My family home felt smaller than I remembered it. The walls seemed a little closer, my head a bit nearer to the ceiling. It had been like this for some years now, even before my most recent and (by some distance) longest absence. Is it just me, always seeing the places where I grew up, no matter how often I return to them as an adult, through the lens of my childhood self?
My sense of disconnect was compounded by a recent refurbishment. Walls I recalled as fading yellow were had been given a shiny lick of paint; the upstairs lounge, on my last visit a junk shop of label-less VHS clutter, had been transformed into a ‘cinema room’ (my parents' unnecessarily grand name for it) complete with multi-cushioned sofa and a TV so large and so vivid I felt I could reach in and give Nicholas Witchell a well-needed slap during one of his cringingly portentous royal correspondent crosses on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News.
Ah yes, the BBC. After friends and family, our national broadcaster - cherished and maligned in equal measure - has been one of the main things that I’ve been unable to find an adequate substitute for in New Zealand. It’s not so much the Beeb’s absence that has made my heart grow fonder, but rather the poverty of the nightly schedules served up on NZ free-to-air television. When confronted with a line-up that regularly publicises an immigration control reality documentary as its ‘pick of the day’, is it any wonder I’ve been reduced to entreating my parents to fly over DVD recordings of BBC shows to fill our evenings with? Certainly, it felt good to be plumped down on the couch in the sitting room where I’d spent so many lazy afternoons as a kid, watching programmes humming with familiar accents while my family busied themselves in the kitchen with some kind of inevitably food-related activity.
It was approaching 22 months since I had last set foot upon home soil, and in that time I had come to feel like I had taken on another life; not quite someone else’s, but certainly a life different enough from the one I had left behind in September 2010 that returning to England felt like being shaken awake from an unlikely dream. The stark reality of it all hit me almost as soon as my parents drove us out of the bubble of Heathrow airport and onto the M5’s tarmac artery. Everything seemed that bit older, the vegetation along the banks wilder and weedier than the New Zealand roads I had become accustomed to. After two years of green motorway signs, it felt strange seeing the bright British blue variety again, especially the one that grandly announces the approach of ‘The North’ as if to prepare you for entry into some foreign land (no jokes at the back there please). Odder still were the occasional glimpses of countryside: the patchwork fields and hedgerows, the ancient steeples and stone chimneys - all so different from the rugged expanses of untamed wilderness that decorate the great open highways of NZ.
If there was something halcyon about that drive, reconnecting to a landscape I’d temporarily boxed away in my memory, then my first proper reunion with British life was a rather more sobering experience. Enter Thurrock Services, supposedly a “Gateway to London”, but not an entrance you’d dream of escorting a tourist through on a maiden visit to the capital. I’d grown up with these places, come to appreciate them even, as havens from the crushing inevitability of motorway gridlock where you could sink a greasy Full English and cup of coffee en route to a day trip or holiday destination. But in my time away I’d become spoiled by New Zealand’s superior roadside offerings – less frequent yes, but usually independently owned and almost always guaranteed to serve a city café standard brew and gourmet sandwich made to order. At first, Thurrock seemed to sum up everything I hadn’t missed about my homeland: the homogeneity of its shops and food outlets; the price premiums on substandard, production-line food; the shit coffee. And yet, as I sat cradling a watery Americano and surveyed the scene from a table in the middle of its crowded communal seating area, I also saw that it was wonderfully, viscerally alive with people from every walk of life, all creeds and colours, rich and poor, northerners and southerners. In short: Brits. Brits like me and Brits not like me, but Brits nonetheless. And it was then that it really hit me: I’m home.
If the coffee and the people at Thurrock services had piqued an assortment of feelings, then I was more resolutely cheered by a brief flirtation with a Marks & Spencer ‘Simply Food’ store on the way out. Another British institution that I didn’t really think to miss until I found myself hunting for lunch in an Auckland supermarket and failing to find anything even approximating a pre-packaged sandwich, M&S stirred happy memories of a time before Pak ‘n’ Save and Countdown were the destinations of my weekly shop.
