Thursday, 5 May 2011


I enjoyed the recent BBC television drama Exile, though the story of an embittered hack returning to his northern home to his sister and father did have some painful echoes. The photo above shows a rather atypically jolly moment.

My father did not have dementia as Jim Broadbent did in Exile and thankfully I am not as embittered as the John Simm character (or as screwed up, I hope), but there things I recognised - not in the specifics (my father did not beat me up, I should say here), but in the general flavour. I certainly relate to that sense of dislocation. I can relate too to the truth of daughters so often being lumbered with the lion's share of looking after aged and infirm parents. It was certainly true in my own sister's case. Her life - as in the case of the Olivia Colman character - was taken over by the needs of our parents. My life - and the life of my brother in France - was remarkably untouched by the needs of our parents.

I never felt a sense of belonging in Newcastle. I suppose I didn't belong. I wasn't born there like most of the people I knew. My family wasn't from there. When I moved there in the late 1960s there seemed a suspicion of anyone whose accent betrayed them as being south of Gateshead. Actually I'm being unfair - they were suspicious of anyone who came from south of the Tyne. Only months before I had been swimming in the Mediterranean. I hated it - Newcastle, not the Mediterranean. Not all the time, and not always violently - but I knew I would always leave.

As I said in a previous post, I think I do feel I am a northerner. It does not make complete sense: my mother spent her childhood in and around London and I lived in that city for over a decade (and I'm only forty-five minutes away from it now). I don't hold with any of the nonsense about the north being friendlier than the south. I don't attach any particular merit to the north. I simply feel an affinity to it that I do not feel to the south, much as I love many things about it. I am a huge fan of London. I think it is a fantastic city and it is a place that I feel very comfortable.

But a romantic (Romantic even) attachment to the north does not mean I do not feel a sense of rootlessness. My wife and I watched Up in the Air recently too. Again - I do not share the George Clooney character's jaded world view, thankfully, but I can readily relate to the scenes in which he returns home and expects to be part of a family he has ignored the rest of the time. And again - I don't ignore my family completely, but neither do I fully engage with it. My own family - my wife, my son - is a full time thing. But my other family - the family I grew up with - is something I step in and out of. Well, perhaps I am never truly 'out' of it. But then I could also say I was never truly 'in' either.

I have a vision of a family - a large extended family - eating at a long table outside under the shade of vine leaves, babes in their mother's arms, youngsters eating short pasta while the older ones laugh and joke with grandparents. It's a kind of preposterously jovial Italian family dinner from the 1950s. Where it comes from I don't know - but could not be further from my own family experience. Perhaps I have concocted it simply to be disappointed by my own family's inability to match it.

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