“Half memoir, half travel, A Yank Back to England...is an absolutely wonderful book, not only about going home again but also about love and family and tradition and the passage of the years.” —Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic (Washington Post) To see the entire quote, click here.
In America, Thanksgiving focuses on family and turkey. In England, we didn’t have Thanksgiving; but in my family, all get-togethers focused on drinking. Just before emigrating to the States, I organized a farewell party. My mum and all her sisters, Vi, Flo, Mary, and May showed up armed with bottles of gin. Way past midnight, the five ladies were dead drunk—they sang and swayed their arms, laughed and cried, but they could not move. I made several phone calls and their sons, the cousins I had not seen in years, arrived, much later, to winkle their respective mothers out of my flat. Drinks parties in my extended family went on and on. Nobody ever left until the booze ran out. And, even then, one relative always had the bright idea of making tea and cheese sandwiches to ‘soak up’ the gin the old girls had consumed.
We headed first for Pangbourne, home of Kenneth Graham and his Wind in the Willows. We could not really gain access to the river at Pangbourne, there was no walkway. And why should there be? The old market town had grown into a bedroom suburb of London, with lots of houses, lots of shops, and not much in the way of charm. Not that I expected to see Mister Toad sauntering about or stealing motor cars but I had expected a much smaller place, more tranquil, even pastoral. But it was not to be.
Over breakfast, Frances and I discussed the day’s itinerary. Our plan was to zigzag the Thames Valley, crossing the river at various leafy intersections and immersing ourselves in literary landmarks and points of interest that dotted this area. For once, the itinerary had been my idea, but Frances was agreeable and, with the weather still sunny, the views would at least be pretty. Frances looked up suddenly and realized Kate was gone. The French doors were open, we thought of the pond. Of Kate’s attraction to goldfish. But she had simply sat down at another table, adopted a family in another part of the dining room. When we came up to her, our toddler was happily sucking on her bottle in the company of her two new ‘brothers.’ Oddly, the father just carried on reading his newspaper as if nothing untoward had happened, and the mother didn’t seem to mind either.
Nestled in the curve of the Thames, at its prettiest and most leafiest, Windsor is really three towns in one. The first clings and cowers within the mighty shadow of Windsor Castle, suitably deferential. Beyond this is a rather ordinary town that, apart from a large army barracks, looks like any other middle class suburban town in England aspiring to be something it’s not. The third part is Eton, which is not really Windsor at all but, rather, a small village just across the Thames on the opposite bank. Eton is not much more than a one street village but it is very old, pleasantly genteel, and subdued. With three very different towns to choose from, we had unknowingly booked a hotel in Windsor’s boring bit.
I grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge and two glasses. “Is that white wine?” asked Jessie. “Yes, Mum,” I said, grabbing another glass. Sometimes I could read my parents quite well. “I prefer a drop of red, meself. But if that’s all you have, I’ll have that.” “Thank you, Mum.” “Don’t want to cause trouble. Well, down the hatch then!” And down the hatch it went.
As the trains would slowly pull out of London, I saw the soiled backsides of buildings, embankment walls, and nondescript bridges with sidings sprouting clumps of grass and weeds beneath dilapidated, rusting undercarriages. The train moved farther and the concrete-and-brick gullies and gorges and tiny road tunnels gave way to residential back gardens. The odd signal box. Then more houses, walls of bricks, then wooden posts. The city was being stretched out like toffee, thinner and thinner, first translucent, then quite transparent, then suddenly disappearing altogether. The train would break free and there were green embankments on either side and nothing much else. The stagnant urban life had been banished in a flash, reappearing periodically in gray-brown blurs as the train hurtled through small village stations and county towns.
I found it strange to travel by car to a coastal region in England. Holiday trips with my parents, Jessie and Lew, always started at one of London’s main-line terminus stations, usually Victoria for the South Coast or Paddington for the West Country. As I drove I remembered those large, glass-covered edifices, filthy from the soot of train smoke built up over the great age of steam, a gummy brown legacy of time gone by. When I was a kid steam trains were still in service and I could easily recall the loud engine noise as they scudded to a halt, wheezing smoking, billowing steam and sounding like metallic raspberries. But it was the smell I remembered most, the smell of grease, oil, and coal. These were the ingredients that fueled adventures far from my home in Dagenham.
Lew made for the Jack Daniels. I got the glasses. I wanted to ask him how Mum was doing, how he was coping, but Lew had other things on his mind. “I’m going to be eighty-seven this year,” he said. “Good for you,” I said cheerfully. “Let me take the weight off me plates of meat.” He lowered himself gently into a chair. “Cheers,” I said handing him a glass. “I haven’t got much longer, son,” Lew sounded grave. “I wouldn’t say that, Dad. You’ve quit smoking. You’re still getting about, you go up the top. You get the food in. Get the newspaper. Put your bets on.” “It’s getting harder. A lot harder.” “You can get some help. Have you thought about that? Take taxis.” “Your mother won’t stand for that.” He sniffed his drink, then downed it in one gulp. He let out a long, raspy breath and smiled a toothless grin. “Where are your teeth?” I asked. “In my pocket.” “Really?” “They’re alright, I wrapped them in me ‘ankerchief, now don’t worry about that. ” “Well, that’s one way of keeping them clean, Dad.” Ghrrr.
“This is funny,” said Frances, opening and closing drawers in the kitchen. “We get six of everything. Look!” She was right. Knives, forks plates, glasses, cups. Six of everything. Except for electrical sockets. In the kitchen, five plugs were fitted together like large bits of Lego, clustered around just one outlet in the wall. Six towels. Then we saw six bars of soap. When we discovered the stock of toilet rolls, we stopped counting.
The road became dense with cars, trucks, buses, vans, and motorized scooters that zigzagged around the massed traffic like demented pilot fish that had lost their way. Apart from intermittent stop signs, everything seemed to be speeding up. Everything, that is, except my reactions. I was feeling tired. Grimy. Horrid. And dreading where I was going. What had I been thinking? Why, oh why, was I planning to dwell in the damp valleys of East Anglia and not, say, in the sun-drenched hill towns of Tuscany? Oh, Christ. I was heading for ten days of gloom and doom.
It was time for lunch. Unfortunately, motoring around busy one way streets looking for pleasant eateries was not practical. Our little troupe could not walk very far or very quickly. So we entered the first place we came upon. The cafe had grease stains on the wall, the air felt heavy, and I felt grimy the moment we sat down. The English breakfast we ordered was quite revolting, with a moat of congealing fat around the edge of the plate that looked like an ice rink. Fortunately, Mum assured us the heat of the tea we were drinking would melt the fat and make it disappear.
Standing, from L to R: Lew (Dad), Frances (Prodigal Wife), Denis (The Prodigal Tourist), and Jessie (Mum). Floating: Kate (Prodigal Daughter).
About this blog
You are reading random vignettes, deleted scenes, and other extras from and about my book, A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns. Enjoy, let me know what you think, ask questions, and thanks for your support! Cheers, The Prodigal Tourist
Years ago I shed my Cockney accent and left London's blighted East End for America. Since then, I’ve only returned to see my increasingly cantankerous parents and assorted relatives. Until my American wife comes along. She wants to tour, see the sights. No thank you. It’s not for me. But she insists, and I become a reluctant tourist in my former homeland.