I'm glad to see that you've made your way once more to my world renowned blog for yet more of my, possibly, slightly deranged, musings of this crazy yet mundane life that I find myself living in these United States. Welcome! I hope that you enjoy reading these words to the same degree that I enjoy writing them.
As I recounted previously in the pages of this journal, this Christmas just past, Mrs Geekrant and I returned to my hometown for the first time since I moved to this breathtaking land. Although I don't necessarily like to admit this kind of truth to myself, such a journey is always going to have a profound impact on the brave sojourner, the footsore traveller pausing on the roadway of his life to look backwards from whence he came.
It is a literary cliché that the “past is prologue”, a mantra that a fiction writer repeats to himself to remind himself that his characters have a history that must be contended with, a truism that the self help guru recites to his faithful followers desperate for some kind of healing. It is, I realise, both of these things and so much more but most of all, a fundamental truth that is often truly inescapable until we acknowledge its existence and its impact on our lives.
Returning home reminded me that all that I am and much that I will become still has its roots, and a fair amount of its branches too, in the smallish town in the North of England where I was born nearly thirty five years ago this year. I am a product of that place, even 4,000 miles distant from it, across one of the largest oceans on the planet, I feel its impact in nearly every moment of my life.
My mother is one of the most well read people I know, at least when it comes to fiction (I can't speak to her mastery of the arena of non fiction literature). She has read all of Dickens, certainly most, if not all, of Jane Austen's works and she complains about how evil she feels Heathcliff is in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. She also once had nearly every single book written by notable late 19th and early 20th century author and all around literary misery, Thomas Hardy.
So you might be wondering why I started this post talking about a journey my wife and I took home over Christmas and have digressed to talk about the books my dear mother has read in her lifetime. There is method in my madness, please, bear with me. You see, all the while I was flying home to the United Kingdom, in fact on our whole holiday/vacation, one phrase kept rising to the surface of my mind, a phrase and a book title... “The Return of the Native” by Thomas Hardy.
Now, it is a well trodden trope in the world of television and movies for a prodigal son to return to the place he came from to write some wrong or free the Western mining town from the iron fist of the mining company's hired goons, but one of the first places I heard this basic story of a man's voyage home was by watching a adaptation of Hardy's “ The Return of the Native”.
It would be a mistake to call this story, a comedy, it would equally be a mistake to call it even slightly uplifting. Hardy dealt in tragedy, most of his stories are about people trying to avoid the inescapable fingers of fate and basically getting nowhere and ruining their life in the process.
The “Native” of the book's title, Clym Yeobright is a successful diamond merchant who returns from Paris to his home on the blasted Egdon Heath, falls in love with a girl who wants nothing to do with the place, nearly blinds himself training to be a schoolmaster, takes up basic labouring out on the heath and ends up losing his wife (who drowns in a weir) and becomes a itinerant preacher wandering said heath. So, as I said, not a comedy, so why could I not escape this phrase?
Looking from the outside in, the explanation for my fixation is obvious to most and in hindsight, is to me as well. Coming home after living so far away, this was my own “Return of the Native”, like Pip in “Great Expectations”, it was my return to life that had once been so familiar but that time and distance had now fundamentally separated me from.
The heart of Hardy's book looks at different attitudes to a place that we have grown up. Some have always longed to leave, while others never had any inclination to do anything but stay in that town for the duration of their natural born days.
So the question becomes, how have I changed? How has this Midwestern land made me anew? We are always moving on but what part of my soul still finds itself drawn to the place it all began?
All this was running through my mind has we drove up from London, charting a course away from that bustling metropolis through the heart of “England's green and pleasant land” towards the northern part of England, in particular, a small area close to where the historical counties of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire meet.
Anyone familiar with my writings will notice that when I talk about my home country I use more than one name for the place I come from. I have talked about the United Kingdom, England, the North of England and Scunthorpe. I realise that this might seem confusing to the casual reader, but if I could beg your indulgence for a brief moment, my friends, I will endeavour to explain.
So, for my British readers, this is the reality of our nation, something we deal with every day growing up, but to my American audience, the U.K.s unique political, geographical and cultural situation is often a very unknown quantity. One that must be explained.
So, to begin with, off the north-western coast of the continent of Europe lies a collection of islands, called the “British Isles”, the ancient Greeks referred to them as “Albion”. The two largest of these islands are called Great Britain (the larger of the two islands) and Ireland (the smaller of the two islands).
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its full name is technically the Union of three separate kingdoms, the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of Ireland and also contains one principal principality, Wales. After many years of struggle, most of Ireland gained independence from the British Crown and so, in purely geographical terms the UK makes up the entirety of the island of Great Britain and the top six counties of the island of Ireland (known as Northern Ireland).
