“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.
Just outside the train station, buskers were performing. A string quartet played patriotic sea shanties. One white-faced clown made Kate a balloon animal. I gave her a coin to give him, and he gravely asked if she had a chocolate coin instead. Kate’s face brightened, for there, tucked in a pouch in the back of her stroller, were a few chocolate coins covered in gold foil. I’m sure the clown regretted his moment of whimsy, for his professional smile cracked when presented with golden payment for his modeled balloon.
While we cleared, Jessie and Lew took Kate and settled into the lounge with a glass of cheer. By the time we joined them, Lew was serenading his granddaughter with great verve. “Oh, beautiful Katie, Oh, beautiful Katie, "You’re the only little girl that we adore...” Then Jessie joined in. “And when the moon shines over the mountain, “We’ll be waiting for you at the k-k-k-k-k-k-kitchen door!” My first reaction was, oh God, they’re choking. Then they both started laughing, gently prodding Kate in the ribs as if she were a giggly pin cushion. “You haven’t swallowed your teeth, have you, Dad?” “Naaaw, I’ve got ‘em right here!” He took his teeth out of his trouser pocket, wrapped in a handkerchief. “I ‘ad ‘em in at dinner – gives me gums a rest.” “Lovely!” I said laughingly. “Just lovely—”
We've started scanning in Frances' photos from our trips to England and we need help--we don't remember where we saw this beautiful, double-spired church! We found it among the Rattlesden photos, so we're thinking East Anglia. Can you help? Please leave a comment or email me. Thanks in advance!
I opened the door to a large man, about forty, graying temples, somewhat overweight, with a friendly face. Frances must be right: an off-duty repairman. “Denis?” he asked. “Yes! Good. Well. Come in, come in,” I said, eagerly, then led him to the padlocked phone. “There it is.” “Right – the phone? On the blink, is it—?” “Totally dead.” “Don’t see many like this anymore—” He picked up the phone and examined it. The guy seemed to know what he was doing, so I left him alone and moved back to the kitchen. Frances was still standing in the back doorway, looking down the street. “Denis, look,” she said, calling me over. “That car there.” I looked at the parked car, saw two women, shrugged, and turned back. “Look, the older woman. She looks just like your Aunt Flo.” I went outside for a better look. I saw a youngish woman and a stately, older woman. I walked slowly towards them. The older woman started laughing and waving at me. She did look vaguely familiar. “Oh, my God. Aunt Mary!” Grinning, I waved back, then quickly legged it back into the house. The large guy with the friendly face was still holding the phone. “Sorry, mate, but this phone is buggered!” “Are you my cousin Ken? “Kevin,” he said, rather casually. “I thought you’d twig it eventually!”
After a late start, we finished unpacking and sat down with a cup of coffee. Suddenly, around eleven, “Colonel Bogie” blared throughout the kitchen. Normally whistled, the World War Two ditty seemed to be playing on a carillon of bells built into the walls or ceiling of the house. At first, we thought it was an alarm. We checked the radio, the TV, the kettle, the oven, the phone – still dead – then we looked at each other. The door. “Can’t be the doorbell,” I said, firmly. “It’s too much.” The ghastly tune rang out again. This time I saw a shape through the fuzzy glass door at the back of the house. “Oh, God! It is the doorbell! It’s them!” I was near to panic. “It can’t be,” said Frances, with some certainty. “They won’t be here before noon. Relax.” “The telephone repairman? They said they were getting someone in.” I smiled. “Wouldn’t that be something!” Frances sounded impressed. “And on a Sunday!”
As we ambled back across the wide promenade, Kate ran ahead to look at the sea. Frances found a plaque marking the spot where Julius Caesar first came ashore fifty odd years before the birth of Christ. “At least he landed in a better part of Deal than we did.” I sounded sour, unconcerned with historical significance. We had been promised a coastguard’s cottage, and a coastguard might have lived in our cottage at one time, but there were no nautical knickknacks or seafaring foolery at our end of town. “Oh, please, cheer up.” Frances was delighted to find the plaque. Caesar and Rome had supplanted Merlin and Camelot in her literary interests, a case of might over magic. “Only kidding. Only kidding.” I shrugged and looked up at the sky. Frances shot me a glance with the hint of a smile. “And don’t make it rain!” “Who, me?” I smiled back. “Wouldn’t dream of it!”
