To where do I belong? I have been thinking about it a lot recently.
It used to be the case that most people never moved far from where they were born. You were born in the village. Your father was born in the village. Your father’s father. And you stayed in the village. All your life. You knew everybody in the village. They knew you. You knew where you were from. You were from the village. You knew your place.
Nowadays, for many people, it’s not like that. We move around. Live in different places. For many reasons. Work. Education. Personal choice. Because we can. I have lived in so many places. I feel a sense of attachment to many of them. Just as strong as my attachment to the place I was born. My wife was born in Sheffield. I was born in the Midlands. My son was born in Shropshire. I feel like I am from all three places. I belong to all those places and none of those places. And, when I travel, I sometimes arrive in places where I feel immediately comfortable. At home. My place is not clear. I no longer know my place.
A sense of belonging is no longer defined by a physical location. I wonder whether it ever was. The sense of belonging I am thinking about goes deeper than the accident of your birthplace. I am thinking about those elements that are the very core of your being. The experiences that define you. The preferences which present no choice but sit at the heart of you and cannot be ignored. What is it about you that is undeniable? Unchanging? Obviously, these places are not usually apparent to the young. It takes time to realise their strength. Their power over you. Which is why Youth should be the time to plunge headlong into experience. To travel. Discover new places. Because where you are born is not always where you belong. And the wider your experience of the world, the more chance you have of finding where you belong. This travel need not be physical. It is more to do with an attitude. An openness to Other. You may find that you do not belong to the Time in which you are born. I had a friend when I was younger who quite clearly did not belong in the Time in which she found herself. But she knew this and quite successfully surrounded herself with the clothing and attitudes of an earlier era. She dealt in antique clothing. Read a lot from the decades to which she related. Found elements of those times in our own. It made her strong and powerful. She knew who she was, where she belonged.
So, I have been thinking about where I belong. What are the places and times where I feel most at home? Where I sit comfortably? From where I derive my strength?
Often, when I am thinking tricky thoughts like these, I write them down as poems. Well, sort of poems. They are not usually for public consumption. They are not written for an audience. I do not tend to polish or structure them. They are just a means of capturing ideas that are delicate. Too fragile for prose. Elusive. Not yet fully worked out. But, sometimes, when I read them, it seems to me that, in their clumsy, unworked state, they hold truths that slip between the fingers of more polished words. So, here are some sort-of-poems. My thoughts on where I belong.
To where do I belong?
I belong to the Black Country.*
A land of dirt, sweat and grime,
of industry, graft and toil.
A land made by working hands,
Bereft of aristocracy.
A land of poor people, rich in warmth and humour.
A land between,
Neither North or South,
lacking the arrogance of either.
A land of people happy to be mocked
for an accent
whose upwards cadence sings of hope.
For we know, simple fools,
that your world of iron is held together
by our nails and chains,
and a laugh at no-one’s expense
is worth the world’s treasures.
I belong to the mountains.
Never more at home
than in a high place hard won
Feeling the lash of rain and wind
or the caress of the sun.
Whatever the day brings.
I belong to outside
To a roof of stars
To the free rhythm of steady footfall.
I belong to that moment in time
when fashion’s mohicans and leather jackets
made a mockery of Punk
and the spirit fled to stranger, more interesting places
Noisy lawless lands
where rhythms were beaten out on car parts
strangled voices screamed in tongues
and the dancing was a tidal wave of elbows and fists
Music as a kick to the face
Do not wait for permission
Do not beg forgiveness
No-one will allow this peculiar kind of beauty
grown from the ugliest of seeds.
If you want to see it
You must make it for yourself.
* The Black Country is area of the West Midlands in England, north and west of Birmingham. During the Industrial Revolution it became one of the most industrialised parts of Britain with coal mining and metal working producing high levels of air pollution.