Last week, I spent a few days in Coventry city centre. It’s not a particularly pleasant or pretty city, but I had reason to be there and some time on my hands. Seeking refuge from the excessive noise and busyness of the city, I took myself to Coventry Cathedral and, later, to The Herbert Museum.
Having wandered around the shell of the old cathedral, St. Michael’s, which was bombed almost to oblivion by the Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940, I proceeded to the new cathedral, also St. Michael’s, which opened in 1962. From the first time I visited this cathedral, twelve or more years ago, I have loved its modernist architecture, sharp edges and industrial style, so unlike the medieval cathedrals one is more likely to encounter in British and other European cities.
I was already in a reflective and somewhat melancholic mood when I entered the cathedral, and the sparse grandeur of it moved me even more. The Peace Chapel, to the left of the entrance, caught my attention. I saw, through the open doors, long strings of colourful origami tsuru (orizuru), paper cranes, hanging almost to the floor. I was drawn to them, nostalgia for Japan rising in me as I walked across the nave of the cathedral towards them.
The small side chapel had chairs arranged in a circle, with the altar and the hanging strings of tsuru completing the circle. I reached out and ever so gently ran my fingers through them, and I was swept back a quarter century to Japan, to first learning to make tsuru with my students, to visiting shrines and temples with my friends and colleagues, with my kind taiko teacher and his wife (whose names, I am ashamed to say, now escape me – Lisa McClintock, if you’re reading this, please remind me), and to visiting the memorials at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Waves of nostalgia washed over me and suddenly tears were streaming down my cheeks and my throat was constricted around sobs desperate to get out. I sat on one of the chairs in the circle, overwhelmed by a sense of loss for a part of my life that is no more. I have no great yearning to return to Japan, although I would love to take my daughters there some day. This was not a nostalgia (or natsukashii, as they say in Japan) brought about by a longing to be in that place again in the future, but rather to be back in the past, in a place and at a time to which I can never return.
I composed myself, spent some more time sitting in reflection in the nave of the cathedral, and then walked the 50 metres to The Herbert Museum. I knew the museum well, having often taken Lily and Katie there when we visited their grandad in Coventry when they were younger. The museum was a little shabbier than I remembered it, some of the exhibits a little worse for wear. I made my way upstairs and into the permanent Elements exhibition, only remembering it as I walked through it. It contains some beautiful natural objects – shells, crystals, fossils and, against the back wall, mounted vertically and side-by-side, two narwhal tusks. Like the tsuru in the cathedral, I was drawn to the tusks. I stood in front of them, running my hand over the swirling lines, reveling in the cold hardness of them.
I’ve never seen a narwhal, alive or dead, but they are so indelibly connected with the Arctic, that they swept me away to the winter sea ice of Hudson Bay, to Arvia’juaq and Huluraq, to beluga whale hunting in summer with Arden and Frank, to arctic char fishing with my ataata Pemik. Once again, I was a blubbering wreck, clinging to the larger of the two tusks like a drowning woman. Again, nostalgia for a time and place overcame me and I was momentarily grief-stricken. Unlike Japan, Nunavut (and, specifically, Arviat) is a continuing presence in my life, through my research, my on-going relationships with people there (one of the great positives of social media), through my daughter’s name, and through the way my lived experiences and academic research of Inuit life have changed forever the way I interact with humans and other animals and with the world around me. But the Arviat I knew has changed. Some of the people most important to me are no longer there – passed on or moved on – and I too am changed.
I composed myself for the second time in so many hours, continued my exploration of the museum and then sat in the museum café with a pot of tea and toasted crumpet. As I sat, I reflected on how the materiality of those objects had drawn out this nostalgia in me. Two objects, one removed from its cultural setting and the other from its natural setting, and set in a different context thousands of miles away. The cultural distance the tsuru had travelled was, perhaps, less great, as these delicate paper cranes have come to symbolize peace, the anti-war movement and nuclear disarmament throughout the world. But, just as the tusk of an Arctic marine mammal was far from the place and context of its origin, so too, the tsuru, placed in an Anglican cathedral in the middle of England, had been decontextualized from Japan’s long history of origami and other delicate crafts. It was the sudden and unexpected encounter with these objects out of place that caused them to grab me by the wrist and pull me back to the places of their origin, places that, for half of my life, have had meaning for me.
But my encounters with those objects also caught me at a moment when I was feeling particularly melancholic. Another day, in a different mood, nostalgia brought about by the tsuru and the narwhal tusks might have caused me to laugh aloud with joyful reminiscences of the same times, places and people. I was reminded of this a few days later when, back home again in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, I caught the smell and texture of spring in the air, and it brought me back to the springs of my childhood in Ireland. This time, in a buoyant mood, I grinned from ear to ear.