Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“Some of them are a little...daunted...by the name Daughters of the British Empire, and they come in expecting to see Miss Jean Brodie sitting there all stiff and starched.
Wandering down Orange Avenue in Coronado at 8:20 in the morning, I hear the unregenerate accents of a middle-aged Englishwoman. I turn cautiously, so as not to draw attention to myself. There are two of them, one plump, one less so, both bespectacled, both dressed in the cardigan rearguard of fashion. At once, I am torn: I have found the English in San Diego, but of course I can’t talk to them because we have not been introduced.
“She said if you asked her four or five years ago she wouldn’t have been caught dead joining the Daughters of the British Empire.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
You have to understand this: the right each Englishman respects above all, and expects to be respected, is privacy. Like the Japanese, we think it’s rude to ask personal questions, and we’re unlikely to invite even people we like into our homes. This is a ridiculously hard assignment for me. Americans I can interview without a second thought, but the English.... And my resolve tails away in an ellipsis of courage. Right now, among the English, I’m more English than ever.
All the same, we can learn something from our anonymous pair, nattering with that slightly indignant English tone (“You wouldn’t believe it! There were all these preschoolers....”) in an unpretentious lower-middle-class accent from somewhere in the south of England: they probably came here as adults. We keep or lose our accents depending on how badly we need them. As children and adolescents, we need to fit in more than we need to feel English. It’s a curious but almost inviolable rule: if someone arrives from England before the age of 18, assimilation overrules patriotism, and he loses his accent quickly. If he arrives older than 18, the accent is with him for life, though with a gradual, almost imperceptible lengthening of the vowels, like shadows on a late summer afternoon, a gradual erosion of the sharp t toward the softer d, and he accumulates those useful American expressions of enthusiasm, for which the English have no equivalent.
Pat Walleyn (right) at DBE party. “We’re having a sausage-and-mash fund-raiser up in San Marcos. So far I’ve got about 70 people coming."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
But in truth (note, by the way, that a Brit can write “in truth” and get away with it. We can do whatever we please with the language. We constantly give the annoying air that we invented it, it’s ours; if we want to use a 17th-century phrase in California barely two years before the millennium, we will)...in truth, as I was saying, what I’ve just pulled off is that most English of social maneuvers, the Graceful Evasion. Gave you bags of facts and charm but no interview. No substance. I barely even noticed myself that I was doing it. This is going to be even harder than I thought.
Besides which, there’s no such thing as the English community in San Diego. Whereas people from other nations come to the United States to escape poverty, or death squads, or religious persecution, the English come here to get away from each other. This is why there are no English ghettos, or even English neighborhoods. The English abroad for the most part live semi-detached lives, here but not here. Wendy Campana, an American who is engaged to an English resident of San Diego, says, laughing, “They avoid each other. They live in fear of running into someone whose accent they can’t stand." Or, as Russell Baker recently put it during one of his introductions to Masterpiece Theatre, “Every time an Englishman opens his mouth, another Englishman despises him.”
New Year's Eve at Shakespeare Pub & Grille. You might think I’m in Anglo heaven, sitting in the pub with a pint in my hand, but here, all my old prejudices flood back.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Even in England, the English have been searching for an identity, with a degree of quiet desperation, for the last 50 years. Californians are searching for an identity all the time. How can an Englishman in California know who he is, or what to make of his life?
An English friend tells me of a British food shop in Solana Beach run by, in his words, a couple of eccentric old dears. You have to order your Christmas pudding around April, he says, because they charter a special boat that comes around Cape Horn. They have a map on the wall marking the boat’s progress, so whenever you go in you can see where your Christmas pud is.
This turns out to be almost completely untrue (their goods do come by boat), but even as myth it’s interesting: this is how the English like to think of the English, eccentric to the point of dottiness, fanatical about England.
Chris Ball - “I found a freedom in this country. You were judged on what you could do — not who you were or what you represented or who your parents were."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The British food business turns out to be quite a trade. Other stores that appear in the Union Jack, an expat paper speaking largely to the Brits in Southern California and Florida, are Hare and the Hounds in Thousand Oaks, All Things Bright and British in La Mesa, English Fayre in Atwater, Bit O’ Britain in San Diego, and the British Grocer in Fullerton.
The shop in Solana Beach, the British Food Centre, is in a mall called Towne Centre, the final e of Towne proving that if England had never existed, America would have had to invent it. The shop is an anonymous little shell, but it houses the shelves of the classic English corner shop, with food as peculiar and incomprehensible as any Asian grocery: Schweppes bitter lemon, PC Tips, Dundee cake, digestive biscuits, damson jam, lemon curd. Penguins, and Heinz baked beans. In the freezers, a dozen cheeses and clotted cream, apple crumble and spotted dick, steak-and-kidney pie, kippers and haggis.
Derek Armstrong coaches soccer. “I used to call burritos ‘envelopes.’ I used to say, ’Are we stopping for envelopes?’ Now I quite enjoy a chicken chimichanga.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The shop has the English versions of the Mars bar and the Kit Kat, with chocolate thicker, darker, and richer than the American version, and seven or eight different Cadbury’s chocolate bars.
They also sell that wonderful English invention, the automatic kettle (turns itself off when it boils), essential or perhaps even inevitable in a nation both awakened and soothed by tea. Not to mention nearly a dozen varieties of tea, none of this wishy-washy modem herbal-and-decaf nonsense but proprietary black teas: Brooke Bond Dividend, PG Tips, Typhoo (with the Wallace and Gromit salt and pepper pots offer), Co Op 99, Tetley, Lyons Red Label, Glengettie, and Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire tea, with a picture of a cricketer on the box.
Some of these are delightful comestibles, and I would stand up in front of the International Food Court at the Hague to defend digestive biscuits, pickled onions, and a nice piece of Double Gloucester. Others are, frankly, a gastronomic embarrassment, such as Colman’s Instant Spaghetti Bolognese (known familiarly to the English, who are renowned for making other nations’ languages their own, as “spaggy bol”). But quality is scarcely the point. This is English soul food.
The British Food Centre, which is owned by an American who lives in San Francisco, has been in business 15 years. It’s managed by Margaret Garrett, originally from Liverpool but over here these 39 years, and Olive Siegel from Manchester, who has been here even longer. Margaret, whom Olive calls Rita, is busy unpacking and shelving Bird’s Instant Custard, but Olive is chatty.
“We’re taking over the country without firing a shot,” she announces with a twinkle in her eye.
She met her husband during the war, when he was drafted and sent to England. After the war, they returned to the United States.
How did America first strike you?
“I thought it was beautiful," says Rita. “Just beautiful.”
“I didn’t,” says Olive, laughing. “I arrived in Ohio, which was terrible. Horrible. It was like England — snow, and bugs and stuff.” She moved to San Diego when Convair offered her husband a job.
Still, the British never give you up, Olive says. “My mother had a widow’s pension for years and years, became an American citizen, wrote and told them she didn’t need it anymore. They wrote back and said, ’As long as you live, you’ll be a British subject.’ And she was. When she died, they wrote and asked how much her funeral was. We didn’t tell them, but that’s what they did.
“I go back every year now, which I didn’t used to. As you get older, I think your roots take you back. But until I was 70, I didn’t care if I went back or not.... They say you can take an Englishman out of England, but you can never take England out of an Englishman. But your life’s over here, and our children are over here.... I don’t have any family over there anymore, so there’s really nothing. I just miss — I just miss England. I think it’s just something that you think about as you get older. Not that you’d go back and live....”
What would stop you from going back and living there? “The weather. And also, people over there, they stay in one little group. They are traveling more [than they used to], but they’re set in their ways much more [than we are here].” What Rita says rings a loud bell. This summer I met an elderly couple from Derbyshire who were touring the southwest United States, having already been to most of Europe, Bali, Australia, Russia, even Afghanistan. The problem was, they said, they didn’t have anyone at home they could talk to about their travels, except their daughter and perhaps her husband. Everyone else nodded and said “Oh, yes?” but had no real interest in the world beyond England, or perhaps even beyond the village.
