Bowler hats and brollies, cricket on the village green, unceasing rain and wind, motionless sentries guarding a monarch, fish and chips with beer for an evening meal.
We’ve all heard descriptions of the Brits. A race of sheepherders inhabiting a small, foggy island off the coast of Gaul, Julius Caesar called them. Later amended by Napoleon to an even more contemptuous “nation of shopkeepers.”
Well, they are still there. England is still above water. And some of the stereotypes are almost true – as I discovered on a recent visit to my homeland after an absence of 15 years or so.
Some of the characteristics remain endearing however hard a foreigner may poke fun at them. Comes to mind the sharp crack of a cricket bat on a languid summer afternoon and the slow, almost ritual movements of white-clad players silhouetted against emerald green grass. It’s not so fast and energetic a game as American baseball but is similar in its subtlety. The Aussie pro cricketers were in town while I was there and playing at Twickenham. TV announcers reported the scores daily right after the figures for more popular soccer.
Tea and especially afternoon tea remains a national habit that I really favor. The rattle of the tea trolley cuts across all social classes. Served anywhere from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. preferably with scones – buttered of course – it briefly halts all work from offices to construction sites to households and provides a welcome break in a long afternoon.
“England’s greatest contribution to civilization,” the American villain Drax calls it in the James Bond movie Goldfinger as he serves his English visitor. But I don’t know whether it would be so popular in workaholic America.
While making daily excursions for sightseeing with my sister and her husband, I began to notice our trips were always tailored to pause about 3 p.m. and that every site from castle to college to cathedral offered an efficient and well patronized tea shop.
Anyone visiting that wet and windy isle has to mention the weather. After all it’s the opening gambit of most conversations whether between friends or strangers. Even if the sun is blazing down at the time, it’s safe to say “looks like it’s going to rain” because it probably will, really soon. The main characteristic of the weather is its changeability. One moment there’s nothing but pretty, white, cumulus clouds floating in a sky as blue as those flowers called forget-me-nots. The next minute lowering grey masses have hidden the sun and it’s starting to rain. No need to panic, it’s only a gentle drizzle, at least in summer and will be over before you can pop open your umbrella.
Talking about brollies, I was shocked the first time my sister shoved this contraption at a hardy, red blooded male like me. But I never argue with my sister and found it can save you a soaking once you learn to avoid collision with other brollies on a crowded sidewalk.
Childhood memories include huddling sodden and frozen in open-sided bus shelters while the rain blew sideways. But I was lucky to hit on almost perfect weather for my visit. This year after disastrous floods in 2012, England has enjoyed the sunniest and warmest summer in many years.
I rediscovered the light. While England’s more northern latitude brings harsher weather, it also brings softer light especially going into fall. Seeing improves in the gentle, slanting light. You can stop squinting against the glare of a southern sun. Eyes open fully. You can better discern shapes and distances. Perspective improves and colors become richer.
I never did like the intimidating anonymity of sunglasses as worn by Los Angeles cops and gangsters.
One overwhelming impression of England is the greenness and lushness of the countryside. They say there are 50 shades of green in Ireland. There cannot be much fewer in England. The ground is often wet underfoot. Vegetation is lush. Grass, trees and shrubs grow thick and fast and line the roads so close that on many country roads the trees arch overhead and produce long tunnels of dappled shade.
“Put up your swords or the dew will rust them,” as Shakespeare said. Bring your tools inside at night or they will be ruined by morning, my father taught me years ago.
This landscape is a far cry from California’s Central Valley which was converted from desert land and still struggles for water year after year.
Given this green and pleasant land, the Brits have protected and preserved it with strict laws on land planning. Since World War II when the devastation left by bombing required much rebuilding, the government has required “green belts” to preserve the countryside, protect arable lands and ensure towns do not spread outwards along the roads to merge into neighbors and lose their identity.
Government authorities enforce these regulations despite the protests of land developers – and it works. Leaving a community by road or rail, you can discern to within a hundred yards where the town ends and countryside begins. Quite suddenly you pass from houses, factories and offices into open fields and arable lands complete with cows and sheep, scattered farmhouses and a clear view to the hills.
I know communities like Riverbank and Oakdale and Escalon have tried to control growth and preserve farmland with green belts. But the effect here is not so obvious as in a country that is more crowded and the inhabitants must practice politeness and cooperation or chaos will ensue.
You will want to know about the Queen. Well, I had no appointment and didn’t get to meet her. Seems she was not at her London residence in Buckingham Palace. It was the grouse shooting season and she was on vacation at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
I did catch glimpses on television, however, of Princess Kate and husband Prince William displaying their newborn baby to enthusiastic crowds outside a London hospital. But you too probably caught that on television. The English appear to treat their royalty with the same adulation that Americans reserve for Hollywood movie stars – hopefully with a more genuine affection and respect.
As for language, nobody accused me of having an American accent. But then I spent most of my time in cosmopolitan Oxford which is full of overseas visitors and foreign accents especially in summer. I had some difficulty at first in understanding the natives but was catching on by the time I left.
Those Brits sure talk funny.
John Branch is a retired former staff member for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News and The Escalon Times. He continues to contribute occasional columns.