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The Great Homing Instinct

WHAT'S the good of a home if you are never in it?" asks the home-loving Mr. Pooter, the ridiculous hero of a late 19th-century humorous classic, "The Diary of Nobody." Although almost everything this unimportant clerk puts down for posterity in his diary is breathtakingly insignificant, the fact is that there's a certain amount of Pooter in most of us. Be it ever so humble, there really is no place like our home. It can be hundreds of rooms, or just one. It doesn't, in the final synthesis, matter: It's h ome.

The Pooters' home, he proudly tells his readers (it's called "The Laurels"), is "a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement." And the one room he is most proud of, mentioning it particularly, is the "front breakfast-parlour."

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Anybody who is even remotely proud of his or her home will feel for Pooter, his six rooms, his basement, his breakfast-parlour. When he's finished "his work in the City," he says, he likes "to be at home." Well, he's far from alone in that. Tired of those alien rooms away from home - the office, the reception room, the board room, the typing pool, the waiting room, the hotel lounge - we, daily commuters or long-term travelers, yearn to be back in the rooms we call our own. It's "home," the whole, joined- up, total thing, the concept, that we fellow-Pooters like to come back to. We are the homecomers.

Among our ancestors, I suspect it was those ancient Romans who particularly liked coming home. Viewing the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum suggests they had a soft spot for domesticity. And then there was that Roman poet and epigrammatist Gaius Valerius Catallus. He seemed clear that the homing instinct doesn't belong exclusively to pigeons and horses:

"O what," he wrote, "is more blessed than to throw cares aside, as the mind puts down its burden and, weary with the labor of far journeys, we return home and rest on the couch that we longed for? This alone is worth all that labor."

Being a home-bird myself, I find it hard to understand those who actually like to get "weary with the labor of far journeys." Seven days is the absolute maximum I can float loose from my moorings. In fact, being away from home does not necessarily mean we appreciate it more; though I admit it can help sometimes. On the whole, though, I go along with one of Jane Austen's characters, Mr. John Knightley in her novel "Emma," caught in a grumpy moment.

Riding in a carriage on a winter evening toward a dinner engagement with a neighbor who cannot be refused, he voices what most people, if honest, would surely admit to feeling sometimes, even the hardiest party-goers and vacation enthusiasts: "A man," said he, "must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him. He must think himself a most agreeable fellow; I could do no such thing. It is the great est absurdity - actually snowing at this moment! The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home, and the folly of people's not staying comfortable at home when they can!" And on and on. Austen, laughing at his childish mood merrily behind her hand, also conveys a fellow feeling. She understood how he felt.

"Childish" perhaps is right: It is probably the child in us that loves coming home, even if it also usually relishes going out, too. All my own strongest feelings for homecoming seem to belong to childhood.

But maturer coming home is not quite guaranteed to be the longed-for sensation of ultimate return to all that's safe and sweet as suggested by romantic songs such as "Home on the Range." A fair antidote to such sentimental warbling could be a plethora of infants ready to climb all over you when what you'd hoped for was a collapse into your armchair for a decent snooze after a day's work - or even a trip round the world.

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Nevertheless, homecoming - despite the cynical "realism" of it, despite even gentle nudging laughter at the expense of the Pooterish, aspiring-middle-class devotion to home above all other values - is quite a survivor as concepts go. Something latent in most of us can still respond to the notion of that room or rooms, with or without resident cat, that wait for our return: "a place for us." The symbolism, however commonplace, does run deep.

Until I reread recently "The Wind in The Willows," I'd forgotten how much about home this book is. Earlier in this series I've mentioned Badger's kitchen. And the final triumph of the whole story is the recapture from squatters (weasels and stoats) of Toad's great country house, Toad Hall. But it is in the middle of the book that there is an entire chapter called "Dulce Domum," and oddly moving it is when you consider it's mainly about a mole's underground passageways. Kenneth Grahame's animals are at le ast half human, though, and by this imaginary contrivance he brings his human readers back to something of the creature-intuition he feels we have, regrettably, lost.

Mole had popped out of his earthy home to discover the excitements of a fresh-air world, and sunlight, and the river, all of which were, to his new acquaintance, the Water Rat, life itself. Now, after an adventure, the two friends were heading for home: Ratty's home in the river bank. The Rat was urgent, worried by the weather and imminent nightfall, striding ahead. Mole trailed a little and then "... suddenly the summons reached him, and took him like an electric shock."

Ratty didn't even notice. But Mole was undergoing, in silence, an extraordinary, heart-rending crisis. The "call" made him "tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither...."

