England, Why England?
An excerpt from The Pantomime Horse. After losing his mother, brother, and, finally, his father, Boast learned that his father had been married with children before meeting his mother. He had two half-brothers that had been kept secret from him for twenty-four years. Just after his father’s funeral, Boast travels back to the south of England for a summer.
Early morning I disembarked from my flight and met Nanny at Heathrow. We drove down the M3 toward Southampton. It was raining, of course. Outside, everything was a bluer green than in America, the green of raw broccoli, the color I’ve always associated with the sunlight-bereft land of my birth. How can I explain? Maybe it’s jetlag beating all the nerves and tension out of me, but I seem to breathe easier in England, and the damp air leaves me feeling melancholy and pleasantly heavy, like I could sleep through the passing of another empire or two. I leaned against the car window, let my eyes close.
“Try to stay awake, dear,” Nanny said. “Otherwise, you’ll never be able to adjust.”
I was seven when Mom, Dad, Rory, and I moved to Wisconsin. Before that we lived in Ireland for four years, down in the romantic, remote, depressing wilds of the west, where travelers camped in painted caravans (hitched to Japanese compacts, not ponies) on the side of the road and Rory and I were taught Irish Gaelic by the sisters of the Convent of Mercy National School of Limerick. Still, growing up, I thought of myself as English. We went back once a year or every couple years, as often as Mom and Dad could afford it. By thirteen I was a snob. I came to loath everything American, fetishize everything English: the BBC, Thomas Hardy, Cumberland sausages, Twiglets, Jaffa Cakes, nationalized health care, the constitutional monarchy, Blur, Oasis, Supergrass, Pulp, Radiohead. (I worshipped Brit rock, even when the bands were ripping off American ones.) Though I’d lost my accent—an Irish accent, not an English one—when I was just a kid and spoke now with a nasal Midwestern honk, I still insisted on keeping up a few little quirks, pronouncing, for example, each of the fussy syllables in a-luh-min-e-um or the long round “O” in pro-gress and pro-cess. When we went “across the pond,” things got even more muddled, the diction came shoving its way back in, suddenly it was “holiday” not “vacation,” and I even started thinking in the Queen’s English again, or tried to anyway. (Rory and I got in fights over this. He hated the clumsy, gummy sounds of those peculiarly English words in my mouth.)
Why did I feel such a kinship with the place? The England I knew and loved was a shopkeeper’s England, and I scoffed at my classmates’ quaint notions about taking high tea and rambling along the misty moors. At the same time I let those illusions stand, hoping they’d let me claim a special distinction, an air of sophistication and genteel disdain for all things low, crass, and Yank. At Big Foot High, I didn’t fit in with the farm kids, who I made fun of, or with the rich kids who lived on the lake, who I despised and secretly envied, so I became the most zealous of anglophiles, a true native who’d somehow gotten stranded in “the States.” As soon as I finished college, I vowed, I’d be going back for good. Years had passed since then and somehow my return kept getting postponed.
“Almost there now,” Nanny said, as she always did when we came into the shambling outskirts of Southampton. “Recognize where you are?”
Red brick terraced houses stretched out on either side of the motorway, the cement monoliths of council tower blocks looming among them. Rust-spotted container ships bulked dirtily on Southampton Water. I cracked the window to get another breath of air; the thick smell of diesel exhaust atomized on wet asphalt, another signature of England, left a film on my tongue. The bus stops were scrawled over with graffiti—bad graffiti. Every road seemed to have a strip of vacant shop fronts, with only the bingo parlors, betting shops, and discos thriving. Men stood on corners trying to flog stolen goods: jewelry, power tools, knock-off England jerseys. Clusters of teenage boys with shaved heads hunched along the sidewalks in tracksuits, getting soaked and seeming not to care.
