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Every year itís the same. About three months out from my departure date I find myself gazing off into space and imagining myself back in the village by the pond, or high up on the downs overlooking the sea, or climbing the terraced streets as they lead steeply up and over the hill. Or Iím dreaming of being high on the windswept ridge separating the coastal town from the inland villages, wending my way past sleepy cows as they gaze up from their green pastures as I make my way along and down past the old, weather-worn farms and cottages.
When I talk to people about it I always refer to it as Ďthe islandí. Thatís what the locals call it, as Iím sure locals on islands all over the world do. When living in London Iíd say I was going down to the island for a few days. Here in Melbourne I tell people Iím going back to the island. Thereís something about islands and being an islander that distinguishes you from other people, and when Iím there I feel as though thereís something intrinsically understood between me and the locals that, quite literally, serves to provide common ground.
To say I love the island is no exaggeration. Itís the place I was born and the place that made me who I am. That too is no exaggeration. I was ten years old when I left the island and moved to Australia, the biggest island in the world. Needless to say, it didnít feel the same. Indeed, it took many years to fully acclimatise and it wasnít until I returned to the island some twelve years later as a young adult that I had an epiphanous moment where I realised,
ĎNow I know why I am who I amí.
My memories of my first trip back at the age of 22 is completely coloured by the friendship that emerged between my dear friend Andrew and myself. A distant cousin of 15 going on 16 when I arrived, I had initially imagined we would have little in common. Little did I realise that within hours we would form a bond that has lasted a lifetime. Those sun-drenched memories from 1982 will always remain the foundation upon which all subsequent visits rest, adding as they do a precious layer of early adulthood to the warmth and security of a blessed childhood.
It would be easy to assume that my many pilgrimages back to the island are motivated by a nostalgic desire to revisit and relive those happy years from my childhood. While there may be an element of that, I have over the years forged a number of new friendships that continue to bear fruit to this day. When I go back I do spend time exploring my old haunts but I also spend time renewing relationships with people that are very much grounded in the present. And with each visit, this circle of friends seems to blossom and grow wider.
The island is not without its issues. Thereís not a lot of work available for young people and there are pockets of real poverty. If I lived there permanently Iím sure Iíd find certain things problematic. But I donít live there. I go back once a year and I have the luxury of enjoying the best the island has to offer without having to focus on any of these other issues. Sometimes I indulge myself in fantasies of buying a property where maybe later in life I could spend a few months each year, but thatís all they are: fantasies.
Thereís no question that the island has changed over the years but thereís also much that has remained relatively unchanged. When I go back there I feel completely at home. Itís actually hard to put into words without sounding corny. Essentially, I experience a sense of reconnection with something very deep within, like a form of silent communion. Itís as though the island is calling me back and when I arrive weíre both glad to be together. There is a feeling of Ďrightnessí and a sense of being where I belong.
Like I said, it sounds corny but itís true.
Iíve arranged various kinds of accommodation for my yearly sojourn to the island over the years but more recently Iíve been booking a room through Airbnb. While itís nice to stay with friends Iíve come to appreciate the flexibility of having a room to myself. Sometimes I just want to be alone. Going there has always provided time out from my regular routine; a chance to relax and de-clutter the mind. I also like to read. Holiday reading is qualitatively different to other reading and there are days when, lost in a really good book, I barely leave the room.
Two years ago I discovered a large funky room in a large funky apartment owned by a fellow artist and teacher. When I saw the photograph online of the bedroom with a bay window, an enormous double bed, a reading chair with a standing lamp and a coffee table beside it, I was sold. The apartment is on a road I knew well as a boy. We had a friend who lived on the same road (Iím pretty certain it was even the same building!) and weíd often drop by for a visit. Without hesitation, I booked the room immediately.
Of all the places I could have rented, this felt like the best. My host was away on the mainland (another island colloquialism) for most of the duration, so I pretty much had the run of the place to myself. When I arrived, she had left a key under a plant pot. Yes, the island is a place where people still do that sort of thing. The apartment was like a mini museum, filled to the brim with artwork, little installations, giant puppets and an assortment of found and acquired objects. It didnít take long for me to settle in.
