Already this year I have spent three months in France and I plan to be there for at least another two. Next year I imagine it will be even longer. Inevitably, with these extended periods abroad, I began to wonder exactly where I belong – a question which, at my stage of life, comes as a surprise.
In the past, England was my home. As an adolescent it was here that I rushed back to when I felt homesick. It was where my world was centred and where my family, friends and work were; where I was educated and where my values were honed and generally shared. Here I could communicate in my mother tongue and it was here, later in my working career, that I had influence. For almost seventy years England gave me my context.
Despite this history, the lure of England is now very much on the wane. Perhaps it is because I am older and many of those once-close to me in England have either moved away or died, or maybe it’s because I have somehow been liberated by my retirement and no longer bound by ties to a single work place or responsibility. Possibly it’s because of my apprenticeship with the French language and thereby, my insights into another culture. Whatever the reason, I feel that the umbilical cord that for years so strongly attached me to England is now loosening, soon perhaps to be severed altogether.
In France I read the local and national French press and watch French news on the television. In addition, each day I check out the BBC website and look at the occasional articles in English newspapers. In all this I no longer find news of English events particularly important, and certainly no more relevant to me than the news of elsewhere. If a piece of news interests me, whether it be related to politics, law, government, economy, education, medicine or art, it is more because of its intrinsic value rather than its place of origin. For years on holidays abroad I would need my daily dose of the Guardian and would go for miles to find a copy. Now that need has completely left me. Seen from the other side of the Channel, while I saw the recent decision to acquit Rebecca Brookes as unfathomable, it was interesting but no more. And there is another important issue in the severance – in our cottage in France I feel as much at home as I do in London.
As ever, there are exceptions. In my case there are two – friends and family, and sport. Receiving news from kith and kin still gives me enormous pleasure as it brings me close to my roots. It is to consolidate these ties that I spend time here. Of course one can often satisfy these links conventionally through letters and postcards or by speaking on the telephone, and nowadays one must add texts, emails and Skype. When it comes to sport, I still try to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the UK. If there is a competition, I will support any teams or individuals from the UK. What’s more, if a UK athlete or team loses, I quickly become disinterested. When Andy Murray was knocked out at the quarter final stage at Wimbledon this year, I lost interest in the event and the outcome of the following rounds.
With the exception of contemporary family and friends, and sport, I have become more a man of the world than someone tied to the UK. In many ways the change is invigorating as I strive to establish a new identity; in other ways it is sad as I lose parts of what made me. However, in making such a change I am hardly alone. There are millions of migrants who find the place they think of as home, the place where they feel they belong, changing over the years. The origins of my umbilical severance are very different from theirs, and possibly unusual because of my age, but I imagine that in many ways the challenges are universal.