“Exactly,” says Olive. “Some of them [back home] do travel a little more than they used to, but it’s always the same place. They’ll either go to Spain every year, or to Portugal every year. Not like we do. We travel all over, here. And you have to remember that people go back a lot more than they used to. Most of the people here go home every year, more now, than they used to. It was seven years before I went back.”
But if they didn’t want to stick in their ways, and they didn’t want to eat their digestive biscuits all the time, then you’d be out of business, I say.
“This is very true,” Olive admitted. “That’s why they come in here, because they get very homesick, and their food, I should imagine, makes them less homesick.”
And when do we feel more homesick and more in need of soul food than at holidays? Which explains why Rita has orders for 500 Christmas puddings, give or take a few. There may not be a map on the wall, but the puddings are on their way.
Every Christmas, back in the early ’90s before she died, my mother sent me gift certificates to a Marks & Spencer in Montreal. Like the British Food Centre, it’s the opposite of a novelty store: it’s dedicated to those aspects of England that never change. It has clothes that would only look right on elderly ladies and gents in seaside hotels, and British soul food. The gift certificates were a wonderful present: they didn’t just buy food, they bought reassurance. You can still be who you were, they said. Not everything here is foreign.
This was all well and good for several years, but then one year, as I started to fill my basket, I found myself looking at the rubbery crumpets, thinking. Is this all there is? The Battenburg cake seemed like frothing more than sugar and food coloring, not only nutritionally but spiritually empty.
I felt sad, and a little lost, not because the displays of food made me miss the land of my birth, but because they didn’t. A known quantity — “This is who I am, this is what I like” — was being steadily eroded, like an island coastline. I may never have been pompous enough to say, “There’ll always be an England,” but I must have said to myself, “There’ll always be malt loaf,” and now my tastes had changed, my horizons broadened, and the sea was carving away my island self.
Then I thought, but aren’t we all like this? In America we’re all from somewhere else. We’re the most mobile nation, the most faddish. Travel broadens the mind—and not many places are broader than America — but all that breadth is impossible to take in at a glance, let alone to govern, to grasp as an identity. It had been much easier to stereotype myself, to see myself as a small island with a well-worn coastline. For me, though, that no longer worked. The England I’d left now seemed out of date and too small, like my old school trousers.
To be American is to have one’s soul constantly up for grabs. Is it any wonder we seem such a confused nation, caught between denouncing our parents and becoming them, looking wishfully at our childhood or our inner childhood, but finding it harder and harder to go back? I almost envy those who can still feel a commitment to this England and its curious, sugary food. At least they know where their allegiances lie.
Nigel, an English friend of mine, is marrying Wendy, his American girlfriend. The dynamics of a romance between an English man or woman and an American are so complicated and peculiar they’re worth a dozen Ph.D. theses. All I’ll say is that these two have been around the block often enough that what holds them together is no longer just the appeal of an exotic accent.
In some ways, the wedding is pure Californian, held at the Stephen Birch Aquarium overlooking the Pacific and the beach — where that morning I’ve seen a couple having their child baptized in surf water — but in other ways there are small and unmistakably English grace notes. I’ve been asked to read Edward Lear’s nonsense courtship poem “The Owl and the Pussycat,” a perfect example of the English habit of undercutting solemnity with silliness, of dodging too much overt emotion by slipping into humor. Nigel’s elder brother, a playwright, reads a blessing on marriage — but it’s a blessing out of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, read in Middle English, and the joke here is that the blessing is offered by the Wife of Bath, whose recipe for a successful marriage is that the husband should do whatever the wife says and make sure she always has plenty of walking-about money. Those who are keeping up with these unexpected verbal excursions chuckle at this joke at Nigel’s expense, but some of the wedding guests, I expect, may be a little bewildered. It’s not an American habit to be this hyperaware of language.
On the other hand, it took a Californian freedom of imagination to conceive of a wedding in an aquarium. (Wendy is from Northern California, and Nigel has lived here for half a dozen years; California is evident in his more relaxed bearing, his more casual dress sense.) When I chat with guests who have flown over from England for the ceremony, several of whom are visiting the United States for the first time, their initial impressions are of San Diego’s warmth and beauty, but their next is that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in England. When I saw the British movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, I was struck by the fact that although we were supposed to see each of the weddings as very different, they were all church weddings, formal and emotionally distant.
“This was totally unique,” Nigel’s younger brother says in his strong Black Country accent. (The Black Country is the old industrial region roughly between Birmingham and Manchester.) “And you know the next wedding will be different from this one. You just don’t see that in England. We haven’t got that much imagination.”
I bought the couple for a wedding present a half-yard of ale — that is, a tube half a yard long shaped roughly like a straightened-out trumpet but with a bulb-shape at the butt-end, which you fill with beer and then drink, preferably in one go. The gift turns out to be far more appropriate than I expected. Nigel tells me it was a tradition at his university residence hall in England that on your birthday the bar committee dragged you to the bar and forced you to drink a yard of ale, which ideally you did in one swallow. “1 have the whole technique,” he says happily. “You turn it to get a vortex going, so you don’t get air bubbles.” There was an intramural four-man yard-of-ale competition, and his residence hall, consisting mainly of miners and engineers, had a team of experts: they could each knock back their yard in nine and a half seconds. During Rag Week, the week each year devoted to raising money for charity, the kitchen staff, who were all Italian, went into training and were sponsored to drink joke yards: A yard of custard. A yard of cold minestrone soup. A yard of raw eggs.
If there is an official place to meet the English, it’s in that fairy-ring of cottages in Balboa Park called the House of Pacific Relations.
Balboa Park itself, despite its exotic palms and architecture, is rather an English space in that it is a sizable piece of public land, packed with greensward and parkland, and the whole intended for the graceful pastime and improvement of the general public, admission free. As such it Is the opposite of, say, Sea World.
On Sunday, the Brits are well represented. A four-piece band is playing jigs and reels in the House of Ireland. The Scots are out in force, as it’s their house’s month to put on a show: a group of 20 girls is doing a Scottish dancing demonstration, the pipers are tuning up, and at 2:00 p.m. there’ll be a reenactment-in-miniature of the Battle of Tel-el Kebir in the 1882 Egyptian campaign. Donald Kittmer, peeling off his regimental jacket and pith helmet, tells me that they make their own uniforms, except for their kilts, which they bought from the regiment, their shoes, and their sporrans, which they bought from pipe bands on the point of going defunct. (“A guy from Tucson calls me up and says, 'Could you use a few sporrans?’ ”)
The English house (nominally shared with the Welsh, evidence of whom is not visible) is full of the paraphernalia of Empire: portraits of Diana and Winston Churchill, older kings and queens, flags, a model of H.M.S. Victory. At the desk, something less military: Doug and Hilda Branch serve shortbread, cheese sandwiches, and tea from a teapot in a knitted tea cozy. They chat about accents (Doug is from East Suffolk, where a small batch of villages sound almost Australian; barely 20 miles away people talk quite differently), sprawl development (English laws provide a distinct line between town and country, protecting green land from encroachment), and weather, of course. “I’d like a bit of cold here, sometimes,” Hilda admits.
But I’m interested in an event that will take place there the following day, hosted by Bill Horlor, president of the House of England.
“It’s a luncheon I put on once a year for some of our older members, those who can’t get out of a nighttime,” Bill explains over the phone. “At least they have their yearly chat.”
As soon as he says that, I think of the spiritual needs of those on hospice. Once we face our mortality, I believe, we start to look toward home, or a facsimile of home. As our energy fades, we would like to be somewhere we fed safe, respected, and understood. And another thing happens: as we no longer need to maintain such a tight grip on the day-to-day world, we spend more and more time wandering through the gardens of our minds, retracing paths we may not have walked for half a century. Life is a parabola. When we are young we blaze away from home, and if we have the incentive or the opportunity we may even escape the gravity of our native land. In time, though, we look for reasons to fight less hard, to start to glide. In the end, though perhaps not until the very end, we falter and then fall back.