What a lovely surprise we had this morning to find that Carol at the Writer's Porch had given our blog this fabulous award—our first! It means a lot to know she enjoys our lighthearted journal and journeys back to Blighty as much as we enjoy stretching out on her porch at the end of a day of traveling! Visit Carol at http://thewritersporch.blogspot.com and see what we mean.
Now, apparently, the award has a few strings attached, and here they are:
You must pass it on to 5 other Fabulous bloggers in a post.
You must include the person who gave the award to you and a link back to their blog.
You must list 5 of your Fabulous Addictions in the post.
You must copy and post these rules in the post.
So here are 5 of my Fabulous Addictions: Travel, writing, working from home, my wonderful family, and Kate's softball games (a new discovery for me!). And here are 5 Fabulous bloggers you should all visit:
Willow at http://willowmanor.blogspot.com because there's always something new and different waiting there (plus, we covet your stone house!);
Weenie Elise at http://odetomrsbeeton.blogspot.com for your valiant efforts to restore Britain's culinary heritage;
Trixie at http://plaidraincoat.blogspot.com because we so enjoy following your triumphs and travails;
Melissa at http://smittenbybritain.com because your blog is always so cheerful (plus, you always have something nice to say about England!);
Victoria at http://vintagetea.blogspot.com -- to an Essex lass from an old Essex boy; and
Amy at amysaysmeh.blogspot.com because we just love your sense of humor.
Oops, that's six! Oh well, there it is. We love your blogs! (Right click the Award and save to your computer and post it on your blog.)
Thanks again, Carol! We'll keep an eye out for you on the porch--maybe we'll spot Hemingway!
Club Row was a place to itself. Located just out of the stream of pedestrian traffic that either spilled out to Liverpool Street and Bishopsgate, or double-backed up to Aldgate. When I was a kid, Club Row was derelict, the enduring result of bomb damage from the London Blitz. But on Sundays, this empty space filled up with vendors. There were birds for sale, exotic parakeets, gaudy parrots, tiny songbirds, and hundreds of racing pigeons warbling with discontent, stacked up, cage upon cage, way beyond my gaze. Bordered with old warehouse buildings, ancient offices, and clothing sweatshops, Club Row also housed a variety of stores at street level, open on Sunday because it was an old Jewish neighborhood. I particularly loved the bakeries, with their weirdly shaped loaves, twisted and plaited and covered with what I thought was bird seed. And rolls with holes, threaded onto long sticks! Amazing. No bread was sliced, or pre-wrapped in printed waxed paper. Fresh. Lew once bought us a bag of small, hot breads that were soft on the inside and crusty on the outside. Steam filled the bag and a yeasty, sweet aroma filled the air. My first bagels. What a treat. We ate most of them as we mooched around, looking at budgies and songbirds and kittens and puppies. For a few hours, I had become a part of Lew’s polyglot, unpredictable, and distant past.
I spent a long and languid weekend in the wise, compassionate, and tremendously funny company of an old friend. I’ve just finished reading Victor Spinetti’s Up Front! As I turned the pages of this terrific (and quite salty) autobiography, I recalled many of the stories Victor used to tell about the famous folk who became his friends—the Beatles, of course, but also Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Marlene Dietrich, Sean Connery, just for starters. And I remembered with great pleasure how he used to perform those outrageous vignettes with devastatingly spot-on impersonations! Reading about Joan Littlewood was a treat for me. She was my theatre hero (Oh, What a Lovely War! A Taste of Honey). Victor kindly arranged for me to meet her. My writing mentor, American director Cy Endfield, insisted on coming along too. He hadn’t seen Joan in years. He told me, it was Joan, Victor, and the rest of Theatre Workshop who were creating a relevance in theatre when he first came to Britain in the Fifties, something modern theatre still strives for today but rarely achieves. But the book is much more than just a reiteration of show biz stories. I got to know the young Victor. The racism he experienced, the kindness he was shown, the harshness of life in the Welsh valleys and the sheer bloody mindedness he dealt with so very close to home. Like Up Front, Victor is, and always has been, refreshingly real. I know that for a fact. He never played “the star” when we worked together many years ago. I am convinced anyone reading Up Front will feel they are not just reading a smashing book but making a wonderful (though outrageous) friend in the process. For me, I feel I have rekindled a friendship. I am so glad Victor wrote the book. So pleased to have read it. So chuffed to have spent so much time in an old friend’s great company, once again. Victor, it was a wonderful weekend!