This wasn’t quite M&S as I had known it though. While the shopping experience it offers has always been unmistakably British, the stores were not previously known for ostentatious displays of national iconography. On the occasion of my return visit, however, even the most indifferent republican (among whose number I, in zestful and impudent youth, might have counted myself) would have failed to notice the surfeit of British regalia festooning every shelf. Countless products seemed to carry a Union Jack or be branded as some kind of Diamond Jubilee ‘special edition’, and you had to duck for festive flags and bunting. In all honesty, I hadn’t ever seen anything like this.
Of course, I knew this was an important and historic year for Britain, what with the serendipitous alignment of London hosting the Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (and all this only a year on from the Royal Wedding), but I was not quite prepared for the sheer extravagance of the celebratory memorabilia that I came to find in almost every high street and establishment I encountered during our two week trip. My surprise was perhaps a consequence of having observed over the 27 years I had spent living there Britain being so spectacularly bad at venerating its national identity. I grew up watching our flags be abused by fascists in the 80s, tackily reclaimed by Britpop and the Spice Girls in the 90s, and all but ignored in 00s. All this, and the reality of me spending two years on the other side of the planet slowly forgetting the day-to-day idiosyncrasies of British life, meant that my sudden exposure to these apparently heartfelt displays of national pride caught me off-guard. Was I really home, or in some Disneyworld version of England where there’s a red telephone box on every street corner and all the men wear bowler hats?
Our first weekend back, at the tail end of June, happily coincided with the final of football’s European Championships, which, due to the time difference, had proven something of a chore to follow in New Zealand. In truth, it was not at all a coincidence, for I had ensured our outward flights were precisely timed to prevent me being mid-air somewhere above the Himalayas as Wayne Rooney scores the 90th minute goal that wins England the tournament in a dramatic comeback against arch-rivals Germany. As it transpired, the Three Lions had been knocked out of the tournament a week earlier in a lifeless draw against Italy, so my dream of watching our greatest sporting triumph in some dirty local pub surrounded by my fellow countrymen would have to wait until the next World Cup. Instead, I had the pleasure of seeing Spain out-masterclass Germany in a superlative 4-0 victory, but whichever nations had been in the final, I think I would have found watching a football game back home amongst family and familiar things every bit as thrilling.
While acute jetlag contributed the somewhat dream-like quality to those first couple of days back home, it soon dawned on me how little time I was actually going to have to enjoy it. A total of three weeks’ leave from work had seemed like a lot on paper, but with the travel time, time difference and jetlag factored in, it left little more than a fortnight to reacquaint myself with my old life. This, of course, is the unfortunate reality of living aboard and so far from home. Few of us have the luxury of extended leave – not to mention riches – to enable significant or frequent return trips, and the two years I had spent away meant that I felt a lot of pressure to fill every minute of my visit with something noteworthy, whether it be a catch-up conversation with the family, a reunion with an old friend, or even something as simple as sipping on a pint of beer with a bag of crisps in a traditional English pub.
While these little reappropriations of my old life were joyful in many ways, their fleeting nature caused me to belatedly realize that the true price of living in New Zealand is not the long periods of physical separation from home, but the fact that homecoming visits must be so cruelly short-lived. Those two weeks hurtled by like a runaway train. Looking back now, I see a whirligig of old faces, boozy nights and the best of British. Loughborough, Nottingham, Lancaster, The Lakes, Manchester, London, Brighton, Newark – did we really cover all that ground in 15 days? While this frenetic tour of people and places left me with a degree of sadness at how little time I’d been able to spend back home, I returned to NZ with an appreciation of it that I didn’t have two weeks earlier, and in truth probably never had before. Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Definitely, but the real tug on the heartstrings is having a thing back only for it to be swiftly taken away again. Until next time, clouded hills…