FROM THE BOUNDARY - Hiraeth
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 12:00am
As an expatriate, you’ll realise I live in two worlds. My other world is a two bedroomed terraced cottage in a former fishing village called Borth, just eight miles north of the university town of Aberystwyth in west Wales. If you’re interested, you’ll find it on the Internet. It takes me longer to travel there from Gatwick than it does to reach Gatwick from Barbados. Door to door, the entire trip takes something like 28 hours. Am I getting too old for this?
I’ve been associated with Borth since childhood. My parents took me there from Birmingham for the annual holiday. It’s still a favourite spot for Midlanders. My first teaching post was at Aberystwyth. I joined the Department of Law there on my 22nd birthday and stayed ten years. I knew that if I didn’t leave, I would die there. It was all so beautiful and, looking back, it was my ‘play for voices’.
Tradesmen in the town still remember me from all those years ago. For the first two years, I lived in a caravan at Borth and then bought a former manse in the foothills of Plynlimon, the highest mountain in that part of Wales. The house was called ‘Afallon’ – Avalon – meaning ‘beautiful place’. I was very happy there. In those days the Welsh Language Society was very busy demanding home rule, defacing road signs and burning English owned holiday cottages. Some of the most vehement were Englishmen who had learned Welsh. There’s nothing quite like the convert for extremist idiocy, is there?
My little cottage is called Nimue Fach, little Nimue, and I feel very safe there. Nimue was the child enchantress who seduced the wizard Merlin and stole his secrets. She has the same kind of hold on me for, no matter how ‘late Victorian’ the cottage is, with its ‘two up one down-ness’, I really never want to leave. The garden is a little way from the house and is over-run by wild roses. Two years ago I had a shepherd’s hut built there, ‘y deryn du’, the place of the black bird. From there I can watch the London train whirr purr its way eastwards – to the songs of sea gulls and wild geese.
The cottage is like a womb within a womb. The curved perimeter of the outer womb is Cardigan Bay which stretches down to the sand hills at Ynyslas and then the Dovey estuary, the gateway to Snowdon and North Wales. On a very clear day you can see across to Ireland and, in the north, Bardsey Island, a place of pilgrimage and the final resting place of 20 000 saints – or so it’s said. Beyond the railway track to the east is a bog and then, on a rocky promontory above it, is St Michael’s Mount where a Church in Wales church stands proud and receptive to all the holiday makers from the adjacent caravan sites. Inland and overlooking it all is a range of hills where the final resting place of Taliesin, the great Welsh poet, can be found. So it’s like a womb.
The cottage itself is said to have a ghost, the ghost of Aunty Madge who died there in a fire in the early ‘80s. I’ve never seen her but some nice tenants I had once said they had – a little old lady smiling at the foot of their bed. Aunty Madge is buried at the Church and from her grave you can see the cottage. I think it would be nice to be buried next to her.
Now, do you remember Robbie Burns’ poem ‘My Heart’s In the Highlands’? “My heart’s in the highlands, my heart is not here”, he says. You know, Burns never went more than a few hundred miles south to Edinburgh so I’m not quite sure what he was talking about. He doesn’t quite match the 4 000 plus miles which separate me now from ‘little Nimue’. Where’s your heart, I wonder?
Actually, Burns and I have a few things in common. He was offered a job in Jamaica but turned it down to write poetry and avoid food stamp syndrome. Twenty something years ago, I took up an academic post here and then, much later, married a Jamaican attorney. Yes, I write poetry too – but I guess mine at best will only ever pay for the programmes at my funeral. He also joined a dance school. And some years ago, so did I. I wonder if he developpe-devanted to the firebird music of poetry tumbling from his ears. Enthusiasm in abundance is all that tumbles from mine but very little talent.
Mind – I did take part in a show the other day and so became publicly the oldest, white, male ballet dancer in Barbados. Yeah! Oh yes, and Burns chased women with many begorrahs from his swinging kilt and uncondemned by the world. I won’t elaborate. Of course, Robbie died young. Twice his age, I’m still only pushing up daisies in my head.
There’s the question for me, though, and perhaps vicariously for you. Where – for me – is the purgatory of ‘here’, where my heart’s supposedly AWOL, and the bliss of ‘there’? Do 22 years of Bajan ‘here’ make a ‘there’? Does it help that there are 192 other ‘Halls’ in the phone book and even more ‘Hopes’ than ‘Halls’? What I can say for starters is that I’ve stopped supporting the English cricket team. I wonder how many expatriates can say that of the teams from the land of their births. Mind, I’ve lived and taught in three continents and have had most pleasure as a teacher interacting with international students – for they’ve literally come from China to Peru. It’s been a wonderful experience. There are many things in retrospect I would like to have shed from my life, but never that.
Whenever people suggest that 20 plus years in Barbados must mean I’m very happy here, I hardly know what to say. Yes, there have been very happy moments but also some horrendous ones, mostly rooted in the sorry antics from Henry’s Lane. So I usually say: “It’s where I am”. Where are any of us – ever? What I do know is that I’ve more friends here than anywhere else, and they’re very dear to me; but there’s also an angelic host of people for whom I have boundless affection, many of whom I made the subject of my book, which I’ll tell you about sometime, ‘Love Songs in a Zipless World’. So many greet me with the greatest warmth on my return from abroad. And so to all of them I want to say:
‘You touch my heart and have helped me understand that there’s neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ in my life. There’s just up-river and down-river from the same source to the same sea – and ‘there’ is simply where I am now soaked in love and ready to go.’
Why didn’t Robbie think of that?
Go safely, then – until the next time.
Loving God from the boundary: “For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes” (Dag Hammarskjold).