The last seventy years had not been kind to Southampton: Luftwaffe bombs, dockers’ strikes and brutal union busting, dumb city planning mistakes, several grandiose new shopping centers gone bust, the opulent Southwestern Hotel closed down, the Royal Pier destroyed, twice, by fire. Southampton continues as the berth of the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen Victoria, but the world remembers only its great maritime disaster: The Titanic sailed from here. Look Southampton up in a guidebook; there’s no mention of its original Roman walls and mosaics, the ancient Bargate, or the Tudor buildings that miraculously survived the Blitz. Just a few pithy remarks about the “unsinkable” ship and a note that reads “little else of interest here.” My hometown. I felt the need to defend it against the general indifference of the world, but it seemed to get drabber every time I came back.
Nanny fed me enormous meals: fish and chips, chicken curry and chips, bangers and mash with gravy, freezer peas, and chips. In the evenings, we played Rummikub and Scrabble or put together jigsaws. We went out to see Nanny’s brothers and sisters, my great aunties and uncles. In dim, under-heated living rooms crowded with overstuffed settees draped with lace dollies, I sat listening to my great aunties (the uncles hardly spoke) talk about their gardens, swap news of the vast extended family, and rehash stories of bad service received in restaurants. Over the years, I like to think I’ve become a keen observer, a student even, of families, but my nanny’s family is like few others. At the time I’m writing about now, eleven of the thirteen brothers and sisters were still alive, all but one of them living in Hampshire. They all grew up together in a big, mold-infested house with an open well at its center, with an eccentric father who roamed the county poaching game and a mother who, well, birthed thirteen children. During the War, the older siblings worked in government offices and munitions factories, drove supply vans, riveted the wings onto Spitfires (picture frail, skin-and-bones Auntie Cis, her body vibrating to each jolt of the pneumatic riveter), and looked after the younger children. Now the younger looked after the eldest, who had finally started to succumb to heart trouble, aching joints, dementia, and a lifetime of surviving off English cuisine, circa-1945.
I took a lot of pleasure in my grandmother’s family. And I envied them. When they all got together, the jokes passed so fast between them, the store of shared memories was so great, I struggled to keep up. The siblings who had passed away lived on in that endless conversation, spoken of as if they were only momentarily indisposed, sent upstairs, perhaps, for bad behavior, and sure to come back down to join the fun soon.
Everyone was very gentle about my dad. A good man, they said. Good but quiet. Great Uncle Bob remembered him as being rather “deep.” (Which is not to say unusually thoughtful or sensitive, as meant in America, but introverted and a little dour.) When I told my great aunties and uncles how I’d learned about my dad’s first marriage and his two other children, they quickly changed the subject, as if to say, Well, never mind about all of that. They were worried about me living “over there” all by myself. “And how is Melissa?” they wanted to know. (In grad school, Missy started going by Melissa, but I’d never been able to make the change.) “Lovely girl, isn’t she?”
“What?” gruff old Uncle Spadge said, speaking for the first time. “Enunciate, boy. E-nun-ci-ate.”
“Very lovely,” I said. “We haven’t been talking much.”
“What? Sorry? Honestly, I can’t understand a word the boy says.”
All through my teens I was a mumbler. Over here I was also painfully self-conscious about what my relations called my “awful American accent.” My mumbling was, and remains, a defense—it keeps me from having to talk about myself. Anyway, my great aunties and uncles were most of them so deaf, I could get through an entire visit saying barely a word. Finally, the conversation swung back to the usual: the family, the garden, and wasn’t the service so much better in American restaurants? and the portions so large! Now and then, someone would tell a story about life during the War or dust off some antique turn of phrase—“those mucky little pups,” “we were at sixes and sevens,” “she had a face like thunder,” “I didn’t come up on the down train, you know”—and I’d file it away in memory or sneak off to scribble it down in my notebook. Research for the great Anglo-American novel.
In private I asked Uncle Bob, who I’d always gotten along with, if he’d known about my dad’s other family. “Well, old chap,” Bob said, “I did hear about it all, yes. Through the grapevine, you understand.”