Then recollection came "in fullest flood."

"Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way!"

The chapter needs to be read whole; it is enough here to say that Mole at last miserably followed his friend. But then, unable to hold down uncontrollable sobbing, he revealed how his "small and poorly furnished home" had summoned him with such primitive, terrible force.

The Rat, shocked by his own insensitivity, now insisted they turn back. In the dark, they hunted out the home, and Mole collapsed again in a mess of apologies because it seemed so cold and unwelcoming. The Rat, however, who had home in his blood, refused to let Mole be downhearted and hustled about looking for food, lit a fire, and generally cajoled and jollied.

By the end of the chapter the Mole was fully restored and they both went off happily to bed. But before he closed his eyes, Mole let them wander round his old room in the firelight.

They rested on "familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour.... He saw clearly how plain and simple - how narrow, even - it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one's existence." However he found he also now had no wish to forgo all the excitements of his "new life and its splendid spaces."

That's a balance worth the learning. Who doesn't need "some such anchorage"? And who doesn't need "new life" and "splendid spaces" too?

But the point is also made that the pleasures of home, and homecoming, have little - probably nothing at all - to do with its size or pretensions.

We have a family friend who has moved a number of times in recent years, from largish house, to smaller house, to flat. Something indefinable, and not just the color of curtains and upholstery, makes each of these differently shaped containers have just the same warm character, quality, and feel. She calls her moves being "repotted." It is her atmosphere which doesn't change. The pot may be different but the plant is not. And what a visitor sees is the plant, comfortable in its pot, certainly ... but if it were to be once more lifted out of its pot, the roots would definitely hold all the soil hard to them.

Rooms can't define home, and neither can location. J. B. Priestley once wrote a telling paragraph in his book called "Delight." This book was about a host of things that gave him delight, and homecoming was one. But he hits on something true that isn't always said: It isn't the typical, pretty sights of his home country that he singles out for rapture when he comes back home "... for when I have been some time away from England, then even what I usually dislike here can bring me a flash of delight. I wel come with joy the glum railway sidings, the platforms that exist in a perpetual November, ... the mournful muck of the refreshment room, the gimcrack bungalows, ... the vast gloom and decay of London. What a civilization! What a mess! What a country! But I'm home... I'm home...."

I know exactly what he meant. Again it's the child in us, the child, so uncritical, that accepts its surroundings, that can't tell a cheap supermarket plate from a Ming Dynasty bowl of exquisite refinement, a hovel from a mansion.

My older brothers and I were, as children, sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles south from our home in the north of England, and homecoming for the holidays - three times a year - took on a vivid ferocity of mixed, exultant, familiar/new feelings that were, under the sang-froid of a British schoolboy's exterior, actually leaping like untamed horses.

No homecoming since - and I have moved from home to home and traveled more than enough for anyone with sense - has been like that.

Like Priestley's, my child feelings were indiscriminate as far as beauty or taste was concerned. I was ridiculously excited to see the soot-black walls of the Yorkshire mills, the tall chimneys belching ghastly smoke, the ugly Victorian exterior of the Bingley Swimming Baths, the Fish and Chip Shop halfway up Park Road (it seemed each time to get smaller and smaller), and then the drive and the flowerbeds and the front steps, the dull old box bush by the front door and every surface and smell inside the house itself.

I wouldn't myself send a child away to school, not a young one at least. But still I have a feeling that children who didn't leave home, and went to local schools, and came back to their bedrooms every night, and home cooking and gentle carpets, were not only rather soft, but had been actually deprived of something tremendously important: They really could have no idea what coming home was all about.

When I was 14, we moved house for the first time in my life. And I distinctly recall going round the house I had been born in, and had so unquestioningly taken for granted, trying to summon up a feeling of loss.

I knew I was dramatizing - falsifying. And while it is true that this first house is the only one I still dream about, and have been back to see with undiluted keenness to return, at least in imagination, the truth has to be that I only pretended to myself that feeling of regret at leaving it.

I have felt a pang on quitting one other house I have lived in since - a pang mingled with amazement at how immediately this other house was no longer "mine" once the furniture was all out and the rooms were mere boxes again.

But that first house simply stays with me, none of the simplicity, fun, family, or affection - and none of the rooms, either - really diminished in the least in my mind.

Leaving it forever - and I find it rather strange to acknowledge this - hasn't changed anything at all about it that really mattered.

* The final essay in an occasional series. Previous pieces ran Sept. 30, Oct. 21, Nov. 12, and Dec. 2, and Dec. 21.


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