Remember that old saying about “the sun never sets on the British Empire”? It was true once. But it hasn’t been for a long time and the apt saying today is that the sun has set on the British Empire and soon it will be warming a toad on a rock on an island once called Albion. Sic transit Gloria Brittania.
Brits: Masters of Exit. Or, you are like the belowstairs “help” in some Masterpiece Theatre Edwardian soap opera, and upstairs has finally blown the last of their unearned wealth on the last fox hunt and decadent weekend of mindless gossip and upstairs maid ass-grabbing. The dissolute life is over and you are “let go.” You are like a piece of what was called “the Empire.”
Let me begin anecdotally. I was present at the last Brexit before the imminent one. My sabbatical project in 1997 was to study the urban effects of the “handover” of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. It was a typical British form of colonial departure. Previously, in 1947, the home country was a wreck, a financial basket case from World War II. Britain could no longer afford Victoria’s “Jewel in the crown” which was now a squabbling, murderous Hindu/Muslim war zone too expensive to administer and exploit, and now being cranked up for independence by a seditious little rebel who made his own clothes. So, the British left at midnight and let them have at it. They murdered the shit out of each other [see 4.3]
The Britexiters left Hong Kong just as precipitously, a simmering identity-challenged flotsam floating in a sea that has since been sliding down an authoritarian chute as greasy as Xi Jinping’s pompadour. Of course, there were also Burma, Singapore, Malaya, Fiji, Tonga, Egypt, Iraq, whole chunks of East Africa, and Nigeria, British Guiana, The Bahamas, The Falklands, and the list goes on. The Queen’s face still appears on currency and coins in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Commonwealth countries, but the British Empire party is long over, and it may well be shrinking down into a nasty little enclave ruled by a political cohort of class-and race-obsessed bigots.
Almost two, decades earlier I had also lived briefly in England. In 1979 I was on sabbatical as well, doing research on a piece of Labour Party legislation called “the Community Land Act,” a rather socialistic scheme for what we economists referred to as “betterment recapture.” I was working with an interesting group at the Department of Environment (the equivalent of our Department of Housing and Urban Development), when, one day in April Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and the Community Land Act and my sabbatical became history two days later. We packed up and left for the continent, but not before I was left with the a few memories of our brief “Brittenure” relevant to the theme of this essay.
Never were there a people more obsessed with social class then the Brits. Try to find a play, novel, a movie, a conversation in a pub, that doesn’t at some point devolve into some tedious reference or allusion to social class.
Evan, the doorman at the expensive hotel on the North side of Hyde Park, drank those nasty little bottles of super-charged English ale they sell in pubs and that have names like “Red Devil.” He was drinking one when I first met him at a pub a couple of blocks from the flat. The first night I went there Evan insisted on buying me one of those nasty little ales, a hospitality by which he arrogated to himself the right to fulminate to anyone who would listen about the “Arab Invasion.”
Evan despised Arabs, and made no attempt to disguise it. As the doorman of a deluxe hotel he had plenty of contact with them. The pub was a couple of blocks away, a sanctuary for him, and a place for what he considered an appreciative audience for his rants.
“Bloody ragheads,” he called them, “comin’ over ‘ere and carryin’ on likes the own the bloody place!”
“More than acting like it,” I said, and told him about my landlord—the Sheik.
“Another bloody oil sheik. E’d still be ridin’ a camel if we didn’t find the oil for ‘em and then get it out of the bloody sand. An’ the bloody Turks would still control the lot if bloody Lawrence, the Arab buggerer, ‘adn’t run ‘em out of the desert. ‘Sod’ the lot of ‘em.”
To look at him, one wouldn’t take Evan for a doorman. He was dressed like a “black-coated” (the British version of “white-collar”) worker. He went to and from his job dressed that way, changing into his maroon doorman’s uniform and cap with the gray piping and gold braid from a locker at the hotel.
As with several other Englishmen I met at that time the “Arabian Invasion” was the most recent indignity to befall the erstwhile rulers of an “empire” on which “the sun never set.”* But now the empire was down to a few little scattered islands that still have money with the Queen’s face on it. One could hear the jeremiads of soap-box English chauvinists at Speaker’s Corner on Sunday mornings with some amusement, but they no doubt also spoke to the more serious feelings of man like Evan. What made it all the more difficult for Evan to bear was that the lavish expenditures of these parvenumulti-millionaire sheiks were difficult for him to resist.