So when I talk about the UK, I'm actually talking about four separate countries in one: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Over centuries the English crown unified the two other kingdoms and subjugated the tribes of the Welsh, who ironically were the original “Britons”. I was born in England, which literally means “Land of the Angles”, named after the Germanic tribe, who with the Jutes and Saxons, chased the Britons out and into Wales.
Then finally, within England itself, a social, economic and slightly cultural difference can be see between the North and South of the country.
The South, and in particular the South East, the area around London, has always been the seat of government, a hub of activity and influence. A land of art and culture. The great river port city of London has stood, since Roman times, when it was known as Londinium, as one of the most influential cities in the world. The home to the mother of Parliaments, the beating heart of the financial world. There are banks in London older than the United States itself. It is proud of itself and its history and definitely had and, some would say, still has a haughty attitude in regards to the rest of the country, which it has always viewed as provincial and uncouth.
The North of England, on the other hand, has always stood as the tough, unyielding side of the country. This is a land of rebellions and social upheaval, of tough warriors and hard working industrial labourers and craftsman. This is where the Industrial Revolution had its birth. The place where Stephenson built the Rocket, textile mills appeared as if out of nowhere and the blast furnaces reached into the sky. It is, in fact, this revolution that led to the great opening up of the American interior through railroads and industrial development.
The people of the North are tough, hard working, pragmatic with a welcoming spirit and a low tolerance level for affected airs and graces. If you ever feel your ego is getting the better of you, come to the North, you won't leave with it destroyed, but you'll know your place in this world. They also think Southerners are wimps who drink fizzy beer and talk with silly accents.
As we drove onward, the signs appeared on the motorway simply for “The North” as if the people of London were saying, “turn back now, its your last chance, stay here where people are normal!”, we ignored them, heading directly in that direction towards the town of Scunthorpe.
Scunthorpe is my birthplace and my only real home for the first thirty two years of my life. It lies around ten miles south of the River Humber, a great river on the east coast of England that is really nothing more than a giant estuary feeding into the North Sea. It also lies only three miles east of the River Trent, one of the Humber's tributaries. Most of the town was built on top of a hill range than runs further in Lincolnshire and are the only hills for miles around. Beneath the town, the flood plain stretches away as far as the eye can see and until it was drained by Dutch experts, was boggy fen-land whose ways were unknown to all but the hardy people who lived there.
This is the land, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born into, in fact he and I were born only fifteen miles away from each other... two hundred and eighty years apart but, what can I say, I still feel a certain kinship.
As we drove into the area, I felt instantly a sense of belonging, the land might not be as flat as the land in Illinois say and it is all of a lesser scale than America, but it was as if the land itself spoke to me, through the farmland, the villages that have stood there for nearly a thousand years, it called my name. As I looked on the drainage ditches and the long brownish coloured Trent, snaking its way through the flat land I knew that I was nearly home.
Then, upon the crest of the hills, I saw it, the town of my birth, Scunthorpe. I'd been down this road more times that I can count, seen the town far off in the distance at the end of so many journeys home, but it never meant as much as it did on that day. Scunthorpe, my hometown.
Scunthorpe isn't an old town, while there are parts of it that have been extant since medieval times and its name is actually Viking in origin, most of its existence is modern in nature and can be traced to the discovery of Iron Ore in the area and its manufacture into steel. There are many steel cities in the world but this is the “Steeltown”.
A microsm of the Industrial Revolution, it grew out of nowhere. In 1850, five villages stood where the town now stands, of which Scunthorpe was only one, within the space of thirty years, steel and iron manufacture built a town and it didn't stop growing for years afterwards. Now over 70,000 people call the Steeltown home.
In the early 1980s, when I was born, the steel industry had definitely started to slow down but not long before that time thirty thousand people had worked on the works. This is a town built by the Industrial Revolution and the needs of the modern world. This is the town this native returns to.
No matter whether me admit to ourselves, we are caught up in the DNA of the places we came from, no matter how much we may love or hate our hometown, it still made us the people we are today. We all try to craft out another home for ourselves, a niche out of the wilderness of life, somewhere to hide away from the world. Like our ancestors we seek to create a new life for ourselves.
Still, our past lives, good or bad, echo through the corridors of our heart and lead us where they may. Our lives are a story and every story has a beginning, my story begins in an industrial town in the North of England called Scunthorpe and I can never quite leave it behind. I will always love it and in some ways it will always be home.
Join me next time...