I know this is true right down to the fiber of my being.
I will be sophisticated, I will look good in suits, I will enjoy tea and crumpets, I will understand the point of Cricket, and I will have an accent that will add to my wit, not diminish it in the least.
I grew up with a love of the country and when I got married it was only natural that I married a woman whose family is British. Sadly, my wife doesn’t have the accent (she was the only member of the family born in the states), but she still shows hints of it; she perfectly pronounces all of her words and doesn’t have, what I like to think of as the “Michigan slur” that haunts me and many others in my state. (When I was in grad school in Los Angeles you have no idea how many times I was asked to repeat something because of that slur.)
Shirts with the Union Jack, Beatles’ posters on my walls, this adoration for England stems from music to history to, most importantly, books.
Yes, all cultures have great writers to point to, but when you speak of British writers you enter the land of myths and legends for me. These are my Herculeses, my Paul Bunyans.
From Jane Austen’s little villages to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s shadowy moors to Charles Dickens’ cobblestone and dirty London streets, they each had a hand in creating the image that stuck with me of merry ol’ England. Every major experience I had growing up as a reader involved a British writer, starting with reading Winnie-the-Pooh with my mom (I remember us both laughing hysterically when Piglet was trying to help Pooh capture a Heffalump) through Roald Dahl and then the fantasy realms of Tolkien and Lewis that took my breath away.
And don’t forget, England gave us Shakespeare.
Hamlet and Me
When I was in my early 20’s, I tried to memorize all of Hamlet.
It was such a great and simple plan!
I had a crappy summer job collecting phone cables for the local phone company. Which means I went from new house to new house, picking up the loose cables on people’s lawn after their new cables were buried. Not exactly a job for a smartypants in college, but it paid the bills.
Strangely, in many ways I loved this summer job.
- I was by myself.
- I could get it all done in a few hours, having the rest of the time to drive home to my parents’ house to swim in the pool (yes, I did do that almost every day).
- I was in charge of my own entertainment.
Number three was a big deal for me. When I was getting first trained by the phone company (yes, they had me drive with someone else for two weeks, leaning how to pick up these spare cables if you can believe it), I was forced by the trainer to listen to Rush Limbaugh for hours on end. The irony could not escape me as I bit my tongue watching the older, not rich, card-carrying union member agree and nod along to Rush’s inane illusions of leftwing conspiracies.
But now the van was mine, all mine, and I could listen to whatever I wanted to and I chose Shakespeare. Reminding myself, as I stamped through mud that I was an English major and an educated Anglophile… this was just my summer gig.
The recording I used was by Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, with Sir Branagh playing the lead. It was a stellar cast including Derek Jacobi (my favorite Hamlet) as Claudius, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud. And the plan, like I said was great and simple. Basically, I would listen to it over and over again, every day, non-stop.
What I imagined happening is returning to school in the fall, being able to quote from Hamlet at random (the perfect way I bet to end any English class argument), and recite Hamlet’s soliloquies perfectly and seductively to unsuspecting pretty female students. Oh, if that was only the case…
The first glitch in my plan is when I realized I had memorized all of the wrong characters. Namely, the female characters.
Yes, I was a male Ophelia.
See, I was so busy listening to Kenneth’s performance as Hamlet that I was responding to him, not learning his part.
Okay, this was easy to remedy, I had all summer! So I kept going, and by August I was reciting right along with Hamlet. Other drivers on the road may have been singing along to songs; me, I was acting Hamlet every day in sync with one of the greatest Shakespearian actors of the age.
I was so into it there sometimes were actual tears.
The first time I pulled out a Hamlet soliloquy at a friend’s party it was a disaster.
Without meaning to, I had incorporated a bad impersonation of Kenneth into my memorization. My voice went up an octave, and I sounded like something Monty Python would do as a joke. My friend patted me on the back and said, “Scott, buddy, don’t do that again.”
Sadly, every time I have since attempted to recite Hamlet that weird voice I created comes back to me. My summer of Hamlet was a big flop… but the phone company asked me if I would like to do work with them again the next summer.
Into the Graveyard
When I graduated from college, I immediately began planning for my “escape” to England. I was going to have three weeks to explore my land of destiny, followed by two to three weeks exploring through Europe.
I worked two jobs saving up for the enterprise. While other English majors were busy finding jobs, applying for graduate programs, I was planning my adventure; the moment I was sure when I would be called home. I even went so far as to schedule the trip around my birthday, wanting to experience that there… because wouldn’t a birthday be better there than here?
My most prized possession as I prepared was this old paperback for literary tourists. I wish I could tell you the name of it, but this is years ago, and I threw away the book (or gave it to a friend, I can’t remember). It was wonderful! I could look up any writer and it would have a list of places and locations to visit.
After one day dealing with the culture shock and long flight in, I began to explore England. I remember the first time I went into the underground and heard “mind the gap” for the first time. It was as pretty as a song.
My first trip was to the home of John Keats, walking through his little property, knowing it was in this backyard that he heard the nightingale that inspired the great poem. Yet, it was at the home of Keats that I had my first awakening to what I was about to experience all over my trip.
I was visiting the past, not the present; and you really can’t visit the past no matter how hard you try.
I was not so ridiculous that I thought I would be having conversations with the literary greats I loved, or falling into their stories. I’m not that silly. But all I found everywhere I went was… it was like looking through a piece of foggy glass of what I wanted to see.
It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but it was also depressing, especially when I visited the graveyards (or Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey), knowing here lay the remains of someone I held dear. Forever gone. Never coming back. And I never even had a chance to say hi or, better yet, thank you.
The one time it became too much for me was when I was visiting the grave of George Elliot. It had a garden over her and it felt right for her. So very right.
I think I sat by that site for two hours. I didn’t pray (I am not a praying kind of person), I just sat.
Just sat so very quietly.
I came home a little older and a little wiser from the trip.
I still love England, and have been back a few times since (mainly to see the Royal Shakespeare Company when I can), but I am more realistic about the wonders of England and what it means to me. Yes, it is still a magical place in my imagination, but I also know the real place as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud American citizen, and love to explore this country. I look forward to the first time I take my children to Washington DC to visit the Smithsonian and the White House. I want to visit Gettysburg with them, see Broadway in New York City… but…
…did I mention how awesome Doctor Who is?
If you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had three novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream (coming in April), My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!…