Will Self: homebound

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The Independent Online

I got home the other evening after two weeks away in the US. Even as I stepped from the door of the aircraft on to the gantry I felt as if I was home: the grey frayed carpeting, the crap-flat lighting, the odour of Heathrow Airport – the busiest in Europe – was at once chilly and cloacal, suggesting the presence of many thousands of (albeit invisible) bodies. It doesn't sound too good this, does it?

Not exactly what the Germans would term gemütlich, and yet I found it so. It got better – or worse – as I romped along the endless travelators, through jerry-built corridors of unspeakable drabness. At Immigration, the official scanned my passport and said, chronic boredom doing battle with politeness, "Thank you, sir." And I was in. The echoic Heathrow Express train station, the even more cavernous Paddington, with its 19th-century whale's belly of glass-and-iron ceiling; then I was down, striding through the foot tunnels into the Tube. Ah! The ineffably homey London Tube: I grew up in these people-funnels, their warm zephyrs freighted with a myriad cold viruses and food smells. When I was a child I travelled eight stops on the Tube to get to school, a roundabout journey geographically, but in terms of time the quickest way there. On the weekends I would buy a ticket for 30 pence, and spend the whole day roaming through this subterranean world, only popping up to ground level from time to time.

You may have the impression that I'm straying off the point here – that I'm not writing about "home" as commonly understood, but my home town, an altogether different notion. However, in my case the two are indissoluble: home is, after all, a gestalt, compounded of the senses, their memories, and the mind's determination to assemble these into a harmonious whole. The point is, that from the age of nine or so, for me London began to be my home, rather more than my parents' house. I don't want to make a big deal about this, but mine was not an especially happy childhood. Certainly, I have happy enough memories of home when I was small, but the emphasis here has to be on "enough". It's also the case that those memories are a thick broth of the sensual: the touch of my mother's flannel dressing gown, a glint of father's change scattered on top of his bow-fronted chest of drawers, the smell of the puppies when they – and I – were small. And, of course, I recall the layout, the look, the very embodiment of my childhood home, with an increasingly veridical accuracy. I can sit here now and draw a floor plan that will show where my eldest brother's double-bass was propped, and where the reproduction Matisse of mussels on a plate hung.

It's not far from where I sit typing now – only an hour by Tube. In the past decade I've been back that way two or three times. It's not a remarkable house: a red-brick semi in a suburban street, but the most remarkable thing about it, to my eyes, was always that the driveway, with its irregular pattern of flagstones, and a chipped ridge of granite guttering, had over the decades remained exactly the same as when I came into consciousness there, as a toddler, dabbling in dirt and twigs. Then, the last time I went back, a year ago, it had finally changed. The current incumbents had resurfaced the driveway. I stood there, looking down at its bluey-black expanse, obliterating my heimat, and felt a curious liberation: you can never return to the past, but it's as well to have the occasional door slammed in your face – simply in order to hammer this home.

As it happened, I was engaged in an unusual survey of my sense of home on that particular day. I had decided to walk from my current home, to where I was born, to my childhood home, to where I was at school – all within a few miles of each other in London – and then on to Oxford, where I was at university. There are few people, nowadays, in the mobile West, whose lives are sufficiently geographically condensed to be able to do this – but I'm one of them. I wanted to connect all the principal sites of my life with the effort of my own muscles, to bind them to me physically. Looking back on the enterprise, it occurs to me that this was all part of the homemaking of London that had been going on since I was nine. When I was nine, my father left the family home. He came back and went again a couple of times in the next eight years, but essentially, my idea of home was irretrievably damaged at that point. When I was 17, the family house was sold. I went away to university – I returned home. I went and lived with my father, who had made a new home for himself in Australia – but I returned to London once more. The years passed, I married, and moved out of London for a couple of years, only to come home when the marriage collapsed. And here, with the exception of some brief sojourns, I have remained ever since.

In 1997 I remarried, and the past decade has seen that most strange of things: the gradual accretion of memories, and sensations, and memories of those sensations, that perfuse mere bricks and mortar and possessions, to end up, quite inevitably, creating a genuine sense of home. Children help. To be with psyches, agglomerations of billions of neurons, which have coalesced in a particular place, is to feel that much more rooted. Two children have come as newborns to this house, and their two older half-siblings also have thought of it as a kind of home. There have been births and parties and the whole quotidian go-round, the wheels of domesticity leaving their hopefully happy ruts in the road. So, here I come, listening to the Cockney accents, leafing through the free sheet – then out of the Tube station, observing the guys messing about outside the station. My weary feet are carrying me past the curiously beautiful Modernist bus garage, then the Duke of Cambridge pub – run by Portuguese immigrants – then into my road.

As middle-age got its grip on me, and I became prey to genealogical speculations, I discovered a curious fact about my family. It transpired that the earliest known Self to have lived in London – one Adolphus Self, a coach painter – was entered in the 1841 census as having been resident at Kennington Cross, a mere half mile from here. So, it seems that while I may myself be one of the Modernists, with my half-Jewish, half-English blood, and while I may trot the globe, I still return to a strange kind of urban homeland: a quarter of a mighty world city in which six generations of the male line of my family have now resided. I don't begrudge anyone coming into this Self homeland – on the contrary, the burgeoning of London's immigrant population during my adult life has been a source of delight to me. I remember this city as far duller and blander when it was more homogeneous. But the biggest source of pleasure for me is to see how all of them have been impregnated with genus loci: black, brown, white – they look like Londoners, they all sound like Londoners. They're perfectly at home here. And so am I.

'UK at Home: A Celebration of Where We Live and Love', created by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, is published by Duncan Baird, £19.99. To order a copy at a special price, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897