Driving in a little red car through the Yorkshire dales, forests and rivers and hills all around us, Elgar’s Cello concerto swelling on the car stereo as the glorious summer sun casts the world into a numinous transcendence: this is the England of my memory. It’s all Blake and Samuel Palmer and Orwell; Blair has just been elected and has yet to murder loads of Arabs. Diana has just headed off to Paris for a holiday, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.
And I’m going back for a few months, to that green heaven of smiling cake baking grannies and simple northern folk saying simple northern things to other simple northern folk. Then I watch a Channel 4 documentary about my hometown and grasp that I have done the soviet émigré thing of yearning for years after a homeland that never existed.
Because this documentary is filmed in an area where I used to live and it’s just as shitty and grim and full of messed up desperate people as it was 20 years back: just now there’s crack there as well as smack: progress eh? Consumer choice in a free market: the only way: ahh England.
Everyone I know has moved miles away from that world and into cottages and village houses that have a built in Elgar soundtrack. And it’s in these rural retreats that my time will be mostly spent, so if I really tried I could kid myself that this transcendent rural dream is England. But it wasn’t back when I lived there: it was about 3% of my life: the week or two a year where we got out of town and went to the caravan by the stream. The rest of it was much closer to those unemployed people sitting on walls and buying stuff from the junkie shoplifters: “they provide a service” says one girl quite rightly. Even here in Mother Russia I have odd artifacts that those service providers delivered in the Halcyon days of youth. A trumpet robbed from a school music classroom, by that dude who looked like lurch. Boosey and Hawkes, silver plated, 10 quid in the bar of the Priory and I never did learn to play it, and a fancy one volume edition of Lord of The Rings, all gold leaf and tissue fine paper that cost a bag of dried mushrooms in 1985: fossils from the Paleolithic era of my life.
I call my son in and show him the documentary: he did learn to play that trumpet, but I digress, and I watch his eyes widen as it dawns on him that Papa didn’t actually wander to Moscow from the pages of an E.M Forster novel. I recall my wife’s family comically mispronouncing the name of my home town with Agatha Christie images of country vicarages in their heads, and wondering why on earth I would come to Moscow. University educated middle class folk living in a flat that would sell for more than the entire street I grew up in marveling at the sacrifice I made coming to a beautiful city where I get paid good money for talking to intelligent people about football ad life and books. I end up half persuaded myself, because the alternative is far too complicated to explain.