Bit O’ Britain is a small, quiet tea shop on Midway Drive, stuck in a mall. It has been open for three and a half years. The walls display shelves of Brit groceries and candies and a painting of a Scots marching band. A middle-aged couple and a mother-daughter pair eat quietly, keeping themselves to themselves.
Irene Thomson, the owner, came over in 1955 when her parents emigrated from Argyllshire. Her father-in-law was a chef, who brought over with him a pie-making machine. She wanted to go into the restaurant business, but he discouraged her, when he died, though, she pounced on the machine. “Then it was ‘Uh-oh. Who’s got the recipe?’ All his recipes had one ingredient missing so nobody could steal them.” But her mother managed to fill in the gaps from memory and reconstruction, and Irene was in business: steak-and-kidney pies, meat pies, cheese-and-broccoli pies. All the pies the House of Scotland was selling yesterday were from Bit O’ Britain — all 300 of them.
Paula Edwards, the junior partner, has been lingering on the fringes of the conversation and can contain herself no longer. She’s often mistakenly thought to be Irene’s daughter, bright and funny with a stronger, fresher accent, having been in the United States only five years. She grew up in Glasgow, came over to Annapolis, and was homesick because of the weather and the lack of British food. When she ended up in San Diego she found herself living in an apartment a stone’s throw from Bit O’ Britain and immediately began beating the door down for a job. “She was determined to get a job here whether I wanted her or not!” Irene says, laughing.
It was not only Paula who was desperate for a bit of Britain. People come from all over San Diego County and even farther afield, as the British crews from yachts and cruisers drop in to victual when they’re in port, looking for a place that is familiar and unchanging. “Everybody who comes in here are so set in their ways.” Paula laughs.
“A lot of the people that come in here are people I’ve known since 1955," Irene adds. “We serve English bone china, because many of our customers, the first thing they do is turn it upside down” — she demonstrates, showing the trademark of the pottery stamped under the foot of the cup—“to check.”
“I’ve got a good memory,” Paula says, “and they love it when we know what they like. We’ll just say 'The usual?’ and we’ll know they like gravy on the side or an extra tea bag. If we change stuff in here there’s an uproar. They won’t deal wi’ anyone else if they don’t get the person they’re used to. Did you see As Good As It Gets?” jack Nicholson plays an obsessive-compulsive who throws tantrums in a restaurant if the slightest thing changes. “That’s just what they’re like, half the people who come in here!”
I don’t hear rudeness in her voice, or even (really) exasperation: this is an exaggeration born of familiarity, family joking about family.
“Some even like certain china,” Irene adds.
“If you don’t give them their own teapot,” Paula laughs, “their day is ruined!”
Assimilating is harder for some than others and may be especially hard for some women, Irene suggests who never learned how to drive. She has an elderly woman customer who follows exactly the same routine she did back in Scotland: take the bus down to the shops, fill up two bags of groceries, stop in for a cup of tea, then take the bus back home.
Once again, though, there’s a question as to what this “home” is that her customers remember. Irene’s husband has a relative who is always telling people what a grand city Edinburgh is, or was when he lived there in his youth. He finally went back and did nothing but complain: it was raining, it was cold, the people he knew weren’t around.... “A lot of them didn’t have that good a life back there,” Irene points out. After all, they had some reason for leaving.
It’s as if some of us are exhausted by the physical and psychic effort required to leap so far — across an ocean, then across a continent — and once we get here we put our roots down and behave with the old stay-at-homeness, just elsewhere. Richard, whom I know from the San Diego Cricket Club, told me of a guy who sounds like the epitome of adventure, an English guy who was traveling around the United States on a motorbike owning nothing other than what was in his panniers. He broke down in San Diego, and while he was waiting for his bike to be fixed he met a girl and San Diego got under his skin (history doesn’t record how long it took to get the parts he needed, but it can’t have been that long), and he stayed, married, and has never gone back in 14 years.
“I don’t miss anything about Scotland,” Irene says, raising her eyebrows. She visited half a dozen years ago and liked the quiet, small-town atmosphere of Dunoon, but everywhere else crime was up.... If she seems brisk and positive in her late middle age, it may be partly that she has raised and rooted a family here and has passed on some of herself and her Scottishness. “All my grandchildren — their favorite meal is mince and potatoes and peas. Every week they have dinner over at Grandma's house, and they always ask for their mince.”
It’s rare in America to find this kind of tea shop, or this kind of coziness. It’s more common in pubs and bars. With this in mind, and nursing a thirst. I head over to the Shakespeare Pub and Grille on India Street.
Note in transit: I used to know an American who lived in south Mission Hills, overlooking the airport. Dave Belprez. Great bloke. Took up cricket, played for San Diego, married an English girl called Dawn, moved to England, bought a house in the Cotswolds with its own section of trout stream, overtaking the cricket ground. Last anyone around here saw of him, he was wearing a deerstalker. More English than the English. That’s what happens when you choose a culture, rather than just swimming around in it.
It’s also what happens when you open a pub in America: it has to be more British than a pub in Britain. This is why I don’t care for the Princess Pub and Grille, at India and Date — it’s too English. It tries too hard. Quite apart from the question of selling Englishness to Americans, a publican in the United States faces a paradox: you want to create a sense of home, but in England not everyone goes in for assertive displays of patriotism, which are associated with diehard Empire boosters from the war years or neo-fascist hooligans who on their nights off beat up gays and Pakistanis. Too many Union lacks make me uneasy, just as the sight of so many displays of Old Glory in this country leaves English visitors amazed.
The Shakespeare beats this drum less obviously than the Princess. I settle down amid the reassuring dark wood of table and ceiling beams to watch Monday Night Football over a pint of Boddingtoris. I still like English tea and beer, I think, because they’re on the bitter and astringent side, probably evolving that way to balance the sweet, bland food. The new American fruit teas and microbrews are often sweeter and more malty, not having to carry such a cultural and gastronomic burden.
Not many of as are watching the game — not as many as come in sometimes as early as seven o’clock on a Saturday morning and pay $7 to watch the English and Scottish league football (sorry, soccer) pulled off the satellite, or $10 to watch the European cup matches. The pub has had a hundred customers for the big matches, and during the World Cup you could barely move.
You might think I’m in Anglo heaven, sitting in the pub with a pint in my hand, but here, all my old prejudices flood back. From out on the deck come a couple of English voices, and hearing their loud, abrasive accents I know at once that I don’t even want to listen to them, let alone interview them. This is my old English self, a hot, complicated knot of hostilities and loyalties, alert for signs of trouble. Looking for a place to let down one’s guard. You don’t go to a pub to meet new people: you go to a pub to meet people you already know — in a sense, to avoid people. The pub allows us to be sociable without taking risks; consequently, many of the English are not very good at making new friends. Their complaint about Americans is that Yanks pour out their hearts to total strangers; the converse is that reserve can easily slide into loneliness.
England is intensely tribal. It’s a matter of class, yes, but also of regional ism. My friend Nigel tells me that when he brought home a girl from Brierley Hill, all of three miles away, his mother made fun of her accent. It doesn’t take much (a game of soccer, for instance) tor these tribal loyalties to turn nasty.
Many pubs in Britain still have different rooms for different social groups, the lounge bar for the middle class, the public bar for the working class, each despising the other. People are as insistent on their own pub as they are on Irene’s china. The essence of a pub, then, is totems of affiliation and familiarity and tradition; thus a pub’s worst sin is newness. The worst pubs in the world are those built in the new housing developments in the southern English town of Basingstoke, one pub per development in exactly the same central location. They were like Albert’s cubicle. People only went there if they wanted a fight: it was almost inconceivable that your own tribe would want to meet there, so anyone there must be an enemy.
I order bangers and mash, that is, grilled English sausages and mashed potatoes. The bangers, onions, and gravy are excellent, the peas and mash completely tasteless, just as the English like them.
