I’ve been enjoying Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of essays and articles not unlike his earlier Writing Home. As he remembers his Yorkshire upbringing, he captures life in England that is quite different from the one I knew, but which is also quite recognizable and familiar in a way. I had a similar experience a few months ago with Nigel Slater’s Toast, another memoir, this time from a chef and focused on the food he remembers from growing up in England in the sixties. Some of them were universal: Sunday roast, ice cream, Christmas cake. Others less familiar to me: walnut whip, fairy drops, parley sauce, bluebird milk chocolate toffees.
I don’t think these memoirs have given rise to an overwhelming nostalgia in me although nostalgia for an England past, childhood, home and other evocative notions are certainly part of my reaction. Another part is more to do with identity, who I am and where I come from.
The other day a friend made a comment about how clearly neither he nor I were originally from the South. While that is indubitably true, I nonetheless find that I enjoy a certain familiarity with the Southern comedy of manners, a sense of what is ‘done’ and what is ‘not’. The actual objects of such judgments differ. (No one in the US seems terribly concerned about when and whether it is ever alright to wear brown shoes with a dark suit.) But the worrying itself is familiar. (I never hear anyone in England comment on white bucks after Labor Day.) What IS clearly different (and I not infrequently give offense as a result) are the conventions about how rules can be broken, commented upon or mocked. Satire and irony have their place in the South, but in ways subtly different from those with which I grew up. A certain edge, clever quality, perhaps vulgarity and so on can be admired in some circumstances and some company in England, but are rarely so in the South. They are simply boorish, disrespectful of the traditions and so on, all of which are to be taken very seriously as a matter of Southern Identity.
As the years pass since my arrival in North Carolina in 1976, I give unintentional offense less often than in the past, but am still reminded of my roots from time to time. I have not ‘gone native’, at least not completely. When I experience a little nostalgia in the company of Alan Bennett or Nigel Slater, I’m not unhappy to be reminded that while I may not be from here, much as I love the American South and all its ways, I am from somewhere.