“They got eight-year-old kids with pockets full of ten-quid notes, and e’vry time they pass through m’ door, or I whistle a taxi, they ‘and me one.
I quickly calculated that to be a $17.50 every time he opened a door; not bad if you can leave your pride in your locker along with your black coat and derby.
Evan couldn’t quite manage that little bit of self-deception, not without the assistance of those nasty little bottles of ale. It would have been one thing to have been “in service” to, as he put it, “higher-born fellow countrymen,” but eight-year-old oil princes handing him 10-pound notes like they were used Kleenix demeaned him.
“Money means nothin t’ these people,” he continued, while pouring another nasty ale, “because they don’t ‘ave t’ work for it.” Evan smiled his perfunctory smile. It looked more like a wince, exposing his Terry Thomas gap between his upper front incisors. He seemed to enjoy the vengeful recounting of the Arab guests’ excesses at the hotel.
“They arrive in a train of Rolls Royce cars. Not just families, entire clans, Christ, bloody villages full of ‘em. Sheiks, princes, assorted relatives, wives and servants.
“When I say wives, I mean bloody wives! Couldn’t tell you just how many, ‘cause they hire the ‘ole bloody floor of the ‘otel, ev’ry room, they does.”
He interrupted himself, broke into a new pack of Players cigarettes, offered one to me, and lit us both up with a gold butane lighter.
“Gift of one of the last sheiks,” he said, wince-smiling and tossing the lighter on the table with disdain for its value. Gave ‘em to all the staff like they was candy. Must ‘ave bought ‘em by the gross at bloody Harrods.
He took a gulp of ale.
“Not just the ‘ole bloody floor. Then we ‘ad to remove all the furniture from the rooms, ev’ry bloody bit of it, so as they could bring in all their bloody caravan stuff—pillows, rugs, an’ other stuff, all the way from Arabia. English stuff not good enough for ‘em, right?”
“Some people like to have familiar things around them when they’re away from home,” I offered lamely, stubbing out my cigarette.
“Not when it comes to our bloody English whiskey. Mohammadans ain’t supposed to use spirits, but they’d order a full bar to be brought up their floor ev’ry evenin’. Hotel charges ‘em nearly a thousand quid for it. Bloody rich hypocrites, they are!”
‘Mohammadans’ had a quaint, 19thCentury ring to it.
I had heard all of this before. Evan didn’t know that I’d been standing at the bar a couple of weeks earlier when he was telling the same story to a guy from Australia.
I was feeling a bit of a hypocrite myself. Not being much of a drinker (two or three pints of English ale being my limit) I went to the pub mainly to break my vow to my daughters to quit smoking. At the pub I could indulge my addiction and imply that my clothes smelled of smoke because pubs were notoriously smoky. The only person taken in by the deception was me.
So I knew when Evan was getting to his “closer” on the Arabs.
“Mind you, some of our chambermaids ‘ave dirty minds, but I don’t doubt what they ‘ave to say about the goin’s-on up on that floor.”
I wanted to hear this part of the story again. This was the part about how the maids on the Arab floor had “witnessed,” or just surmised, that each night the sheik had one of his wives tethered naked to some sort of wooden tripod for a little conjugal flogging with some sort of a flail. Evan was titillatingly vague at this point. The maids reported “moans” and “pleading sounds in Arabic,” so there was room for plenty of lascivious imagination to fill in the details. Was the flagellation really some symbolic foreplay and the “moans and pleadings” a turn-on for the old sheik? Was this some sadistic desert sex game? Or was the whole thing something the maids got from some sleazy London tabloid?
A less interesting hypothesis might be that the Sheik was punishing his wives for their excessive shopping. The maids also reported that the Arab women returned from forays to Harrods with their chauffeured limos loaded with expensive western-style clothing. They related that the women dressed themselves up and held little fashion shows in their rooms, but wore only traditional garb in public.
