Yesterday afternoon the only sounds I could hear was the sound of the sea lapping over my feet and the occasional ‘ploop’ of pebbles landing in the water. I sat on a virtually deserted Dorset beach surveying the cliffs that are gradually slipping back into the sea and wondered about what made this beach ‘English’. Was it the white cliffs I could see just poking around the corner behind the lush green hills? Was it the pebbly beach? Was it the yachts and liners or buoys?
Ever since I had emerged from the tunnel at Ashford International it had been on my mind. I sat on the coach heading into deepest darkest Dorset watching the cars glide past me, longing for a spicy bean burger. Every now and again a car would whoosh past with an England flag straining against the slipstream and occasionally the flag lost its will and slipped off its pole in resignation and fluttered to a rest in the central reservation. Although I grew up in London, there was something homely about the countryside surrounding me, its greenness, the sheep were familiar, the pubs, the road signs and yet I felt so alien being ‘home’.
There is always that moment when I get back to England when I don’t quite know which language to speak. This was further compounded by the fact that everyone I had to deal with at Ashford was not English, but did they feel more at home then I did? The things that I consider homely are all so set in the past; the spicy bean burgers that I used to live on ten years ago. Question of Sport used to be tea-time viewing for my family and I watched it with a big smile announcing with glee to my Irish colleague that every round was the same; but different. And we had Angel Delight, something I haven’t been able to eat since I was five or six and dropped it on the floor and was so upset that my Mum scooped it back up and it was full of grey carpet fibre.
And then back to the language; English. We sat in awe in front of Big Brother that same evening listening to some blonde women with frighteningly huge boobs make her nomination. Her sentences were peppered with ‘fucking this, fucking that’ and I will freely admit that I swear like a trooper, but it was the words around it. What was she actually saying? Have verbs and adverbs and adjectives become unnecessary in modern Britain? We laughed about it all week. Here we were dragging a bunch of kids to be immersed in English and what were these instructors actually saying? Have I become a language snob I wondered as one of the instructors announced that when you let go of the rope ‘You don’t go nowhere, do you? You don’t go nowhere.’ ‘Anywhere.’ I found myself muttering. ‘You don’t go anywhere.’ Later, sitting on the beach I decided that I wasn’t a language snob; it was just that words were important to me. The way they are used and framed can mean so much, create a picture or change your ideas.
What I was really wondering about was what made me English. Living here in Paris it’s easy to say ‘Je suis Anglaise’. The differences between the French and me are so apparent, in the way we dress, the way we think, our customs, the way I behave, but being in England throws all that into confusion. Was (is) it England that I so detested, or was it something in me that craved more?
I know now that what I craved more than anything was time to shape the words. I have that time now (and sometimes I fritter it away), but do I need to be home somewhere to ground these words? Do I need a home to make these words real? That is the question I am still unable to answer.