Where the Heart Is

4th May 2018

Writer Jo Swinney, 40, has moved house nearly two dozen times and is no stranger to the pain of feeling rootless. Her sixth book, Home – The Quest To Belong, discusses the physical, emotional and spiritual concepts of ‘home.’ Having suffered from depression in the past, she now appreciates the joy of finally feeling settled with her surroundings and with herself. She tells Kathy Walton why she believes that home is so much more than the place where we live…

What makes a good home? One of Jo Swinney’s favourite anecdotes on the subject is a self-deprecating joke told by TV comedian Russell Howard. Describing the dingy basement flat that was all he could afford in his early career, he recalls showing his dad round the place. Keen to be encouraging, his father was positive about everything, until Howard announced his plan to get a dog. “Oh, no,” his dad said flatly. “You couldn’t let a dog live down here.”

Fortunately Home is nowhere near as earnest as the title suggests. Drawing on an impressive selection of sources, it is a surprisingly readable analysis of how self-esteem, family, bricks and mortar, religious faith, culture and even work all offer a taste of home; and how homesickness, depression and itchy feet can all contribute to a feeling of dislocation.

Home is part autobiography, part spiritual journey (Jo quotes extensively from the Old Testament stories of David’s exile from his homeland) and part timely discussion of what home means to those displaced by conflict, poverty or religious strife. It is also a heartfelt call to find our home in the things that matter, wherever we find ourselves.

The desire for something representing ‘home’ hit Jo early; as the daughter of British ex-pats, her upbringing seems to have prepared her to feel permanently as if she should be somewhere else. Born in the UK, she spent much of her childhood on Portugal’s Algarve coast, where in 1983, her father established A Rocha, an environmental charity whose aim was to preserve the habitats of migratory birds threatened by tourist development. Now married to an American (whom she met in Canada), she has lived in five countries, three continents and “probably” 20 properties.

She describes her upbringing in Portugal as happy and loving, a time where being a “cultural oddity” felt entirely normal. However, at boarding school back in England, and later while studying in Vancouver, debilitating bouts of homesickness left her feeling “disorientated and numb”, desperately clinging to sentimental objects – her slippers, a tatty cushion – that reminded her of home.

“Along with a sense of my roots, I lost a sense of myself,” is how she describes this crippling melancholia. “I had no idea who I was and there was no one there to remind me.” Desperate to be accepted and yet appear cool at the same time, she would hold forth on the dreadful weather, bland food and conventionality of British society, while feigning an interest in, of all things, Kylie Minogue’s love life or the Eurythmics.

Jo is endearingly frank about her mistakes in her quest to feel at ease with herself and equally honest about the early setbacks of her husband Shawn, whose mother struggled with mental illness and addiction, condemning him to a peripatetic and often desperately poor childhood. (Home for him one winter was a car).

She is also refreshingly upfront about the arrogance of her youth. “I have had times when I have utterly despaired of ever feeling at home,” she admits. “Some of those times I’ve known where home was, but been unable to get there. At other times I’ve not known what it was or if it even existed.”

At 19, for instance, she embraced the ‘anywhere but here’ syndrome, unshakeable in her blithe conviction that a footloose life was the best possible protection against parochialism. During her gap year (before reading English at Birmingham University), she travelled around Zimbabwe, colliding and colluding with fellow backpackers, whom she describes as “drifting from place to place, swapping experiences in hostels like baseball cards,” while treating the places they visited with contempt. Twenty years later, she now reflects that a so-called carefree existence often becomes a curse because the grass will always appear greener. Actually, she says, “Somewhere is better than anywhere.”

Yet fitting in has not always been easy for a woman born with wanderlust coursing through her veins. One of several cultural faux pas she committed when arriving in England was a failure to send a thank-you note to friends of her parents who invited her to dinner (and served inedible semi-defrosted food).

No wonder Jo identifies with TCKs (Third Culture Kids), the ‘global nomads’ who spend a significant portion of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. Because they have a relationship with both their parents’ culture and with the culture they live in, but don’t fully belong to either, TCKs are, according to Jo, people who are “adventurous and accepting of difference [who] form immediate connections with people, but wary of letting anyone near our hearts....sometimes arrogant [and] quite lonely.”

These days, Jo finds security in marriage, her two daughters and faith community (her husband is a C of E vicar) and work; when the café where she often writes asked her to help stack the dishwasher, she says she felt a tremendous sense of belonging.

For the past five years, the Swinneys have been living in Surbiton, where they often have more than 50 people per week dropping in and treating the place like their own home. Before that, she spent an extremely happy nine years in Chalfont St Peter (when Shawn was curate at St James in Gerrards Cross) and she speaks very fondly of how village life and her work at the nearby Epilepsy Society helped her settle in.

She and her family are about to move again (this time to Bath) and while the English shires feel like home to her now, she is nevertheless critical of our national obsession with home ownership – “I know so many people who have a really bad Right Move habit” – and bravely, but controversially, asks if people of faith “should in good conscience invest so much both financially and emotionally in property.”

She also nails her colours to the mast and admits to despairing of the sometimes ugly, nationalistic tone of political discourse in an era defined by Trump, Syria and Brexit. When resources are finite and cultures clash, she concedes that there are no easy answers to unprecedented problems of homelessness and immigration, but simply asks that the leaders of wealthy countries take pity on those seeking a safe haven and remember that “we are humans first and English, American, Syrian etc second.”

These are awkward questions, but as Home is divided into 12 neat chapters, readers may be relieved to learn that they can skip the bits they find uncomfortable. In the Bricks and Mortar chapter however, Jo makes one confession that will surely have the Home Counties choking on their rocket salad: when the shameless consumerism of home improvement programmes proves too much for Jo, she fantasises about breaking into upmarket houses… and ruining their carefully chosen neutral colour schemes by laying garish swirly carpets.

Jo Swinney is the guest speaker at a women’s breakfast at Christ Church, Chorleywood, on Saturday 19 May at 8.30am. For free tickets (which must be booked in advance), call 01923 282149 or email office@cccw.org.uk • ‘Home – The Quest To Belong’ by Jo Swinney (published by Hodder at £14.99) will be on sale at the breakfast and is also available from Chorleywood Bookshop: 01923 283566 / info@cwbookshop.co.uk

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