I should be writing to you all about how I catch my breath nearly every day when I realize I live in New York, about how going away and coming back has given me a new perspective on the Ivy League and the phenomenon that is elite American higher education, on the weirdness that is doing the history of the country where I used to live in one of the countries whose passport I hold—just in case I thought my problems of nationality and “home” couldn’t get any more challenging.
But it is the fifth of November, and I started writing what follows as a Facebook status, and I think it says more than any of that where I am now, as the days grow shorter and the Christian liturgical year draws to a close and, as is my habit, I spend the winter months assessing who I have been in the last year.
A year ago this week, I went to a conference about the LSJ and to the Bonfire Night fireworks in South Parks in Oxford; I lost my mobile and my white poppy got trampled in the Bonfire Night mud; I sobbed on Remembrance Sunday for reasons entirely unrelated to war and peace; and after that everything that happened, happened.
This evening I enjoyed the familiar feeling of going to the pub with a British history seminar, and I’m grateful to have that continuity even here, where no one knows or cares from bonfires and poppies.
Now that I’m a Real Adult it does start to feel as if one semester after another zooms by in the blink of an eye, yet it continues to astound me how enormously my life can turn upside-down in a year’s time, and how far I can go.
It was so cold on Bonfire Night last year. Taking out winter coats and lighting fires against the cold, praying for peace and for love, yearning to come home to my own Howards End—in early November and always.
That’s what I copy-pasted from Facebook. But what is extraordinary is how, now that I am not in England, the orexis that characterized my state of being from the time that I first started to work on Symonds (who is now an article!) has very much returned. Orexis and I, we have come so far together. Every time I get on a plane and go to the other side of North America, or across the Atlantic, my soul feels winded by the distance I have travelled in such a short time. And we have done that many times over, orexis and I, just like the books and the postcards and the childhood mementoes and, weirdly, the glassware that I bought at the Oxfam shop in Broad Street four years ago and have carried back and forth in Virgin Atlantic’s meagre cabin bag allowance since.
Here in New York, I live on the eighth floor; my view is of buildings and the LaGuardia flight path; I almost want to cry to think of how I used to be able to see Boar’s Hill from my desk. So much for breaking up with Oxford!
Here in New York, we talk a lot very self-consciously about what it is we do, we first- and second-years who have never done it, when we do history. In our seminars, my colleagues speak very confidently about the virtues of the international, and I know that it is very good for me to have to struggle to find the words to say that British history is Boar’s Hill and Bonfire Night and orexis, and to be a British historian is to be more than an apologist for empire. (Not that Symonds or Sidgwick or any of the other people with whom I spend my days thought or spoke much about empire, but that is a story for another day.) I forget so quickly what it was like to be displaced there, what it was like to feel as if I had failed, monumentally failed, to “do Britain.” I wanted so much to be able to do a national culture right in a way that I have never been able to in America.
Thanks to my two passports—and thanks to the Empire, which still gives voting rights to we from the Dominions—I have voted in both countries. Yesterday I voted here in New York, in a district so blue there weren’t Republican candidates for any of the local races, and then I got on the subway packed full of all kinds of people to commute to my British history class at NYU (where, it seems, we don’t talk much about Britain), and then I got on the subway packed full of all kinds of people to come back to my bedroom, with the same books and postcards as always, to spend my evenings as I always have, with a cup of tea and iPlayer and you, the internet. (My friends write and they ask me for my news, and they wonder why I have none!)
Symonds, Forster, Auden, they all read Whitman. Auden even came to New York:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.