Lacrosse Past and Present

Dakota play lacrosse on the Minnesota River. Oil painting 1848.

Goin’ fishin’? Wotcha catch? Where’s the kippers?

We endured these taunts and more, delivered in the broad Cockney of our neighborhood and accompanied by sneering laughter, as my sister and I walked home from the bus stop. Our Catholic school uniforms already made us a target of derision for the local kids, but now at the end of term we carried our lacrosse sticks with us. What else could these odd things be but fishing nets? The kids seemed delighted to have something new in their arsenal.

Girls clumsily cradle

Our experience of playing lacrosse at school wasn’t much more positive. On the playing field up the hill behind the school we ran back and forth in miserable grey English weather. Shorts were not allowed for convent school girls and sweatpants were unheard of. We wore gabardine divided skirts, shorts disguised as skirts with box pleats, and Aertex blouses. Our formidable games mistress Miss Sands wore a below the knee tweed skirt and a sensible cardigan with a whistle on a ribbon around her neck. For some reason lost to history we called her Daisy. If the rain was too heavy for outdoor sports she took us to the gym and made us dance the Highland Fling. I’m not sure which activity we dreaded most.

Cradle girls! she would cry, Cradle! This referred to the back and forth swinging motion of the stick we had to perfect to keep the ball secure in the net. Up and down the field we ran cradling and dropping the ball, and cradling some more. It seemed a very tedious business. There was occasional drama when the dangerously hard ball would hit some unfortunate girl in the head. No one in those days seemed concerned about concussion though. My sister remembers an incident when a too generous application of the stuff used to condition the leather netting caused her ball to be firmly stuck as she ran cradling away. Miss Sands called out Oh well held Byrne! in her fluting Queen’s accent. But of course my sister was unable to pass the ball so her sporting triumph was short lived.

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The NeverEnding Speech

Sather Gate at University of California Berkeley

It was the most memorable speech I’ve ever heard, though I can’t remember a single word of it. Let us enter the scene at about the one hour mark when the audience gathered on the sun dappled lawn broke into sustained applause. Though a passer by might have taken the applause for appreciation, for the families perched on uncomfortable folding chairs the vigorous clapping had a desperate air. Surely this time the speaker would take the hint and wind things up. It was about the fourth or fifth time that the audience had broken into spontaneous applause at any small break in the torrent of words, some even standing, to try to bring the agony to an end. But each time the speaker, a tiny man whose head barely peeked over the podium, waited patiently until the clapping ceased and then resumed speaking in his barely audible whisper of a voice.

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Marks Gate Estate

Note to my American readers: If the word estate makes you think of a grand English country house be advised. In England council house developments, the equivalent of American public housing, are called estates.

Mum outside our house on Marks Gate Estate

In 1955 when I was seven years old we moved into a brand new house on Marks Gate Estate outside London in Essex. We were a family of five, my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I. Because my mother was pregnant with a third child we were moved up the waiting list for a council house. The wait was long. My parents had been on the list since shortly after I was born.

I remember the excitement of that day. The estate still had the raw appearance of a building site, our road not yet paved. The back garden was a patch of dirt, graced only with a washing line. My sister and I ran through the empty rooms. The front door led into a narrow entry hall with a small storage room at the back. Off the hall in front was a kitchen with an eating area and in back a living room with fireplace. Outside the kitchen door was a covered space for dustbins and coal storage. Upstairs the bare board floors were stained in places where it looked like the builders had mixed their materials. There were three bedrooms, one not much bigger than today’s closets, a lavatory, and a bathroom with something known as an airing cupboard where the hot water heater sat. By today’s standards it was a tiny house for a growing family but to us it seemed a mansion. It was one of over a million council homes built in Britain between 1945 and the late 1950’s.

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How I Learned To Speak American

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.

What linguistic traps are lurking in this gutter?

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. 

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The Unfortunate Case of the Queen’s Nose

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.

Queen Elizabeth II on the day of her Coronation in 1953

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.

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Across America by Greyhound Bus

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.

This is one of the most vivid memories of my cross-country journey, New York City to San Francisco, in the fall of 1970. I wish I could tell you that I travelled in a painted, Continue reading “Across America by Greyhound Bus”

The Tangled Tale of the Mixed-Up Mice

It was a dark and peaceful night. An owl hooted. A fox skulked through the yard. The mice crouched silently, in sleep mode. Some time before dawn, on orders from the mothership, the mice exchanged their souls.

My mouse was misbehaving. It sat obediently on its little pad, but when I clicked nothing happened. Several useless clicks later I resorted to tech troubleshooting 101 and restarted my Mac. Success! The mouse capered about happily as I clicked away. But then something really strange happened. It seemed to have a mind of its own, racing around the screen wildly when I wasn’t even touching it. Was this the moment the tech wizards predict, the moment when the machines take over?  Continue reading “The Tangled Tale of the Mixed-Up Mice”

London in the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe’s grave

One day last week we stood in London’s Bunhill Fields burial ground before the grave of Daniel Defoe. Of course his Journal of the Plague Year was the book that came to mind. Based on eyewitness reports in his uncle’s journal, it is a fictional account of the infamous 1665 plague that decimated the population of London. Now in 2020 London news of the coronavirus plague grew grimmer by the hour.

We were in London for an exhibit of my late brother Paul’s work at the Menier Gallery in Southwark. If it had been scheduled just one week later it could never have happened. By Continue reading “London in the Plague Year”

On Memory and Churchill’s Funeral

When I was very small my Uncle Lievin saved me from a bear. I was in bed at my grandmother’s house in Belgium when he came running up the stairs chased by a bear. Don’t worry, he assured me, I’ll get it. He grabbed a rifle from behind the door and stood on guard in the doorway poking at the bear as it tried to get past him to eat me up. At last, with many dramatic grunts and shouts, he drove it down the stairs and out the door. Now you’re safe, he assured me with a hug, the bear is gone. My uncle was my protector and my hero. How brave he was!

My memory of this episode is vivid. I can still almost see my uncle and the bear in mortal combat, hear his exited voice giving a running commentary on the battle. Of course at some point I realized it couldn’t really have happened. There was no bear, the growling Continue reading “On Memory and Churchill’s Funeral”