Until I was seven I lived with two people who talked about 'going home'. I can remember how they spoke the words with fondness, perhaps even a certain amount of pining. I think they may even – this was more than 40 years ago and a childhood memory is a tricky thing – have used the word 'hame' for home, when they were not among English friends and the language needed no clarification for outsiders. These two people were my mother and father, and they stopped talking about going home when I was seven because in that year, 1952, we all went back to this place called home. As a topic of conversation, as a desire, it had ended. We no longer lived in Lancashire, we lived in Fife. The desire had been satisfied.
Or had it? My parents left Fife in 1930. A world war had intervened. Fife had changed, and as I grew up it went on changing, and slowly the sentiment in my parents' conversation (as it does now sometimes in mine) became more focused on a time in a place rather than simply the place itself. With departed time went departed people: Big Aggie's Man, Auld Jimmy the Blacksmith, Tam the Foreman. And with the departed people had gone a great range of associated places of work and pleasure: Dunfermline's theatre, the Opera House, where my mother and father as a courting couple had seen touring versions of Shakespeare; most of Dunfermline's linen mills, including the one where my parents had worked and met; the trams that stretched out from Dunfermline to Lochgelly and Rosyth; several – though at that time by no means all – of the coal pits. Some disappearances were extreme. Hill O'Beath, the mining village where my mother grew up, had been demolished and replaced with a council estate. Lassodie, another mining village and one that had once housed my great-grandfather's family for a while, had been evacuated around the same time as St Kilda, and almost as completely.
Home then, even in the middle 1950s, was not the place it had been. Nor were we quite precisely in it. In Lancashire, home had meant Scotland. In Scotland, it meant Fife. In Fife, it meant Dunfermline. We had not settled in Dunfermline, however, but in a village six miles away, and even when we went to Dunfermline on the bus, home meant something quite specific again. For my mother it meant Dickson Street, near the old railway goods yard. For my father, it meant Bothwell Street, just across the road from the linen mill of Erskine Beveridge. My father would point out the spot where as a child before the first world war he had been knocked down by one of Dunfermline's first motor cars (owned by a doctor; my father had the name, but I forget) and broken his leg. That had been a big event at his home – the plaster, the itching, the days off school – and the description of it 50 years later became an interesting event in my home, when my parents remembered the time and the place and the people that had nurtured them.
I left that home in Fife when I was 18 in 1963 and moved to the first of a series of bed-sitters in Glasgow, a world of metered gas fires and Baby Belling cookers where tins of soup were opened into battered saucepans and the first meal of the day was a cheese roll purchased from the corner dairy on the way to college, or work. This was clearly not home in the domestic sense, even when the bed-sitters became flats, even when (at what seemed then the early age of 22) I began to live with a woman who knew how to roast meat and cook spaghetti bolognese. Glasgow, however, was where I wanted to be. I didn’t miss Fife. Even as a child, I had hankered after Glasgow. I was 'daft' (my father's word) about ships. I joined the Clyde River Steamer Club at the age of 13 and when relatives and friends came to see us from the west coast I was always agog for news of refits for the Duchess of Montrose or memories of the Columba. Glasgow also had, if this isn’t too grand a word for a few books, a literature, and (unlike Edinburgh) a modern literature: 'No Mean City', 'Dancing In The Streets'. Comedians and catchphrases came from there: Sausages is the boys.
Glasgow destroyed none of this romance when I went to live in it. As the years went by during the rest of the 1960s, the more I knew the city the more I liked it. It may be that in those years, when I was between the ages of 18 and 25, I would have liked anywhere: first love, first drink, first adult friendships, an ambition to become a journalist realised after several rebuffs, the feeling that life was beginning to shape up. Glasgow, however, was more than just a setting for this process of personal discovery and fulfilment. I was enthusiastic for the place itself, its completeness and variety, the feeling that its streets and territories could be endlessly explored – on foot, or by train, trolley and subway to strange placenames. Yoker, the Necropolis, Dalmarnock, Anniesland, Cowcaddens, Rouken Glen. The surprises in those years came regularly, at two in the morning on the Finnieston ferry, or when the lights came down in the Cosmo and we saw a Japanese film for the first time.
Glasgow offered me a sense of belonging that I had never felt before and perhaps have never quite felt again. When I got a job in London, I left reluctantly. The deputy editor of the newspaper I was leaving, the old Scottish Daily Express in Albion Street, took me to the North British Hotel and bought a bottle of champagne. This was an unprecedented experience for me, but typical of the deputy editor, a vivid and generous man called Clive Sandground who had given me opportunity and enlivened many late nights and early mornings. 'Here's to The Smoke and the Sunday Times,' Clive said. I expressed misgivings. London seemed to me friendless and forbidding. 'Nonsense,' Clive said. 'It's the only place to be in newspapers. Here's to Fleet Street and the Great Wen.' I said I would be back, I'd give it five years. Clive said that by then I'd be living in a nice little mock-Tudor semi in Orpington, which was handy for the late trains from Blackfriars. He quoted Dr Johnson: The man who is tired of London is tired of life.
