The Phaeacian sailors deposited the sleeping Odysseus on the shore of Ithaca, his homeland, to reach which he had struggled for twenty years of uspeakable suffering. He stirred and woke from sleep in the land of his fathers, but he knew not his whereabouts. Ithaca showed him an unaccustomed face; he did not recognize the pathways stretching into the distance, the quiet bays, the crags and precipices. He rose to his feet and stood staring at what was his own land, crying mournfully: “Alas! And now where on earth am I? What do I here myself?”
(Homer, The Odyssey)
Reentry shock. They warn you about it, of course. They tell you that you will snivel unaccountably in supermarkets, tremble uncontrollably in traffic, and yawp ‘Alas! Where am I?’ over the unforgiving rooftops of your fatherland. But nothing quite prepares you for it.
The low point for me on returning from fourteen years in Africa was getting stuck on a narrow one way street near Sainsburys, Nine Elms, facing the wrong way, an object of contempt and wrath to six oncoming drivers. Deep breaths didn’t help. I heartily wished I had stayed in Africa, where no street is one way and everyone smiles from dusk till dawn.
I rang my wife Charlie, as I am prone to do at moments of raw befuddlement. ‘Do you want me to come and get you?’ she said. I thought about saying yes, and then I remembered Odysseus. He struggled with reentry, but struggled manfully. “Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.” Great Odysseus, man of many wiles, would not have wanted his wife schlepping across London to rescue him from Sainsburys. So I did what Odysseus would have done. I stiffened the sinews, summoned up the blood, and executed a slick twenty-seven point turn using forward and reverse gears.
Things have got better since the Nine Elms Debacle, imperceptibly at first, and now markedly. Our flat at the top of Battersea High Street is quickly becoming a home – amazing what a lick of paint and a pot of Japanese bamboo can do. And now, after a month of visiting family and friends, I’m buckling down to work: writing books for young people. There are lots of exciting projects in the pipeline, which I shall share over the coming weeks. And lots of school and library visits, too. Which reminds me: if you would like me to visit your school, do get in touch sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.
I’m a sucker for all those ‘Where I Write’ pieces in the glossy weekend supplements, so I thought I’d share with you this picture of my brand new writing station. It is located in a cosy nook behind the stairwell, and it is the only piece of furniture I have ever built. If you can call it furniture. Or building. It’s a piece of MDF painted white and screwed into the walls. It’s in a corner of the living room, and Charlie is keen for me to keep it tidy. Watch this space – she certainly is.
And while I’m uploading photos, here are some highlights from the last few weeks.