I’m meeting three of the young English guys from the San Diego Cricket Club: Paul, Richard, and Chris. Chris is a recent and welcome addition because he has an astoundingiy puerile sense of humor and is clearly a piss-artist (piss-artist, noun: I. an epic drinker, 2. a prankster, 3. because of I and 2, someone to be admired but not taken seriously). Paul and Richard are not averse to a game of cricket and an evening of banter afterwards over a curry and a pint. These are the social habits, it mast be stressed, of the young Englishman of culture and education. Chris is a physicist, Richard a biotechnologlst; Paul Is the former editor of a literary magazine, though now he claims to be resting his brain.
They chat about various debauched goings-on over the weekend, which makes them no different from guys anywhere, I guess. When they go on to speculate on the drug addictions of professional snooker players they are more identifiably English, but what is most English is the way they slide in and out of regional and class accents, how they use language. Robin Williams can do that game, and he does it well, but it’s not an American habit, or necessity. This is a nation of tin ears.
It’s almost impossible for an outsider to know how important language is to an Englishman. Language is the field he plays in, it’s his club tie, it’s his season ticket and his box seat, it’s his topographical map, it’s the stage on which he performs, it’s his sword and shield. People from every nation have shared jokes and shared frames of reference, but the English, hounded by class and regional geography, listen to language far more carefully than most, placing far more importance on the right thing being said in the right way, mocking outsiders by scornful imitation. On the positive side, if you meet another Englishman who speaks your way, you’ll start talking in voices and accents, draped in veils and shades of irony you haven’t used for years, and you’ll find a half-smile at the corner of your mouth the entire time. Individual phrases, even cliches, will become charged with meaning and humor, a humor that harks back to a thousand shared memories.
At one point, for example, Paul mutters, “Nice one, Cyril.” It’s an aside that Is barely heard, not commented on, and not addressed to anyone named Cyril This is a reference to a fullback named Cyril Knowles, who played in the ’70s for the Premier League soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, a.k.a. Spurs. Knowles was renowned for sneaking into attacking positions and taking shots at goal. Occasionally he scored, but more often he nailed a spectator 50 feet above and behind the goal. The blue-collar Spurs fans took to yelling, “Nice one, Cyril” in ironic approval, and the phrase caught on — first in soccer circles, then more generally, then as a hit song. It had something to do with the strange juxtaposition of the Norf Lahndon accent and the oddly effete name Cyril, I think Now it Is in general usage, tinged with a deprecating irony, a calling card, a certain working-class matiness, or, in a middle-class person, an acknowledgment that such a working-class matiness is a good thing and thus a sign that he is a good bloke, a mate.
“There’s nowhere else I can find that kind of banter,” Richard says later. Not to be able to use these language skills is a loss. It’s one that we barely notice, though, in this country that speaks theoretically our language, where we’re not even aware that we’re always translating what we hear and translating what we think. We don't realize this until we talk to someone who speaks our genre of our language. Life goes on, sure, but you have a trunk somewhere in your mind of stories and statistics, phrases overheard and friendships made at ball games, memories of a particular batter’s swing or a particular vendor’s cry, childhood hopes and pictures on the bedroom walls, a sense that a Saturday wasn't really a Saturday without a ball game, nor a newspaper really a newspaper. When I’m talking to another English-person who shares my frames of reference, I become a larger, funnier, livelier person.
A word about the cultural significance of Heinz baked beans.
They’re not the same as American baked beans, which have more flavor and variety, being served with a chunk of fatty pork, or with a barbecue sauce al dente baked bean would be a scandal. Baked beans are baby food for adults. People eat them with sausages, with bacon, with chips, with Spam, on toast, or simply on their own. The Heinz company alone sells over a million cans a day. Baked beans occupy almost the pivotal place in English diet that the potato occupied in Ireland except that the English, having a choice in the matter, have no excuse. If there were a baked bean blight or a mad baked bean disease, millions would emigrate, or starve.
Before I left England, I became so incensed about the stick-in-the-muddiness of the country that I wrote a series of short, ridiculous poems in which baked beans stood for the unthinking conformity I detested. I can remember only
one, a parody of Samuel Johnson:
I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand.
The crowds upon the pavement
Weir like baked beans in a can.
Lunch is being set out on a table in the House of England (also charmingly and more accurately called the Outage), and - the elderly guests are drifting in — most British, one Australian, some with American accents — to load a plate and take it out to the small tables on the patio. Helpers and eaters number about 20. The food is partly English ("Have a nice piece of ham,” one lady invites me) but not entirely: raw vegetables and pasta salad are much more American, or perhaps just more low-fat.
Bill Horior is white-haired, robust, well-dressed, straightforward Cockney. Between bringing supplies in from his car and making sure that everyone is seated, fed, and chatted to, he pauses to supply a term for the tribal attitude I’ve been waffling around: he calls it the bicycle mentality. “You see," he says in his strong Cockney, “a lot of them arrived here with nothing but a bicycle. They don’t like to go out on a limb, they don’t like to try anything different. I was lucky: I always had a car.” Literally: he had his own garage in England and worked a second job, until the Suez crisis of 1956 rationed petrol. Taxes crippled his income every January. He and his wife decided to pack it up and try their luck in Canada. By 1965 he was in San Diego, founding the Trafalgar Club for expats, taking its membership up to 5500. It has since eroded considerably. The trouble with that club and the House of Britain is that its members are distinctly old. The other Sunday the counter at the House was staffed by two women who were, he guesses, 90 and 91.
“My sons are in their 40s. They’re proud of being English, but they don’t come down (to the House] like I did when I was their age. It’s harder and harder to get people to work.”
Bill runs heritage-and-history programs for schools and often finds himself working against the standard textbooks and their view of American history. He calls the minor disagreement in the 1770s “the War of the Rebellion,” arguing that it wasn’t a revolution, like the French Revolution;
“They didn’t even want to get rid of the king, at the finish. It was the British fighting the British and the British won.” And America can hardly claim to have won the War of 1812, he says, when they didn’t occupy a square mile of Canada, and the only battle fought on Canadian soil was the Battle of Chrysler Field, at which 600 British troops routed 6000 Americans, who were saved only by fleeing across a frozen lake. Yorktown, he says, was won by the French — and then only because a hurricane had sunk or dispersed the approaching British reinforcements. When Americans claim that the United States saved the British in WWII, he says, “It puts the hair up on the back of my neck." The East Coast of the United States was actually defended by the Royal Navy, he says, at tremendous cost, so the U.S. fleets could be dispatched to the Pacific. “I tell them, ‘Don’t go around telling everyone that you won everything, because you didn’t.’ ”
Mind you, the England he’s so proud of, like the England of his history lectures, is a thing of the past. When the kids he teaches ask him what kids in England are wearing, he has to ask them whether they mean back in his day, or now. “Now you can’t tell if you’re in England or America by looking at their clothing. You can’t see any difference at all — except in their red rosy cheeks. English kids you can always tell by their red rosy cheeks.
“In my day policemen had to be over six foot. Now they can be five foot eight, they’ve got beards, some of them’ve got funny shoes. It finally came home to me 15 years ago. I was at Victoria Station waiting for a taxi when a little black boy, must have been six years old, black as the ace of spades, says to me, ‘ ’Scuse me, guvnor, can you tell me what the time is?’ My wife said, ‘You should have seen your face!’ There’s this little African boy with his bright eyes and his white teeth, talking the Cockney language like every other Cockney kid.
“That’s why we try to keep it like it used to be. When we have get-togethers we sing the old songs, you know, 'My Old Man’ and 'Follow the Van...’ We’re more English than the English. You go into a pub over there now, they’re full of flashing lights, and the loud noise'll chase you out. It’s not until you get into the country that a pub’s still a pub, and they get around the old joanna and sing.”
