I was asked recently where I’m from. I love New Orleans, but I am always just a visitor there. I live in London, but I’m not from there either. I grew up in Cambridge, in the east of the UK, but yet again I’m not really from there. I wasn’t born in Cambridge. Neither of my parents is from Cambridge. They no longer live there and I don’t really have connections there any more.
Where am I from then? I don’t really know. Maybe the places my parents are from, but I only really know these places second-hand, through them. So where?
All of us have different histories and many people would say they absolutely do know where they’re from. But I think it is part of human experience to hold both our histories and a sense of uncertainty about who we are constantly within us. “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present,” wrote T.S.Eliot in his poem “Burnt Norton”, part of his Four Quartets series.
One of the many threads of Four Quartets is the way in which T.S.Eliot was divided in some ways between London, where he spent much of his life, and America, where he was born. Which brings me to London and New Orleans, two places that – despite the fact that they are not where I am from – feel like home.
These two cities in particular have been made in a pronounced way from what might have beens, tensions and absences, as well as presences. Their role as centres for trade and immigration have given them, and continue to give them, feet in other countries and continents, memories and artefacts of other places, and also a strong consciousness of loss.
Their unusually long, eventful and storied histories mean they must also contend with older versions of themselves – real, disputed and imaginary – around every corner. Their complex and tightly-packed presents means that they are less one cohesive city today than several alternative cities layered and twisted around each other.
Among all this, London and New Orleans must also come to terms with the natural landscapes they have, like many great world cities, dramatically supplanted. But as every storm, oil spill, flood warning, heatwave and freak snowfall shows, these older places have not been not entirely eroded. Any map of London or New Orleans will show you that these cities sit with, not above, their old geography.
All these various complexities, however, do not detract from the presences of London and New Orleans and their sense of what they are. In fact, they are part of what gives the two cities such rich and distinctive identities. In a similar way, I don’t feel that my lack of a hometown by birthright rather than adoption lessens my sense of self. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems the patchwork in our histories, the contradictions and the missing pieces make us what we are, and can make us strong.