After two years staying at the same place, this year Iíve chosen somewhere different, a hundred metres or so up the road with a clear view of the sea. It also has a bay window, this time with a desk and chair looking outwards and with lots of interesting artwork on the walls. Both of the hosts are artists and, as it turns out, good friends with my previous host. Given that I like to spend time sitting in my chosen room reading or gazing out to sea, it seemed like an opportunity to widen my circle of island friends.
The closer I get to the departure date, the greater the sense of anticipation. Iíll be spending time in London, both before and after, but itís the island I most look forward to. Donít get me wrong, London is great, but Iíve lived there long enough over the years to have acquired a certain degree of ambivalence about the place. With London itís more about reconnecting with friends than it is about the place. But with the island, itís about both in equal measure. I come away from London feeling refreshed, whereas with the island, I come away feeling renewed.
Packing my bags is part of the whole experience. Deciding what clothes to take, and how many, and how many shoes, and checking the 14-day forecast to see what weather I should expect, and choosing what books I want to read, and how much my bags weigh Ė I love it all! Iím not a big traveller these days. The idea of packing a rucksack and trekking off to explore foreign destinations, once so powerful, has little sway over me these days. But going back to my roots, thatís different. Thatís cause for excitement and it never becomes dull or routine.
I really enjoy long-haul travel, which is just as well, because to fly from Australia to the UK generally takes around 24 hours. Usually I watch the inflight entertainment but this time Iím more drawn to reading. Itís less stimulating yet more engrossing. Sometimes Iíll doze off, the drone of the engines diminished by the noise-cancelling headphones. Every few hours they bring food and I can request drinks and snacks whenever I feel like it. Itís the feeling of being betwixt and between that I enjoy the most and 24 hours during which time no one can reach me.
I arrive somewhat bleary-eyed at Heathrow Terminal 4, a place Iím very familiar with. As I approach baggage retrieval my bag is already waiting. I grab it and head towards the Underground and into the city. I pick up a UK Sim card from Victoria Station, have a coffee in the cafť beneath our old Pimlico apartment and then head up to North London to spend the night with friends. Iím surprisingly devoid of jetlag, although by 9:30pm Iím flagging. The time in limbo is behind me and a good long sleep beckons.
I wonít be putting up much resistance.
A rainy day in London. I head into the city, eager to catch the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, only to discover Iíve missed it by a day. I spend the next few hours wandering around, looking at paintings, browsing in bookshops, the delayed jetlag fuelling a creeping sense of disinterest. So I head back up to North London and enjoy an evening with my friends. This is what matters most, the reconnection and pleasure derived from being with people I love and care about and donít get to see as often as I would like to.
Some of my favourite people live a very long way away from Australia. Carol is one of them. Weíve known each other nearly 40 years. Weíve lived together, worked together and shared so much together. Weíve also spent most of those years living many thousands of miles apart, but when we get together we simply pick up from where we left off like it was yesterday. There is nothing we cannot say to each other; nothing we cannot share. In all the time weíve known each other weíve never had a disagreement. As friends go, they donít come any better.
I caught up with a dear friend and former colleague who has been completely hung out to dry by his line manager. I am aghast. A more decent and honourable individual you would be hard-pressed to meet. What makes it all the more galling is the manner in which it has been done. He has worked with some of the most deprived and socially isolated young people in the UK and done so with dignity, respect and great success. He has literally changed lives for the better. I know what that work is like. Itís not for the feint-hearted.
I chose to have a quiet, reflective day today. Since arriving Iíve had conversations with people who are really unhappy at work. Although my sample group is small there seems to be a level of toxicity in many UK workplaces born of petty hierarchical structures in which people wear their authority as though their very identity depended upon it. It makes we appreciate, more than I already do, just how fortunate I am to be working in such a professional, respectful and caring environment back home. It breaks my heart to hear what some people have to contend with here.
If it wasnít for Carol Iíd probably choose to spend less time in London and more time on the island. She is the main reason I still spend time here. She is someone I know I can always rely on when the chips are down and she knows the same about me. In a lifetime during which so many people have come and gone (and of course, some have also remained constant), Carol is the kind of friend that quite simply makes the world feel like a better place. Itís a friendship born of unconditional love and powerful mutual respect.