Living in the U.S. as an elderly person is hard enough for anyone because of the lack of universal health coverage, but it’s an added burden for foreigners because it cuts them — us — off still more from families back home. “I tell people, Don’t bring anyone over without insurance,” says Bill. A visiting Canadian had a heart attack that left the family with $26,000 in medical bills that were ultimately paid with help from friends and members of the House of England. “It was hell to get them out of trouble." Some 40 years ago an expat’s elderly mother, visiting from Leeds, fell through an open trapdoor into a basement, and the resulting medical bills for a broken hip and numerous other injuries were more than the collective community could bear. So the poor woman had to be put in a cast from chest to ankle, carried out to a plane, and sent back to England, where she was met at the plane by an ambulance and treated in England under the National Health Service. “She could never come back because she was terrified. She said, ‘If anything happens to me, it’ll bankrupt my daughter. She’ll have to sell her house.’" So the House looks after its own. Bill runs get-togethers at the Hall of Nations once a month and this annual luncheon for those who don’t want to come out at night. “I phone ’em all the time,” he says. “I keep a check on everybody. If I don’t hear from them for a while I’ll phone ’em or knock on their door and make sure they’re okay.” Then he’s off to put out the plates of cookies, make sure everyone knows there’s dessert.
An ad in the Union Jack leads me to Pat Walleyn, president of the Southern California chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire, in a neat little bungalow on Clairemont Drive. A cheerful, slightly plump, motherly woman wearing an England sweatshirt, she welcomes me in, the tea tray already set, the teapot ready in a jiffy.
- I’m exhausted and my spiritual energies are low. This is the best tea I’ve ever tasted.
“I refuse to buy American tea. My father came over here to visit and he said he was convinced that they swept the floors of the tea shops and put it in little paper bags and called it tea bags. It’s too weak to hold the milk. It’s tasteless. Plus the Americans don’t know how to make tea. They bring you the hot water in the pot and the tea bag on the side, which is sacrilege, as everybody in England knows.”
In 1956, when Pat was 22 and living at home in West London with her mother, she had a row with her boss, stormed out, and passed Canada House, where a large ad in the window said, “Have You Ever Thought Of Emigrating?” Not until now, she thought. She applied for a passport and booked a boat passage without telling her mother, a woman who was so anxious and full of old-England superstitions that she used to cover mirrors during a thunderstorm. When the passport arrived, Pat couldn’t hide the truth any longer. When are you sailing? her mother demanded. On the maiden voyage of the Empress of Britain, Pat said, on Friday the 13th of July.
In Windsor, Ontario, she married an American who decided a little too late that he didn’t want children: he kept the stereo, Pat kept the boy. When her son left home he found his way to San Diego and invited her down from Detroit for a vacation. “ ‘My God,’ I thought, 'this is where I should be.’ So me and the dog drove across the country."
She had joined the Daughters of the British Empire (DBE) shortly after she arrived in Michigan, looking for some kind of sororal organization (“I wanted to get out and meet people who could converse about something above green eggs and ham”), but also perhaps following in the footsteps of so many other pioneers to this country, gathering as Elks and Moose and Knights of This and That in order to garner a sense of civilization in this vast and unfamiliar land. The American Business Women’s Association wanted about $300 a year in dues, some of the other clubs were not especially welcoming, but the DBE gave her "such a lovely reception” that she felt immediately at home. “It’s like an extended family. You have your aunties that are kind of strange, your aunties that are sort of like Grandma, your sisters....” Last March she ran for the presidency of the Southern California chapter and was elected.
The DBE is not just about making expats feel welcome, she explains; it’s specifically devoted to the most vulnerable of the emigres: the infirm elderly. Eighty percent of the DBE’s fund-raising activities go to supporting four retirement homes for women of British lineage.
“If you want to retire in the most marvelous place in the world, go to the home in Pasadena!” Pat enthusiastically praises the spacious, self-contained apartments, the helpful staff. The maximum capacity is 35. “ ’Course, the highlight of the whole thing was when Prince Charles came and they all put on their best. I’m one of the directors |of the home] while I serve my term as president, and (at) my first director’s meeting I went up and I thought, ‘Oh dear, you know, this is going to be wonderful,’ ” she says sarcastically, rolling her eyes, “Stay at the Embassy Suites, get a free breakfast — I thought that would be the highlight of my day. Well, they had a happy hour there, and they brought in a pianist, and he’s playing gently the music from Cats, and everybody’s sitting there looking bored to tears. So we got three or four of us together and said, 'We’re going to liven this bunch up.’ So we went to the pianist and said, ‘Can you play “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”?’ ” She looks mischievous. “He looked blank and said, ‘Well, if you could sing it along, maybe I could pick it up.' Well, that started it. We had all these elderly people 85 years old doing the knees-up in the middle of the room and having a field day.” (A “knees-up" is a music-hall term, from early in the century, popularized by the song “Knees Up, Mother Brown.” It calls to mind a bunch of cheerful, elderly working-class ladies in a pub dancing vigorously but with no great style to music being banged out on a beer-stained piano, known as a “joanna.”) “By now it’s about eight o’clock and we said, I'm sorry, but happy hour is now over’ — ‘Oh, don’t go!’ ” she says, doing the residents beseeching. “-Don’t go!’ ”
Her chapter of the DBE has recently held a tea, a lunch and fashion show, and a strawberry tea and hat contest. “We’re having a sausage-and-mash fund-raiser up in San Marcos. So far I’ve got about 70 people coming, members, their husbands, friends of members. It’s amazing. There are so many people who if they are not Brits themselves, they are Anglophiles and they just love to get involved in British things. It is absolutely amazing. We just had a bazaar in downtown La Jolla on the apron of one of the banks.. .and we’re there every year, first Saturday in October there we are....
Our chapter grossed about $1000 selling baked goods, hand-knitted stuff, a raffle, gift baskets, the white elephant stall [at which] somebody else’s junk is your junque.
“Some of them are a little...daunted...by the name Daughters of the British Empire, and they come in expecting to see Miss Jean Brodie sitting there all stiff and starched, but when they find the group is so jovial and having fun, even though they’re getting on in years, they get drawn into it. And the older members love the youth coming in because it keeps them alive. We just lost the oldest member of our chapter. She was 99 years old, and she was hanging on to get the letter from the Queen!” Pat laughs uproariously. The Queen traditionally sends a telegram of congratulations to anyone who reaches the century. “But she didn’t, poor soul, she missed it by about six months.
“My chapter right now — give or take 1 or 2, because 2 die, 1 comes on board, sort of thing — we've got about 33, 34 members.” Total for San Diego County is 155. California as a whole has nearly 100(). Members need to be of British heritage or married to a Brit. “It doesn’t mean they have to be speaking funny and just off the boat.”
Pat’s chapter has a new, 19-year-old member, third-generation DBE. “She said if you asked her four or five years ago she wouldn’t have been caught dead joining the Daughters of the British Empire. Our youngest member has an eight-month-old baby. One of our older members said [disapprovingly], ‘Oh, are we going to have an eight-month-old baby at the meeting if she can’t get a baby-sitter?’ I said, ‘That’s the price you’re going to have to pay to have youth come in the door. You’re going to have to tolerate. Nothing stays the same. It always keeps changing.’ ”
Driving into La Jolla on yet another spectacular Southern California day, I get a vivid flashback of what it was like to arrive from England and first see this stunning light, this state of grace. In England these are the fantasies we grow up with: that we’ll become millionaires or marry dukes or duchesses and end up in the south of France on some boulevard, sipping wine in the sun on a little bistro patio. A few palm trees. And here in La Jolla, on the California Riviera, it’s like that, plus a very slight haze making it seem all the more unreal. It’s like that down the end of the road from where Derek Armstrong lives. He just has to walk down the road and instead of arriving at a newsagent on the corner and buying a paper, he walks into a state of grace.
Derek — short, with graying dark curly hair, wearing a coach’s Umbro shirt and shorts, and with the classic bandy legs of the longtime footballer — doesn’t seem to have time to think about this. His living room shows no signs of soccer memorabilia, for the simple reason that soccer isn’t a memory; it’s still his life. Instead, the walls of his tidy little house are dominated by photos — well-framed, carefully hung— of his daughters’ weddings.
