There are certain summer days . . .

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There are certain summer days in England when the heat bring a hallucinatory, even eerie stillness to the landscape.

One feels that, with the next breath of wind, everything might shimmer and disappear. Beneath the glory of the hedgerows lurks the horror that this will not last.

Thomas de Quincey noted this feeling in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1819):

The contemplation of death generally, is (caeteris paribus) more affecting in summer than in any other season of the year . . . The exuberant and riotous prodigality of life naturally forces the mind more powerfully upon the antagonist thought of death, and the wintry sterility of the grave.

For it may be observed generally, that wherever two thoughts stand related to each other by a law of antagonism, and exist, as it were, by mutual repulsion, they are apt to suggest each other.

On these accounts it is that I find it impossible to banish the thought of death when I am walking alone in the endless days of summer.

 

My double life

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Here we go again.

After 24 hours in the air, traversing half the planet, I am home in Melbourne at last. In London, just a day ago, the summer trees had an almost tropical extravagance. Here in wintry Victoria, the branches are stark graphite lines against the sky. I go for a walk in the park to resist the urge to sleep which draws me to bed in the afternoon. After a few days the jetlag will pass as it always does, but a faint feeling of strangeness lingers and never entirely disappears. Where, after all, is home?

After 20 years in Australia, this is as close to being at home as I’ll ever know. Yet visiting Europe, especially the UK, also feels like going home, full of memories of an earlier life. James Wood writes of emigrating that you can never really go back to where you grew up. It continues to change in your absence. You change. The place is lost to you.

A generation or two ago, this fracture was sharper, more cruel, yet perhaps easier to deal with. Many never went back – to England, to the Lebanon, to Greece – and built their new lives here, only making contact with the old country on an expensive and tearful telephone call on Christmas Day. Today, with Internet contact and cheaper flights, we don’t have to let go of that other life. Most years I spend a month or so in that old world too: travelling in space feels like time-travelling, back to where I spent the first half of my life.

Sometimes it feels that I inhabit two parallel worlds, with their own geographies, culture and weather. The sky looks different in each; the air feels differently on my cheek. Each world has its own network of friends, of memories. I feel like a character in a Murakami novel – like Aomame in IQ84 – slipping back and forth between alternative realities, similar but different in a thousand subtle ways. Roadsigns look identical but I drive onto a motorway not a freeway. The car I overtake looks like a Holden but the badge says Vauxhall. Weetabix cereals look like Australian Weetbix but taste quite different. I hear the beeping sound of a Melbourne tram door closing, but look up and I’m standing on a London Underground train. My ways change too, without conscious intent. Little details about the way I dress, the way I speak. The references I hear and make in conversation. All the same, in Melbourne people still pick up my English accent. In England, they ask if I’m Australian.

So many of us must feel like this. After all, one in four Australians were born overseas. Sufficiently at home in both worlds, I can see each one from two perspectives, as an outsider as well as a local. For some, I understand how this might be unsettling. But as for me, I like my double life. I am grateful for this alien privilege.