Those of us who move from the provinces pay a toll at the city’s gate, a toll that is doubled in the years that follow as we try to find a balance between what was so briskly discarded and what was so carefully, hesitantly, slyly put in its place. More than thirty years ago, when I was in Egypt, I met a cultivated English couple who invited me to stay in their house in London on my way back to Ireland. They could not have been more charming.
The only problem was that they had an Irish maid who, as soon as I arrived as their guest, began to talk to me in the unvarnished accent of home, as though she had known me all of her life. Since she was from a town near mine, we spoke of people we knew in common or knew by name or reputation. It was all very relaxed and friendly.
Later, after supper, my two English friends asked me if I minded them raising a subject that troubled them. Did I know, they asked, that my accent and tone, indeed my entire body language, had changed when I met their maid? I was almost a different person. Was I aware that I had, in turn, changed back to the person they had met in Egypt once I was alone with them again?
I asked them, did they not also speak in different ways to different people? No, they insisted, they did not. Never! They seemed horrified at the thought. They looked at me as if I was the soul of inauthenticity. And then I realized that those of us who move from the periphery to the center turn our dial to different wavelengths depending on where we are and who else is in the room. In this world, memory becomes a form of reparation, a way of reconnecting the self to a more simple time, a way of hearing an old tune before it became textured with orchestration.
Raymond Williams, who taught at Cambridge, was one of the leading English thinkers of his generation. In 1960, two years after he published his best-known book, Culture and Society, 1780–1950, he published a novel, Border Country, in which he attempted to deal with the distance he had traveled from his upbringing in Wales as the son of a railway signalman. The book is filled with an ambiguous longing for a home that has been lost, as the son Will, who is known in the outside world as Matthew, returns to the small house where his father’s health is failing.
Every encounter is fraught with strain and difficulty. Matthew is studying things as culture that others view as nature. He has gained a place in the world that matters until the very notion of…
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