Thursday, 21 August 2014

Chapter 33: Clowning around and getting all steamed up

Dita (V)on Seas
Postcard: Bamforth & Co.

There's something I've got to get off my chest. My language has been getting a bit frisqué of late. Maybe it's because I'm looking forward to going to see the Boylexe boys perform next week. Or maybe it's because there is something about spending time on the salty English coast that raises my cockles, and peppers my speech. The fact is I'm hearing double entendre wherever I go. From the waiter at the beach cafe asking if he can do anything more for me, Madam, or ordering chips with extra mussels on the side, to spending hours getting it up (windsurfing) with the buff, young instructor describing in detail the art of handling his mast (boom, boom!).   

From sea breeze to sea tease...
Postcard: Bamforth & Co.

So maybe it was time to let off some steam and head inland for a family day out with friends to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, which was hosting its annual Steam Festival at the weekend.  As quintessentially English as a saucy seaside postcard, and from the same vintage too. I was transported back to the idyll of childhood memory by the mechanical pipe organs, horse drawn fire engines galloping round the field, and the odd gypsy caravan. As we feasted on traditional bratwurst hotdogs (oops, moving swiftly on) and some home-brew elderflower cider,  I thought, "This is the stuff of children's fiction, like Toad of Toad Hall, toot toot!,  or Fantastic Mr Fox's "cider inside 'er inside". This is the best of England."

Retirement Plan - who needs a Fortune Teller?!

An England that I have read about, if not felt born into. Despite growing up in the Home Counties, as the child of a Scottish mother and a Dublin-born father, I would accept the label of "British" at a push, but preferred "Citizen of the World". Or Celt. At school I even tried to change my surname to Mackenzie. Maybe as a first name it would have worked better...

Because, you see, England gets a bad press and as a teenager, then a young adult, welcomed in to live with families in France, Germany, Spain and Cuba, I would find myself both repeatedly apologising for, and distancing myself from, a whole range of English offences, ranging from poor cuisine, lack of knowledge of any other language, general ignorance and bad dental hygiene to Imperialism and Anglo-Saxon World Domination.

As an adult, I am married to a Flemish Belgian who grew up in Switzerland, and our children are bilingual. We prefer the term "Londoners". Even in London we've been greeted with "My husband tells me it's quite natural for English people nowadays to have your sort of surname..." No, no, I was quick to reassure her, we are quite foreign. Then, the other day, a friend sent me a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in response to my post on bread&circuses' Wot? No Fish!! (See Chapter 31) and, watching it, I realised that in my own mind, I have been in danger of perpetuating a single story about my own home country.

Outings like this one to the Steam Fair prompt me to consider aspects of Englishness I appreciate: humour (vintage Benny Hill?!), modesty (working on it), stiff upper lip (see Benny Hill), tolerance, rousing hymns (Jerusalem), Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron (again, see Jerusalem), Morris Dancers, volunteers preserving those strawberry fields forever, and, of course, the Village Idiot.  

There is a folk element to this culture, of course, that links back to its pagan Wicker Man roots.  The Edward Woodwood original, rather than the horror that is Nicholas Caged.  So I was interested to learn yesterday that there is a British Folk Art Exhibition on at the Tate Britain.   I spent my entire academic career looking further afield, maybe it's time now to look closer to home.  And if this sort of thing tickles your fancy, join me, it's on until the end of August. 

Photo:  Tate

That's all, folk!

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