I was on my favourite Facebook page the other day, and stumbled on an image I haven’t seen in a while. It was nothing remarkable, not an important occasion you might print out to remember; a marriage or a birth, say. No, it was simply an old picture of Tanylan, the council estate I grew up on.
I’d had that same image on my hard drive for years now, and I still like to look at it now and then, when the mood takes me. I first downloaded it in 2004 and, even though I’ve had it for such a long time, it still special. It’s a picture that stopped me in my tracks, and I think I actually said, “Wow!” to myself when I first saw it, even though it is so boringly unexceptional.
So why’s that then?
Well, in 2004, my contact with home consisted of a weekly telephone call, a couple of joke emails, and a visit once every two years. Not much, I know, but the internet wasn’t what it now is and the paucity of visits was down purely to financial constraints.
Though I was really taken with the internet, before Facebook it wasn’t the bridge to the world it has now become. This was way before even MySpace caught on in Europe, and all we had were Blogs and emails to reach out to people. Even Skype was in its infancy if it even existed at all? I remember doing an AOL videochat with a mate in the next town, and it was a complete disaster as the internet speed was laughable.
Consequently, my forays into the cyber world were a lot less intense. Whereas now I can easily lose whole days in front of the computer if left to my own devices, then I was finished with the internet inside of an hour. My daily computer ritual fell in this order, emails, blog-posts, news, sport, writing forums and it often took less time to complete than my old, second hand computer took to fire up!
One of the MANY Blogs and amateur websites I followed dealt with Colwyn Bay and the surrounding area. It was on one of those that a very nice lady posted the picture that grabbed my imagination and rattled the (up to that point) inert Hiraeth in me awake.
Hiraeth is such a great word. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition; “Hiraeth /hɪəraɪ̯θ/ is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.”
In my case, it’s not so much the grief described by the University of Lampeter, as the, “longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past” that fits.
Hiraeth only ever dropped its mask of patriotic homesickness later on in life, when events took a turn for the worst. When I first left home, the ache I felt for my home town was pure homesickness, nothing more, nothing less. Ripped out of the entanglement of my mother’s apron, and thrust into an alien and comparatively Draconian environment, I was ripe pickings for the intense melancholy that shadows every move whilst yearning for home. Juniors was a mistake, I realise that now, but the experience did instil in me an independence that has carried me through life.
When I first made a life for myself in Germany, away from the military, the hankering for home was more a feeling of being lost and out of my depths in a foreign land. Suddenly I was an immigrant in a country that had once seemed so welcoming, and was in a heartbeat now so culturally and linguistically demanding. As a soldier I was immersed in the British way of life, but obviously that changed radically when I left the safe confines of the barracks to face the wide world on my own two feet. In the space of a couple of weeks I was pining for my home town with an intensity I hadn’t felt since those first confused days as a junior soldier.
However, those examples were not Hiraeth. Hiraeth goes deeper than that. It dwells far back in the mind, swelling in potency as life complicates itself with responsibility, worries and cares. Slowly devouring the thought process, it takes over the consciousness like ivy on an old wall, until one day you realise the depths of your unhappiness and you don’t understand why? You have everything you need, a family, friends, a secure job, (sort of), a roof and money to spend, and yet the satisfaction of your situation is not there. Something is missing in your soul and you can’t pinpoint what it is? That’s exactly where I was in 2004.
You see, 2004 was the first full year in our house. We’d moved into it in November the year before, and hadn’t stopped working on it since. Christmas of 2003 passed me by in a sleepless whirl of overtime at the steelworks or work in and around the house. By about May of 2004, I was beginning to wonder what exactly had we been thinking when we decided to build a house, and was looking at my finances and personal well being with a growing sense of despondency. Any money we had disappeared into the black hole that was eating up my bank account, and I was so tired, so very tired all the time. Increasingly, as I nearly always do when I’m under stress, I started to think of home.
Nowadays, when homesickness hits, I simply switch on Google Earth and cyber-walk down the streets I grew up on. Or I go to Facebook and trawl through the myriad of pictures in the photo section of, “Residents of Old Colwyn past and present”. In 2004 though, it was a different kettle of fish.
There were a few websites with old postcards, and one could glean a certain amount of contentment by recognising certain streets or views from bygone eras. However, there were no pictures of the Colwyn Bay and surrounding area of my youth. There were plenty from the last two centuries, and a whole rook of images to be found with the “new” dual carriageway, (which was still being built when I left home in September ’83), but none to be found from the sixties and seventies; MY era as it were.
As the year went on, I grew gradually more and more disheartened. I seemed to go to work, come home, then either work in the house or in a garden that resembled the second day of the Somme. I couldn’t see an end in sight, and though I was lucky in that I had some good friends who pitched in when it was needed, (my mate Bob even “borrowed” an earth mover from the firm he used to work for a couple of times!) it still seemed like I was going it alone.
Then it happened. I was flicking through the gallery in one of the Blogs I followed and I stumbled on this.
There, in all its retro glory, was the Tanylan council estate of my youth. No dual carriageway scarring its perfect lines, and the buildings and playing areas as I remembered them from my carefree youth. Tanylan road, the artery running from above our estate, down to the bus stop at the bottom and off into town. The Tip, the large grassy area where we used to play football. Nolan’s bank, the wasteland between the railway and the sea; out of bounds to the young Reggie, and full of old cars, broken glass and the odd, muddy “nudey mag” that provided more sex education than biology lessons ever did.
I’ll never forget that feeling as my eyes fell on it, the present dropped away like an Aspirined headache as my delight at the find soared. I’ve only ever been moved or shocked by a few photos in my time, shocked as in rocked personally at the sight of something once remembered, or moved to stop and contemplate that time or personality. One was while looking through a load of Polaroid’s my father in law took, and in them was my recently deceased Granddad. The picture was taken on the last trip to Wales while he was alive and the shock of seeing him again, smiling up at us from his hospital bed, knocked me for six. Believe me, being so far removed from the dramas of kith and kin magnifies events dramatically when suddenly confronted with them.
Another time was a picture of my intake in Junior Leaders. I looked so young, (I still do actually… sort of. Never mind,) and seeing us all, sixteen years of age, lined up, not knowing what the future will hold for us, or the next 24 hours in fact, brought back memories of a different, more character building kind.
However, sitting there as I was, tired from shift with a mountain of work in our new house still to do, and seeing this picture of my home in Wales as I remember it being as a child, I was rejuvenated. You could say it was at that point I realised what was ailing me, what was missing in my life. I recognised the Hiraeth in me and could now deal with it.
Communication with home improved with time (and money) and now I’m in daily contact with my family and friends of old. My home town isn’t on the other side of the world anymore and I do miss Wales, but not with the force that once assailed me all those years ago.
I still look at that picture, especially after a visit from family, and think back to quieter, simpler times. It restores me, reminds me of who I am and that the shift work, the stress of supporting and maintaining the balance between family, bills and home will have an end someday, as it has had for my parents and their parents before them.
That benevolent realisation, to me, is the true power of that picture.