“Home is where you hang your hat,” my old mate Des would say.
He was right, but I was tired of being a gypsy, upping goods and chattels on a whim, to a better town, new friends, and a fresh start. Had learnt the hard way it’s all delusion, but couldn’t break the habit.
The class of my father shaped my destiny. He was a working-class fitter on the shipbuilding River Tees. Some escaped to a better life: those who were willing at any price to lift the quality of life for their families. My father was one.
We moved, always we were moving, toward this El Dorado my father had fixed in his mind. But none of us could see it. It was only in the packing and unpacking to a new place that we understood father was engaged in the journey once again.
In the 1950s, Northern England, you could still see the mine shafts and huge steel rope wheels on the hills, lowering and raising the miners. Still see the men in cloth caps, lunch tins in one hand, their faces coal black. And mother would have the tin bath of hot water by the fireside for the breadwinner’s return.
Home in our early years was Lancashire, a place of coal mines and cotton mills, though the latter were dying then as India flooded England with its cotton. The irony was that the British expansion of wealth in India resulted in poverty in its own industrial counties.
But our family never suffered such hardship. Wherever we lived, we were close to countryside air. Huncoat Lane was a one-sided row of semidetached, pebble-stoned houses. We looked across at small hills and fields, a tadpole stream and a path to the next village, and a view of the wood, a dark place, filled with mystery and evil.
Me and my brother played cowboys and Indians for hours. In wintertime we had snow sled races down the lane to our neighbor Ed’s farm. Most times we ended up in blackberry bushes. In school holidays I’d be at Ed’s farm stacking haybales, working in the hay field raking hay into stooks, pitchforking sheaves onto the dray on a warm summer’s evening. These things were shaping our lives.
Huncoat was a place for growing and happy times, birthday parties, a secret society for boys in the shed at the bottom of the garden. And the ease to see the changing of the seasons, to be in the breath of life.
Then we moved again, father’s El Dorado beckoning.
But what a new home! The garden of England: the village of Hoo on the Isle of Grain, near the Medway towns of Kent. Within an hour of hop gardens, fields of barley and wheat, apple orchards, Friesian dairy cows. For a budding nature freak, this was heaven.
It was also a place for regrouping, we brothers emerging into teen-hood, two baby sisters starting out. Father on shiftwork, life as vibrant as ever; occasionally the flare of maturation, sullen silences, heated talk, threatened violence (the leather strap hanging on the dining room door). Some crying and domestic fury, troubles with the law, chronic adolescent pain. Mum and dad moving into middle age.
Then El Dorado called again. I went to college to study agricultural science, furthering a passion for country life. My parents went to Africa, taking our two sisters.
The village of Hoo in Kent was the last home we all shared together. After that mum and dad bought a series of houses, but the death knell had been dealt for a family under one roof. Me on the hippie path, Howard starting a fortune in London, Pam in boarding school, Kate in university. Howard married; then suicide. Kate married then divorced, then remarried. Me married, then divorced, remarried then divorced again. Pam never married but firmly independent. Mum and dad growing old.
Dad has passed on. Mum is bedridden in a nursing home. Pam and Kate appear to be settled.
I still chase El Dorado, but the price is high – no sense of “home”, of a building growing alongside you. I’ve lived in Vanuatu, and now Melbourne is my base.
But now, growing old myself, I find the chase less compelling.
As old Des said thirty years ago, “Home is where you hang your hat.”
Perhaps I’ve hung mine up for good now?