An Empire Revisited
People sometimes ask me, “What is the difference between baseball and cricket?” The answer is simple. Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats, but with this crucial difference: baseball is exciting, and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won. ~Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island
The morning of our recent London trip, the newspaper read that two unexploded car bombs had been found near Picadilly and Soho. A third incendiary bomb had been detonated at Glasgow Airport. John Smeaton, a Glaswegian baggage handler, became a national hero when he tackled and fought with the terrorist bent on incinerating himself and an airport full of people headed for holiday after term break. Smeaton shared with the BBC, “I thought to meeself, what’s the score here; I’ve got to get this sorted.” After breaking his leg and teeth in the thrashing of the terrorist, “Smeats” was an instant celebrity – a subject of news specials, blogs and proud recognition. His reward? 1000 pints of free lager at his local pub. To other would-be attackers, he was heard to remark with strong Scottish accent and cigarette dangling from his mouth, “This is Glasgow, we will set about on ye.”
Much has changed since our time in the Emerald Isle four years ago. Gordon Brown is now the Prime Minister of England. Smoking is banned in all restuarants and pubs, lawyers air personal injury ads, the US dollar enjoys the exchange value of a Mexican peso, and the property prices have gone from ridiculous to absurd. What has not changed is the constant rain that disrupts Wimbledon, tiny loos, the threat of terrorist activity, great ethnic food, the Royal family as the face of the realm and a National Health Service under siege. The Royal Mail still arrives the day after a letter is posted. Manchester United still leads the Premiere Division and, alas, the red eyed, shaved headed lad still stumbles onto London transport wearing his soccer jersey and a sweat suit, clutching a can of Black Carling lager and daring anyone to make eye contact.
The British enjoy a love/hate relationship with their own country. The NY Times recently reviewed The Angry Isle – Hunting the English, a book by British critic and polemic, A.A. Gill. His theory is that every classically British trait – stiff upper lip, stoic humility, good manners, keen wit – is an ingenious strategy to deflect anger. Gill asserts that the English are a culture founded on rage and aggression. “The English created the queue because if they did not they would kill each other. Gardening is a displacement activity for unresolved anger. Pets are preferred as it is easier to love something small and fuzzy than another human. Nostalgia and deep reverence of the past have helped medicate the embarrassment of Britain no longer making history but merely being resigned to curate it.”
Tradition and history are tricky things. While Continental Europe is long on tradition, it easily eschews history for the sake of modern conveniences. Independent England will fight to the death to defend history as tradition – the pound, the Royal family and the size of a phone booth. History and tradition are fraternal twins and nostalgia is their mother.
Jane Walmsley, an American married to a Brit, crafted a brilliant book called Brit Think, Ameri-Think, which humorously contrasts England’s clash of restraint and tradition with American loud naiveté. Walmsley jokes that the English bathroom is so small because the British have so little roughage in their diet that they actually never need to use the loo. As an ex-patriot, you come to understand how clearly your country defines you and that subconsciously we are walking caricatures whose footprints occasionally fit less flattering stereotypes. Our English neighbors in London could always tell the American houses because every light in every room of every house was illuminated at night. “It’s as if you are having a party each evening,” one remarked. We were hopelessly uninformed about European government, law or history. The Tudors? Aren’t they kinds of houses? And what about that strange extra toilet that sprayed like a drinking fountain? (The kids kept trying to brush their teeth in it before some European friends explained the concept of a bidet.)
Returning to the UK after four years, we quickly fell under the spell of Central London – jogging under the massive elms and horse chestnut trees of Hyde Park, peering through the grated fence of Buckingham Palace hoping for a glimpse of the Queen, navigating the phalanx of pedestrians at Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus and perching like a peregrine falcon atop the London Eye. The theatre district remains a joy and high tea is still a tonic for anything that ails you. London’s richest history is perhaps its most macabre, as recounted deep in the The London Dungeon where children hear stories of serial killers, plague, executions and the Great Fire of 1666. Outside, the fickle weather unleashes great sweeping thunderstorms, hail, gusting winds, angry grey clouds and the constant tease of intermittent sunshine.
Our village of Wimbledon was dressed to the nines for the tennis tournament as players, visitors and locals mixed every evening in the Dog & Fox Pub and spilled out on to the high street. Our old church, Emmanuel, had a message board that read, “God made Roger Federer.” The vicar, Jonathon Fletcher, was quite proud of this; it drew attention to the pleasant Anglican Church. We went on to Hampshire to overnight in a 500-year-old manor house. Once the children were bedded down, the lady of the house shared “I did not want to alarm the children, but we have a very active ghost in the room where your daughter will be sleeping.” My wife and daughter quickly conferred; it was decided that I should sleep in the haunted room. Around midnight, the door creaked open and as I braced for a poltergeist, my son slipped into bed next to me. I sighed in great relief…I did not want the house awakened by a grown man shrieking. It would have been very bad form.
A few observations on touring England: When boarding a tube, always put the children on first with an adult, lest you leave one on the platform. Never give a child under 10 a pound coin (they are worth $2 and seem to slip from hands faster than greased acorns). When anyone offers you pudding, take it. Remember a yard is an abandoned lot. A garden is a space in front or behind a home with flowers. Public school boys go to private schools and state schools are public. The world of a teenager is made up of “shavs,” “skaters” and “preps.”
Although some inside and outside the UK may poke fun at the British, most Americans are Anglophiles at heart and Britain feels as if you’re visiting a close relative you never really got to know very well. As for their unwavering support of America in these troubled times, we can learn a thing or two from our British cousins regarding their steely resolve, their patience, their pride…and their sense that regardless of what tomorrow brings, we must simply carry on.