For the first time since 1973, I stopped at midday today being a citizen in any way, shape or formlessness, of Devon. House sold. Wife on way. No Devon address whatever. Thirty-seven years is a long time to have links with a place I went to in specific search of an independent identity. It was quite consciously done. After years of private schools, I wanted to find somewhere where I could be me and not the son of my parents, somewhere I could settle in and say ‘I have roots’. It didn’t work. For most of those years, I have been wanting to get back to the North-East, and I’ve managed that since December last year. But the clincher – selling the house – makes it all finally real. What is really ironic is that it took my mother’s death to kick-start the process: most days I think how frustrating it is that I can’t tell her I’m back. But it was the sale of her house that allowed me to move with ease – her house bought mine. I was incredibly lucky.
Devon didn’t let go easily. Mid-Devon insisted that I wasa a full-time resident, liable to full council tax etc. The North-East took a different view. The local authority said I lived here (which I do).
Lots of people are incredulous that I have moved North: as if it is counter-intuitive, as if I am moving beyond the pale, or the known world. I am moving from the land of retirement to the land of work: that’s how they see it. Everyone else is either travelling in the other direction, or aspiring to move. Devon is sun/sand/shopping and so on. I have a very uneasy relationship with Devon now. It seems to me far-off and curious: perhaps more so since, for the last decade or so, I have lived in the heart of the Devon countryside (not a million miles, in fact, about five, from where Plath found the place depressing and depressive, although she had a bit more to complain about than I did, I think).
Almost any attempt to say what a place and its people are like is infringing a stereotype (hope that makes sense). Devonians (as against Devonians of recent provenance, like me and a million more) are quite slow to accept you. It’s not quite true that you have to have three generations in the graveyard (and possibly be in it yourself) before you are considered at home, but it does take a while. The farming Devonians still live a kind of hard but carelessly slow life, and they seem unfathomable when actually, they’re preoccupied. They like what they know, and aren’t especially curious about what they don’t. Often they are not bothered if you don’t pay a bill, and surprised if you do. I bought £40 worth of logs from a man called Jim in 1998, and I tried to pay him cash. More than once. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, as if this was a breach of etiquette. They don’t like you to live on tick, but they want you to get round to it in a few years, not days. They’re also very trusting: they leave their doors ajar, and the theft figures outside the towns are insignificant. My insurance company sent me a cheque when I moved to the sticks – money back for being in a safe place (not sure that would happen now!)
The incuriousness about Devonians can drive you mad, but it is attractive, too. Many of the students I taught had no consciousness of anywhere north of Taunton or Bristol (and were horrified when I said it took me six or more hours to visit my parents, because that was a whole day). North-easterners, on the other hand, are very curious about the rest of the country. They consider visiting it. They might not go, but they’d be willing. Devonians would rather stay at home, and are not fussed about what happens elsewhere. They’re also less loud, less intentionally witty, and far less extravagant with emotion. Banter is not second nature to them. Whereas here, people are driven and generally ready to spill their life-stories.
That’s enough for one posting. I’ll think about it (a very Devonian state of mind).