‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’
So I’m in Sheffield. I have a job – several jobs, library teaching writing – and I’m still wrestling my demons and my schedule to work on the book of my thesis and apply for various Wellcome/Leverhulme/academic things. I like living with my partner full time, it’s lovely. I have a whole, actual flat of my own rather over-full of books and art which is very nice. I’m in London roughly every other weekend but sometimes more or less than that, depending on my work schedule and/or how recently I’ve had food poisoning (Barnsley is trying to kill me). The internet exists, so although I miss people a lot I am not desperately out of touch. I feel it, sometimes, but in practical terms I communicate with everyone not a lot less than I did while I was living in London.
I get this weird, very specific homesickness. I am doing something at work or at home and all of a sudden I am gone, somewhere else, walking along the Holloway Road, or TCR, or Brick Lane, or UCL, or the river, or Camden High Street – somewhere I’ve been so many times it’s part of me now, laid down like a neural network, sometimes more real than wherever I find myself. I ground myself in memory, reaching for echoes where I don’t have evidence. Somewhere out there I am real, or at least welcome.
I miss belonging somewhere. I miss feeling part of something, bonded to the world around me with blood and bone and history. I miss feeling worthwhile. I certainly miss feeling like I have a community or a network of people who aren’t two hours away, although I do have a few good friends up here. But I am mostly working or teaching or trying to write and they have friends/lives/ partners/children/health or anxiety issues so we don’t see each other much.
I went out to the pub once and met friendly new people who were interested in my thesis and my sex/food stuff and it was overwhelming; I talked too much and incoherently because I haven’t felt interesting or engaging in any social sense for ages and I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. I am learning to be a person with much less of a present network (although a lovely supportive partner) and nothing has gone terribly wrong, which is a good thing, I suppose?
I mostly mind not being there for things. I recently missed one best friend’s album launch and another’s birthday in the same weekend because of food poisoning, and it hurts that now there’s no ‘Iet’s just have coffee when I’m better’ option. I hate not being there for people. My close friends have mostly been amazing, considerate and dedicated about keeping in touch, but there’s an element of dislocation that’s unavoidable if you’re 120 miles apart and can’t travel impulsively and just aren’t present at critical moments. My life and emotional landscape have changed immeasurably over the last four years, and it’s hard to feel even the first inklings of my precious, hard-won support systems beginning to trickle away.
There are things I like. I like the politics up here, the resistance, the sense of literal scars across the landscape. I spend a lot of my time talking to ex-miners or other elderly folk, and I find their stories fascinating. Some of the people I work with are lovely. I like the trams and the trains, and seeing the city spread out below me all glittering and grimy or the folds of hills stretching to the horizon. I like teaching, and the sense of being useful and sometimes even inspiring. I like the old industrial buildings, and the unashamed brutality of the new ones. I like walking to work in the early mornings along the tramlines and watching the rain glinting off the roads beneath. I like the clear, wintry smell of the air.
Sometimes I like the sadness. I am learning to sleep more.
I don’t like to think about what would happen if my relationship ended. We’re really good, good enough that the rest of this, even the dislocation, mostly ceases to matter, so it’s unlikely to be imminent, but still. I am quite alone up here.
A lot of things remind me of being a teenager, which is strange and a little discomfiting. It’s partly the rural isolation of the libraries where I work; the last time that I spent hours striding across hillsides feeling cut off and overemotional was when I lived with my parents in a noticeably scenic but isolated rural village before I learnt to drive. It’s also the way my clothes stand out, mostly unintentionally, and are occasionally described as ‘a bit weird’. I totally embrace that, just as I did when I was a teenage goth, but it’s not even a thing in London, where nobody cares. That awareness of myself as weird in a particular social context is an echo, a stuttering ghost from twenty years ago when I was much less accomplished at saying ‘fuck you’ and meaning it.
Underlying it all, though, is a peculiar constant sense of being odd and clever and straining at the leash, something that sums up my schooldays almost as much as the sense of being hopelessly, irrevocably wrong. People, mostly people I like, tell me often that I’m eccentric, or a bit strange, in tones that vary between censure and celebration. Training was interesting, sometimes in the Chinese sense, because I picked everything up quickly and then got bored. I could feel myself turning rebellious and mouthy and frustrated in ways that canny sixth-form teachers or uni lecturers harnessed and responded to, but before that led to a lot of reading books under the desk in class and answering back or taking pleasure in awkward questions.
I’m not sure where any of this is going. I’m not even sure how I feel, really. I am learning how to be myself up here, how to carve out spaces that are familiar and that aren’t a terrible fit for my shape, but it’s a long way from home in all its senses. It’s not somewhere I feel part of, it’s somewhere I am myself despite, defined against if not antagonistically so, and I miss feeling wholeheartedly, holistically connected to my environment. I’m trying – other people are trying – hopefully it’ll get better – but the present is a foreign country, and they do things differently here.