Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so the cliché claims. It can be true. Being an expatriate, though, could have done little for emotions I feel towards my country. I have missed my loved ones, and my hometown, but there have been times in which my attitude towards England has dimmed. From the news that is my most reliable source of contact with the place, it seems to be characterised by mendacious politics, societal unease, declining institutions and bad TV. Even the cricket has been dreadful. Without regular contact with nice places and people I could have been very jaded.
This is not to imply that pessimism is irrational. To judge a nation by one’s experiences in a small place with a small number of people would be sillier than judging it by its current events. Still, the happy times I have in England remind me of the goodness that is there, and it is sad to be without that. I have found a replacement, though, in a book. To respect baggage restrictions I had limited myself to three (supplemented, at the last minute, by Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, which was so small as not to count). Two of them were classic novels and the third was a volume of poetry, or, to be precise, Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.
This book has been a good friend to me. It was purchased from a second-hand bookshop in Exeter and, thus, has the old book smell: that strange, comforting mustiness that evokes grass and pipe smoke, ice cream stalls and dusty shelves. Someone should bottle that.
Then there are the poems. As Larkin noted in his preface, his selection is broad rather than deep, and includes everything from The Waste Land to J.B.S Haldane’s cheerful ode to his disease. (“I wish I had the voice of Homer/To sing of rectal carcinoma.”) The bias towards plain speakers is apparent but I appreciate the range of voices that are offered. There are poems to suit one’s every mood and opportunities to discover poets and follow one’s enthusiasm elsewhere.
It’s all here: the history, the countryside, the culture, the wit. In the power of Eliot, the wonderment of Hughes, the tenderness of Larkin and the humour of Haldane is so much that I value about home and about life. Describing visceral experiences involves offering one’s dignity on a plate but, still, reading great poems, for me, is somewhat reminiscent of being slapped: being slapped out of the haze of one’s trivial concerns and forced to recognise those facts and questions that transcend them; that which is abiding and important. It is as bracing as experiences come.
I attempt to write poems but it is a hard craft. A poem displays its faults. They sit upon the page like blemishes upon the skin. For now, I am content with this portal into profundity; with knowing that a few lines of text can make that which bewildered comprehensible; that which exasperated promising; that which escaped me significant. When it fails, you can try and fill the gap yourself.