When I was a kid, I had the standard fare of Enid Blyton books and if I can trust my memory, one of them was a book of poetry about Noddy and Toytown. Would you believe I can still pretty closely quote one of them, and the ever-helpful www has given me the correct words (though my memory was almost right):
And have a lovely holiday;
And yet although it’s fun to roam,
It’s even better
Coming home —
It’s REALLY lovely coming home!
The poem was set inside a full-page drawing of Noddy and Big Ears in Noddy’s car, suitcases strapped on the back, setting off for a seaside holiday. They were the days before those who, with apparently nothing else to do, decided that this ‘friendship’ between two males (a dwarf and a boy with a bell on his hat) was the work of the devil. I don’t remember anything else about that book, but I remember that poem.
I was probably only four when I read it, but it stayed with me. Perhaps because I was drawn to the idea of going on holiday and coming back home, the steady rhythm of ‘coming home, coming home’, the stable sense of place that it evoked for me. That was something I never had; my family was always unsettled and moved frequently, so any ‘holiday’ involved moving to a new home, usually another country, Australia or England. I didn’t have the local equivalent of Noddy’s Toytown to return to, but I’ve never been in doubt that Australia is home.
As an adult, coming home after time overseas, it’s always the air that I notice, my sense of smell most acute. At the airport this time, the engine fumes overwhelmed any other scents, but the air itself was warm and gentle after the cold of Washington. And away from the airport, the smells were unmistakably home: gums, grass, summer flowers, all intensified in the heat from our brilliant blue sky.
In our house, there was no specific scent, just the mingled aromas of familiarity. Outside, the garden and paddocks had that baked-grass, middle-of-summer smell that comes with its own edge of fear, that of fire. Oh, and a smell that told me the dogs clearly needed a bath. In my study, though, as soon as I stepped through the door, there was the soothing smell of books that has a way of wrapping around me, that seems to say, welcome back, come in, sit down, take time, be alone, read, write.
The smell is old paper, new paper, pencils, ink and dust, I suppose, but it has, for me, the rounded edges of comfort, the feel of velvet. My study has wooden floorboards and no carpet, but the scent of books feels like a thick, old Turkish rug and I’m sure that’s because there are a thousand thousand words in there, of all colours, shapes, sizes and textures.
In amongst them there are many stories and ideas about what ‘home’ is, but one that always makes me take in a breath of recognition is Leonard Cohen’s line: ‘Lift me like an olive branch, be my homeward dove / And dance me to the end of love’ (‘Dance Me to the End of Love’). It’s a small literary miracle. Among other associations, the dove is the bird that was sent out from Noah’s ark and finally returned with a branch in its mouth, evidence that the flood was subsiding and land emerging. When I was four, I just wanted the certainty of that patch of dry ground in the middle of the waters. Now I see that in the image of journey and return, the dove gathers up so much of the essence of home: vulnerability, salvation, tenderness, hope and desire, and all in a few simple words. Cohen is addressing a lover, but he is not making that person home; it is the other, or others, that help us find it. And then we dance.