We managed to get home briefly for New Year. Home - as distinct from where our house is - is on the Worcestershire-Staffordshire border just West of Stourbridge. It is stunningly beautiful and very good walking or horse-riding country; but almost unknown by outsiders (who, after all, ever thinks of going on holiday to the fringes of the West Midland conurbation?) My daughter and I - with Guthlac asleep in the back and Mrs Byard having a rare moment to herself - went to the local park to walk around on the frosty grass, watch the ducks coping with a frozen pond and give Guthlac his first experience of a playground swing. Of such simple shared pleasures are truly golden memories forged.
The park pond offers up, however, a deeply depressing sight - bunches of wilted flowers and mawkish messages scribbled in marker pen, attached to the fence where a depressed teenager jumped over and drowned himself. Sometimes I find the sentimentality around these events more grating and nauseating than the everyday tragedy itself; part of what Alan Bennett aptly called 'the Liverpudlianisation of Britain'. There is much to be said for keeping the upper lip stiff and the private grief private.
The occasion on which I felt least comprehension for the country of my birth was the aftermath of Diana the Princess of Wales's death in 1997. I watched the media coverage from afar (Java, in fact) and was asked by many locals to explain what was happening. I couldn't, since I totally failed to understand it myself. The nearest I can get to it is a feeling that it was a kind of emotional anarchy; the media - in a desperate attempt to hide their own culpability in paying top whack to the pursuing papparazzi - had told everyone that a self-indulgent outpouring of public grief for someone they never knew was now permissible.
Anyway, after being made miserable at the park, we drove out into the country, via Ismere, Caunsall and Kinver before returning to the parental/grandparental homestead. From Ismere we could see the tops of the Clee Hills, their lower slopes hidden by mist so that the summit appeared as an apparition-like blue-grey line in the sky. (Oddly enough, the oldest administrative document dealing with the Anglo-Saxons in this part of the country mentions the local tribe as the 'Usmere'; in the reign of Aethalbald in the early 8th century land at Ismere is granted to one of the king's followers.)
I sometimes daydream about finding a job in that area and being able to move out of the Thames Valley. The Thames Valley is a very congenial place to live in many ways, to be sure, but most of the people we know are economic migrants like we are rather than people rooted in an ancient community. Even though it may seem strange for someone with a family tree like mine to be going on in a way that is perilously close to the 'blood and soil' rhetoric of the far right, I can't help feeling more at home in North Worcestershire than I do in Reading. Though come to think of it, many of my ancestors were the economic migrants of a few generations back. Maybe my great-grandchildren, if they live around Reading, will feel about it the way I do about the place I grew up.