A few years later the venerable Harrod’s itself would be purchased by a Middle-Eastern businessman. The store was a longtime purveyor of goods to the royal family, a connection subsequently tinged with irony when the son of the new owner met his death along with Princess Diana in a Paris car crash.
But that would be years in the future. In the intervening years OPEC’s sovereignty over the world’s gas tanks would crumble, the oil sheik’s buying sprees would abate, and even a beloved western princess could be escorted by an Arab without much diminishing her public’s affection for her.
I soon grew weary of Evan’s guilt-induced anti-Arab jeremiads and took to sneaking cigarettes in other pubs. In London, one has a lot of choices.
After the experience with Evan I headed to other pubs for my thirst-quenching and socializing. I also enjoyed taking my lunches at pubs, particularly those that served “pub grub” like “bangers and chips,” “ploughmen’s plates,” and Cornish pasties, food that is now regarded as a slow form of suicide.
It was in an old pub nearby Trafalgar Square that I met Cecil, Thomas and Ned. They were “regulars.” I mean “regulars”; they’d been coming to this same pub since the 1930s. Pensioners for many years by now, they had spent their working life in government offices in nearby Whitehall.
Well, Ned didn’t. Ned was a dog; Thomas’ seeing-eye dog. Ned, The Dog, as he was called to distinguish him from Ned, The Bartender, was named after Edward I, the King who in 1291 erected the last of thirteen crosses that marked the stages in the funeral procession of his wife Eleanor to Westminster Abbey, giving the area near the pub the name, Charring Cross. Ned was always curled-up under the little table that held their mahogany-hued quarts of English ale.
Cecil and Thomas always sat on the ancient butt-worn dark wood benches on which I imagined people like Boswell and Dr. Johnson to once have parked. With the bare wood floor, greasy, smoke-tar encrusted beams, paisley velveteen wainscoting, and the light-restricting wavy window glass, the pub possessed all the dark, cozy, gritty elements I had seen in a dozen English period films.
I seated myself on the other side of the small fireplace that now contained a small electric space heater of little benefit. “Might you gentlemen happen to know the year this pub was built?” I inquired.
Cecil looked at me, but it was Thomas who responded.
“Seventeen-Aught-four, I believe,” he said, his eyes looking blankly into space. “Or could I be confusing it with the year of your birth, Cecil?” he quickly appended.
“You no doubt remember well the pree-decessor structure,” Cecil fired back at Thomas. Then, turning to me he added: “You see, there was a pub on this site that was burned in the Great Fire of 1666. This is the ‘new’ pub.”
“Now don’t be giving the Yank a history lesson,” Thomas inserted.
“He did ask a historical question,” said Cecil.
“Anhistorical question; don’t also be instructing him in improper grammar either.
I had overheard this sort of repartee between Cecil and Thomas on a couple of earlier occasions. They were the pub’s local authorities on English history and language, about which they mischievously liked to disagree.
I’d asked the question about the pub’s date chiefly to break the ice. Pubs can be genial places, but they also have almost a code governing discourse that steers away from personal data. In America the first two questions one is likely to ask or receive in making a new acquaintance are: “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” This might be the reason why it has always seemed to me that English pubs were far friendlier places than their counterpart, the American bar. Consider the fact that telling strangers your name and occupation in an American bar gives them at least two bases on which to punch you in the face. Your name is likely to betray an ethnic heritage that your newfound bar friend associates with the rape of his great-great grandmother ages ago in some faraway land that doesn’t even exist anymore. Tell him your occupation and you divulge something about your education, how much money you make, and whether you are, say, labor or management. All these are good reasons for him to view you with envy, competitiveness, or to see you as one of the privileged creeps who worked his father to death and keeps him hovering around the poverty level. In an American bar such information is less likely to be the foundation for an amicable conversation than a causas belli.
In an English pub one can go a long time without such inquires, if they ever arise. This is not to say that there aren’t brawls in English pubs, but they are more likely to be over politics or football (soccer) allegiances. These dangers can be avoided by simply walking into a pub and not proposing a toast to the IRA, and by making sure that the color of clothing you are wearing is not the same as the team that cost a bunch of drunken hooligans a week’s pay betting on theirteam.
