Why are we still in thrall to the England of cottages and kings? | David Vann

Nothing is quite as powerful as an idealised vision of the country, especially to a foreigner

“The English countryside of Devon…in a little thatched cottage.” For my mother, this has always been the most idealised place. The ellipsis in her report is not accidental. “Home again to our cosy cottage each evening, to sit by a roaring fire and read our books.” She was travelling with my sister. I was supposed to be there too but was pulled away for book festivals. I’ve been distant and disappointing for years, but there was a time I believed in the dream. I recited the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English for my mother on her birthdays. She would close her eyes and savour each sound. I even had lovely daytime reveries in which I imagined buying her a thatched cottage. She would spend her last decades tucked away in a fairytale, and I would be a good son, able to breathe easily.

Our discussions now, by email, are about the impending reverse mortgage on her house in California, a tad less romantic, but I want to make sure she’s not taken advantage of. I still feel protective, even if our relationship has been less than ideal and the story has veered off course.

“It was enchanting as well as relaxing,” she reported after that trip to Devon, each day beginning with cooking a big English breakfast, reading a bit in the back garden, “then off to do some exploring”. They visited Polperro and Clovelly, where “most of the income now comes from tourism, but they have been able to maintain the essence of the olden days of fishing. Learned some about the smuggling of the olden days, as well, and took a peek at the smuggling coves along the shores. We toured the ruins of King Arthur’s castle at Tintagel along the rugged Cornwall coast.  It was dusk.  The whole site was deserted at that hour and a bit eerie for me, but Cheryl was enthralled with the magic of the place, situated high on the sea cliffs, with the turbulent waters of the ocean churning far below.”

Compare this to Jamaica Kincaid‘s extremely bitter “On Seeing England for the First Time“, and somewhere in between, I think you can find the idea and power of England. She begins with her childhood in Antigua: “When I saw England for the first time, I was a child in school sitting at a desk. The England I was looking at was laid out on a map gently, beautifully, delicately, a very special jewel…” Kincaid writes about knowing the date of the Battle of Hastings before knowing the date of the abolition of slavery, and about living near Hawkins street, named after John Hawkins, who opened the slave trade.

She writes about being erased, and also “that England was to be our source of myth and the source from which we got our sense of reality, our sense of what was meaningful…” She baits her reader: “It wasn’t as bad as I make it sound now; it was worse.” By the end of her essay, she invites the English to march off the cliffs of Dover, except that she wants more than that. She wants the entire idea of England to “jump and die and disappear for ever”.

My mother knows, of course, that Tintagel was not really King Arthur’s castle. She has a graduate degree in history. But she also loves “specialness”, the most accurate term I can find to describe her sense of value in the world, and this value is located in England, the old country (even though her parents were immigrants from Iceland and Germany). Nothing in the new country can have the same weight in our imaginations, and this is what Kincaid rails against, the experience of having been hollowed out.

Why should our dreams be in England? Why was I drawn to teach here now at the University of Warwick, and why do I work on my translation of Beowulf from Old English every day? The English no longer care much about their older tongue (we don’t offer it at Warwick, for instance, and Seamus Heaney’s hugely misrepresentative translation of Beowulf is the most popular version now), so why do I?

Our first autumn in England, my wife and I joined English Heritage and visited dozens of sites. We still can’t get enough of the castles and gardens and history. We drove all the way out to East Anglia to look at empty mounds to know where the Sutton Hoo treasures were unearthed, and I’m impatient for the British Museum to reopen its Anglo-Saxon room and for the Staffordshire Hoard to be restored and properly displayed somewhere, in Birmingham or London. I’ve become an Anglophile to a degree I didn’t expect.

England is so powerful it can’t be thought about. Not really. Kincaid tries. But my mother’s sense of the specialness of a thatched cottage is wedged in so deep it can never be examined. It would never occur to her to examine it. It’s the same as being.

In all of my novels, there’s an atavistic urge, some desire to return to an earlier time of belonging, and I’ve wondered why this is. I have no idea why I’ve written what I have, and I spend years later wondering about each book. From the Romantic poets to American Transcendentalists to contemporary bestsellers A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun, there’s a desire to return to the village, to an idyllic time, to a rustic innocence, another form of Eden, and I think this is what my mother wants. And why shouldn’t going back in time and consciousness also mean going back spatially to the old country? It makes a kind of sense. I suppose my question is whether England is the victim of this atavistic urge, idealised and erased, or whether England has hollowed us out in every former colony and made us look back. I suspect it’s both.

What I’m avoiding here, of course, is the real hollowness, the death of my connection to my mother. I would like to go back, to when I could dream with her, to when I could feel and participate in specialness. I would like to forgive and be forgiven. But history does have weight. King Arthur may never be dislodged from Tintagel, or the smugglers from their coves, but the unconscious ease between two people is more fragile.

What never dies is our desire to be made whole. I would like to mend every rift in my family, undo every harm, and that, I think, is what a thatched cottage is about.

David Vann‘s Goat Mountain is published by Heinemann

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