It’s very English out there in Grand Rapids today, cool, gray and drizzly. The kind of day that on the old island breeds chilblains, British reserve, cozy pubs and great writers.
It was this kind of day when my sister and I arrived in London two summers ago for a 10-day sojourn, sandwiched around a scholarly paper Maureen presented in seaside Brighton. I recorded in a journal our first morning in Hampstead, a delectable village north of London where you can easily kill hours on the wild natural expanse of Hampstead Heath.
A magical morning wandering around the heath. Runners, people w/ dogs everywhere. Huge old gnarled trees. Ponds, a man swimming the backstroke. Kites. Climbed Parliament Hill & saw the outline of the great city, slightly misty in the half-sun. Beautiful breeze up there. Felt perfect peace.
I’ve always felt perfect peace about England. Maybe it was falling in love with Petula Clark and the Beatles in my youth, followed by falling into the expansive worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens. I feel spiritually at home there. It is in fact my ancestral home, where in March 1807 a babe named Nimrod was born to single mother Catherine Honey in the Cornish coastal village of Tywardreath. The bastard Nimrod of Cornwall later came to Canada, where he fathered some children with wife Mariah and evidently mended shoes.
But back to England: They had elections there this week, with the Tories unexpectedly thrashing Labour, and the Scottish National Party proclaiming they aren’t done with that independence thing, not by a long shot. Reading about the elections, so short and cheap compared to our multimillion dollar marathons, took me back to that trip with my sister, and to my first trip there in 1976.
Way back then, I had literally dreamed about the green and pleasant land for months before going. When I flew in it still seemed like a dream, looking down at patchwork fields outlined by crooked stone fences. Much the same when I arrived with Maureen in summer 2013, whether sipping cider at the The Holly Bush Inn in Hampstead or gazing at the English Channel in Brighton, where young dudes played Ping Pong on the shore while massive, deep green waves sparkled like diamonds.
In the Lion and Lobster pub we saw a dad dine with his young daughter while their dog lounged under the table, and a waitress hugged an old standby at the bar. There’s a basic decency there that is characteristically British, and which Maureen and I saw play out more dramatically on a London subway.
A girl of maybe 7 years old hopped on the train just as the doors slammed shut. She turned around in panic and banged on the door with her palm. “Momma! Momma!” Her mother stood helplessly outside on the platform, and the train took off.
A family sitting across from us brought the girl to their side. “Don’t worry, we’ll get off at the next stop with you, and wait for your mother there.” Which they did, to the relief of everyone in the car.
Their small act of kindness stuck with me as much as seeing Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the glittering English Channel. Across the ocean and down through the centuries, it’s what connects me to the Brits, my own family and my spiritual home, be that here or abroad.