Applying this knowledge in the pub I had remained reticent until I could fashion a suitable icebreaker question. But even after we began a discourse, while I knew their names by way of my eavesdropping, I didn’t use them. They seemed content to address me as ‘the Yank’.
In spite of these ‘formalities’ we had interesting discussions on several subjects, principally related to Cecil’s and Thomas’ areas of expertise: English history and language.
I had been patronizing this pub for a few weeks up to this point, ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher as the UK’s Prime Minister. Normally the election of Mrs. Thatcher would have been of little personal concern other than my customary liberal’s lament at furtherance of the rightward course of political leadership around the world. In this case, however, the “Iron Lady’s” accession to high office had pulled the rug from under my research sabbatical. The national development tax legislation I had been studying had been installed by the now defeated Labor government. Mrs. Thatcher took little more than a few days to send the tax law, and my research project, into the “dustbin”.
With nothing left to study I had to come up with another research agenda. I elected to examine the ways in which English painters had portrayed cities and urban conditions over the course of the past few centuries. It was a project that seemed safe from the new Prime Minister until she got around to clearing or closing the nation’s art museums. In the meantime I would be regularly visiting the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, England’s most significant museum of art. The pub was a couple of blocks off the square.
While Cecil and Thomas did wonder if the Tory victory might affect pensions and social programs they had seen enough governments come and go to view the matter without approval or alarm. Nevertheless, I avoided politics in the pub. Over the weeks I frequented the pub at lunchtime we spoke mostly about history, language, and why Young’s Ale was the equivalent of divine nectar. One’s allegiance to a particular brew was about a personal as discussion would get. Even the subject of why this particular “yank” was in London in the first placed was never raised.
Cecil and Thomas knew a great deal about English history, if they did at times find grounds for disagreement for the friendly rivalry. However, I was mostly interested in the city’s history, and particularly the period with which both of the old gents had direct experience: the Blitz.
The British seem to have an almost benign tone to terms they employ for the prejudices. I am addressed as a “Yank” in a way that combines a familiarity with an undertone of British superiority. “About ten minutes by foot,” an elderly, clerkish man informed me as to directions to a “tube”[Underground] station, adding with a grin, “about fifteen minutes for a ‘Yank’.” Even their racial and ethnic slurs seem less vicious than those of other nationalities. Argentines were referred to as the “Argies” in the Falklands War, creating the image that the British forces were subduing something like cuddly stuffed animals. Native Africans had been referred to as ‘fuzzy-wuzzys” during the colonial period. Not nice, but not nearly as nasty-sounding as the more universal epithet. Pakistanis became “Pakis,” but “wogs” is used by those of meaner intent.
On the other hand, it might well be that such “diminutives” are the way the British make themselves feel a bit larger and more formidable than their contemporary national size and geo-political influence would dictate. After all, the once great “British Empire,” or as one wag referred to its more ruthless methods of territorial acquisition, the “BrutishEmpire,” is today a mere sliver of its former self. And although they earned great admiration and respect for almost single-handedly saving the world from having to learn to speak German in the early 1940s, they came out of things so weakened that their imperial days were virtually brought to an end.
Indeed, that period, the time of London in the Blitz, the time of those grainy newsreels in the movies and Ed Murrow broadcasts during bomb raids, that was the time when the British earned my admiration, and was the period of London’s history that most fascinated me. I prowled the East End and docks areas, now undergoing “gentrification,” looking for clues of those nights when Heinkle 111s droned overhead disgorging incendiaries, and V-1s and V-2s plunged into the neighborhoods around St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the Underground I could imagine families sleeping out the raids on the platforms of Piccadilly or Oxford Circus stations. For me the train sheds at Victoria or Kings Cross were just a mnemonic click away from the throngs of troops saying their emotional goodbyes. I returned time an again to the Imperial War Museum and the restored aircraft of the Battle of Britain Museum on the site where Hawker Hurricanes and Spitfires scrambled into the air and later B-17s and Lancasters lumbered off with their bomb-loads for Germany. Despite the Wimpy restaurants, contemporary products on the neon signs at Piccadilly Circus, ugly Council Housing and the wretched architecture that so upsets Prince Charles, despite what remains of Roman, Elizabethan, Dickensian, or the other “Londons” of the past, for me, the most historically-evocative London is the London of the Blitz.
