The Call of the South

(I’ve been in Andalucia for a few days …)

Balcon de Europa


`Ah, yes, the call of the South, of the South!’ twittered the other two dreamily. `Its songs its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember — — ‘ and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence, while he listened fascinated, and his heart burned within him. In himself, too, he knew that it was vibrating at last, that chord hitherto dormant and unsuspected. The mere chatter of these southern-bound birds, their pale and second-hand reports, had yet power to awaken this wild new sensation and thrill him through and through with it; what would one moment of the real thing work in him — one passionate touch of the real southern sun, one waft of the authentic odour? With closed eyes he dared to dream a moment in full abandonment, and when he looked again the river seemed steely and chill, the green fields grey and lightless. Then his loyal heart seemed to cry out on his weaker self for its treachery.

   `Why do you ever come back, then, at all?’ he demanded of the swallows jealously. `What do you find to attract you in this poor drab little country?’

   `And do you think,’ said the first swallow, `that the other call is not for us too, in its due season? The call of lush meadow-grass, wet orchards, warm, insect-haunted ponds, of browsing cattle, of haymaking, and all the farm-buildings clustering round the House of the perfect Eaves?’

   `Do you suppose,’ asked the second one, that you are the only living thing that craves with a hungry longing to hear the cuckoo’s note again?’

   `In due time,’ said the third, `we shall be home-sick once more for quiet water-lilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But to-day all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music.’

   They fell a-twittering among themselves once more, and this time their intoxicating babble was of violet seas, tawny sands, and lizard-haunted walls.

   Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further southwards — his simple horizon hitherto, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know. To-day, to him gazing South with a newborn need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping, and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!

(from the chapter Wayfarers All, from The Wind in the Willows)

My case exactly.  I am not a frequent traveller.  I last went abroad, I think, seven years ago.  I can rationalise this – I can’t afford it, I’d rather spend my holidays watching cricket and so on – but there is also, somewhere in my subconscious, the lurking fear that, if I leave, I shall never want to come back again.  

It’s not just that the minute I arrive in Spain I find the Spanish way of life more congenial than the English – the idea of drinking a whole pint of beer seems gross, chorizo seems the perfect thing to have for breakfast, being inside before midnight an absurdity – it’s that I become actively Anglophobic.  How absurd the English seem, with their pasty, knobbly faces, their ridiculous three-quarter length trousers, their incessant chatter about money, their idiotic newspapers.

And when I return to England this feeling lingers.  The staff at the airport seem ruder, the police more threatening than the Guardia Civil, the notices and tannoy announcements more paranoid and hectoring.  The people on the tubes and trains appear peevish, querulous, spoling for an argument.  Even when I’m home the things I might normally delight in – the churches, the Autumn leaves, the subtler effects of the English countryside seem – as the swallow said – ” pale and thin and very far away.”

This is a kind of enchantment and gradually it will fade.  Before too long I will be able to think of nothing better than a few pints of bitter and a pie in an English pub lit by a roaring fire (cana- bah! – tapas – pshaw!) but while it lasts it is a very powerful trance-like bewitchment, and, in its way, more than a little disturbing.

“Poor Ratty did his best, by degrees, to explain things; but how could he put into cold words what had mostly been suggestion? How recall, for another’s benefit, the haunting sea voices that had sung to him, how reproduce at second-hand the magic of the Seafarer’s hundred reminiscences? Even to himself, now the spell was broken and the glamour gone, he found it difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing. It is not surprising, then, that he failed to convey to the Mole any clear idea of what he had been through that day.

To the Mole this much was plain: the fit, or attack, had passed away, and had left him sane again, though shaken and cast down by the reaction. But he seemed to have lost all interest for the time in the things that went to make up his daily life, as well as in all pleasant forecastings of the altered days and doings that the changing season was surely bringing.”


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