Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Home - Where the Heart is?

Did you know that, in space, moss spirals? 

It doesn't not thrive, but it's not at its best. 

Not doing what it should.

It's not at home.

Home. It's literally a universal concept; it's the only one that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial knows. Who among us hasn't at one time or another put on a silly voice, held out a finger and said 'E.T. phone home'?

At the end of the Mad Max film, Beyond Thunderdome, the narrator talks about how the group of children "Started the haul for home," and explains why they keep the oral tradition - so important in history - alive. "We lights the city... for all of them that are still out there ... there'll come a night when they sees the distant light, and they'll be coming home."

So what is home?

“The home should be the treasure chest of living,” said Le Corbusier, but this was an architect's point of view. The concept of home has little to do with its contents; in literary terms this is not what makes a house a home. There are lots of homes in book titles: The Little House on the Prairie, The Mill on the Floss,  while some fictional houses are memorable by name - Pemberley, Manderley (but these are settings, and whilst important, are not necessarily yearned for.)

Be it a house, a village, or just something loosely described as a homeland, it calls us. And the yearning to return to it is a powerful theme in literature. Although not central to the story, in The Lord of the Rings, the little hobbits dream of home; they remember the Shire with longing as they journey ever further away from it, and from what they know.

Languages all over the world have words for this feeling. In Japanese - 故郷を慕う (kokyō o shitau) means to pine for home.

They also have 離郷 (rikyō) which means to separate from one's hometown. It doesn't have an English equivalent and yet we can understand the sentiment, immediately.

The Welsh have hiraeth. It's a longing for one's homeland, but it's not mere homesickness. It's an expression of the bond one feels with one's home country.

In Portuguese, saudade is 'a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.'

And of course, with homesickness, the longing, invariably, is not simply for the place, but for the people there, too. As a bullied child at boarding school, my homesickness was as much about longing to go back to a place which offered unconditional love, as it was about missing my creature comforts.

The urge to return home is perhaps nowhere stronger than in the book, based incredibly on a true story, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, where three young Aboriginal* girls defy odds and the authorities to work their way home across nearly 1000 miles of Australian outback, using the aforementioned fence as a navigational aid.

The Rabbit-proof Fence 2005 - by Roguengineer under CC Licence

Yes, this was a true story, but a great deal of dramatic tension can be created in a novel by taking the character out of their natural environment.

The 'New kid in Town' can upset the equilibrium, as Vianne does in Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, when she arrives in the French village of  Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and scandalises the village and disturbs its occupants, for better or worse, or maybe they feel out of place, like the moss in space: Leo, in The Go-Between, is very uncomfortable in his new world - literally, since he has only a thick woollen suit to wear as the Norfolk summer temperature rises and rises. Not only has he been removed from his home, he has been transplanted to the world of another social class. He does not know how to act. More significantly, he is a child thrust into the world of adults, with disastrous consequences not only for him, but for them.

'Fair Use' Image

I subconsciously made use of this theme in my own novels. I didn't set out to do it, because the outline of an historical novel is, by definition, already in place, and yet I've recently realised that the theme is there in both of my novels and my short story. 

In To Be A Queen, a huge part of Aethelflaed's struggles hinge upon the fact that she is a 'foreigner', in a country she knew as a small child but yet is unfamiliar to her as an adult. She is not, initially, accepted and she reacts defensively, closing her mind to the possibility that these foreigners might be either as civilised, or indeed as brutalised, as her own countrymen have been. Much of the drama unfolds as the two 'sides' learn, gradually, to understand one another.

Surely there was nothing about this in my second novel? It's a fairly straightforward tale of love, lust, and politics. But, here again, is a character who is taken out of the world he knows; in this case, Alvar the fighting man, the local lord, finds that he has to contend with the deadlier arena of the royal court. If he knew the phrase 'fish out of water', I think he would readily have applied it to himself.

Now, I can see that I understood completely what each of these characters must have been feeling and that's why the theme permeated the books.

Is it because I was so frequently a 'new kid' myself that this aspect of their stories resonated with me, or is it, as I said, a universal condition, the sense of alienation which we all will feel when taken away from our cultural, spiritual or physical home? 

Even in my short story for 1066 Turned Upside Down, not only are the English, naturally enough, fending off the invaders who threaten their country, but my central characters, Edwin and Morcar, are also fighting for their homeland, and for their rights. 

I'm not 'from' anywhere. I'm a forces brat, and I have a sense of rootlessness that makes my story very hard to tell. The word 'belong' is a strong one. We humans need to be able to feel it as a truth. What happens when we are removed from home, and the quest to return to that place where we belong, makes for powerful drama.


(If you want to know what the moss in space looks like - click on the link. I couldn't contact anyone to gain permission to use the image, but I can direct you to it. Take a look; it's the oddest thing  - NASA - Fire Moss)

*I did a bit of research into whether or not the term 'aboriginal' was acceptable. This issue is complicated (my thanks to Prue Batten for her insights) but on balance it would appear that the word is largely acceptable, so I have risked using it. I hope not to have caused any offence by so doing.


  1. Beautiful post. I suppose all stories are about a search for something - a person, an object, fame etc. It is where they think they will be safe, happy, belong. In effect, a home.

    1. Thank you Christine - yes, you're right; all stories have this element, even if it's not the main theme. glad you enjoyed the post :)

  2. 'Home' is a strange place....I still think of a certain area of north London as 'home' yet I only lived there for the first 14 years of my life. I have lived in the Midlands now for over 25 years, yet I don't think of it as home. If "home is where the heart is", then 'home' is that little corner of of the Capital where I grew up

    1. Odd isn't it? I've lived in my current location for over 30 years now, and yet I wouldn't call it home. But as I said in the post, I don't really have anywhere that I can give that title - I suppose the little corner of North Norfolk where I spent my later teenage years still pulls me back, especially as it's where my parents finally settled after years of army life and wanderings.