“Have you paid the War Rooms over in Whitehall a visit?” Cecil asked me. “That’s where you will find things pretty much as they were during the air raids.”
“Churchill’s desk and bed are there, just as they were when the war ended,” Thomas added. I wondered whether he had always been blind, or was speaking from having seen them himself.
“It’s hard for me to imagine what it must have been like in this area in the early 1940s,” I said.
“You ‘ad to mind your ‘P’s and Q’s’ in those days. We kept things as dark as possible, especially in this part of the city. Goering would’ve loved to put a few 500 ponders in the middle of Whitehall.”
“Better tell the Yank about the ‘P’s and Q’s’,” Thomas said, lifting his glass and pulling the mahogany-hued nectar through the thin layer of foam.
“In the first war there were some people who worked in the munitions factories who liked to relax in the pubs. Then was, of course, when pub hours were set to closing at eleven in the evening. But just to remind the workers returning to the late shifts in the munitions plants of the incompatibilities of alcohol and explosives, they used to put up signs in the pubs to ‘mind the Pints and Quarts’. Pints and Quarts, you see, “Ps and Q’s,” he said a trifle condescendingly. “It was also good advice for anyone, as one could have an injury bumping into things and tripping over things in the dark streets, especially with a bit fog in the bargain.”
Again I wondered if Thomas had been blind during the war, or maybe madeblind by the war. The blackouts would have had little effect on him.
“Maybe you would trip over some Yank givin’ it t’ one of our English girls right on the street,” Thomas put in. “They’d be shagging standin’ up, right in the doorways of closed shops, and up against buildings and trees. You Yanks call it givin’ a girl a ‘wall job’ and they’d less likely get pregnant doin’ it standin’ up,” so they said. He related this stern-faced and, with his use of the present tense, I felt like I was some B-17 waist gunner with a three-day erection and a three-day pass to go with it. By his tone and expression I might have just de-flowered his sister up against the side of Westminster Abbey.
“Love ‘n war, mate,” Cecil said, “ it was love ‘n war.”
In spite of the little jibes and put-downs I enjoyed my lunchtimes with Cecil and Thomas. We were almost approaching what, in British terms, could be regarded as “familiarity.”
Then it all came to rather an abrupt end.
It was after a couple of months of lunches and a good many “Ps and Qs” that in a conversation I casually mentioned “at my university” in reference to some point I was making. Cecil and Thomas both “looked” over at me as though I had spoken something insulting to the queen. I think even Ned roused to fix his gaze on me.
“Your university?” Cecil asked.
“Yes, in southern California, San Diego. I’m a professor there,” I replied innocently. I waited for the customary question: What do you teach? But there was just a slightly awkward silence.
Then Thomas asked, fixing his look to approximately where my voice was coming from, “Why, then, are you not drinking at your club?”
I laughed, saying that the grandson of an Italian farmer who went to America in steerage had no intentions of ever being a member of a club.
But things were never the same after that. The British class system had closed down like heavy curtain between me and my newfound pub drinking mates. There was a less familiar tone in their greetings and they were less forthcoming in conversation. I soon began taking my lunches at the Italian tavola caldacloser to the museum.
In the photograph I am standing on the steps of the Albert Memorial. Wearing sweats, a knit watch cap, sneakers and gloves, I look a bit like Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.” The snapshot caught the steam from my breath and the penumbra of condensation forming around me. It was damn cold in Hyde Park that morning. A few days earlier my daughters and I had made a snowman over by the little pet cemetery along Bayswater Road.
My wife, Patty, had taken the photo. An artist, she had come to the park with me around 6:30AM to shoot some photos for her work while I ran my three-mile route from Kensington Palace (most renowned of late for being the last residence of the beloved Princess Diana) in the West, to Wellington’s old residence (Apsley House) in the East, weaving around the Serpentine pond in the middle.
Running, or walking, through Hyde Park is a brief journey through English history. It was originally the hunting preserve of Henry VIII. James I opened it to the public and Queen Victoria opened it to “all respectably dressed persons” (in which this James was in clear violation) when she added Kensington Gardens to the park. Since then it has seen artillery emplacements in both the Civil Wars and WWII installed and removed, and has been decorated with statuary and monuments to England’s royalty, military heroes, and other builders of her empire.
