by Zoe Smith
“Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
The first time I read Never Let Me Go I was sprawled in a hammock by the Mekong River in South East Asia. It was one of those muggy afternoons where everything, including the hammock strings to my thighs, seemed to melt together in one hot, sticky daydream. Frankly, it couldn’t have been a more unlikely place from which to enter Ishiguro’s world — one of bleak skies and stormy emotions, a fictional England so infused with reality that it became the catalyst for a journey back to my own childhood.
It had been several years since I left England, even longer since I ditched the squelchy marshlands of the countryside for the bustling neon of London, and my nostalgia has always been confined to people rather than place. I did not miss England, I assured myself. I did not miss the murky overcast skies, the primly courteous mannerisms or the reluctant reworking of fashions to match the obligatory wellies and macintosh. Then there was the rain. I most certainly did not miss the rain.
No, I had long forgotten chilled evenings beneath itchy woolen sweaters and steaming my hands over an open fire while thick smoke curled upwards through a rough stone chimney. I’d forgotten watery pastel sunrises and sloppy raindrops trickling down the windowpanes, keeping us trapped inside, again.
In Britain we are always ‘saving things for a rainy day’ — board games, money, eminent household chores or promised DIY — perhaps there is no other country who takes this saying quite so literally. Rainy days are to the English, one of life’s oddly satisfying gifts. Days when the focus shifts inwards, when suddenly nature forces you to take stock of yourself and your home. In England we are ruled by the weather. It wraps around us and envelops us in its moods. There is no Englishman who would waste precious sunshine on a gloomy temperament. Instead, we save our ponderings for rainy days and foggy skies and Britain’s countryside is, as such, steeped in melancholy.
“Maybe it was to do with that room, the way the sun came in through the frosted glass so that even in early summer, it felt like autumn light.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
It is difficult to recall home from so far away. There, in Asia, the world was lit with warmth, the soil dry underfoot, the river water refreshingly cool rather than iced with frost. Where England moves with the tides, Asia is a perpetual summer of gummy grins and bare tanned legs. How could one think fondly of England in such conditions?
But as I lost myself in Ishiguro’s England, the yearning began to set in. Beneath blinding shafts of sunlight, I dreamt of autumn. Nowhere in the world has autumn like England. Fresh coastal winds churning up the foliage, flashes of buttery sunlight seeping through cracks in the tree-branches, a rusted rainbow of leaves crunching and fluttering underfoot. I was transplanted back to my childhood with these memories. Crisp grass; dogs barking; the distant purr of a tractor; farmers in tweed flat caps patrolling the fields with their collies whipping at their heels. My senses overwhelmed with snapshot recollections. If I closed my eyes I could feel the sting of sea salt on my cheeks; my hair tunnelled behind me in the waves; the bitter frost biting at my fingertips. In reality, of course, my hair was pasted in sweaty strands across my forehead and my hands were sweating damp fingerprints on the pages of the book.
Ishiguro reminds me of the England that I forgot — the England that is wistful and windswept. There was a time when wandering the British countryside would stir my imagination in ways it’s hard to remember now. Ways we forget and cast aside, as we grow up.
There is a startling enigma in the way that the English countryside can appear desolate and forgotten, as if you are discovering it anew each time you step foot on it. It’s a world literature was made for. Fog-steamed marshes for Jane Austen heartaches and treacherous coves for Famous Five smugglers. Dickensian suet puddings with lashings of custard, supped with hot tea in countryside hideaways where one can imagine George Orwell hunched over a roll-top bureau, scribbling ink to paper. Beyond its quaint demeanor of cobbled streets, verdant meadows and homely cottages, there lurks a lost soul of rambling footpaths and undiscovered corners. For such a small country, England keeps its secrets close to heart.
“I don’t have a deep link with England like, say, Jonathan Coe or Hanif Kureishi might demonstrate. For me it is like a mythical place.”
England is a country to drift around rather than travel and the countryside is best viewed through the misted glass of the car windows. Driving aimlessly is sometimes the only way to navigate the labyrinth of the suburbs or to brave the vast open terrain of the northern counties. But driving in England is simple because of its size — keep driving and you are bound to hit a village pub or a corner store sooner or later. In the inner sanctum of the British countryside, one hands oneself over to the elements and what better way to see a country than to lose yourself, quite literally, in its folds? Mercifully, those elements hit few extremes, but it is an experience not for the weak-hearted.
So many foreigners who have graced our shores and driven our highways have found the English cold and disconnected, lost to them in a bubble of preoccupation. It is true that we are a reserved bunch, although that is not to say we are unwelcoming. For anyone that has experienced Northern hospitality will know that these pleasantries are only the stopgap to a babbling stream of jollied conversation.
I wish I could fully explain our strangely subdued hospitality to those who judge us solely by our offhand reception. We may not be brash or forthcoming with our compliments and gushing welcomes. We are polite, astute, and extremely unlikely to leave a tip. But if only they knew, those foreigners, the way to win our hearts. For Brits are the masters of sardonic wit, of sarcastic quips and self-deprecating send-ups. It is both the common thread that weaves us together and the armor that protects us against intruders.
The British share a collective humor that is as comfortingly familiar to us as it is discombobulating to the outsider. It is our way of connecting – a private joke, shared knowingly amongst strangers. Of all the things that come to mind when I think of my home country, sarcasm, like the drizzling rain, is endearingly close to my heart.
“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
It is strange that a novel of such greater themes should so perfectly encapsulate the bittersweet nostalgia that is so universal amongst those who have wandered far from home. That fragmented sense of belonging that attaches itself to our childhoods and slowly peels away from us over the years. It is a sentiment that resonates with me, as I wander the riverbanks in a country far from home, so sure that I have turned the page and closed the book on all that has passed.
But home stays with you in these splintered memories; it torments you, haunts you, until you give it its due. It seeks you out when you are convinced that you’ve forgotten. When you’re fanning yourself in a hammock, swiping sweat beads from your eye and feeling untouchable.
When one talks of a literary journey, it is a notion all too often saturated in cliche — of losing yourself in the pages and delving deep into another life. Ishiguro’s effect on me was none of these things. Simply, this book reminded me that it is the simplest things that stay with us the longest. The backdrop of bleakness and dreary weather, that is equally pivotal and secondary to the story. To my story.
And so I find myself under scalding sun, recalling the taste of snowflakes on my tongue and remembering a time back when the world seemed vast and endless and new. I think of driving through the country, with the radio blasting out Beatles songs and the windscreen wipers flicking back and forth in time with the thump of my palms on the wheel. Driving to Brighton in the dead of the night and waking nestled on the pebble beach as the sun cuts through the ocean chill. Home.