Sometimes I feel a longing for the coast. Or perhaps somewhere more rural, away from the built up concrete confines of my city. This occasionally intensifies into a desire to move to such a place permanently. These are idealistic episodes and don’t normally last too long, for roots are important to me.
But even when traveling through less scenic routes I get curious about other places. It is easy to get superficial, inadequate views of the towns that we pass through, and in our ideals wonder if they could hold an appeal.
Recently I was on a train heading to Manchester from Leeds. Passing through the train stations the landscape began to open out. There was space between the fixed points of these two urban sprawls. The sky, for once blue, lifted the spirits, and there were jackdaws—always jackdaws, scattered upon the fields. These birds have become something of a personal totem to me, and these familiar friends accompanied me along the way.
We rolled into Hebden Bridge. This place always looks charming, though I have yet to explore it. There was only a handful of people waiting to board the train here. They looked like walkers ( hikers, I mean, not zombies). They got on board and we moved on.
The next station on our linear amble was the market town of Todmorden. I have wondered about this place also. From my limited views it looks like a nice place to live, but as I said earlier, superficial views are inadequate to get a true feel for a place.
Then, from my window I saw this sign, set back upon a hill:
The letters stood there like a miniature version of the famous Hollywood sign. I didn’t know why it was there, but it felt refreshing to be greeted by a (literal) sign of positivity. I searched on Google and found a news reference to it. It seems that some of the town residents were erecting these signs to counter the news that hate crimes throughout the country were on the rise. What a great idea, providing a bit of balance by nailing their colours to their provincial masts.
What noble endeavours, what admirable gestures. Who wouldn’t want to settle in a town that salts its perimeters with the grains of compassion?
For those of you who have my book Heading North, you may be familiar with the first sentence of the foreword:
I am a northern guy.
For those of you who don’t have the book, I have a feeling that you can read the foreword over on Amazon for free. I haven’t checked this, though, so don’t hold me to it.
As a northern guy, in particular a Mancunian, I have become quite accustomed to rain. We have many ways of describing the types of rain that we experience (by types read measures):
it’s chucking it down
it’s pissing down
(And you wonder that I’m a poet?)
I’m sure there are many more, such is the rich, colloquial tongue of my local bards, but these are the most common refrains.
From around lunchtime today our old, precipitous friend rolled in, on this-the final day before the looooong school summer holidays. I hope the kids do get some good weather, especially for my own sanity, but, as a northern guy, I have a confession to make:
I have learned to love the rain.
My friends think me insane, but this is the weather that I have learnt to associate with home. Returning from sun-kissed lands and arid deserts, the slow transition from blue skies to slate-grey cloud outside the airplane, water gathering on the panes, serves as the welcome herald of north-west England, the hilly ground in which my roots are sunk deep.
Who doesn’t love to watch a deluge, or feel rain on your upturned face on a balmy day? Or sit calmly reading on a stormy night, torrential downpours battering the house?
And there is one more boon: our wet summers help to deter the into-early-hours garden parties and roaring quad bikes that disturb the neighbourhood and keep the kids awake.
I know, I know – I’m getting old.
Bet that rain isn’t good for rheumatism.
Today, here in an overcast, breezy England, it is St.George’s day. How much we can say we actually know about the real St.George is very little. I ask my kids, and all that they can come up with is that he killed a dragon.
And they also recognise his flag, of course.
Personally I think St.Aidan should be England’s patron saint. As the Apostle to the English, and with a little more verifiable information available to us, I think he has the greater claim. I love the history and stories of all the Celtic and British saints that have walked these same scattered islands that I do now. Among my favourites are Aidan and Cuthbert. But that’s for another day.
There was a time, when asked what my national identity was, I would reply “English.” But then I began looking into my own family history. What I have discovered, up to now, is that I am at least the fifth generation of Murray born in Manchester, England. Also that I have four different lines of Irish ancestry, and that my surname originates from Scotland.
Now, when asked that very same question about national identity, my answer is decidedly “British.”
It goes further. Having the Y-chromosome of my DNA analysed, that is my paternal line, I have discovered that my genetic signature belongs to a group that is prevalent in Ireland and northern and western Britain. I am from probable Celtic descent, with strong similarities to the genetic signature of the Basques of Iberia. This suggests colonisation of Britain and Ireland by ancient maritime migrations along the Atlantic coast of Iberia, France and Brittany. A journey can be traced through western Europe and the Middle East right back to a particular man who lived in Africa 80,000 years ago, to which all men alive today can trace their paternal line. I have not had my maternal line analysed yet, but with the female, mitachondrial line we can go back even further. Everybody alive today can trace their maternal line back to a single woman who lived in Africa between 150,000-200,000 years ago. So, although they never met, and lived thousands of years apart, we have our Y-Chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve.
Back here in the present, I know someone who was very anti-Celt, claiming to be of Anglo-Saxon origin. He immersed himself in the history, writings and culture of that race. Much to his chagrin, he later discovered that he had Welsh ancestry. Of course, when we talk about Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, whatever, it is all a romanticised perception that we hold. But the point is that we cannot be sure of our blood. There is no such thing as a pure race. These islands have for thousands of years been subject to incoming waves of people of all races, either with intentions of peaceful settlement or of conquest. We truly are a mongrel nation. Go back far enough and we are all related. All connected.
What a revolutionary, healing concept this could be, if people would only grasp it. Everybody alive today and tomorrow are descended from the same place, from a people of one skin.
The Irish contingent here in Manchester put on a great show on St.Patrick’s day. Every year it gets bigger and bigger, the town center being transformed into a great sea of green. The English by comparison no longer really embrace St.George’s day. Apart from isolated pockets, it mostly goes by unacknowledged. A few flags fly outside pubs and shops, desperate to drum up trade.
Among the ex-pats throughout the world though, there seems to be more enthusiasm to embrace St.George’s day. Perhaps being cut off from your roots creates a need to continue your traditions, to celebrate your cultural heritage.
Without roots and tradition we become disenfranchised. We drift.
I think we should always be proud of where we have come from. And also of what we contribute to the place where we are now.
Happy St.George’s Day to all of the diaspora, wherever this day may find you.