In the introduction to George Monbiot's No Man's Land, I read: "Humankind was born on the road. Our brains...are those of the migrant. The restlessness which, in one corrupted form or another, is felt by every human being on earth, is incurable."
We're far from Africa and we've lost our roots, but there's still an everyday restlessness, corrupted by centuries of evolution and years of education, skulking in the dark corners of our consciousness.
Friends of ours have just bought a boat to live on. They like the idea of portability; their boat gives physical form to an unspoken desire to periodically migrate. They can float up and down the Thames with their possessions and their love. It's more a metaphor than anything - in rainy England, confined by villages and narrow rivers, by family homes and local pubs, we're hardly the Turkana, traversing inhospitable desert lands, setting up temporary camp after temporary camp - but I'm not immune to the temptation of just...picking up. And going.
Why do I like the idea of a floating existence, the ability to suddenly pick up my life and simply shift it elsewhere? The reality of it - the friendships lying fallow, the swapping of time zones, the stress of every mundane detail - is not romantic, and an anxious person is not naturally suited to rootlessness. But still.
In 2007, during the floods, we helped a man called Rob prevent his houseboat from running adrift. It was my first summer here, I had just met the Man, and everything looked bright and strange. I was surprised by the power of the river, swollen and purple in its malleable banks, but I understood intuitively what it is to have one's home threatened by a force bigger than oneself. Years of fretting over the smell of fire in the California hills had taught me to respect the fragility of a man-made structure; I still had dreams (nightmares?) of choosing, methodically, ruthlessly, which possessions to flee with. That boat was Rob's home but it could as easily be carried away, or "dash'd all to pieces", as Shakespeare's Miranda put it, on the rocks.
Later, we sat in the boat and shared a bottle of wine. We felt a million miles away from Port Meadow, which glistened in the murky twilight, a galaxy away from Jericho with its cocktail bars and boutiques. Rob's self-sufficiency (he even had a set of solar panels on the roof) captivated us completely, and when we did eventually meander back into town, we sat in a hot pub stunned by the brightness of the lights and said very little.
A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me to say that, almost exactly three years on, Rob had passed away. This will go down in history as a hot summer, a happy time during which the sky burned blue and children ate ice cream and young people got slowly drunk on champagne as they punted down the Cherwell; no floods this year, no boats needing rescue. And when we next visit that spot on Port Meadow, what will we see? Not Rob's boat, moved a hundred times since we sat near the fire in its belly, hungry for warmth and company on a cool midsummer evening, now ownerless, adrift in spirit. No; the landscape changes constantly.
So you could say that maybe it is not as easy to be at home somewhere, anywhere, as it might seem.
We wander down long roads towards manor houses. I read that the English have this fixation on the home; and maybe these vast estates were built, I think, to allow their owners the illusion of wandering - a harrowing journey down a dark corridor, a flitting between huge empty rooms.
My home is more the man I live with than the walls around us; it's my books, not my post code. But for us, the constant movement of the summer has made me crave a period of stillness. The backstage passes, the train journeys, the forays into the exotic, the picnics and punting. It's been a kaleidoscope period, a beautiful whirlwind.
Now we're housesitting for friends on the edge of the Cotswolds. And what I feel here is maybe the opposite of Monbiot's corrupted restlessness. Late in the afternoon, after too many hours with my legs folded up against a wooden desk, I go for a walk with the tiny brown terrier who has attached himself to me like a miniature shadow, who follows me from room to room, who curls up at night beside us. The sky is full of puffy clouds, a grey mist on the horizon (I'm caught a mile from the house at the point at which it evolves into a downpour). I walk down bridleways, past fields of wheat edged with a lace of white flowers.
In the evening we go to the pub for our dinner, or else we roast a chicken and eat it sitting in the lounge watching an unexpectedly good film starring Helen Hunt and Colin Firth, with an appearance by Salman Rushdie as a obstetrician. We drive to the train station and back in a big green Land Rover; I feed the pigs in red wellies, denim shorts, one of the Man's old button-up shirts. I tell the dog not to pee on the poppies that grow in bunches by the fence, though I don't know why, as I've let him pee on every hedge between here and the next village.
A frail rain falls; the sun comes out.