A sad e-mail from a dear friend who has already been visited by more unwarranted tragedy than anyone should have to survive, arrived to warn me that the storm clouds of imminent disaster were about to close over her head again. I wouldn’t insult her with platitudes, I know the full weight of the crosses she has been asked to bear too well; as I said to Mr G, if only we were at least in the same country, I could give her a hug and maybe crack a joke in appalling taste – or two.
Mr G, going about his business whilst pondering the troublesome thought of what to give me for Christmas, cooked up a plan.
Thus I unexpectedly found myself in a freezing car park at Dunkerque, after a 1000 kilometre dash, waiting outside the firmly closed canteen for the 4am ferry to convey me to that country portrayed via Sky news and the BBC to we ex-pats as a hotbed of angry contorted faces, Royal poking anarchists, grid locked motorways, thieving politicians and bankers, all believed to be currently covered in at least 20 foot of snow that no-one was allowed to clear away in order to retrieve the bodies of frozen pensioners. Much as I love my friend, my cup ranneth over, this surely beat the Black and Decker pneumatic drill he presented me with several years ago.
The white cliffs of Dover in the early morning gloom didn’t disappoint. Sea Gulls swooped on briefly digested kebab along every foot of the pavement. Shadowy figures in Djellabas dived behind container lorries as we drove a tortuous route through barbed wire enclosures and concrete walls, past van loads of policemen. A dirt encrusted sign bade us welcome to the United Kingdom and ‘remember to drive on the left’.
The English canteen was as firmly closed as the French version. Nobody smiled. We pulled up beside the ‘UK Border Agency’ Office and waited for the triple glazed window to slide open and interrogate us. The occupant didn’t even glance at us, deep in conversation with another woman. Several minutes passed. Eventually he looked, not at us, but at our French number plate, and with the merest hint of a sneer, stuck a thumb up to indicate OK and with a cursory wave of his hand, signalled to us to move on. The window never opened, not a word was exchanged.
‘And on behalf of the British people, may I welcome you to this green and pleasant land’ I said to Mr G, making only his second visit to this septic isle in 35 years. ‘We will, very soon, pass a Greasy Spoon, a fabled establishment where you will taste the delights of English back bacon thrust lovingly between two slices of cardboard, and understand the pull this country has to those of us born here’.
Only we didn’t. We passed a multitude of MacDonalds, a clutch of KFCs, a plethora of Pizza Huts; all firmly closed. The motorway ground on, mile after mile, with narry a sign of Olde Englande, just a pastiche of urban America which promised not to open for several hours. No ‘pull-offs’ with picnic tables where we might share a van brewed coffee, no petrol stations offering fresh hot croissants and exemplary coffee.
Just tarmac and roadsides littered with curiously demarcated dwellings. Here a clutch of pebble dashed council houses, freshly Farrow and Balled, gardens bedecked with arbours in the approved Monty Don pale turquoise, drives full of Kia’s with brand new number plates – then – after a suitable patch of scorched earth, a nest of Barratt four bedroomed homes with gardens full of professionally planted conifers, and huge 4 x 4s parked in the driveway. Another patch of scorched earth and you would drive past the original hovels of ‘CraysFootbyWickHamStead’ with their replacement triple glazed ‘original’ windows, and gravelled drives, and five bar gates, and both a 4 x 4 and a Kia in the driveway….has some ordinance been passed in my absence that states what car you own, and how many, according to the rateable value of your home? Does nobody own a battered Clio here? Are humble dwellings not allowed to be erected next to ‘Shiver Me Timbers’? It all seems so regimented to a visitor, your place in life so carefully laid out.
Another 300 kilometres passed in happy contemplation of the relative merits of French bureaucratic egalitarianism and the land of the Free Briton. We passed by Huntingdon Life Sciences just as the day shift of angry snarling faces turned up for their task of screaming at the hapless workers, and then turned off onto country lanes. They grew narrower, lined by hedgerows not red brick houses, the occasional cottage that looked as though it might once have grown Brussel sprouts in its front garden, but still Farrowed and Balled beyond recognition, ancient slate tiles replaced with thermo-efficient red concrete ones.
Finally we crept round a concealed corner and parked outside an honest farm worker’s cottage. The door opened, heartfelt hugs and kisses were exchanged, and journey’s end was a warm and cluttered kitchen, bright colours, immense pine table, old samplers worked in Georgian times lining the walls; a wood burner belched out welcome heat. Rosy cheeked teenagers, tousle haired from a promised week-end lie in were roused.
The winter sun was rising low over a frosted field outside the kitchen window, ploughed, harrowed, drilled and watched over with loving care for any sign of distress in the crop of wheat destined for Mr Hovis the Baker. The fourth generation of men to tend those fields stood in his thermal long johns, washing up the detritus from feeding his brood the night before. Mrs Farmer suggested breakfast. The upcoming fifth generation hungrily agreed, it had been a mere 8 hours since he had last stoked that eternal furnace known as ‘teenage son’ and future farmer.
Half a pig sliced into perfect tranches of back bacon, any surplus minced into temporary occupation of sausage casing. Bread, Hovis naturally, was fried to a tottering pile of crisp perfection. The winter output of several hens cracked into a pan of English butter and stirred to a creamy scramble. Black pudding? Would we like Black Pudding? And Beans, proper Heinz Baked Beans slid out of those iconic Turquoise and Gold cans into warmed dishes, fresh mushrooms sliced and cooked ‘just so’, and Tea, gallons of it, proper builder’s tea in mismatched mugs set down amongst the fifty thousand questions asked and answered round that table.
Coherent, intelligent, teenagers talked 20 to the dozen, amiable good natured parents got a word in edgeways, when they had the chance, to tell of prowess – ‘taught herself to play the guitar, she did’ and ‘passed his tractor driving test first time’.
The Yeoman heart of England still beats, drowned out on the airways by the tales of Ahmed Ishmael, a British Citizen, arrested in – fill in your chosen foreign clime; and Charlie Gilmour, a multi-million Trustafarian studying history at Cambridge, but apparently unable to even guess at what the Cenotaph might represent.
Not only we ex-pats, but the rest of the world, take our view of England from those news broadcasts. If you know where to look, the true England is still there and raising the next sturdy limbed generation; facing the trials and tribulations of crop failure, personal tragedy and Nu-Labour with equal equanimity, good humour and lashings of love.
Pity I’m not giving you the address; because it’s also the perfect ‘Greasy Spoon’ I’ve been dreaming of in my absence.
Cheers Mr G – best Christmas present ever. Truly Inspired.