When we live away from home there is so much that we miss. Family, friends, places. We miss babies being born, people growing older, the seasons changing. But at the same time we gain something special. When we leave home behind, especially in our early twenties like so many of my peers who have also moved away, our home stays in a bubble. Our home town becomes a security blanket that we can turn to, no matter how old we are, when we need reassurance, when we’re lost, when we’re broken. This summer I went to Adelaide and spent six weeks reconnecting with my home. I hadn’t spent much time there over the last few years, and when I was feeling worn out, vulnerable and in need of some familiarity, it was the perfect tonic. In Melbourne I spend so much time keeping up with the pace of the city, in Adelaide I am free to relax. I go to the beach without feeling anxious about my body. I eat beautiful fresh food without overthinking what I’m consuming. I sit at kitchen tables for hours and drink cups of tea with people I love. I miss home every day, but I know for all the homesickness I’m so lucky to have this refuge to return to whenever I need to. This is what struck me as I read Amy Liptrot’s stunning memoir The Outrun: that home is special, and that being away from home makes us realise just how special it is.
Liptrot moved to London to go to university. She left behind the wild and woolly remote islands of Orkney in northern Scotland and threw herself into the big city. She also found the pace unrelenting, she also struggled to keep up, but then she was keeping up too well. The Outrun is the story of Liptrot’s alcoholism and addiction, and how returning home to Orkney helped to heal her. In many ways this book is similar to Helen MacDonald’s acclaimed H is for Hawk – both writers faced a grieving and found sanctuary in the natural environment. MacDonald reconnected with her recently-deceased father by training a goshawk; Liptrot finds peace while taking part in a survey of the endangered corncrake birds of the northern isles.
From the very first paragraph Liptrot does not shy away from difficulty, and somehow writes with delicate poise over such raw material:
Under whirring helicopter blades, a young woman holds her newborn baby as she is pushed in a wheelchair along the runway of the island airport to meet a man in a strait-jacket being pushed in a wheelchair from the other direction. That day, the two twenty-eight-year-olds had been treated at the small hospital nearby. The woman was helped to deliver her first child. The man, shouting and out of control, was restrained and sedated.
The ferocity of the helicopter blades, the dramatic division between loyalties, seem to follow Liptrot throughout her life. Her parents separate after her father’s illness becomes too much for her mother to bare. Liptrot seems eternally restless, whether it be in the wind-whipped fields of the farm, in the manically-paced streets of London, or in the compulsions driving her to drink:
I’ve lived in ten different houses in the last five years. My belongings are in friends’ attics and garages in London – a physical manifestation of my unsettledness and split loyalties. I am scattered and never at home. I think about having a drink like you might fantasise about having an affair. I know I can’t do it but maybe if the conditions were perfect and nobody would find out, we could have a weekend together, my bottles and I.
Throughout The Outrun Liptrot drops in little slices of Orcadian, like little reminders of folklore from her distant home. ‘In Orcadian, ‘flitting’ means ‘moving house’. … In London I was always flitting but was too battered to see it as an opportunity. I wanted to flit quickly so that no one noticed, slipping from one shadow to the next.’ Orkney never leaves Liptrot, no matter how hard she tries to push it away. It grounds her, it never leaves her: like a good home it is fiercely loyal.
When things get hard, when Liptrot has made her way through the bulk of the twelve steps and is surrounded by temptation. When she struggles to find work, having burned too many bridges through her heavy drinking. When she finds herself lonely after isolating so many people who cared for her, who tried to make her stop. When there is nothing else, there is home.
Liptrot hits on so many feelings of those of us who live away. The distance, the pull, the push. The idea that coming home is failing, even when in other ways it’s the ultimate goal. I often day-dream about landing the perfect job that would allow me to go back to Adelaide, and sometimes I think that part of my drive to become a successful writer is the fact that it can be done from anywhere. I dream of moving back to the foothills of Adelaide where I grew up, growing vegetables, reading on a sunny verandah, being close to family and friends but having my own little home. When I go back to visit now I stay with friends, or I stay in the house we moved to when my brother and I were teenagers. This house is my mother’s home, and I love that it is her very own little home, but it’s not the home of my childhood. I know that buildings don’t make a home, that people do. But when I think of home I think of the leafy streets that I rode my bike down as a kid, of the playgrounds where my primary-school-friend Emily and I sat on neighbouring swings and talked for hours, of all the shortcuts through cobbled laneways that I still remember like the back of my hand. As Liptrot says, ‘I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged.’
I had a great drive to leave and experience more elsewhere but, like many young Orcadians, I’ve returned. Now I’m back I’m seeing my home anew and wondering if I should join the effort to keep the isles alive. When I am in London, Orkney itself seems imaginary. I find it hard to believe that this life is real when I’m down there. And imagination is important here. These islands could be bleak, uncompromising places if it weren’t for enchantments such as the porpoise, rising like the Hether Blether in the offing, always just beyond our reach.
