England has long been a land of my fantasies. It was the original Narnia. It was where the sixties first swung. The sun never set on its empire. It is the only country in the world where a height can wuther. Where a crowd can mad. Where eating beef can be a job title. It is the only country in the world where there could conceivably be a village called Lovely Bottoms.
I was exhausted when I arrived in Stansted Airport, the part of England that I, and most other Irish people, are most familiar with. An hour later my train arrived in Cambridge.
From the very first day, things were ridiculously English. We watched posh boys punt. We drank funny cider. Knobby youths in funny clothes were jolly in our general vicinity.
I tried and failed to buy work trousers on my first day in Cambridge. Just so you guys all know, if you’re caught without trousers, as can happen, you’d better have a waist smaller than 46 inches in Cambridge.
Anyway, on my second day, I met a man so wonderfully English that if I hadn’t met him I would have needed to make him up. He is employed by a middle-Eastern government to mind their Cambridge residence. I get the impression that the only person he actually has to look after this huge house and grounds for is himself. I can’t imagine he has many guests.
He is an elderly man and is preposterously tall. He has a booming voice and is the type of person you’d imagine being really rubbish at hide-and-seek. He moves ponderously like Snuffleupagus. I can quite easily imagine him with a rifle cracked over the crook of his arm or in a padded dressing gown with a pipe. He is quite possibly the poshest man I have ever met.
I thought I’d found common ground with him when he told me he’d spent three years teaching English in Poland, as I had too. But his experience was in the early eighties, when the country was under martial law. Much more adventurous than anything I experienced there. I imagine he made quite an impression in communist Lublin.
Speaking of stereotypes, I was in a stereotypical little English country town last weekend. There were lovely crooked half-timbered houses and me and my friends spent a time pottering about happily. We also visited the church, a beautiful old building. I’ve mentioned the fact that I’m not used to non-Catholic things before, and this was possibly the least Catholic place I’ve ever been. As we entered, we could hear music. Maybe a choir was practising or an organist was warming up? No. It was a man sitting in front of the altar, playing “New York, New York!” on the keyboard. After a few minutes, he started playing “I could have danced all night”. This was a relief, as songs from the musicals seem vaguely less irreverent than Frank Sinatra.
But the keyboardist wasn’t the only thing standing in the way of prayer and veneration. At the end of the aisle was a coffee shop. There were people brewing tea and selling sandwiches. In a church. There were people eating cakes. In a church. Not in some kind of outer room mind you. In the church.
We’re not in Ireland any more, Toto.
England is a wondrous place and is worthy of much blogging. I’ll update again soon.