A recent online discussion in a group for Brits living in America concerned how our accents evolve over time. It reminded me of an embarrassing incident from my first weeks in America. This piece was first published in The Dabbler in November 2012.
Americans still hear my English accent, but in England people think I’m an American. In truth my accent must be hovering somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic after so many years immersion in the American dialect. It takes a long time for an accent to change. I still say “ban-ah-na” and “tom-ah-to” much to my grandsons’ amusement. But after being put in charge of library work schedules years ago I did quickly change over to saying “skedule.” I had to say the word so many times in the course of a day that “shedule” just began to sound pretentious to my own ears. As a new supervisor there was no advantage in conforming to the stereotype of a haughty, condescending Brit. But for the most part accents change unconsciously and imperceptibly like rocks polished to smoothness over millennia of tumbling in a riverbed. You land on a foreign shore speaking precise, clipped BBC English and then journey back years later to find yourself taken for a foreigner in your own hometown.
The Royals have been all over the news lately, what with the kerfuffle over Harry and Meghan followed by the death of Prince Philip. American viewers of The Crown consider themselves experts on the British Monarchy now, but there was a time when I was presumed an expert just because I am English. I did not grow up a Royalist though. Here is my confession, involving an old-fashioned loo, a taste for lead, and Her Majesty’s nose, adapted from a piece first published in The Dabbler in 2013.
The most irritating thing about being a Brit in America is the expectation that I must be as enamored of the Royal family as Americans are. Americans seem to have put resentment of King George III firmly behind them and follow all the ups and downs of royal news like a long running soap opera. Even better than Downton Abbey. I am often called upon to join in the gushing adulation and answer questions as a presumed expert on all things royal. Perhaps it is proof that I have remained English to the core that I can do so only with a heavy dose of ironic detachment.
Fifty years ago this month I arrived in New York on a student charter flight and traveled to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus. This is my account of my 1970 trip, first published in The Dabbler in June 2012.
The kiss was the longest, most passionate I had ever seen outside a movie. The passengers craned their heads above the seats for a better view while the driver tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. The young couple stood in the bus doorway, he on the dusty ground, she leaning into him from the bottom step. We were somewhere in America, the land spreading flat and empty and endless all around. The scene might have had all the emotional drama of a classic movie lovers parting, but we all knew these lovers had met a mere 24 hours before.
Spring is here at last and my thoughts turn to the garden. Weeds are already beginning their annual takeover before I’ve even finished cleaning up the dead remains of summer past. A good time to reprise my garden dream first published in The Dabbler in 2013. One bit of good news – no mad robin disturbs the spring idyll this year.
As I write the demented robin who inhabits the dogwood tree in our garden is repeatedly flinging himself against the window in a kind of avian kamikaze assault. The thump, thump, thump of bird meeting glass is a strange counterpoint to the sweet tweeting and trilling of the other garden birds. I don’t know why the robin does this every day for hours, Continue reading “The Dream of an English Garden”→
One of the oddest questions I’ve been asked since moving to the U.S. is “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in England?” Yes, this was a real question. I resisted the temptation to answer “Yes, we celebrate that the Puritans left and took their repressive ban on dancing and merriment with them!” More tactfully I said “No, but we have our own November holiday, Guy Fawkes Day.” That met with blank stares. So I explained that Guy Fawkes was a guy who plotted to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He was part of a Catholic plot to restore the true faith in Protestant England. “You mean you have a day to celebrate a domestic terrorist?” “No, no” I hastily corrected. “We burn him Continue reading “On Thanksgiving and Guy Fawkes Day”→
Last Saturday I watched the funeral service for Senator John McCain at the National Cathedral. I really tuned in because I wanted to hear President Obama’s eulogy, but I was soon drawn in by the beauty and dignity of the ceremony. The music was magnificent, particularly John Rutter’s setting of The Lord is my Shepherd and Renee Fleming’s Oh Danny Boy. Several speakers mentioned McCain’s love of literature, but I could not have been more surprised by his choice of a reading from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The chosen passage was from As Kingfishers Catch Firebeginning with the line “the just man justices.” One rarely hears mention of Hopkins in public life in America and Continue reading “My Love Affair with Gerard Manley Hopkins”→
To celebrate the July 4th holiday I reprise the amazing true story of an American patriotic song, first published in The Dabbler on June 3rd 2015. Could it be that Yankee Doodle Dandy started out as a British insult?
In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time singing nonsense songs to my grandsons. Nursery rhymes and traditional children’s songs, often imperfectly remembered. So sometimes I make them up and improvise pure nonsense as I go. The other day I found myself singing the American patriotic song Yankee Doodle. This time I remembered the words exactly but, as if hearing them for the first time, it suddenly struck me what utter nonsense they are. What on earth does the song mean? Continue reading “The Amazing True History of Yankee Doodle”→
For the benefit of new readers who did not follow me in my Dabbler days, this is the first in a series of favorite posts from the Dabbler Archives. This piece first appeared in The Dabbler on August 31st 2011.
I could not have chosen a more eventful time for my first visit to America than the summer of 1969. Americans were still reeling from the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the disastrous Democratic Convention the year before. Richard Nixon was President and the word “quagmire” was being used about the Vietnam War. There was an edge of danger in the air. I felt as though I had departed a world of smudgy grays and entered a vivid Technicolor movie. Los Angeles was all bright, searing light and straight lines dissolving into a yellowish smog. Everywhere enormous, garish plastic creatures loomed, the icons of consumer culture, making the city seem one vast Disneyland. Baking heat Continue reading “Church and State, Skirt and Flag”→
To celebrate July 4th I dig into The Dabbler archives for a piece I wrote some years ago recording my gradual acceptance of the American holiday and some memorable celebrations over the years. One July 4th I was surprised by feelings of genuine patriotism when I heard the National Anthem performed on a Chinese violin. In this season of xenophobia the sentiments seem especially timely.