That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. In the years since, I've often been asked if I would like to go back and live and work in Scotland. Once or twice, lunch being offered and jobs proposed, I have thought abut it. The attractions are obvious: a smaller mortgage, access to better state schools and medicine, a countryside that contains fewer cars and people (though I am tired of those people, often English migrants to Glasgow or Edinburgh, who tell me they 'can be in the Highlands in 45 minutes'). London is not the city it was, no more than Glasgow is. Declining economic fortune has affected both, despite the temporary disguise of money – public in Glasgow's case, private in London's – that was spent in the late 1980s. Still, the satisfactions of a middle-class life can probably be gained more easily in Scotland than the south, and certainly more cheaply. That is an eminently sensible reason to want to live there, but that is not the reason that others ask the questions of me: 'Do you not fancy it? Scotland? Going home?'
In fact I do go home, or what was once home, several times a year. I see my mother, who still lives in the same flat in the same village where I grew up. The furniture I once lived with is still there, the sofa, the pictures, the bookcase and the sideboard. There are rolls still for breakfast, and (if the fish van from Pittenweem has called) fresh haddock done in egg and breadcrumbs with chips and a dash of HP sauce on the side. I suppose this sounds folksy, what the Germans would call gemütlich, but if domestic intimacy and domestic memory do not mean 'home' then nothing else does. And yet home in this sense will not last. Most of us (to quote Alan Clark) look like people who buy our own furniture. Outside the world of fiction and guided tours, the 'ancestral home' had vanished as a reality for most people by the end of the 18th century. We move, and with luck we improve. My mother's flat and the flats around it, built by Fife County Council in 1929, are a testament to the last idea, because they gave their original tenants, shifted from slums, their first experience of bathrooms, inside lavatories, gas cooking and electric light.
I like this flat, but when I go there I like to take my mother out. She is 87 now; independent travel is getting more difficult. Often, we drive around Fife and my mother remembers her childhood and youth. Here, somewhere on the road between Crossgates and Aberdour, is the place they stopped walking and danced to an accordion on the way home from the seaside. Here, just off the old North Road, is where they gathered bluebells. Here, on the hill at Hill O'Beath, they had picnics on a Sunday, and here, just down the hill, is the pond where a manager in the Fife Coal Company was ducked in 1921. A lot of the landscape has changed beyond recognition, most of it in the last 30 years. Is that where the Lindsay pit used to be? What became of the kippering works at Burntisland? Motorways and near-motorways smash through a more various past.
Sometimes we reach Kirkcaldy, where my mother was born in a house near the shore, in the days before a bleak concrete promenade was built to shield the town from the sea. Her family left here for Hill O'Beath when she was a child, and when her father exchanged an early career selling Singer sewing machines (he hated wearing a bowler hat) for a labourer's job at the pit. On holidays they would go and stay with her Kirkcaldy granny, who lived in one of the last houses on the coast road going west and south. My mother remembers that people walking to and from the next settlement, Kinghorn, would often knock on the door and ask for a glass of water. And there is the source of another story. My grandparents, my mother and her brothers and sisters were sitting on the sand one holiday when they overheard the conversation of a Kirkcaldy couple, with its distinctive tight vowels and querulous notes. 'My God,' said my grandfather, who was a Kirkcaldy man and had only moved 10 miles away, 'tae think we used to speak like that.'
He never went back – coincidence rather than accent-hatred – but he never went far away either, apart from his years in Flanders and the Royal Scots. After Hill O'Beath came Dunfermline, and after Dunfermline, Burntisland. There he worked in the shipyard – a riveter's labourer I think – and lived in an old house lit by gas and up an outside stair. When we lived in Lancashire, we sometimes went on holiday there, 'up home' to Scotland and Burntisland's fine beach and the noise of rivet drilling that filled the High Street.
This summer I took my own children there to play on the sand, where they unearthed a great many fag-ends as the rest of us shivered in the wind. The bridges that led underneath the railway, connecting the links to the beach, used to smell of sea and whitewash. Now a whiff of urine hung about them and graffiti covered their walls. I had paid the penalty of going back.
So will I return to live in Scotland? Probably not, but not because the under-bridges in Burntisland stink or the fact that a way of living has gone. Nowhere in the world is immune to these changes, small or large. My reasons have more to do with the larger ideas of home – home as in homeland, home as in sailing up the Clyde to where the old folks bide, home as in it's oh that I'm longing for my ain folk (for they are but couthy, kind and plain folk). In short, home is the idea that because you have been born and raised somewhere, you are naturally inclined to return and live in it, and more fitted to its society than the complete outsider. That idea forms an undercurrent in most nationalism, including Scottish nationalism, and I have to struggle against it, because a part of me grieves when (for example) I try to book a hotel or a holiday cottage on the west coast of Scotland and find that every telephone call has an English accent on the other end. Foolish to grieve, because of all the economic tides that increasingly sweep people around the world, this must be one of the smallest and least interesting. Wrong to grieve, because I do not live there, and also because nationalism outside its strictly political context and aspiration – the other stuff, what one might call spiritual nationalism – seems to me an absurdly simple construction and categorisation of the human character.
More and more lives are being remade by the social and geographic journey between classes, between country and city, between nations and continents. There is for these lives, much less than in mine, no question of 'going home'. They adjust, in the famous phrase of V S Naipaul, to the enigma of arrival. It may sometimes be a painful condition, but it exists in the present and should concern us more. London is where I live. Home is the house and the family that I return to every night. All that may change, but for the moment other homes are history and fantasy.