Friday, September 22, 2006

Odd Encounters with the English

I mentioned in my very first post that English people tend not to smile or exchange a friendly greeting when they pass you on the street. This is generally the case, but occasionally you will encounter an elderly person desperate to relieve herself (usually) of a long monologue. The first time this happened to us, Clara and I made brief eye contact with a woman in a raincoat and wellingtons who was walking a greyhound with an injured foot. Our brief eye contact initiated a rather long description of the dog’s injury and its treatment, followed by an extended panegyric on greyhounds as a breed. Just yesterday, I crossed John O’Gaunt Road and encountered an elderly man with a meershaum pipe and a Wallace and Gromit accent who was all ready to launch into a monologue about gardening, almost as if he had been expecting my arrival at precisely that moment.

Among the English, I always feel a little off balance. I never know whether someone is going to stare grimly past me as if determined to deny my existence, or whether I will be made the captive audience for a monologue on gardening or dogs. My general feeling of cluelessness in England is what makes me so fond of the out-of-place characters in Rose Macaulay’s novels. Here’s an exchange between Barbary and her step-mother, Pamela, as the family prepares to set out for a holiday at Barbary’s uncle’s summer home in Arshaig, Scotland. Pamela is telling Barbary about her cousins:

“The boys are at Eton; Ken’s captain of the eleven.”
“Eleven what?”
“The cricket eleven, of course.” Pamela spoke a little sharply, feeling that ignorance should have its limits. “I say, Barbary, I advise you not to say things like that at Arshaig. You might pretend to know just a little about things, like other people. Even if you have lived abroad...”

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