He grew up in the north of England, played for Blackpool, one of the top professional clubs, and subsequently coached there. “I came from winters when your mouth wouldn’t open. When I first started coaching the Nomads, we didn’t have our own ground, and we trained at Ski Beach, looking right across Mission Bay. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness me.’ ”
Derek had been invited over to coach the Nomads, a group of talented 16-year-olds. He was the first professional youth soccer coach in the area and probably one of the first in the country. The six-month contract was extended from 1981 repeatedly until 1987. “I never intended to stay. I saw it purely as a bit of fun. Different challenge, different country.” When the team won a national championship in 1982, the club started becoming professional, raising the quality of the staff, acquiring its own field and clubhouse. In the meantime he was also coaching the national Under-20 team for three years (he coached Marccla Balboa) and becoming the UCSD men’s soccer coach.
As we chat, a colleague swings by to drop off a diskette and sheaves of printouts, having worked out how to organize the fields and referees for the upcoming Thanksgiving youth soccer tournament, which will attract games on 28 fields for 258 teams with members aged 9 to 19 from as far away as Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota — and will be one of the dub’s few sources of income. Derek runs another tournament in spring that invites the head coaches from Yale, Harvard, Notre Dame, and other major soccer colleges to watch the high school talent on display, which helps to ensure a very high level of talent taking part.
At this point, soccer in La Jolla is perhaps better organized than in England: “You’ve got rec, you’ve got coed, you’ve got the huff-and-puff 50-year-olds — and double everything for the women.” His seven-year-old grandson plays four-on-four at the end of the road with cones for goals in a league run by parents and volunteers; at the other end of the ability scale you’ve got the Nomads challenging for the national championship. “The real professionals in the country are at the youth level. How did the national team get to be competitive enough to qualify for the World Cup without a professional league? They must have learned somewhere.
“They’re very competitive people, the Americans. If everyone in the world had the affluence of America, we’d be world champions.” As Derek talks, he’s unconsciously stepped into his new identity as an American. “A rich kid in England is not as competitive as a rich kid in America." The poor will always be hungrier than the rich, he means; the street kid from Sio Pauk) or Newcastle will always be more driven than the wealthy kid. But there’s something about British culture that makes the wealthy slow down and stop trying so hard, while Americans never stop going for the jugular.
“What do I miss? I miss the total day-to-day involvement in the professional club. Being able to jump in a car and see a game. Being able to interact with other people in the game you respect. America being so big, it’s difficult.” All the same, he has traveled far more than he would have done if he had stayed in England. “We go to Dallas, we’ve just come back from England, we’ve played Inter Milan.”
How have you changed, being in America for 18 years? * I ask.
“As a coach. I’ve become more worldly. I’ve traveled to South America, which most English coaches don’t do. I’ve interacted, fallen out with and battled South American mentalities, and in the end I’ve developed more appreciation of how they’ve played the game. The English have had blinkers [blinders) on for many years. We’re very narrow-minded in our tactics. We’re naive. The Premier League may be the most exciting league in the world to watch, but [I’m) not sure we’re producing the best players. We could have the best team in the world. There’s nothing missing except the mentality. We’re too structured. Frightened."
In a sense, soccer has left England, its native country, to become a world game, and it has taken Derek with it, making him willy-nilly a world citizen.
As a person, he’s become less narrow, he says. “I’ve integrated fully. My kids have married Americans. I’ve got nine grandchildren. Just recently I’ve enjoyed going to the Shakespeare, but I don’t seek out the company of fellow Englishmen.” He laughs about food. “I used to call burritos ‘envelopes.’ I used to say, ’Are we stopping for envelopes?’ Now I quite enjoy a chicken chimichanga.” He says the phrase as if the words still have a touch of magic.
As he talks, I’m remembering what happened to me when I was a high school girls’ varsity soccer coach, 10 or 15 years ago. I’d always prided myself on being able to pick up and go at a moment's notice, hitch to the airport and fly standby, drop in when I was least expected. Being known somewhere made me feel trapped; I was happier being anonymous. But coaching high school obliged me to meet the parents and recruit their help, to know the older sisters who were the school’s departed heroes and the kid sisters who one day might fill the all-too-obvious gaps in my team, to get used to the parents and local merchants who wanted to stop me and chat about the possibility of a state championship. To my amazement, I found myself loving it; I could almost feel the roots going down. The Brits I know in San Diego who work in labs can’t have this sense that the surrounding community, at all ages, expects something from them, and is grateful (usually) for what they’ve given. These Brits must try to create their own smaller communities, which is always harder.
Later I meet someone Derek coached. She can't say enough good things about him.
You’d never know from his accent that Lieutenant Chris Ball of the Internal Affairs Unit of the San Diego Police Department is not American-born; in fact, when he leaves a message on my voice mail and tries to think of something particularly English and witty to say, he can’t. (Note that when talking to a Brit, he feels the need to be witty, to use language as a performance.) His office, a corner room with two walls of windows and a view of the Coronado Bridge, has some memorabilia that seem to be deliberately amusing rather than wistful: an English policeman’s helmet (not his, as it happens) on the coat stand, a cricket bat hung on a wall, and two group photos, one of a graduating class of virtually identical coppers in uniform, another of a graduating class of virtually identical detectives, very suit-and-tie English. They could be leaving bank managers’ school.
At once he starts talking about accents, with a vehemence that surprises me. “When my brother was visiting a number of years ago, we were eating in a restaurant and he said, 'Oh, do you have any tomato sauce?' Now you and I know what he wanted was ketchup. Well, in the United States, if you’re in a restaurant where the waitresses are busy and you want ketchup, you’d better ask for ketchup, because otherwise you’re not going to get any. If you want to impress the gas station attendant, after you’ve lived in this country for 30 years, by saying ‘Check under the bonnet,’ and he’s busy, he’s not going to be checking your oil today. You need to say, ‘Can you check the oil under the hood?’ But there are people 1 know who insist on talking about ‘tomato sauce,’ who insist on talking about the boot and the bonnet and the lift instead of the elevator.”
I think he’s wrong to think that every enduring accent is a form of pretentiousness. Derek’s accent, for example, has lost little of its flavor, yet there’s no trace of snobbery in it; trying to change something that ingrained would be like the leopard rubbing at its spots with bleach. Chris isn’t thinking about Derek’s Lancashire, he’s thinking of the public school and yacht club accents, that “Nyhar-har-har!" laugh that says, “This country belongs to my friends and me.” But even that grating snobbery is a trap; it has value only in context. Doesn’t travel well. I know a man who talks like that, back in Vermont where I live, and only the most Anglophile of the locals can stand him. He’s lost.
My own accent slides around all over the place. The more confident I feel, the less precise and educated I sound, until I become a faux North Londoner. (I was born in London but left when I was seven.) The “proper” accent, to me, is not so much pretentious as cautious, wary of too much emotion.
Born in Cannock in the Black Country, Chris moved to a small village near the South Coast with his mother and grandmother, as his parents had divorced, living in a thatched cottage without water, gas, or electricity. At the time children were divided by a national examination called the Eleven Plus. Those who scored in the upper 40 percent went to grammar school for a more academic education that would prepare them for university and the professions; the lower 60 percent were sent to “secondary modern” school for a more technical education, supposedly fitting them for the trades. This was intended to introduce equality and meritocracy into education and liberate it from the class system; in fact, secondary modern kids were implicitly told they were academic and social failures, and soon the grammar schools were getting most of the funding, even though textbooks cost less than lathes and drill presses. A secondary modern kid had a lot more on his shoulders than just his school satchel. At 16 Chris left school and joined the police as a cadet.
“I didn’t have the advantage of a college education. The class system was alive and well in the 1950s and ’60s. If someone came into your office and sat down, you could say within 30 seconds, 'Okay, this person was born in Leicester, his parents are working-class people, he went to secondary school, and this is how far he’s going to go with my company if I decide to hire him.’ And all he’s said is ‘Good morning.’ The flip side is that you can say this [other] person is the son/daughter of a professional, he went to college or university, and he’s the sort of person I’d like to hire, based on what he’s wearing and how he said 'Good morning.’ I didn’t like that one bit."
