell's evocation of 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist,' but neglected to mention that Orwell also wrote, and in the same sentence, about the clatter of clogs in Lancashire mill towns and the queues outside the Labour Exchange.
And one older Englishman I have just heard about robustly declared that he didn't want the old Britain back: his family had lived in grinding poverty in a virtual slum, so poor in pre-NHS days that his grandfather had died on the kitchen table because the family couldn't afford to call the doctor. He is glad that way of life has passed away.
Every migrant, and every ageing person, loses a home and the past: that is simply the way things are. Fortunate people have the chance to make another home, and to write a series of additional chapters in their personal stories. We look back at the past, but can never revisit it. And would we really want to? We should always be careful what we wish for, as many British people who voted to leave the EU may now well be learning only too painfully. Despite our yearnings, we have to agree that, as L. P. Hartley said: 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' And David Malouf added his own distinctive note to this idea when he wrote that we are all exiles, 'even those of us who have never left home'.
It may be best to dwell in the country of the mind. No borders, no barriers, a unique freedom to roam. And when you close your eyes, the years slide away, and there is no telling where you are.
Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.
Main image: Walter A. Aue, Flickr CC
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04 July 2016
Wonderful article, Gillian. Especially that final paragraph. We are most truly at home in the country of the mind. I think the people in Britain who voted to leave the EU may not be hankering so much for a return to the 'good old days'. It may be a feeling of being adrift in a place where they should feel anchored. Your mention of David Malouf reminded me of his splendid piece of writing "A First Place" (the short story). In that writing he explains about how we are shaped by our first experiences of the world.
04 July 2016
My father, the archetypal Anglo-Indian colonel, shades of the late John Masters, was always lamenting the loss of the good old days, when schools like St Paul's, Darjeeling were much more pukka than Geelong Grammar ever was and everyone 'knew their place' . But he had a progressive side. He once mentioned, at some hill station, perhaps Ooty, to an even more regressive colleague, sometime in the 1930s, that he thought Indian independence was inevitable. The other blighter almost choked on his gin and tonic. I must say there is an ugly side to multiculturalism with Afghan and Lebanese bikie gangs terrorising Western Sydney and supporters of Isis from the same ethnic backgrounds parading the streets with black jihadi flags shouting 'Death to Australia'. Of course the vast majority of Australian Muslims are decent people but it is these unmitigated ratbags who I blame in large part for the rise of Reclaim Australia et sim. Australia's aging little old ladies are not stupid and they can smell a rat a mile away. I think it is time we took notice of the Corey Bernardis and Jacquie Lambies, who are basically conservatives and well inside the political tent, before the rise of something like the BNP and their associated thug force here. To be part of Australian inclusiveness you need to want to be included and contribute to the further building of this great country.
04 July 2016
Ah, nostalgia! The yearning, literally the pain of longing for one's island; but it is understood that one can never be there again quite as one was before.
But indeed, the Brexit vote has much in common with the Trump phenomenon and elements of the recent Australian vote: 'I don;t understand where we are at present, I'm not across all the issues but I want to hit back at the prevailing decisions makers, who don't seem to do anything for me'.
04 July 2016
Another insightful piece. Keep writing for us please!!
04 July 2016
Thanks for a thought provoking article Gillian, one that certainly resonates with my own personal life, and I take your final advice 'that it is best to dwell in the country of your mind, where there is no borders or barriers, but instead a unique freedom to roam etc.' I believe a lot of bad decisions are motivated by this this innate human hankering to return home, and that the national Brexit decision was certainly one of these. In fact I believe that the Brexit confusion justifies a second vote, for reasons that the consequences were not clearly understood by the many, if not for other reasons as well.
04 July 2016
What an excellent line from David Malouf (one of my teachers a half-century ago). I grew up in rural NSW. Sure - I go back to visit my mother - but she lives in a house which is not the one I grew up in. That house has disappeared. Most people I knew are gone (as in living & elsewhere) though on my last visit my brother "introduced" me to one of my old middle school classmates. The town itself is more picturesque - and probably double the size. Oh well, Gillian is right - nostalgia for the past - to which some might wish to return - but it is an impossibility. Memory can bathe places and times in a rosy glow - we need to understand that - and look to doing our best to replicate the best of those times in this contemporary world - let's go for kindness to others, promote the spirit of community and seek to eschew all the negatives of selfish individualism. I met with a young cousin this morning about to head back to Japan - and to my delight he spoke of how we are one with all others!
05 July 2016
Even for speakers of the same language, the same words will almost certainly carry slightly different connotations, so one's idea of home, while sharing much in common with that of certain others, is unlikely to be identical to anyone else's. As a number of the quotes in Gillian's article suggest, "home" is often a partly imaginary, somewhat idealised version of an actual place and time and the people who shared that space, engendering a state which we associate with feelings of safety and security. But insofar as it is largely a personal construct, it can be only partly actualised, and only as the memory of an idea can it be recaptured or reconstructed, hence the unassuageable nostalgia some people feel for what is ultimately mutable, as we ourselves are.
09 September 2016
I've come late to this essay - with little I would want to disagree - as seems usually my reaction to your always thoughtful perspectives on aspects of the human condition and the culturally rich diversity of our world. Thank-you - from someone who feels a connectedness to a whole lot of places. All of them a kind of home...