We were living in Leinster Gardens Court, just north of the park in the Bayswater area. The daily run had become a virtual necessity if I was going to survive my sabbatical in London. It didn’t matter how cold it got in London that winter back in 1979, I was, so to speak, running for my life.
My life was being imperiled by English food.
Many people with functioning taste buds and gastro-intestinal tracts regard “English cuisine” as an oxymoron. Such people head directly for the nearest Indian, Chinese, Italian, or French restaurant at the first sign of hunger. These days I pretty much follow suit when I’m in the U.K.
But back in 1979, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, I got hooked on English food: English breakfasts, and Pub Grub, particularly fish and chips. One theory for this affliction is sort of “genetically” based. Being of Italo-Greek heritage I have hypothesized that my ancestors might have been in those Roman legions back in the first century B.C. that conquered “Brittania.” Many of them settled in the inclement little isle, intermarried with the locals (after the obligatory period of pillaging, raping, and other routines of the Pax Romana), and no doubt, began eating English breakfasts and other local delicacies.
Anyone who has survived an English Breakfast will recall that it probably consisted of the following: Bacon (though unlike American bacon, this is really more like boiled ham with slabs of translucent fat attached); Eggs, “runnyside-up,” and floating in the grease from the bacon; Hash Browns, cooked in . . . , you guessed it. And, to make sure that you are not missing your minimum lifetime requirement of fat and cholesterol, there are “bangers” (English sausages). Remember that no fat is permitted to be wasted, so the remaining fat is used to—are you ready for this?—deep-fry your toast! There might be a lonely half-stewed tomato as a gesture to one of the other food groups, or in some cases, and oily “kipper,” which is sort of an oversized smoked sardine. Wash it all down with tea with whole milk, and you are ready for a day in the “loos” of England’s tourist sites, or a test of Britain’s socialized medical system. You have just had perhaps the most mis-named meal in the history of cuisine: The HeartyEnglish Breakfast.
My theory also posits that the Romans left Britain after a few hundred years because their Mediterranean blood chemistry couldn’t handle English cooking. The Romans conquered only as far north on the island as Northumberland, up near Scotland, then sort of gave up on the place. Historians say it was the weather, or the ferocious local tribes, who sent the Romans back south. But you have to have tasted “haggis” to know the real reason they left. There’s a long wall in Northumberland that marks the limit of the Roman northward advance. It still has some Roman communal toilets that were built into it, not doubt mute testimony to the Romans’ aversion to the apt sounding concoction of inadequately-cooked, weird animal organs, wrapped in intestines. Could the name have been derived from “gag us?”
History does not record how many Romans were killed off by Hearty English breakfasts and haggis. If they had blood chemistry anything like this descendant, their serum blood cholesterol jumped up ten points per mouthful.
To make matters worse I also had this inexplicable urge for English lunches and dinners, too. Pub lunches of bangers, Scotch eggs (hardboiled eggs sealed in a deep-fried carapace of doughy substance), Cornish Pasties of chopped meat in deep-fried dough (not mammary decorations), were favorites. For dinners I gravitated to fish and chips, a meal that totally reverses the arterial benefits associated with eating fish, and an occasional visit to a “carvery,” where one comprehends fully the origin of the term “Beefeater” in a atmosphere that only slightly civilizes what used to be Mediaeval gluttonous revels at which greasy-bearded trenchers flung joints of meat across raucous castle dining halls.
Since those days of running for my life in Hyde Park I have taken more to heart the advice and admonitions of the Surgeon General than I have allowed my stomach to try to digest hearty English breakfasts. When I think back on it there is little wonder why I ended those morning runs in Hyde Park with that little victory dance on the steps of the Albert Memorial: I’d survived another day of English cuisine.
But before I had taken my little victory dance on the steps of the Albert Memorial I had been pushing my reluctant body through Thames-hydrated air that was “cold enough to freeze Tiny Tim’s crutches” as Thomas had remarked at the pub a few days earlier. By the time I reached the entrance to the tunnel that snakes along the side of the Serpentine Pond in the middle of the park frost from my exhalations condensed and froze on my beard. Steam smoldered from my sweatshirt like I was about to burst into flame. I was sucking air like a fighter jet. I must have looked and sounded like some surreal beast, bundled in my sweat suit, watch cap pulled down to my frost-encrusted eyebrows, as I entered the dark opening of the tunnel.