As a cadet he volunteered to do voluntary police service in Jamaica, running an Outward Bound program. “While I was living in Jamaica, I visited Virginia and I just fell in love with it. I just felt comfortable here.
“I found a freedom in this country. You were judged on what you could do — not who you were or what you represented or who your parents were. In this country if you work at Vons as a checker and you decide you want a powerboat, you can have a powerboat. If you work at a gas station and you decide you want to buy a nice motorcycle, you can buy a nice motorcycle. I realize that if you’re talking about some kid in New York whose father’s in jail, he doesn’t know who his mother is, and he lives with his auntie, then he may not have that much opportunity, but for the most part, there is opportunity here.
“There were other things. I loved the beach, and I loved the ocean. Look: it’s October 28 today. Look out the window." It’s another perfect day. “It’s the end of October, and we can see out to the Coronado Islands, where I like to spend my weekends.”
I tell Chris that when I first hitchhiked around this country I found myself at someone’s rustic retreat — which was as big as my parents' house — on the banks of the Mississippi in Minnesota, watching the sun go down, drinking beer, and eating king crab legs. I couldn’t believe it was happening. In England you have to be a millionaire even to think in those terms.
“Yeah. I just can’t count the number of times I’ve had that same experience. I’ve got this awesome sailboat. It’s a 44-foot world-class open-ocean cruising sailboat.” He says the phrases one by one as if there is magic in each. It would have been unthinkable for him to own such a boat in England, he says, and even if he did, the local yacht club would despise him for having both the money and the nerve to think that he might be one of them. Here he’s a member of the San Diego Yacht club, hardly a backwater operation. “The membership (consists] of doctors, lawyers, professionals. There are also policemen." He corrects himself. “Well, there's a policeman. There are a couple of firemen. I’m on a couple of boards there. When you sit down, the guy next to you is a doctor, the guy across from you has his own engineering firm....” This unhoped-for acceptance is just as dazzling to many immigrant Brits as the California sun.
“Over here, everything seems so bloody doable,” Chris says, “even having a baby at 52." In England, we agree, people seem to fall more quickly (and comfortably) into middle age. Not many people are out there in shorts running through the villages; though the flip side is that they don’t suffer from the American fascination with appearances and the futile quest for the perfect body. And it’s easier to spend an evening in front of the telly over there because the telly is worth watching.
He has two brothers. One immigrated to the aggressively egalitarian haven of Australia, where he now runs a highly successful diving business. (“You can’t pick up a diving magazine without seeing articles about his business.") The other, who still has the accent, stayed in England. He worked for a series of pharmaceutical companies, and then started his own. He’s a big fish in a little pond, Chris says, a magnate and a magistrate in his own little village in Oxfordshire. He can call ketchup “tomato sauce" and he’ll still get served. “He has a lot of status. But if he came to San Diego — I mean, who has status in San Diego? I don’t care if you’ve got the latest Ferrari — so does your neighbor, three streets away.”
This brothers' success shows that a kid with the wrong background can get ahead in England after all: Chris’s sense of being excluded exists partly in his imagination, partly in his refusal to play the Establishment game. My guess is that Chris has a chip on his shoulder, as so many Brits have, and that chip has not only driven him from England, but it has driven him to avoid the English over here, to shed his accent, to be accepted in San Diego as he could never have been back in Cannock, and to prove himself by succeeding beyond his dreams, by buying the toys that only the upper crust can afford. In a sense he has left England behind more completely than any of the others; in another sense, it still has its heavy hand on his shoulder, like the policeman in our dreams.
The talk turns to his work. Chris shows me a newspaper photo of two cops holding guns on a suspect who is lying on the ground, being handcuffed by a third cop. “What would be the reaction of the British public to this photo?"
Outrage, I said.
“Exactly," he said. “The prime minister would be tossed out of office. But I tell you what. This department is one of the most professional police departments in the world. This police department docs a fantastic job."
He was a policeman in London — first a beat cop, then a detective— for six years in the tough East End. “It was very interesting. There are challenges that they have back in England that I don’t think we have here.” Twenty-five-story blocks of council-owned low-income housing, for instance. San Diego's toughest areas are still single-family dwellings on large lots with wide streets. In the area he worked in London, “You go into a [pub] and look across the bar and make eye contact with a guy and hold that eye contact for 15 seconds, and you’re going to have a fight on your hands. That person feels challenged. You’re challenging his space. In this city you can go into a bar pretty much anywhere, have a beer, bump into someone accidentally, and you’re not going to end up with a fight on your hands. Don’t misunderstand me in England you don’t have to be overly concerned with drive-by shootings.
“We do carry guns here. But from my perspective as a police officer, it makes your job a kit safer. And for a suspect, it makes their job maybe a little more difficult."
I think of Derek saying, “I’ve integrated fully." Chris has gone further: he has gone undercover.
“People are continually surprised. When I came into work I was asked what I was going to bring to the potluck tomorrow, I said, ‘Oh, I’ll bring a steak-and-kidney pie, or bangers and mash, maybe a few Scotch eggs.' They said, 'What’re you talkin’ about?’ And these are people I work with on a daily basis. They have no idea I’m from England. I'm comfortable with that. I’ve made no effort at all to retain my British accent.”
He doesn’t seek out the company of other Englishmen, and he doesn’t often go to pubs. “The only thing I insist on is HP [Houses of Parliament steak] sauce. I’ve got HP sauce on the boat, I've got HP sauce in the house.” Whenever he goes back to England he brings back HP sauce. Whenever family visit from England they bring HP sauce. When his baby arrives they’ll send HP sauce as a christening present.
Chris wants to make it clear that his rejection of England is not as absolute as it may have sounded. “Salaries and wages are great today in England. Things have improved 100 percent. Food is phenomenal. If you love to drive, there’s no better driving than getting on an English country road. England is an incredibly beautiful country. It has culture, it has history. There’s no better place to eat than a pub on a wet, cold, windy weekend. But I left that behind. For me, (San Diego) was just a hand-in-glove fit. I’ve traveled all over the world, but I just really, really enjoy this country. How long have you been out of England?”
About 18 years.
“Is England real to you? For me, when I think about England, it’s almost like I’m thinking about a movie. When I look at these [graduating class photos] 1 can look at me — and I get goose bumps right now, because I’m thinking, ’Was that really me?’ Or was that me in a different lifetime. And I don’t mean this lifetime, 1 mean was it me in a different lifetime? I went to this primary school in a place called Bransgore, you know, ran around with little shorts on, scuffed up my knees, sang in a choir, we’d go to Winchester and Salisbury each year to do this big [choir festival].... In the Black Country I remember running around up on the tailings of these old mines, running around Cannock Chase with my dad and my grandfather — but was that me? And I know it was, but it's like it wasn’t. It feels like it was a different lifetime. Because there’s more to you than just the flesh and bones. We’re as much spiritual, cerebral, psychological as we are physical, and I can say, yes, that was me physically, but was it me spiritually?”
He points out that everyone in his graduating photos looks the same, as if they were all brothers, whereas his department in San Diego has men and women, blacks, and Hispanics — and that’s true, though it’s partly a change of time rather than place, and the London Metropolitan Police certainly is more diverse now than in 1972. When we leave England, England sails on too; it’s hard to know where the boat is now, and it’s strange to see that many of the things we hated have changed. Sometimes it seems as if our leaving had nothing to do with England, and it was all just a function of our own impatience.
Every Brit I’ve talked to has said the weather was one reason why he moved to San Diego, or stayed here; yet the weather being so un-English means that the land, too, is un-English: Southern California is a desert, and there are no deserts in England. Again, this suggests a strange push-pull effect: what do you lose, if you find the weather you like? In effect, you lost civilization; “desert,” after all, means “abandoned.” So this poses a question that is both cultural and , architectural. What should civilization look like in the desert? How do you make this new out-post look and feel like home?
