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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Anglo-Saxons have been in the news lately, but not in a good way. A proposal to form a Congressional Caucus to promote “Anglo-Saxon values” turned out to be a bit too explicit a nod to White Supremacists, even for the current iteration of the GOP. White Supremacists have sadly co-opted the term Anglo-Saxon, making it a divisive buzz word rather than simply the name of a period of English history. Lets look at Anglo-Saxon history and values. I have several books on my shelves to refresh my memory. A lovely illustrated edition of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in the 8th century and a battered paperback of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of narratives compiled in the 9th century reign of Alfred the Great. There’s also several books about archeological discoveries, including a hoard of gold treasure and the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial, and of course a copy of Beowulf.
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.
In this episode of On My Bookshelf I reach for a cookbook.
“How do you make Toad in the Hole?” asked my 8 year old grandson. “Well, first I send you boys into the woods to find some toads while I make the holes,” I replied. “Then you drop the toads into the holes and we’re done.” The 6 year old looked confused but 8 was on to me. “That’s not true!” he protested. So I explained that the English give weird names to their foods but basically Toad in the Hole is just sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. That drew blank stares so I revised it to a sausage pancake. They liked the sound of that and agreed to help me, though once the Yorkshire Pudding batter was mixed they lost interest. I have the recipe for this and more odd sounding foods in Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. I bought the book when it was first published in 1981, a time when the title was indeed an oxymoron. This was before the age of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, before pubs turned into gastropubs, and before the Great British Bake Off came to America. British cooking really did have a terrible reputation, especially with Continental Europeans.
Long ago in an England far far away my sister Angela adopted a duck. Her motivation is lost to history. Perhaps it was nostalgia for our childhood Sunday picnics in Valentines Park, a short bus ride from home. I remember how much we enjoyed feeding the ducks from the bag of bread crusts we brought along. We didn’t yet know how harmful it is to feed wildlife. Perhaps a newly enlightened Angela was seeking atonement. The story of the adopted duck recently resurfaced when she found the documentation in a box of old papers.
In time for Valentine’s Day I rediscover an extraordinary love story from the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Read My Heart by historian Jane Dunn.
In the summer of 1648 two young people made their way to the Isle of Wight, the first leg of a journey to France. Meeting there would set the course for their whole lives. Dorothy Osborne was 21 and, accompanied by her brother Robin as chaperone, was en route to visit their father who was living in exile in St. Malo. William Temple was 20. His father was sending him off on a young English gentleman’s traditional sojourn on the Continent to broaden his education.
The England the young pair travelled through was war-torn and weary, bitterly divided between the Royalists loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarians. The first of the Civil Wars had ended with the decisive defeat of the King at the Battle of Naseby and he was currently held prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, the very place they were heading. By co-incidence both young people had relatives on the island, but on opposite sides of the conflict. Dorothy’s kinsman Richard Osborne was Gentleman-of-the Bedchamber to the King and was suspected of plotting to help Charles escape. On the other hand William’s cousin, Colonel Robert Hammond, was the Governor of the Castle and responsible for guarding the King.
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”→
Perhaps it was the restlessness induced by quarantine that had me prowling my own bookshelves in search of diversion. I needed a break from the world of Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. (I know it is tantamount to sacrilege to criticize Miss Mantel, whose Cromwell trilogy I agree is a magnificent achievement, but did we need the menu for his every meal in the year leading up to his execution, surely the last meal would have been sufficient?) In this grumpy mood I came upon The Singing Game by Iona and Peter Opie, the legendary English folklorists, a book I hadn’t picked up Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – The Singing Game”→