The tunnel has a slight curve, and midway through, at six in the morning there is almost no light. This morning I was brought up short a few meters in by a strange sound, and odd metallic, clanking sound, coming from up ahead, around the curve and out of sight.
I stopped, jogging in place, allowing my eyes to adjust more to the low light, and lifting my cap off my ears to take in more sound. It had occurred to me on earlier runs that this place, at such an early hour, would be a good place for a mugging, or worse. Now the clanking was combined with a squeaking metallic sound. I considered turning around and not using the tunnel today. But I was also curious.
Slightly picking up my pace, and holding my breath so I could hear better I pushed on forward. The clanking grew louder, reverberating off the stone tunnel walls.
I was perhaps thirty meters away from its source when the light from the far opening silhouetted a figure, moving awkwardly, and slowly in the direction I was headed. The clanking and squeaking of metal grew louder.
When I got closer I could scarcely believe that the cold and A knight in a full suit of armor, ambling along using a halberd as a walking stick.
I pulled up again, jogging in pace that allowed me to maintain distance and collect my wits. I considered again turning about face and getting out of the tunnel. That halberd was a vicious weapon.
But I doubted that the knight even knew I was behind him, with all the clanking and squeaking of his armor, and his head in a full metal helmet. My heart was beating faster, but my wind had returned. I decided I would put on a sprint and blow by him at speed before he even knew I was there.
I was only a few feet beyond the knight when I heard someone yell: “You there, runner . . .” It was coming from a small group up ahead that I had not seen because of the curve of the tunnel, a camera crew, walking backwards.
“You there, runner, stop a moment, please,” someone called. I pulled up, jogging in place. “Would you mind just jogging alongside sir knight a bit while we get a shot of you both together.” The knight was clanking his way up behind me, but my heart already told me that my fear and flight instincts had abated. The crew was about ten meters ahead of us.
“Sure, OK,” I said.
Another voice asked, “Are you a ‘Yank’?”
“Good.” But I didn’t know what ‘good’ meant.
Now the knight and I were side by side. In the better light I could see that he wore a genuine suit of armor. His faceplate was pulled up, but I could only see his eyes. The crew had now come closer and the soundman held a short boom mike above our heads.
As though on a rehearsed cue the knight said: “What sort of damn fool yank is out here on a freezing morning running about in his underwear?” I could see the frost on his faceplate, and the voice had a noticeable shiver in it. But, of course, it was me, a yank, who was the damn fool to be out here, not an Englishman going hypothermic in a metal suit.
As I jogged alongside I learned that ‘sir knight’ was “on a crusade,” a “circumnavigation” of the Serpentine in armor, attended by a television crew, to draw attention to the cruelty of “canning” in English schools.
“Canning!? You mean like in Dickens . . . ?” I asked.
“Taking a switch to a lad’s ahssfor misbehavior,” the knight finished my thought. I had no idea such practices still existed.
“It’s a good cause, but your ass won’t be able to feel anything by the time you’re out of that armor.” I said. But he ignored the riposte.
“We’ve got enough,” the director said, “you can be on your way, yank. Look for yourself and sir knight on the news this evening.”
Dismissed again, I broke into a stride. Behind me I heard the knight shout: “Ban the cane! Ban the cane!”
I picked up my pace, feeling a second wind. The damp morning air wasn’t as biting as I rounded the end of the Serpentine and headed towards Wellington’s house. I felt better. Caning? In 1979! We “yanks” didn’t seem like such “uncivilized” former colonists after all.
Thus, it seemed that in almost every encounter I had with these class obsessed Brits I was anxious to perform what I suppose would be called today, a Yanxit. The Euro Union might be getting the better part of this deal.
©2019, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 02.10.2019)
*These stories come from my book:
*Almost twenty years later I would be watching the British Empire’s sun set a bit further while on sabbatical in Hong Kong in 1997, where I was studying the effects of its “handover” to PR China on July 1 of that year.