In Indio, civilization is depicted as an oasis, fringed with imported palm trees. An oasis, though, is not an English vision. An English vision would have to include grass, like the heavily irrigated grass verges of Coronado. Grass is an extraordinarily potent symbol out here in the dry quarters. I recently passed through a tiny desert town in Wyoming that had only one patch of grass, irrigated constantly, in the entire place: the cemetery. Says a lot about how we equate grass with comfort, and rest, and home.
N THE HEIGHT OF THE SEASON, BETWEEN JANUARY AND MARCH, THERE WILL BE AS MANY AS 2000 HORSES HERE, POLO GAMES EVERY DAY EXCEPT MONDAY, AND PERHAPS 300 GROOMS.
Put enough grass together in one spot, irrigate it heavily enough, and you have a polo field. That’s where I’m going: the Empire Polo Club in Indio, down a long driveway of pure dust, to meet a young Englishwoman who is working there as a groom during the winter polo season in the desert.
She meets me at the club office, where I’m still stunned by the transition from the parched mountains. “That still blows me away," she says, laughing, “every time I drive into Indio, out of the desert and into the greenness.”
Let’s call her Gillian Saunders. I can’t give her real name, as there have been slight visa irregularities that are currently being sorted out. Imagine her in working shirt and jeans, with that English cheerfulness (there is also a ghastly English whininess, a kind of steady drizzle of the spirit, but the Southern California sun cures that) and down-to-earth can-cope quality. The kind of person you’d entrust a $10,000 horse to, day and night. Or half a dozen of them.
She’s ridden since she was six, mostly on the weekends, mucking out stables. Her parents ran pubs and moved several times. She went to agricultural college for two years and was planning to take a year off before going on to university when she was offered a chance to groom dressage horses in Milan. She thought, what the heck, and went, only to discover that the owner had changed his mind and was going to do polo instead. Well, all right, she said, knowing nothing whatever about polo, and from then on it was polo — in England, Greece, Italy, Israel, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Polo is a seasonal sport, so three years ago when the summer season ended in England she decided to try wintering in the United States, which essentially boils down to Florida or California. Florida sounded too much like England, so she came to Indio. The next summer was Calgary, then winter in Indio, then summer at Del Mar at the San Diego Polo Club, and she’s now about to start her third winter season in the desert. She’s a citizen of the world. Her accent is already undergoing that familiar continental drift: she still says “another” as “anuwer," but “later” has become “lader,” in the American-Australian-Kiwi fashion.
“In England it’s a rich man’s sport. There’s a premium on land and on horses, so it’s very snobbish. In New Zealand any farmer with two horses and a bit of spare time will pull out his rig and play for fun. Here it’s a cross between the two. It’s more professional than New Zealand because you don’t have the professionals who pay the big money out there. Here you have the professional side but not the snobbery dement that you have in England. Everyone around here is so friendly. They’ll just wave to you as they drive past. At first I thought, ‘Do I know them?’ But they’re just like that."
Gillian takes me on a tour, with a border collic/Australian sheepdog mix called Lucky leaping up and down in the back of the pickup. Her horses look to have wonderful shine and color to my ignorant eye; she laughs and calls them fat. “Polo’s hard on horses," she says. They need to be constantly moving throughout a chukka (period), which lasts 7 minutes, but only in the sense that a period of football lasts 15. After 10 or 15 minutes of hard riding, the horse is ready for a break and a rubdown, though sometimes the same horse may be brought back in after a chukka’s rest.
I ask her if she plays. She laughs. “I’d like to, but I’m left-handed, and it’s in the rules that you have to hold the mallet in your right hand. Some players are left-handed and can manage it, but I seem to be completely uncoordinated."
The fact that this is her only handicap is in itself significant. In England, a groom would never play. English grooms, she says, are expected to know their place, which is a vastly inferior one. One of the major polo clubs is the Royal Berkshire, which at the time that she worked there was run by Ronald Ferguson, father of the Duchess of York. Grooms aren’t allowed in the clubhouse. She was grooming there once for a New Zealand patron — owner — who invited her into the clubhouse with him, even though she was coming straight from work and was probably a bit dusty. The guy on the door said, “I’m sorry, I can’t let her in, she’s a groom.”
“That’s bullshit,” said the New Zealander. “She’s not a groom, she’s my friend. You come on in." And in they went. In Indio, she says, as in New Zealand, it’s much more egalitarian. “If your boss can’t show up they’ll say, ‘Do you want to play his chukkas?’ In England they’d never dream of that.”
She shows me the main polo fields, currently under heavy irrigation, and the clubhouse. In the height of the season, between January and March, there will be as many as 2000 horses here, pok) games every day except Monday, and perhaps 300 grooms. Some owners stable a horse at Indio the way they keep a boat at a mooring. They drive out from LA to play just for a day. Others tly in and stay longer. It seems to be a cosmopolitan life. In Indio, most of the owners are American, many of the pros are from Argentina, currently by far the best polo nation in the world (“The kids are sat on horses out on the estancias when they’re two years old”), and the grooms tend to be Mexican, though there are several English grooms and others from all over the world. The same faces show up at all the polo venues, so they joke that the world of polo is a soap opera. Which rich owner’s gorgeous young wife has run off with the handsome Argentine pro this season? The grooms, of course, don’t have the most glamorous work, but a good owner will pay well, often cash in hand, and especially at Indio a couple of grooms can share a small apartment for maybe $500 and save some money, if they’re so inclined.
She doesn’t want to still be a groom when she’s 30. She’d like to work in equine research, ideally at the Helen Woodward Animal Clinic in Rancho Santa Fe.
Gillian hasn’t lived in England for three years now. “I was back for a month last April, and it rained every day. I was happy to sec my family, but otherwise there’s nothing for me in England. Just picking up a newspaper, everything seems so petty and small-minded. And formal. I really missed the wide-open space. And there’s always this thing where they like to build you up and knock you down afterwards;” Yes, I know that British jealousy, which is often turned with especial bitterness at anyone who has, in the eyes of those at home, got away.
“In this life, every six months you move again. I like that. I think that’s a positive thing. Different place, new people — that’s what appeals to me. If I stuck in one place I’d soon be bored, and I’d move anyway."
She sounds the way I sounded at her age; and now I come to think of it, she moved around a lot as a child, as I did. Perhaps we’re both looking for home, like everyone else, but for us home — the familiar — is (so to speak) a mobile home, it has to involve change.
Gillian’s at that threshold we all crossed once, still fascinated by what she has found, barely aware of what she has left belund, hill of energy, undaunted. She’s in that very American stance, her future in her own hands; but America has always been better at leaping for the future than understanding the past.
“America gives the illusion that it’s not a foreign country,” says David Calcutt, visiting the United States for the first time. I know exactly what he means: there's a strange cognitive disjunction that takes place regularly when an English person first ends up on this soil You tend to assume it’s a foreign country until you hear someone talk in your own language (well, more or less); but as soon as you’re starting to think that this is, after all, a fairly familiar place without too many surprises, like some hitherto unexpected quarter of the U.K., you’re thrown off again by something that happens, and the language seems to have betrayed you.
Perhaps the process of becoming American involves a gradual reconciliation between the two, the language becoming steadily less important as a mediator, the events more familiar. After a while you don’t need to make the constant comparison anymore, just as after a while you stop converting prices into pounds in your head. This is what is. It may not be what springs to mind when you think of home, and it may never become home, but it is what is.
And what is England, then? Perhaps there is no such thing as a country, only more or less recent recollections and what we make of them. Curiously, the most recent may affect us the least. When we are young and full of energy, we are where we are. When that energy fails us, we wrap ourselves like caterpillars in a cocoon of spun memories, in preparation for that last emigration, that most radical of departures.
— Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a regular essayist for National Public Radio and the author of Catching My Breath: An Asthmatic Explores His Illness and Signs of Life: A Memoir of Dying and Discovery. He teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Vermont.