John Birmingham on the Journey That Inspired Him

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Jun 28, 2016

There’s no taking him back to old Blighty. The British-Australian author felt more at home in chaotic Rome.

England and Italy, 1997

I should have felt comfortable. I was born in England. I spent my childhood missing it. 

To previous generations of Australians, this was the mother country – the culture from which ours came – yet returning after the better part of a lifetime, I felt like an outcast. London’s architecture was familiar. Even the streets and place names echoed my adopted home: Oxford Street, Paddington, Hyde Park. So familiar yet – at a deeper level somewhere beneath language and memory – so alien.

London was familiar in the way that New York is familiar to anyone who’s seen a movie or watched television in the past 30 years. We arrive in great cities with memories implanted by popular culture. There’s a bobby. There’s Nelson’s Column. Here is a terrible mockery of a meal from an overpriced café.

We stayed in Chelsea at a very nice hotel, courtesy of a generous publisher. A potential disaster in the opening minutes of our sojourn was averted by the swift intervention of a man in a top hat. An actual top hat. 

In my stupid Australian way, I had left my wallet in the cab we’d caught from Heathrow because my stupid Australian brain was fried by jet lag and the harsh UV light of a quarter-century in the colonies. “Top Hat Guy,” I said, dully. “I think I left my wallet in that cab.” And Top Hat Guy took off at a sprint after the cab, hand affixed to his topper, to retrieve my wallet. It was the most London thing I’d seen.

The trip did improve. People were kind, if a little patronising, but I left London after a week feeling no need to go back to a country I’d long imagined returning to. 

That sense of dislocation, not only from a place but also from a culture, was amplified within a few hours of landing in our next stop, Rome. We stayed in a studio surrounded by screaming Italians. (All Italians are screaming Italians. They’re not angry, just loud.) The city was chaos and freefalling mayhem yet I felt more comfortable than in London.

My attempts at the language were laughable. Crossing the street was ridiculously dangerous. Nobody respected the integrity of a queue. The city was literally crumbling around us. We were never sure where we were or what we were doing. And we loved it.

The locals were hopeless but hugely welcoming. For instance, my Italian publishers treated us to a magnificent feast in a small, family-run restaurant that was older than Australian settlement yet they never got around to paying me for my books. “Allora,” they would say, which seems to be Italian for “Whatever. Life is good. Stop worrying.”

In the foreign confusion of Rome, I could stop worrying. In the familiar surrounds of London, not so much. I learned the old truth that you can never go home. You only move on. That’s where your home is now. That’s where it will always be. Just in front of you.