Paean to Englishness

Last weekend was a very English weekend.

We were in the Cotswolds, a region which is, in itself, the quintessence of English country life: thatched-roof cottages; gently rolling fields dotted with sheep; Land Rovers and wellies and tweed coats. We stayed at the family home of some friends, a rambling three-story affair, the one-time “Dower” house of a Manor House on the adjacent property. In other words, a house very similar to where Grandmama lived on “Downton Abbey.”  The windows were draped in real chintz. The carpet was indestructible and soft and plush, and silver-plated brush sets adorned the antique dressing tables in the bedrooms. There was a genteel and sociable black Labrador in residence, the descendant of eight generations of black Labradors who had been raised on the property.

We had lunch in a kitchen that was covered in brick flooring, encased in formica cabinetry and presided over by an oval table surrounded by mismatched chairs. The only nod to 2017 was a pair of shiny, black Bosch ovens in the wall. Some tragedy must have befallen their predecessors, to have been replaced in such a modern way, but no one seemed able to answer the question of exactly what. Our host, the consummate Englishman, simply said, “We tend to sweat things out of use around here.”

I should mention that he was the only Englishman among us. There were the four of us Americans; our hostess, who is the Argentinian wife of the Englishman, and their three sons; as well as a Puerto Rican couple and their three children. That afternoon, the Englishman led our merry band of multicultural trans-atlanticists on an excursion where we exercised the “right to roam” — exploring open access lands, which, by English law, give pedestrians the freedom to explore someone else’s property without having to stick to trails and other such rights-of-way. Our path took us across the grounds of the Dower House and past outbuildings sheltering farming equipment and neatly arranged piles of golden Cotswold stone, then past the Manor House, where we set out for the wintry fields that undulated beyond. We slogged through patches of muck, watched the shimmering arc of a rainbow appear against an iron sky, and glimpsed the speckled, bright-mustard feathers of pheasants creeping through the tall brown grass. A small stream gullied alongside the trail, and the kids waded into it with glee, rain boots sucking at the muddy creek bottom. Though their bodies shivered in the early March cold, their smiles were wide. In the best tradition of the English, we were exploring, and everyone loves the right to roam.

I am overcome by the glory of Britain upon encountering many sights, sounds, smells and tastes in this fair land, but three particular items hold the most power: the glowing imperial face of Big Ben peeping out between skyscrapers on a nighttime approach to Waterloo Station; the opening notes of “Rule, Britannia” (and it doesn’t matter whether they’re the cue for a London scene in an Austin Powers movie, they still do something to me); and standing on the crest of an English hill, under a leaden sky, surveying a storybook-perfect pastoral landscape. In the Cotswolds, wearing a thick sweater and hiking boots, I was awash in the ecstasy of Englishness.

There is a quote from the philosopher and novelist George Santayana, a 19th-century man of letters who was born in Spain, raised in America, and moved to Europe at the age of 48, never to return to the US. He is most famous for the phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but there’s another aphorism of his that speaks to me. He said, “England is not the best possible world, but it is the best actual country, and a great rest after America.”

This is such a perfect summation of my own experience as an American in England that I’ve had to mull it over since our visit to the Cotswolds, dissect it and analyse it and see how it applies, especially in the face of the news that we will be returning to the US this summer. Old George was right that England isn’t the best possible world. Over dinner that night at the Cotswolds, we talked of the holdover mindsets in a post-Brexit, post-empire Britain. The class system, however weakened to the point that it’s become romanticized fodder for modern-day period pieces, still remains and discreetly plays itself out in new ways, sometimes manifesting itself in how natives interact with immigrants who have always been drawn to this land (including 5/6 of our dining party at the stately old manse that night).

The non-English among us all had stories of falling victim to the skewering wit of our English co-workers and friends, their unrivalled gift for throwing shade at us poor, misguided Colonial savages. We spoke of other drawbacks, as well, more related to urban living – the expense and the vicious circularity of life in London; the tendency to quietly compete, at breakneck pressure, with one’s friends and neighbors, and always coming up short.

But there’s something else about Englishness. I kept thinking about the Cotswolds kitchen, and the brand new wall ovens. I suspect their predecessors hadn’t been replaced without a significant amount of consideration, and I suspect it had almost nothing to do with the financial implications of installing new ovens but rather, the unwillingness to give up on something that, however imperfect, had been serviceable, had been a part of life in that home. In America, we strive to accumulate, to replace, to improve. We openly compete against ourselves and everyone else, always trying to achieve a new Personal Best, advertising our accomplishments for all to hear.  This clamor is itself a kind of holdover, I suppose, from when our people were immigrants who landed, sick, dirty and broke, at ports along the Eastern seaboard, and moved into survival mode. Those people had something to prove. But Englishness…well, Englishness decrees a kind of cheerful comfort with the imperfect. Not only with their surroundings – and, as I understand it, English country houses are the prime movers of shabby chic – but with their family, their friends, and above all, themselves. The British ability to take the piss out of themselves is epic. Our host spoke at length of his sabbatical in the US when he was in his 20s and the inability of his group of friends to “pull” anywhere they went, not even Vegas. To be imperfect, unstriving, self-deprecating – and, in this way, actually fit in with the culture – has been a “great rest” for me.

Englishness is a tendency to hold on, whether it’s to things or people – it’s a kind of stoic loyalty. They may criticize, they may deride, but Englishness decrees that just giving up is not an option; more often, it means clustering together and getting downright tribal. The English are not known, like the Mediterranean cultures, for being the most hospitable, but they are. Having decided you are not a serial killer and are of sufficient “good value” (i.e. a good hang), they will invite you to their London homes or their family’s country houses, take you for walks, make you tea, light you a fire, make you lunch, make you dinner, serve you pudding, pour you wine, wake up the next morning and prepare you breakfast (cereal), and cook you another breakfast (bacon and eggs). They will invite you back even when you’re convinced that the endless glasses of wine they have poured for you have resulted in your saying or doing something that will cut you off forever. When you leave, they will see you off with their gracious and well-mannered dogs, and then pretend they don’t see tears in your eyes as you drive away, because that would make everyone uncomfortable. But, if you do let loose with the waterworks, they will be there with a pat on the shoulder, a big hug, or a tissue, and they will let you evacuate the tears until you’re empty, at which point they will make more tea.

They will let you feel like you belong here in England. And for a while, you might believe you do, so much that the shock of packing up and leaving will be as powerful as sudden grief, and you will wonder if you’ll ever be the same.

We four Americans: we will always hold on to the good bits of our learned Englishness, the parts that we took away from this “best country.” We will stubbornly hold on to the things we love. We will trove the various pratfalls of daily existence for comic gold. We will make families out of strangers wherever we go, and pour them wine and pull their kids out of creeks and make lots of breakfasts and go exploring on long walks, even when the signs say “No Trespassing.” Sometime soon, I’m going to be standing on a hilltop in America, and the land will stretch out before me for miles, and the sun will blaze above my head. And as I ponder being back in my brash, big country, after three years abroad have left me unsure of where I belong, I will think of the gentle hills of England, and how they welcomed me in.


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