The reason I discovered Liptrot’s memoir was through its being shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing, and her descriptions of the wild and rough landscape of Orkney battering away at her as she struggles to remain sober, while equally soothing her as she dedicates herself to keeping busy and healthy, are stunningly evocative and beautiful. Liptrot’s ability to weave through descriptions of her surroundings without resorting to cliché is admirable enough, yet her ability to draw comparisons between the landscape, home and her journey towards sobriety without becoming clunky or overly-laboured makes for incredible writing.
I said earlier that The Outrun reminded me of H is for Hawk but actually I think Liptrot’s is a far better book. H is for Hawk at times felt too academic in its analogies and quoting of materials, but my main issue was MacDonald’s voice, which I never quite connected with. Whereas Liptrot remains self-aware throughout – in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she is made painfully aware of her own privilege, and this carries in her voice. ‘Hearing about life in prisons, in hospitals, in travelling communities, in large families, in Russia and in Stepney Green showed me spheres of experience orbiting far away from media-saturated graduates bitching on Twitter.’ I guess this goes back to coming from small towns, and in Liptrot’s case, the added influence of having come from an isolated place. We often leave to expand our world views, but many cases we only end up narrowing our social circles as a result.
The Outrun was not a book I could tear through, but only because I wanted to savour it. Something about Liptrot’s writing made me slow down, as if I were quietened by her surroundings by osmosis. Years after moving to Melbourne I still struggle against the pace of the city, and I still regularly ask people to speak slower so that I have time to catch their entire sentences. Reading The Outrun I wanted to take my time, to appreciate the language and beauty of Liptrot’s story, and to fully immerse myself in her surroundings. I would pause to daydream of wind-swept cliffs and of rugged coastlines. I could imagine Liptrot walking to the general store, or chopping wood, or writing in her journal. It’s an amazing thing that in writing of trauma, addiction and grief to feel pangs of jealousy – not at the life lived but at the ability to tell it so well. I wanted to be Liptrot’s friend.
While I never am - and never will be - one to say that I enjoy winter, even I have to admit that it wet weather can give us the ability to slow down. I would of course argue that summer does this too – I dream of long, hot days lying under a tree in the park, floating in the ocean, taking things more slowly as the weight of the heat predisposes us to do – but it’s not always an argument I’ll win. For all that I hate about winter, I do love the ability to cook up big pots of soup, warming the house with the heat of the stove and heady fragrances such as onion, bay leaves and garlic. I recently made this Parsnip, Sage and White Bean Soup on a lazy Sunday afternoon and it did just this. The white beans provide a smooth creaminess without adding dairy, and the sage gives a wonderfully warm note with every mouthful. This incredibly easy recipe is finished off with some crispy parsnip chips and sage leaves for contrast, but honestly if you were feeling lazy you could skip this altogether and just dive in with some crusty bread. Soup is also impossible to eat quickly – you have to slow down in order to eat it. You’re forced to relax, to quieten your natural impatience, to take your time.
Over the years I’ve found ways to reconnect with home while living away. Spending time with other friends from Adelaide who live here (a sad but wonderful ever-increasing community), going to the football, refusing to come into the CBD on weekends, going for long bike rides along the creek. I know that one day I’ll go back to Adelaide – I don’t know when, but I know it will happen for a reason, just as it did for Liptrot when she went back to Orkney. Those of us who see home as a place of healing are truly lucky beyond words. Every time I write about my relationship to home I’m reminded of its closeness, its accessibility, its safety. So many on this earth are not as lucky. It’s hard to be away, but it’s also there when I need it, just as Melbourne will be in return. I have spent a lot of my life flitting between houses, cities and countries, and now that I’m settling back into life in Australia I’m thinking a lot about why that’s been the case. When I think of Adelaide now that I’ve been away for so long, I think about possibility. As Liptrot says of Orkney: ‘I didn’t choose to come here to ‘downsize’ or ‘get back to nature’. It wasn’t my plan to return home for recovery, it was more that I came back for a visit and got stuck. This is where I come from, not – like most English people in Orkney – where I chose to come to.’ We don’t always dictate why we live in a certain place, but if we’re lucky we can have a home that continues grounds us no matter what we’re up against. The Outrun is a stunningly beautiful memoir, one of my favourite non-fiction books of the last few years. Read it, sink into it, take it slowly.
I adore reading memoirs, but I think this interview featured on NPR’s Morning Edition – about Suki Kim’s experience of having her non-fiction work being labelled as memoir in a commercial consideration by her publisher – was an important reminder of how women’s writing is still regularly devalued.