A N Wilson: We may fly the nest, but the homing instinct is an overwhelming force

Nostalgia for our roots can be irresistible, especially when life's journey, however long and adventurous, is nearing its end

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The Independent Online

Andrew Paterson has come home. In case you missed the story, Andrew Paterson was a Welsh solicitor who conspired to defraud one of his clients. He used £17,200 in the 1980s to buy an imported motor vehicle. He was due to appear at Guildford Crown Court on 13 November 1987, but he jumped bail and the police lost track of him.

Meanwhile, for the next quarter of a century, someone going by the name of Mark Attwood was living the life of Riley at a beach resort in Goa. From the photographs, he looks like the most amiable sort of wide-boy. He was married three times, had six children, and in Goa, he was, we are told, "highly respected in his role as group sales and marketing director for a luxury timeshare apartments company".

In the end, however, Mark Attwood, pictured above, wanted to stop being Mark Attwood and to come home. He left instructions that after his death, he should be buried in his native South Wales, at St Mary's, Begelly, a church near Tenby, in Pembrokeshire, where he grew up. Someone who has watched a lot of people die once told me that by far the most usual last word is "Mother".

The heart attack that carried off Mark Attwood had in reality killed Andrew Patterson, who was seven years older. The family evidently managed to get the body home without exciting suspicion, but the police were tipped off, and, after the ghoulish business of taking fingerprints from the corpse, it was revealed that the wanted man could no longer help them with their inquiries. He was laid beneath "the green, green grass of home" – a song which I should imagine Andrew Paterson would have enjoyed.

The first great work of European literature is about homecoming, and it is no surprise that so many books since have reworked Homer's Odyssey. We are homing birds, which is what makes the first great reaction against Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, so disturbing an anticipation of the modern: this is the story, not of homecoming, but of leaving home behind in a heap of burning rubble, and setting out to make a New World, a New Empire, a New Life. No wonder Virgil could not finish it. We are still doing that for him.

One of the most haunting places in the western world is the American Museum of Immigration at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It fills the mind with the sorrows, and restlessness and, most wrenching of all, the hopefulness, of the generations of those "poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free".

It is 128 years since Emma Lazarus wrote those lines as a tribute to the Statue of Liberty, and since then, though we might not be poor or huddled, we have all moved on a bit.

Migrations from Asia and Africa, northwards and westwards, have taken place upon a previously unimagined scale, impelled by starvation and war, facilitated by aircraft technology, and changing the world forever as the Bangladeshi, Eritrean or Congolese Aeneases came to Europe, helping Anchises through Customs, if not actually carrying him on their shoulders, and as Europeans and Americans, led by faith or despair, squeezed through the airport at Tel Aviv.

Moreover, in the West, it is taken as commonplace that growing up is synonymous with leaving home. There is no obvious reason, beyond the economic ones, why this should be the case. But it is now the norm. Living with your parents in adult life is regarded as freakish. If you are grown up, you are expected to move on, and move out.

Yet Andrew Paterson and the story of his burial, reminded me of how very odd all this displacement is.

"Home is where one starts from. As we grow older/ The world becomes stranger...", writes T S Eliot towards the end of "East Coker" in the Four Quartets. My own parents left my native North Staffordshire when I was 11. Wilsons had been potters there since the 18th century. Only as I have grown older – I'm 60 now – have I begun to realise what a violent wrench this was in my life. I now return, furtively and often, and it has prompted a completely new phase of my writing life. Treading the Downs Banks in the fields near Stone, Staffordshire, where I first walked on this planet, I have been taking the steps Eliot describes: "In my end is my beginning."

Home is not necessarily the most exciting place. Goa was more exotic than Begelly, but it was into the Welsh earth that Mr Paterson wanted his corpse to be lowered.

I have no interest in where I am buried or cremated, but with each passing month, the stories of homecoming resonate more strongly with me, whether they are Dorothy Gale sobbing to Aunty Em that "there's no place like home", or Frodo and his companions returning after the perils of the Land of Mordor to the comforts of the Shire.

Margaret Thatcher's bleakest utterance was: "Home is where you go when you've nowhere else to go." As with her other bleak saying about there being no such thing as society, Thatcherites remind us that she was being taken out of context. But the home saying still accepts, with all the stark modernity of a brutalist shopping mall, that up-to-date go-getters have no need of home until they get desperate. Maybe she was right, and maybe we are all sea, all wandering, all lost.

Politicians who, by contrast, try to suggest a love of home can find themselves hinting at the unsayable – as when William Hague, during a Conservative Party conference in March 2001, said that Britain had become a "foreign land" for many of its inhabitants. Michael Heseltine immediately countered this by suggesting he would have difficulty in serving in a government led by Hague. Of course you can see why the "foreign land" remark was made to seem off colour – if made to apply either to recent immigrants or to European legislation. But on another level – because of our being so mobile – the reality is that, outside a few small rural communities, perhaps in the Western Isles or in remote Northumbrian villages, we are all displaced persons of one sort or another. Yeats's prayer for his daughter, that she should be "rooted in one dear perpetual place" is no longer an option.

The most tragic person I ever befriended was someone who really was beyond the pale, politically: Diana Mosley, the widow of the Fascist leader Sir Oswald, and mother to the at-present embattled Max. Her crazy political views, espoused when she fell in love with Mosley, but pursued even more fanatically than by him during the 1930s, led to her sitting adoringly at the feet of Hitler as they discussed Wagner.

Ever after, she was a pariah in her own country. Gentle, funny and enchantingly beautiful, she was invariably labelled a callous anti-Semitic witch. No one who knew and loved her could ever understand why she had idolised the ghastly Führer. It seemed so at variance with anything else in her character. Imprisoned in England without trial during the war, she never seemed to have a good word to say for the poor old place. But as she aged, one saw signs of this anti-English thing softening. She had always thought her funeral would be, like her husband's, in the crematorium at Père Lachaise cemetery, with no prayers. But about five years before she died, she changed her mind. When death came, her ashes were buried, at her request, in the churchyard at Swinbrook, in the Cotswolds, and the hymns we sang were those which she had played as the 17-year-old church organist.

Burying that muddle-headed, Francophile nonagenarian in her childhood soil was intensely moving. The ghastly mistakes she made in her twenties could never be undone, but you could feel her saying, like Kenneth Grahame's Mole, "You don't understand! It's my home, my old home! I've just come across the smell of it, and it's close by here, really quite close."