We parked and set off on foot, in search of that fabled glade. The Ashdown was not just a forest of trees, it was a wild mix of sandstone ridges, gullies, cracked stone openings, and scrubby moorland. The upward path was banked by trees and covered in soft golden fern and leaf mold. After about fifteen minutes, the path opened to a clearing surrounded by huge boulders, like cliffs squeezed together on a coastline. Below the rocks we saw the smooth sandy bottom, Roo’s sandpit. We walked around the dense woodland and rocky outcrop and found a way down. Frances did not share our enthusiasm for things Pooh, but she did appreciate areas of natural beauty, and this certainly was one. I looked around and smiled. Silence. It was so still. Kate, of course, was far too busy playing in the sand to get caught up in my literary imaginings. Frances rolled her eyes. After a bit, we carried on. Hiking upwards through grasses and tiny dune-like ridges of packed sand, we finally made it to the top of the hill. Before us was a vast patchwork of rocky promontories, sandy clearings, and ancient moorland with exposed tree roots sprawling into dark green forest. Atop the hillside, I was unaware of anything other than the quiet magic of the place, a strange hodgepodge of wild, silent beauty bordered by sprawling towns, villages with cricket greens, and wealthy suburban spurs curving back as far as London. Somewhere in the Ashdown Forest was a statue of Winnie the Pooh. We never found it, but we did find a plaque dedicated to A. A. Milne, tucked away in a semi-circle of trees, almost hidden, overshadowed by the forest he immortalized, those acres of woods he planted in the imagination of so many.
Quite suddenly a huge group of Japanese tourists descended on Pooh Corner and began photographing one another. We were not used to coachloads of visitors. Most places we had discovered on our travels tended to be off the beaten track. Not that place. We grabbed our souvenirs and fled. We turned and fled, driving up the wooded hill. We found a clearing, discreetly designated for cars and signposted to the various Pooh Bear sights. The Japanese were right behind us, heading en masse for Pooh Sticks Bridge, so we decided to continue onward for the Hundred Acre Wood and Roo’s Sandpit – the Enchanted Place!
Hartfield was on the bottom edge of Ashdown Forest, a small, pretty village with a teashop, a couple of pubs, and a few stores, one of which had been renamed Pooh Corner. The very same village shop where A. A. Milne’s son, the real-life Christopher Robin, once got his weekly ration of sweets and candies. Every bit of available space in the tiny shop was devoted to Pooh and his pals. Everything. From doorstops to gob stoppers, everything was emblazoned with the bear. Even so, the shop had retained its charm and I could easily imagine Milne and his son ambling in from their summer home, just a little way up the hill.
“Kate will love it. I will love it! We can see the actual locations she has read about!” Truth be told, Winnie the Pooh was an adult enthusiasm I had come to recently, with my daughter. As a boy, I knew nothing of Christopher Robin or, for that matter, the Railway Children, or Billy Bunter or the Famous Five, or Just William, or Narnia, or Mister Toad and the other river bankers. In fact, I hardly knew any children’s books at all. My parents bought me toys and I had lots of stuffed animals, but books rarely made it onto my list. After baby books, I didn’t know interesting kids books existed and I don’t think my parents did either. Yet all the books I read to Kate were in the library at my old school, and at the children’s public library in Dagenham. All I needed was a library card. And to get a library card, all I had to do was recite the alphabet. Easy peasy. Anyone could do that. Anyone, that is, except me. Absurdly, I always fumbled the test. The annoying thing was, by the time I was seven, I could read quite well but still could not memorize the alphabet. I took the test every other week, and every other week I failed. Finally it happened. Despite a few pauses and the odd stutter or two, I made it through to zed and got my library card. I was ten years old by then, and too old for whimsical tales of river creatures and bears with a fondness for hunny. So, along with Kate, I had recently discovered a pantheon of children’s literature. I loved those stories as much as she did. And now, on a sunny Sunday in June, we had a chance to visit Pooh Corner, find the Enchanted Place. Quite impossible to pass up.
As we had not arrived until late afternoon, we decided to eat in the mansion’s original dining room. I had a very succulent loin of lamb, Frances had a tenderloin of pork, and most importantly, Kate had a hamburger, which made her very happy, indeed. After dinner, we took the remains of our wine and sat out on the patio and watched the sun make its languid descent beyond the mottled emerald line of box and oak.
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.