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Why do Remainers revile homesickness? The yearning for home, along with the idea of nostalgia, is a legitimate political instinct that is now being used as an insult

October 31, 2019   5 mins

There is a section of the A23, a few miles south of Gatwick Airport, where the road dips down and rises up again. There used to be a Happy Eater somewhere around there. These last few miles were always the worst. My father would diagnose my silence and pale colour as car sickness. He would reach into the glove compartment to find me a pill to calm my queasiness. But it wasn’t car sickness. Even at seven years old I knew that.

It was home sickness, and there wasn’t a pill for that. I was already many miles from home and about to be ‘dropped off’ — as the phrase goes — at boarding school. Even today, nearly half a century on, that passage of road makes me feel physically ill.

Within the school gates, home sickness was generally regarded as a sign of weakness; a sickly condition that affected boys of a more delicate constitution. So, as a child, I learnt to hide it. It would upset my mother too much if she knew how much I missed my bedroom, my toys, my little comforts, my family. And it would mark me out as weedy and fragile. I think all the boys hid it one way or another. Better just get on and make the best of it. Man up!

My wife left her home, Israel, after the army, to go to university in the UK. And she stayed. She found a job, got married, had children, and made a life for herself a long way from her home. Like many immigrants, she learnt not to speak too much of homesickness. It was regarded by some as a sign of disloyalty to the place in which she chose to settle. “If you miss it so much, why don’t you go back?” Migrants are told to integrate, to put the old behind them. Get on and make the best of it. Homesickness is a condition that dare not speak its name.

But it wasn’t always thus. Not that I made the connection back then, but the classical texts we were reading at school often articulated precisely the sort of longing that we were all being trained to supress. Odysseus’s ten-year journey back to Ithaca, Ovid’s poems from exile, they all carry a deep yearning for the familiar patterns of home. And the Bible itself, the core text of my pathologically Christian school, is saturated with the same desire. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Such sentiments stayed with the Jewish people throughout nearly two thousand years of exile.

For the past two months, I have been living in Tel Aviv, learning a new language, learning new ways. And perhaps because of the evident joy and pride of so many here, living once again in their historic homeland, my own yearning for home has started to bubble up. Tea, bath, a proper bacon sandwich, irony, church spires, soft grass — the list is my own, but one that may not be wholly unfamiliar to those who have gone to live abroad. I love Israel. But I have started to miss my home.

So when and why did homesickness become a feeling that is now ever so slightly looked down upon, suspected, discredited? Consider the way in which the word “nostalgia” is used in current political debates around Brexit. Brexit is driven by nostalgia, argues Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, and “nostalgia serves no purpose.” Likewise the historian Max Hastings argues that Brexit is motivated by a “crazy nostalgia”. There are hundreds of examples like these. As Freddie Sayers puts it in his latest Post “Nostalgia has become one of the taboos of our political age.”

Ok, the word nostalgia has developed a slightly different nuance to that of homesickness, but they are strongly connected — the word being a combination of the Greek word “nostos” meaning “homecoming”, and “algos” signifying suffering or grief. And the term nostalgia was coined in the late 17th century by the physician Johannes Hofer to describe a condition that was said to have particularly affected Swiss soldiers on manoeuvres abroad. As Krystine Batcho writes in her study of nostalgia for the American Psychological Association: “Much of the early interest in nostalgia was motivated by the concern for optimal performance of military resources during European conflicts.”

How, though, could a feeling that was so valued by ancient texts as something noble have come to be so delegitimised — and with Hofer, medicalised — at the advent of modernity.

Susan Matt, in her fascinating history, Homesickness: An American History, recounts the story of the journalist Katherine Lanpher, who in 2004 moved from Minnesota to New York City. Feeling homesick, she decided to cheer herself up with a manicure. Lanpher tells the Korean woman who is working on her nails how she is feeling. The manicurist, though herself far from home, is totally unsympathetic: “Don’t be big baby!” she responded.

Now you could read this as the nail bar woman challenging a wealthy white woman to check her privilege. Nonetheless, “Don’t be big baby!” has become the characteristic attitude of modern life to the feeling of homesickness. It developed, according to Matt, because homesickness was regarded as a threat to the well-being of those who travelled far from home, especially those who left home in search of work or in order to fight for their country.

Homesickness was re-described as something backward looking. It didn’t cohere with the philosophy of rugged individualism characteristic of the pioneer and the forward-looking entrepreneur — it was un-American. Matt sees the rise of international corporations in the 20th century as largely responsible for the disparagement of homesickness, seeing it, as they did, as an obstacle to a mobile workforce. Homesickness indicated a lack of ambition, it was the very hallmark of a loser.

As Matt recounts, child psychologists began to tell parents that they should prepare their children for a life of mobility. The behaviourist psychologist John B Watson advised parents not to hug their children, as this would create emotional attachments that would be difficult to break when their child left home. Matt tells of one doctor who understood overly affectionate parents to be “America’s gravest menace” because they kept their sons from fighting the Communists. Homesickness was infantile dependence.

All of which illuminates something of what is behind the charge of ‘nostalgia’ so commonly levelled as an insult against Brexiters. Part of what I have against the Remain campaign is that it regards as inadmissible any sense of a yearning for lost home. It demands of Brexiters that they explain the advantage of leaving the EU, of the reclamation of national sovereignty, in exclusively economic terms.

Like the cod psychologists of the 20th century, they warn against attachments. In the borderless, globalised future they fondly imagine, home will be everywhere and nowhere. In order to keep up, people will need to be as fluid as capital. What they are saying to us is basically: “Don’t be big baby!” I remember this damaging line from my prep schools days. I didn’t like it then. And I don’t like it now.

Some months ago, UnHerd tasked its columnists with the invention of a new political party. I called my party Home. Perhaps only now, as I remind myself of the feelings I had on that miserable road to school, do I really begin to understand what that was all about. Homesickness is as legitimate a political instinct as any other.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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