Other memorable reconnections these last couple of days: one with a former partner who was arguably the greatest disruptor to my life in terms of impact over a short period of time, and now a valued friend; and his sister who was something of an emotional anchor during that long-ago chapter of my life; and another with a former student, now in his 40s, upon whom I apparently had a significant influence and with whom Iíve maintained contact over the years. Lifeís journeys are many and varied, as are the friends we make along the way, sometimes in unexpected places.
Ahhhh. Thereís no other way to describe the feeling. Iím here. Iím home. Iím on the island. I arrived in Ventnor at around 5:00pm and have already made friends with my hosts. They are both artists and have both been incredibly welcoming. My room is huge and actually exceeds my expectations, and having my own ensuite is a real bonus. The view is to die for. Within a couple of hours I was down by the seafront enjoying an evening meal and feeling happier and more content than I have done since, well, since the last time I was here.
Something remarkable happened today. I said hello to a stranger in the local churchyard and was recognised. ďI know you! You came to my birthday party!Ē The birthday party in question was in 1966 and he was one of my long-lost childhood friends. He invited me back to his house to show me the photo and there we both were, he six and I seven gazing happily out from amongst our happy gang, many of whose names I could remember. And to think we nearly didnít speak! Just a simple ĎGood morning!í followed by an unforeseen and unexpected revelation.
I visited some friends today (family, actually) who are very dear to me. While there I asked whether they would be interested in accompanying me to the top of the Downs that overlook Ventnor to scatter my motherís ashes. Itís been nine years since she died and Iíve brought her ashes back with me because it feels like the right time to do so. They both knew mum and they were delighted to share the moment with me. It will take place the day after tomorrow, to coincide with some decent weather, and their presence will be a great comfort.
I struck up a conversation with another stranger today, only to discover she is a local artist with a formidable reputation in the UK as a ceramicist with work in many major collections. Thatís one of the fascinating things about the island. It has a quiet crop of some really heavy weight visual artists who choose to base themselves here. Iím guessing one of the attractions is the lack of distraction that the island, and Ventnor in particular, can offer. As an artist myself I can understand the attraction. Stimulation is all well and good, but can also be overrated.
Itís been a poignant and reflective day. I carried Mumís ashes around the village of Bonchurch for one last time, even visiting the house where we lived and where she gave birth to me. She always dreamt of going back to the island, and now Iíve brought her home. We drove to the top of the Downs, the highest point on the island overlooking the village and town she loved so much and scattered her ashes to the wind, which lifted them up and carried them far and wide where for evermore, her spirit is free to dance and sing . . .
The weather has been quite wild and unpredictable since Iíve been on the island but it hasnít been a problem. When Iíve needed it to be, itís been surprisingly cooperative. The evenings have tended to be the wildest. Facing out to sea, the house Iím in takes the full brunt of the wind and rain. The windows rattle and the wind howls but I have to say Iím enjoying falling asleep to the sound of the elements. By morning, itís generally cleared up. Given my current state of mind, itís rather conducive to reading, writing and gazing out the window.
As a boy I was a compulsive explorer. I would set my sights on a distant ridge and find my way across fields and over styles in order to get there. Mum used to say she never worried about where I was because she could usually chart my progress by looking out the window. Today I followed one of those trails, accompanied by the spirit of that young boy whose very fabric was fashioned by the wind and the sun and fields and the birds and the cows and the sheep and the clouds over the incomparable Isle of Wight.
Dinner at the Bonchurch Inn, reading a novel written by a friend Iíve known for 50 years, one of the first friends I made upon arriving in Australia all those years ago. Around me the quiet chatter of locals enjoying an evening meal. A few houses down the road is where I entered this world and now that Mumís ashes are scattered over the hills above me, itís the place where I too want my remains to be scattered when that final curtain falls. In the meantime, itís lasagne, red wine and a good book to read; lifeís simple pleasures.
As my final evening on the island draws to a close for another year, I spend it with my Airbnb hosts and newly-acquired friends. As Iíve already mentioned, the island is not about indulging in nostalgia, even though it is sometimes nostalgic. Itís about reconnection, renewal and forging new friendships. I leave the island having achieved all three of these things, and more. This is a very special place. There are people here whom I love, and I will continue to come back here for as long as I am able. Something happens here that happens nowhere else.
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