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There's no place like home

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September 1, 2004 by Sonia Bellhouse

A return to place of origin can be a strange and sobering experience. Not quite a bona fide tourist, and yet no longer a resident. There is a certain feeling of superiority over the regular tourist, of having 'insider knowledge'. This was the case when I returned to my hometown of Southport, England. It was 1993, and Internet access was nothing like now. I relied on my local knowledge, together with a substantial brochure from the Tourist Bureau. I studied the brochure extensively and duly ticked a selection of potential flats and apartments.

My plan was to experience life as a 'local'. My partner and I would rent a flat, buy and prepare our own food and generally live a normal life. Our requirements were simple: a self contained, self-catering flat near to the town centre. Memory and maps provided suitable locations. We wanted specifics, a shower, cooking facilities and within walking distance of the town centre.

Southport, in England's North West has been a popular seaside resort since Victorian times. King Edward VII, when he was The Prince of Wales, used to visit the hotel bearing his name. He was accompanied with an entourage and his latest mistress. Southport's Lord Street boasts a wide tree lined boulevard, which is well known for its elegant and exclusive shops. There are many attractive Victorian glass and ironwork shopping arcades. There is a fairground, and a children's version known as Peter Pan's Playground. Close by is the beach, and Britain's second longest seaside pier. The nightlife is varied and thriving. Clubs, restaurants and pubs are usually crowded and lively. Southport has several popular golf courses. This includes the famous Royal Birkdale, which frequently hosts 'The British Open Golf Tournament'. It is a pleasant place to visit in the summer.

With visions of 'an old time Christmas', we visited in winter. When I spoke to the proprietor of the chosen flat, she assured me that it was a 'self-contained flat with its own front door'. When I asked about heating and cooking, I was told that electricity was supplied by 'a standard coin in the slot meter'. The flat provided bed linen and blankets. We needed to bring towels and tea towels. We were promised that there was phone access and that the flat contained a toilet and shower. It sounded suitable so we agreed to take it and forwarded our deposit.

In a 1942 issue of the Readers Digest, George Bernard Shaw described the English and Americans as, "two peoples divided by a common language": GB Shaw cited in Collins Quotation Finder, Harper Collins Publishers, Glasgow, 1999. So too, it appears, are the English and Australians (by adoption in my case). What I heard, and remembered about Southport, before I left Australia presented one image to me. The reality was very different.

My self contained flat did have 'its own front door', complete with lock and key. But it was inside the hallway of the main house. I had visualised it would have its own street door. We climbed three flights of stairs to the attic — once the housemaid's quarters in more prosperous times. The interior was straight out of the 1970's. Brown and yellow floral curtains clashed with the brown and orange striped upholstery of the wooden armed lounge and chairs. The brown carpet, in a violent floral pattern, added to the bizarre ambience. Additional features were a small screen TV with manual channel change and a wooden dining table and chairs.

Grimly we surveyed the rest of the flat. The kitchen: windowless with an attic skylight, was a tight squeeze for one person. It contained the smallest fridge I had ever seen. Luckily it was so cold the first week I did not need to put the fridge on. Beside the kitchen door was a large broomstick. This was needed to stop the smoke alarm that activated whenever the kitchen door was opened. The simple act of making a slice of toast could set the alarm off. Outside the kitchen was a cupboard containing the 'coin in the slot-meter'. The owner's husband, whilst demonstrating its use, emptied it from the previous tenant's stay with grinning alacrity; I noticed with apprehension the amount of coins he collected.

Later I found that the meter was rigged to charge four times the normal domestic rate. The normal rate was 12.5 pence; the meter charged 50 pence per unit. Enquiries with the local electricity supply company revealed that landlords could charge whatever they liked. There were no regulations to prevent exploitation. Tourists and transients were obviously 'fair game'.

The bedrooms revealed broken down beds, just fitting sheets, thin blankets and a wardrobe that was too small to accommodate a coat hanger. The air felt damp and our breath misted the air. Now, when it was too late, I remembered a story my friend had told me prior to migrating. She had spoken of her sister in law, who had a 'sure fire money maker'. Buy a large old house as cheaply as possible and do as little as possible to it. Gather junk furniture from garage sales and linens from the same source. Accept only short- term lets so there are no problems with sitting tenants, or tenant's rights. Advertise and watch the money roll in.

As we had already paid our deposit we were stuck. I opened a window to let out the stale smell of cigarette smoke and mentally added Extra- Strong Air Freshener Spray to the shopping list. I was cold and tired; things would look better after I had a shower. I grabbed a towel and opened the door. A raised ledge blocked my path, into a long narrow toilet. It seemed to be a two metre long passageway opening out to about a metre width. Skirting round the ledge I saw the toilet and hand basin. A squeegee mop was leaning against the wall. Closer inspection revealed that the ledge contained a tiled floor and a showerhead set in the wall. The words 'toilet and shower' took on new meaning. The wall mounted electric heater, opposite the showerhead was shielded by a flimsy curtain. It was no surprise. Safety standards and such did not seem to apply to a place like this. There was no window, just an air vent through which I could see into the yards below. If I put the light on when it was dark outside anyone in the yard would be able to see into the bathroom.

I left the light off, and cranked the taps into life. Within a few moments a trickle of tepid water came through the showerhead. I soaped quickly, sure there was no time to waste. All I managed was a quick rinse before the water turned cold. I was scarcely warmer than when I had begun. I stepped out into a pool of water. That explained the mop. Teeth chattering, I toweled dry and quickly swabbed the floor. I could complain but I had not been lied to. I had been misled, yes, but it was undoubtedly a toilet with shower.

When the earrings I had pinned through a sponge rusted on the sponge, drastic action was called for. A Humidex was situated in the lofty hallway. Its purpose was to suck dampness from the air. We moved it into the bedroom and found that we emptied a bucket full of water daily. This is what had been extracted from the air. Since returning to Australia, I have learned that the dampness was what made Lancashire so suitable for the processing of cotton — once its major industry.

My husband caught bronchitis. I was covered in virulent spots. Firstly diagnosed as chicken pox, but eventually revealed as impetigo. We both caught colds. We felt ourselves shrinking in a spiral of misery. Our holiday became endless grey days, with temperatures and winds colder than I had remembered. I realised why it seemed the British rarely smiled! It was a struggle to exist.

I spent five weeks in England. I never felt clean, I never felt really warm. The only places I experienced warmth, were inside the department stores, the hospital, where my mother in law was staying and the departure lounge, at Manchester Airport. Despite piling all the bedding onto one bed we still felt cold. I had lived in Australia too long; I took comfort and safety for granted. How would I, an expatriate, fare against a solid British citizen? Maybe the British tourists who visit know what to expect. Maybe they find it 'quaint'or 'charming'. Maybe they do not wish to shower everyday. But surely they are living in an age where modest comfort and convenience might be expected? Is this the reason why the British flock to Spain for their holidays, apart from, the weather?

Stuart Hall when speaking of his sense of identity suggests "it has always depended on the fact of being a migrant on the difference from the rest of you": S Hall, "Minimal Selves" in H Baker, M Diawara and R Lindberg (eds.), Black British Cultural Studies, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 114. I too defined myself as a migrant in Australia. However, it took a trip 'back home' to feel truly alien. I did not belong in Britain any more. Australia changed me in ways I had not previously realised. I now took a certain level of comfort and safety for granted. I expected value for money and to be treated well in Southport because I was a customer.

Life is far more relaxed and the people friendlier in the warmer climate of Australia. My trip 'back home' was not a success but it was a valuable experience. I still have affection in my heart for my old hometown. Next time though — if there is a next time — I plan to visit in summer.