There’s a neon sign on the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art not far from where I stay. It’s an installation by the artist Martin Creed which reads ‘Everything is going to be alright’.
I’m not normally a lover of installation art. But this piece just works. Its sublime message wraps me with reassurance. And over the years it’s come to capture something about my relationship with being here. The place I call home.
Googling ‘home’ produces different results. You can arrive at a dictionary definition, the place where one lives permanently. Or a more emotional, even existential, definition. Home is where the heart is, home is not a place but a feeling and so on. The latter can be a tad sentimental. But either way over the last few years I’ve been conscious that whatever and wherever it is, I seem, finally, in middle age, to have arrived home. It’s taken a while. No wonder, because it turns out home isn’t just about here. It’s also about now.
Looking back, I arrived almost unwittingly when I decided, at the end of 2012, to stop being a WILLIE (work in London, live in Edinburgh). Being a WILLIE had its pros and cons but ultimately it was pretty knackering and unsettling. One of the biggest cons, as well as the relentless leaving and arriving, was that I spent more time away from home than at home. This took its toll on the existential bit, creating a continual sense of transience and separation. It was all a bit disjointed.
So being ‘at home’ for the last three years has been a blessed release. Having grown accustomed to spending the equivalent of a longish working day on the east coast mainline every week, I quite quickly became someone who had very little desire to travel at all. But as I settled into a different routine, spent more time with my partner, deepened friendships and made new ones, started a new job, joined a running club, I became aware that something else was happening. I was dangerously close to something which, in all the turmoil of parts of my early life and young adulthood, had eluded me until now, contentment. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been fulfilment earlier. But this was steady state. Far from being boring, it turned out to be just fine.
My arrival was the final stage of a journey which had started a decade earlier when I moved to Edinburgh from London in my early 40s after more than 20 years in the big smoke. Back then the move had been borne out of a turbulent moment and a need to get away from the emotional noise of where and who I was. It was a conscious decision to come home rather than to go back. Coming home was about connecting with my birth roots rather than going back to the place I’d grown up with my adoptive family in the north of England. It was a gamble but one I’d had to take because the stakes seemed high.
Back then, I didn’t really know Edinburgh well. I hadn’t quite come here on a whim, but the move wasn’t something I’d have predicted a few years earlier. However, I was struck at the time by how quickly it became home. In those early days, I was travelling back up and down to London every week and still had a house down there. I had belongings in my new flat here but many of my material positions remained there. I knew a few people in Edinburgh but the majority of the social circle I’d built up since leaving university was in London too. Yet from the word go, this new place, despite being bereft of so much that had previously defined me, was home. Or at least it gave me a reason to believe it could be.
It was just a few weeks shy of the longest day when I moved here. At the end of each week, as I made the journey back north on the train in the mid-evening, the lengthening day made it feel almost as if we were travelling into the light. It all added to the sense that I was being drawn to this place. My flat was in Stockbridge just beyond Edinburgh’s New Town and as I walked home from the station the view would urge me on. Those who are familiar with it will know what I mean. Beyond the city, the vista gives way to the Firth of Forth and to Fife beyond. Distance and vision play tricks and somehow you feel as though you can reach out and touch the water and the horizon which beckons.
Those early days in Edinburgh were something of a contradiction. For all its unfamiliarity it had a solidity which helped me to feel grounded. And despite the fact that Glasgow folk would jibe that it was a place where I’d have ‘had my tea’, it was friendly enough. I needed some respite from sociability anyway. My first Christmas here was spent alone, a statement of commitment and intent. Whatever sacrifices it involved, this was home and it was where I was going to stay. Everything was going to be alright.
In the ensuing years, despite being away a lot, I gradually carved out a life here. It became more than just the place I stayed. It had an emotional resonance and I had a sense of belonging. About people as well as place. And so looking back when I finally stopped the weekly commute my journey home was almost complete. But it’s what’s happened since that has brought home to life. It isn’t just about being in a particular location, beautiful that it is. It’s not even just about people, precious though they are. It’s about the here and the now. About living in the present.
Earlier this year, I published a piece about death, love, memory and loss. It was in part a tribute to my late partner and the life we had together. Amongst the many responses I received, one struck me more than any other. A friend from those days wrote of the time she spent with Lawrence and me, ‘I laughed so much around the two of you a number of times, the clarity and elation of I’m perfectly and completely happy right here and now happened to me. What luck.’ Indeed. It's only now though that I fully appreciate how lucky we were, despite the fact that back then I knew he was going to die.
The contentment I describe inevitably has a sting in the tale. And it’s one that reminds me of Tom and Gerri in Mike Leigh’s film, Another Year. The film’s central location is their suburban home which has a kind of alluring shabby comfort to it. But their home is about far more than that and their allotment. It’s about their relationship with each other and the rhythm of their shared lives across the four seasons which the plot spans. Lives which, though disrupted by the push and pull of events, seem to be completely anchored in the present. The film divided the critics in one key respect. Tom and Gerri were admirable for some but complacent for others. Their shared contentment was either settled or smug.
With the world feeling at its most dangerous as at any point in my lifetime, my eulogy about home will inevitably feel complacent. But it’s precisely because of that hinterland that I’ll settle for settled. In East Coker, T.S. Elliot writes that love ‘is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter’. I have finally come to realise that home is most nearly itself when here and now are the only things that that matter.
Here and now aren’t perfect and the world beyond is more than a bit troubled, but at 54 I’m home and dry. I have a feeling that whatever life throws at me next, everything is going to be alright.