April 03, 2012

The Parish Home

Our society is pretty unique- I mean that 'our' globally. One of the ways in which it is unique is its geography. Most of us know about foreign countries, quite a few have visited them, many are happy to live abroad, many are happy to emigrate for work and see their return as quite a simple exercise. Afterall when all it takes is to hop on a plane for five hours, studying in a different continent becomes a rite of passage rather than an excursion that might take years. You see this in religious observation as much as anything: chatting to a Muslim friend recently, we compared the experience of going on Hajj at the beggining of the twentieth century to doing so at its end. In the first case the journey could last months and would only be done once, but a flight from London or Pakistan to Mecca is now a matter of hours, and the most severe inconveniency is likely to be dodgy airplane food. Not to mention that short or even medium distance travel has fallen in price amazingly in that time.

That has done things to our notion of place. I remember crossing into the Baltics from Russia many years ago and feeling as I did so, I had come home, I was within the European Union. Just to imagine the differences from past times is crucial to understanding those times and the shock of moments such as the Industrial Revolution. Emigrating to Australia is very different without long distance telephones or google chat! But people in the past also patterned their lives differently. As K.D. Snell found in a recent article in the Economic History Review, the late 18th and 19th Century poor thought of home as their parish rather than their city or their country. They thought of home through the prism of how the church and government addressed their needs: ie through the parish authority and also as the place in which their friends (by which they meant their family) dwelt. Snell's point is important- partly because it shows us how deeply spiritual the architecture even of place was in the 19th Century: the parish boundary was ecclesiastical and not merely civil- but partly becuase it shows us how far medieval notions of place endured and were shattered by the experience of industrialisation.

That's because what Snell chronicles is the appeal of the poor to help from their parish after they have moved. Home is a contrast with not at home. Its probably no accident that fifty years later these people founded the great football clubs of England, supported them etc and founded local rivalries- these are ways of anchoring home in a world of migration. It also points to facts I think about the modern world: home is not a neutral statement, its a way of appealing or stating something about onesself. In some cases- like my arrival in the Baltics, it can be a feeling of increased security: in others like the claim that one's home is one's castle, its a claim of right, in other's like these parochial claims its a claim of obligation. Its also a claim of identity- I am a .... and as identities get fractured, they need replacing. That raises a further question- what does it mean to be at home and what identities can fill that place?