For eight years I wore a blazer with a badge of a viking ship and never wondered why. Much later I learned that a replica had been built and sailed past south Sussex; I don’t remember exactly when but probably before the last war. And then following my parents into their West Country retirement another school, another badge, another eight and a half years, This time with a double-headed eagle with spread wings. And now I learn that spread eagle has come into the language from heraldry, a fine bold word uncertain of its hyphen. The spread eagle on the arms of Hugh Sexey, a royal auditor from the time of the first Elizabeth, who preserved his name by founding schools and a hospital. His grave is not so far from my old school but I never saw it nor was even aware of the hospital he founded other than by name. For me, he was mostly a nuisance when interviewers penetrated beyond my mumbled “went to school in Bruton” and forced me to say that I went to Sexey’s School.
The spread eagle is rather fine though unappreciated by the gauche youth. In heraldry, it’s a symbol for perspicacity among other things and has roots way back to the Bronze Age, to the Hittites and later Roman legions. There’s a vague reference to the German origins of the Sexey family but I know nothing more about that, for the time being contenting myself with spread eagle and marvelling at my lack of curiosity for so many years. The strangeness and exotic is all around us and we pass by unseeing, amused by surrealist pictures but blind to the weirdness of the familiar.
And now my life is about to change again, back to Sweden tomorrow. I’ve been in Germany for two months, two intensive months feeling my way beyond my incessant shuttle between my English and Swedish worlds, where yet another life starts to take form. Reliving ancient memories of the first stimulating struggle in Sweden and later efforts to keep hold of England when I realised that I’d unwittingly passed beyond youthful exploration to emigration. A third country is a solace, neither here nor there, neither where I came from nor the place of softened exile, familiar after more than a half century. My German is better than my hardly existent Swedish at the time of expatriation, but weird as I’ve picked it up from the frenetic days of my last university term when I started learning it to avoid thinking of the approaching catastrophe of finals after almost dropping out. I’ m close to being able to read a novel but the Germans are taking time to become accustomed to my steadfast flaunting of grammatical rules.
But soon I will be back sifting my way through two months post, with pangs about unresponded Christmas cards. Back to my books and those dear to me there, back to a frantic round of damage limitation of various parts of the body and renewal of my lifeworthiness certificate for another year.
Back to my Bengali lessons and sneaking into the pensioners’ centre for an anonymous lunch, fending off the friendly.
This year, I will continue my study of Uppland and Uppsala while not forgetting Dorset and the box of family history documents demanding action to become an archive. And I will long to come back to Germany and to Bengal, France and the West Country; exile is intense longing to be somewhere else, intense sadness to leave one world for another, intense efforts to join up the unjoinable. But I’ve learnt to live with this and wouldn’t swap my life for monocultural insularity.