And if you find her poor,
Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
So wise as you will have become,
so full of experience,
you would have understood by then
what these Ithakas mean.
With relief I boarded the plane at Hurghada that would take me home – after a lovely send off by my new friends the night before (a soiree at Angelica and Daniel’s place, then one (or two or…) for the road in the Smugglers Inn with the Tropical Gangsters – of which I was made an honorary member) I was leaving Egypt with some good memories, my second draft, and a batch of new poems. It had felt like a long month and I was looking forward to: a long soak and my own bed; British woodland; decent beer, music and books; Marmite; and my friends!
The flight was unexceptional – the usual being-sucked-through-a-tube, crammed-in-like-sardines experience courtesy of your average Queasyjet budget airline. They obviously base the ergonomics of the seating on Oompa Loompas – not longshanks like me. Typical of the British transport system that it took longer to get from Gatwick to Bath than Hurghada to London. My flight arrived in around midnight and I had to hang around in a chilly Paddington until 5.30am to get the first train back. When the coffee shop opened up at 5 I was there first customer – needing a hot drink to thaw out. Yet on the train home I loved seeing the landscape of England unfold in the grey dawn light – verdant, damp and ancient. When I caught sight of the White Horse of Uffington (I always notice it when I’m on the London train) I knew I was finally home, in a landscape whose language I could read.
from notebook, 1 June: glimpsing the white horse in the damp light of an english dawn…blessed rain – after a month in the desert i feel it on my face, smiling as i walk home
Arriving back home was a blessed relief. After a 16 hour trip I crashed, only emerging later for a lovely homecoming meal with a friend who had been flat-sitting while I was away. Seeing how aching and weary I was from my long journey home, she tried to give me a massage, but it’s somewhat painful when you have sunburn on your back (the result of spending my last day in El Gouna snorkelling in the Red Sea)!
I spent the next few days catching up and de-pressurising (it felt like coming up from a deep sea dive and I had to avoid the ‘bends’). I had a stack of exam marking to do, but my brain was still somewhere over the Med.
Thursday evening went for my first rideout to the Weston Bike Night – a lovely run along Chew Valley in the westering sun. There were hundreds of big shiny bikes there. Even the sands of Weston-Super-Mud looked agreeable in the sunset. I mingled with the crowd. Drank a coffee. Had a Mars bar. Took pics. It was nice to do something normal for a change!
Friday met up with some friends at Green Park Brasserie, watching an Arabic troupe, of all things – more belly dancing! Seeing it back home in Bath, after a month in the desert, made me feel strangely at home. The rock legend happened to be in the audience and I plucked up courage to speak to him – and we chatted for about five minutes about his latest album. He was pleasant – as long as you didn’t act like a complete tit (a friend sidled over as we were chatting and said ‘Can I talk with you?’, and Robert turned around and said, ‘No.’) After, we went to the mirrored splendor of the Speigeltent on the Rec to see another legend – Martin Carthy, the granddaddy of the British folk scene. It was nice to sample some of the delights of the Bath Fringe – eccentric creativity at its best.
Saturday evening I caught up with my friends Marko and Jay. I enjoyed having my first pint of Guiness for some time – and having a heart-to-heart with kindred spirits.
Sunday went to the Sunrise Celebration down near Bruton with Jay and Sally. I’ve been going to festivals since 1989 but haven’t made it to this relatively new festy until this year – it seems to have taken the place of the sadly demised Big Green Gathering, and felt like an early version of it – indeed alot of the stalls, bands, cafes and crew were the same so it’s not surprising. It looked beautiful, had a nice vibe, was easy to walk around and had a positive ethos. For once, it was nice just being a punter and enjoying the whole thing without having to worry about performing somewhere or giving a talk. I saw Tim Hall and friends perform their enchanting harmonies, jigged to Seize the Day, listened to some wacky New Age talk and had the usual random festival experiences, eg dancing with a tree…
Monday I had to get up at ‘stupid o’clock’ to go to Milton Keynes for an OU exam marking meeting – if anything was going to bring me down to earth with a bang, this promised to. But it was a chance to visit Northampton nearby and see my family – which made the whole thing worthwhile. Being back in the ‘dirty old town’ (the Pogues song always rings through my head as I walk by the gas works and Carlsberg back to my folks place) certainly made me feel I had finally ‘landed’. You can’t get more prosaic – but it was nice to catch up with my kin. My nephew was now a strapping young man – he’ll be twenty this month – a veritable Telemachus (I still remember him climbing over my head when he was a terrible toddler). We went to flicks as a pre-birthday treat and I bought him a beer – it felt like I had left when he was a boy and returned when he was a man. Where does all the time go…? To continue the Odyssian conceit – ‘Argus’ was a lively little Scotty called Daisy. And my Mum continues knitting – not quite Penelope with her tapestry, but it’ll do! My sister made it down – it was great to see her as always. My young niece was bemused by my gift of a soft toy camel at first – when squeezed it sang some Arabic ditty – but eventually warmed to it, clinging to it possessively. I showed my holiday snaps – and amazingly no one nodded off.
Tuesday caught the train back home and got stuck back into things – have a mountain of stuff to sort out (marking; book launch; gig on Friday; house; publishing projects…). At least in the desert life is less cluttered! Here, there’s a thousand things clamouring for our attention, a thousand distractions. It’s been great catching up with friends, but I hope I do not lose the clarity and focus of the desert. Yet … it lingers. As Jay and I agree (we have both spent time writing in Egypt recently) once you have been to the desert, you carry it within you always.