I just returned from England—you know the country we rebelled from over 200 years ago—and they seem to like us. Every time I spoke, my accent gave me away. “Where are you from in America?” they would ask.
“Oh, I want to go to San Francisco, I’ve always wanted to see it.” They would tell me about the time they came to America and how they loved it here. The waitresses and shopkeepers would sweetly tease me about the American terms I used and I soon got used to “lift” instead of “elevator,” “boot” instead of “trunk,” “queue” instead of “line.” It amazed me how friendly everyone was, looking me in the eye as I ordered my tea, asking how my day was as if they really cared. Lovely.
London was all decked out with flags celebrating the 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II, and anticipating the Olympics in a couple of weeks. The city was vibrant with sun, leafy green trees, cute red double decker buses, polished statues of Victoria, and lots of smiling tourists and Londoners, all polite and queuing like they are supposed to.
I spend time in the far past of history, reading a book on life in 14th century England—that was rough living—people were starving, and society was built on a slave system. At the exhibit at the British library “Writing Britain,” I viewed 1,000 years of literature; saw original manuscripts of Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily. No edits on the pages — just a beautiful flowing hand written by ink and quill. The exhibit displayed many other author’s original works—which makes you believe in editing. The pages were crossed out and scrawled on by hand, with margin notes. If George Orwell, JRR Tolkein, John Lennon, JK Rowling, and Charles Dickens need to edit to create their literature, then we writers need to be okay with it too! A high point: listening to John Lennon sing “In My Life” while looking at his original verses, captured while he was on a bus from his home town to Liverpool. Yes, it’s an autobiographical song, as is Penny Lane, scribbled on the same piece of paper.
History is alive in England, in St. Paul’s Cathedral which miraculously escaped the huge fire during WWII that destroyed the City of London, is rising from the smoke in the famous photograph that assured London that at least something of value remained—one of the most beautiful cathedrals ever built.
I heard Evensong there, the voices lifted to the huge dome, gilded angels everywhere in this amazing church designed by Christopher Wren. People from all over the world visit a place that has been a sacred place for 1400 years. There’s Stonehenge and its mysteries in the Salisbury plains; everywhere there are stones, rocks, ruins, castles–history in the landscape.
Everywhere there is a story…the written and unwritten history of the land and the people, even in the Hard Rock Café where you can enjoy American hamburgers and an English pint all at once, to the rock tunes of the last 40 years. Nelson’s column at Trafalgar Square, hundreds of years of paintings in the National Gallery. Big Ben booming out the quarter hours while the Thames, witness to all the changes of the people, flows on silently, bearing its secrets.
It was a quintessential England summer day when I went to Kent to see Sissinghurst, a castle purchased by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson where they laid out the famous white garden. It was unfortunately closed that day, but there was a beautiful emerald green world, an Elizabethan house, gardens and trees graceful and green, green, green. I wandered in Scotney Castle, built in the 1300s as a defense against the French, and then a family home for centuries. A new home was built just above the castle which is picturesque and tucked amidst the trees.
History, as I said was everywhere. While today Americans celebrate our independence, but in England, I saw a lot of love for Americans. I guess they have forgiven us. History lives and is trumped by the Present. Happy 4th!