Disclaimer : This article about the brush of two worlds, is intended to be good-natured and entertaining at best! * Names have been changed to protect little children and their ponies in the heartland of the British countryside! This is also me doffing my felt-trimmed Trilby to the kind and genuinely polite people of this country! X
Let’s imagine that five people anywhere in the world, (who know a little about Britain, but have never visited) were asked to describe what they thought of it – they’re likely to say that the English Drink Tea. Eat Tea .Play Cricket. Have a Queen and see an awful amount of Rain! Everyone of course, also belongs to The Department of Tweed! Well, the American of the five would sooner chew their ear off than forget mentioning Bad Teeth!! I’ll say nothing more about that other than people who live in glass houses learn not to throw stones at others!
I was on an East Midlands train recently, and it being my first return to a place I call home, I was too filled with nostalgia and imminent reunions to pack a decent, self respecting breakfast for a journey commencing 6 AM. Little did I know that my travel companion would be the most Henry Hatsworth‘ian characted ever, replete with a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and desperately missing the Calabash pipe to complete the picture; and his 4 year-old-daughter, Constance* , who just had to have been the inspiration behind the Oreo cookie adverts! After the initial surprise of knowing that we’re actually going to be spending three hours together, rather cheek by jowl at that, I settled down to breathing again and getting my breakfast out! Carefully selected at the Costas’s
Café point, it was a Kellogg’s bar, an orange, and a shamefully large serving of latte!! No one get’s aboard this train, taking orders for meals! East Midlands trains offer you no bells, though Constance had a whistle, and the jolly ability to pipe out ‘When the saints go marching in’ sporadically from 6-9.30 am! ‘We’ then proceeded to feed Constance a croissant, a crumpet, butter and her favourite cheese, on a co-ordinated melamine service with matching serviettes! That should get the picture right, down to a T!!
I’ve often thought about those first impressions I had about British culture , the one borne out of the many hours of idle browsing through back editions of Country Life and Horse & Hound at my father’s furniture store as I waited to be picked up or dropped; or till he was convinced that I really needed an absurd amount of money to buy shoes!! Traditional British life~one with ample shades of Green&Brown; as a British friend of mine jovially put it, the all- encompassing spectrum of compost! A life where one wears tweed and lives on an estate, hunts foxes and stables ponies ~all to the chugging sounds of trains and brewing Earl Grey! Interestingly, ample catalogues trawl through the psyche of Middle England selling their wares, wholly based on these aspirations!
I’ve always thought that stereotypes were cultural nuggets (caricatured and often exploited) but pregnant with a teensy-bit of truth. How far that caricature’s stretched determines whether it was discriminatory or good-homouredly celebratory.
I stood centimetres away from pleading apologetically for getting my breakfast wrong, and whilst there, apologizing for pretty much all of my plebian ways! Made worse by his impossibly careful charm, his green cords and Barbour jacket, realising that here’s someone who’ll pretty much never be wholly alright with anyone eating anything but Whole Foods near him! His was the world of third-generation shooters of partridges on his acreage (always in the right season, of course!) And the world of posh, floppy hair and clothes chosen with intelligence, put on with care and then forgotten with grace! I also know that he and I would’nt have ev-ah ordinarily swapped numbers or Facebook requests or expressly set up a date for cocktails and smoothies with the families! But figured also from his demeanour, that despite the worst mockery of British Politelness that the best of us can muster, at the core, it all seemed to stem from an absolute need to be non-confrontational! That even the worst attributes of the British typecast – the aloofness, the distance, the cool, were all sprung from the same seed.
After our initial dis-ease at the proximity and difference of our worlds, we got speaking, seeing that none of us seemed armed with anything more than our mobile phones to get us through the journey.
I began to take mental notes about how vine-ripened tomatoes were in fact superior in taste and longevity, that Reblochon and Saint Marcellin were the only cheese worth investing in, and that being the President of The Village Green Preservation Society was indeed a challenging, and often stressful position! Damning also, is that our ecologically damaged soil now resulted in British apples having a lower level of pectin, which was a jam-makers nightmare and had left the Women’s Institute in our part of the world distraught! We agreed that we can only look forward to a better season next year!!
Well, he’d often wondered about what ‘real’ Asians were like, did all of us learn Math since we were 2? Pretty much. Did we have curry everyday? Well mostly, though hummous and Tagines and other Masterchef’ian devilry were soon becoming fairly bog standard in many an Asian home , I though, would be far more likely to attempt a sad spag-bol in the face of even the most rudimentary curry! I am abysmally bad with food – any food!! Do all of us marry the whole family when we do? We indeed do!
I realised that all that our little ‘Looking Glass’ showed us ,was only in part true, after all, most of us hadn’t experienced the first thing about Slumdog Millionaire, apart from the traffic! And power cuts! And I’m sure he did more than eat perfect food- perfectly , and well-dressed’ly shoot birds for sport! There are many pleasures to be had debunking cliches!
We spoke about Norfolk, where we both live (you could get no deeper into the pure British heartland) , and how they don’t really relish foreign inclusions here, and that goes for the rest of Britain too! Though I did initially watch out for a Taekwondo-swiped pack of Sharwoods poppadoms lying smashed at my door (a strong visual of racial intolerance, IMO) ; being the only brown family in a 10-mile radius, we’ve only been met with acceptance and extreme politeness! We laughed. We were the first we’d met from each other’s worlds and I caught Constance looking at me oddly a few times. I asked about her pony Rosa-Belle, and told her my daughters loved riding too, and that if they all met, they’d have a lovely time brushing down Rosa-Belle! I seemed to have warmed her Colonial heart with that, and felt my brownie points were large enough to have been visible from the moon!
I came away with the fondest memories of my brush with a true-blue Englishman, generalisations, propah-manners and all that! They are a dying breed in the face of the homogenisation of our world! And a bit sad that the original holders of Tweed and the world it represented- the hunting-shooting-fishing men of the earth and teachers who look like comfortable versions of Mr. Chips ; were being reduced to rails of identikit, cloned clothing marketed by celebrities. The next time I see the poker faced teenager down the road, in sartorial British Harris tweed and a flat cap, to whom ‘Heritage’ means nothing more than a big, old home decorated with chintz; I know we can thank the 11th Dr. Who for it’s ubiquitous, Noughties revival !
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