The homing instinct

None of us, a physicist friend informs me, is without a homing instinct: we all evidently have a pigeon inside us, though in many of us it seems buried rather deep. Studies and experiments with Manchester University students have produced remarkably convincing evidence of the human homing instinct, and who am I to doubt it?

I wouldn't doubt it, anyway. It seems only natural that the urge to "come home," wherever that might be, should somehow directm us there. A "magnetic sense" is how researchers are describing it, though with pigheaded unscientificality I prefer the notion that teatime and a cosy fire, a loving wife, a good book, have a drawing power profoundly more effective than "a sense of direction based on perception of the earth's magnetic field."

What I find far more puzzling is the opposing instinct, the instinct to leave home, to move, to migrate. Though personally I would much prefer to have a swallow or a house martin inside me than a pigeon (an elegant, darting swiftness seems preferable to a plump, self-satisfied cooing: a matter of self-image, I suppose), the thought of flying to Africa from Britain every autumn, and back again each spring, doesn't, on the whole, have much appeal. Why, in heaven's name, do they do it?

I confess to a vigorous resistance to moving house, and the very recent experience of doing so, after nearly ten years in one place, has done nothing at all to change my attitude . . . or has it? I shall have to admit that although the disruption, the endless packing and unpacking, loading, unloading, dismantling and mantling, the agonizing decisions such as whether to take or throw out all the jamjars, where to pack the camera, how to transport my old lawn mower and our new armchair, the bags of manure and our lovely new curtains, in the same vehicle without conflict, whether to put my pictures under or over our beds, the frenzied search for an absolutely essential screwdriver prematurely packed and hidden under forty- five other tools wrapped in newspaper -- although all this added up to one of the more horrendous episodes of my life and times, nevertheless I shall have to admit a certain element of wild thrill about it all.

All of a sudden one is faced unavoidably with questions secretly postponed. Do I really want to keep my whole bottle collection? And what about the Burlington Magazines from the 1960s? Couldn't I dispose of the Wellington boot whose other foot has been missing for nine months? What on earth should I do with a camping gas heater left behind by a friend a year ago? Are towel rails part of the house or can we ethically take them with us? And what about all those quarter-full tins of old gloss paint with such unrepeatable names as Minerva Grey, Grapefruit Gold, and Dense White? Do I really want to keep them? (Yes.)

It is all very good for one. And, as with many a flash of inspiration and unexpected delight in dim moments, there comes a strange lightness of heart. You're doing it. The dreaded day has arrived, and you are moving lock, stock, barrel and all. Your entire belongings are slotted and bundled into a three-ton trucks, your home becomes a house, your house a mere group of rooms with resounding floorboards and echoes.

Nothing stimulates fresh ambitions like moving house. Here, perforce, is a breaking of easy habits and patterns, and the things you had somehow thought of as you, as defining you, you discover never really were . . . because you, like the swallow, are alone, and the baggage no longer seems part of you. For a crazy moment you let go of possessions, you dream an unlikely freedom. You are weightless, soaring, heading for Africa, everything new, everything a beginning.

There is no time for sadness, for nostalgia. In spite of inexhaustible friends it is 10:30 at night before everything is on board, the final tour of inspection made, the dog, the cat, and -- very silent in a basket -- the two ducks lifted into the car and the truck, and off we all go for the slow journey north, one hundred and seventy miles to Glasgow.

It seems a strange move, this, from country to city, and a number of small trepidations suggest themselves. Not least is the question of the two ducks. Wasn't this a mad last-minute decision, and what are the unfamiliarly near, city-minded neighbors going to think of loud quacking at dusk?

Through midnight and mist we eventually reach the Scottish city. It is 4:30 in the morning. Some friends have generously offered their garage to the ducks for what is left of the night (the keys to the new house are not available until the next day). As we park the hired truck as quietly as possible outside their gate, a police car draws up. Ever alert for dire crimes in the dead of night, they make an official enquiry regarding our activities. The plain truth seems best under the circumstances.

"We're delivering ducks," say I.

The policeman shows no surprise.m "Right, sir," he replies, and drives away, without further interest, into the sleeping urban darkness. What, after all, could be more natural than delivering ducks in a large hired truck in the middle of Glasgow at 4:30 of an autumn morning? Maybe we've come to the right place after all. Maybe that old homing instinct is right again.

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