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.
In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.
This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.
What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:
“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.
One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.
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.
The events of the past several weeks, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer, the protests that swept the nation and the world, and President Trump’s attempt at brutal “domination” brought to mind an art work I saw in London this March.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Viewed from the top of the long sloping floor of the former power station it looked like an enormous tiered wedding cake. Perhaps it was the effect of the bland white surface that brought cake frosting to mind. The sculpture stood at the far end of the cavernous Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, where on previous visits we had seen other art installations, none particularly memorable. This would be different. As we came closer we heard the water. The tiers formed not a cake but a fountain, water Continue reading “Fons Americanus – Art For This Time”→
One recent morning I attended a health seminar. In the waiting room of a car service center in Gaithersburg. It was an impromptu kind of thing. Certainly not what I expected when I checked my car in for its 40,000 mile service, then settled down in the spacious lounge for the usual tedious wait. On the muted television CNN relayed the latest alarming news of the world but no-one paid attention. Vehicle anxiety and international crisis don’t mix well. We stared at our phones or worked on our laptops and avoided eye contact as strangers thrown together in public spaces tend to do. But we were about to be nudged out of our cocoons.
According to Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” But in London on November 29th a bad guy with a knife was stopped by a good guy with a narwhal whale tusk. And another with a fire extinguisher. And a few more with just their bare hands. The incident reveals much about the difference between the cultures on either side of the pond.
How would you pronounce the name of Poulsbo, a tiny town on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State? This is a trick question, because unless you live there or you know someone who does, you are certain to get it wrong. That’s because Poulsbo may be the only town in the United States, or perhaps the world, that ended up with the wrong name. All Continue reading “Can You Say Poulsbo?”→
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”→