Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “England”

Divisions of England, then and now

In 1966 I went to study in England, and spent two and a half years there. It took me about a year to get over the culture shock, and to appreciate different aspects of English culture — or rather English cultures, for there are several regional cultures.

Forty years later I visited England again, on holiday this time, and revisited some of the places I had known, and explored some new ones. I found that there were many changes, some expected, some unexpected. I’ve described that, and some of the changes I noticed here.

Then someone posted this graphic, which illustrated some of the changes I had noticed, and some that I hadn’t.

The most startling change to me is the one on chips.

Back in 1966 the area marked above as “gravy on chips” was definitely salt and vinegar.  I never, ever saw anyone have gravy on chips.

Whether bought from Sarah’s or Sweaty Betty’s, it was only ever salt and vinegar.

And in the area marked on the map as “salt and vinegar”, chips were unheard of. No matter where I went in London (and I went to most places on my London Transport free pass), there were no chips, only “French Fried Potatoes”. Chips were strictly north of the Trent.

The area marked “curry sauce on chips” was unknown territory for me, so I can’t comment on that.

So what happened? Did “French fried potatoes” go out with the bowler hats?

The bit about Greggs, I don’t understand much, but when we visited Cornwall in 2005, pasties were as scarce as chips in London in 1966. We asked at several places, and they sent us somewhere else, until we eventually foudn them at the 6th place we tried. And everyone in Bodmin spoke with Estuary accents.

The most astounding thing of all, however,  is the beer.

Before starting my studies in Durham I worked as a bus driver in London for 6 months. After a union meeting, which was held in a pub (the Telegraph on Brixton Hill), I was accosted by a conductor, who wanted to know about the big buses in Johannesburg that I had talked of at the meeting. Then I bought him a drink and he told me  he was the king of Streatham, and offered to take me on a tour of London and a trip to Brighton. He had been in many jobs before he became a conductor — street sweeper, rider on the wall of death, barrow boy. He had been in the cooler once for three months for scaling a motorbike. He bought me a drink. Then we went round the corner to another pub, his favourite hang-out, it appeared.

There we pooled our meagre resources and bought another drink. He scorned me for drinking cider, and said I should drink bitter. I said that draft bitter was usually flat. He said that didn’t matter, it was the taste that counts. The English like their beer warm and flat. I can think of nothing more insipid or puke-provoking. Then John starts waving and beckoning to his friend Reg, who is over at the other bar opposite. Reg, he tells me, is a tit-tat man. What the hell is a tit-tat man? Well, he’s the chap at the races who stands at one end and waggles his fingers and the bookies then know what every horse is doing. Reg is one of the best tit-tat men there is. Reg comes round and joins us. I like Reg. John introduces me as Steve, and Reg called me “Stephen”, so I called him “Reginald”, which provoked much giggling. Then he tried to guess my age, and said I was 32. Then changed it to 27 (I was actually 25). He said I’d never guess his age to within five years. So I said he was 57. No, he’s 56. He seemed rather amazed. He talked a little more. Then I said goodbye to John and Reg, and slipped away quietly, leaving them talking in a very lively way to someone else. The closing bell had rung, and I came home.

That was London, the area shown on the map as “craft ale”. Does bitter count as craft ale? There was bottled ale, but that was too fizzy. So English beer was either too flat or too fizzy. Nothing in between. Then I went north to Durham and discovered Newcastle Brown Ale. Now that was beer, the best in the world, I thought. Lion Ale, the beer Natal made famous, came a rather poor second, but still way better than bitter, or lager. And in Durham no one had ever heard of lager, except perhaps a few people who had gone to Germany on holiday.

So when did ale move south and lager move north? Was that yet another thing wrought by Margaret Thatcher?

 

 

 

 

Gilgamesh: it’s a long way to home

GilgameshGilgamesh by Joan London
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frank Clark, an Australian soldier, wounded in the First World War, marries Ada, an English orphan, and takes her back to Australia with him. They try farming in south-western Australia, but life is hard, and their two daughters grow up, one helping on the farm, and the other working as a maid in a nearby hotel. A visit from an English cousin and his friend leaves the younger daughter, Edith, pregnant, and she sets out to find the father of her child in Armenia, just before the Second World War breaks out.

It is a book about travel, about friendship and loss, and about the way in which peoples lives connect for a while, and are then parted and they never see each other again, or sometimes met again in unexpected ways. In that way it seems similar to real life, where the twists and turns of the story are not driven by plot, but often by chance, or spur-of-the-moment decisions. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. And so this story has a ring of truth, and seems close to real life.

Yet it also has a dream-like quality. I don’t know about other people but many of my dreams involve preparing and planning for things that never seem to happen, because something else intervenes and turns things aside at the last minute.

It is this combination of realism and dream that made the book interesting to me, wanting to see what happens in the end, because one never knows what to expect. The characters read The Epic of Gilgamesh, who, like them, travelled a long way from home. In some ways home is where you are, and in others, it is always somewhere else.

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Dissolution: how revolutions consume their own children

Dissolution (Shardlake Series)Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Historical novels are not my favourite genre, as I tend to spend too much time looking for anachronisms, but C.J. Sansom seems to get around that. I first read his Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War, and then [boo:Dominion], which is a kind of “what if” novel — what if the UK had surrendered to Germany after the fall of France in 1940?

Dissolution is set in the period of the English Reformation in the 1530s, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and is a combination of historical novel and whodunit, a genre popularised by Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.

Ruins of an English monastery

Ruins of an English monastery

In Dissolution Thomas Cromwell, who masterminded the English Reformation, sends a commissioner to the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to arrange for its dissolution and surrender. The commissioner is murdered, so Cromwell sends another, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, to continue the work of the first one and also to investigate the murder.

I ought to know something about the English Reformation, but I don’t know as much as I should. When I studied church history at St Chad’s College, Durham, in the 1960s, it formed quite a large part of the syllabus, but it was not a period that particularly interested me. I was more interested in the missionary period, which, where historical novels are concerned, is covered by Melvyn Bragg‘s Credo. I suppose that’s why I became a missiologist rather than a church historian.

Reading Dissolution reminded me of why I did not much like reading about that period of history, whether church or secular history. There is no doubt that the English Church wanted reforming, but the cure was worse than the disease, and C.J. Sansom brings this out clearly in his novel. None of the characters is particularly admirable. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, suffers from a physical deformity, which seems to reflect a spiritual deformity as well; he is naive and ambitious. He does have a sense of justice, but when push comes to shove, it makes way for ambition and political correctness every time.

Destruction_of_icons_in_Zurich_1524One of the things I did know about Thomas Cromwell was that he ordered the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which I have found useful for family history, among other things, but most of what he did seems to have been bad, and motivated by greed and ambition. I have little reason to suppose that C.J. Sansom got his character very wrong. So the book gives something of the flavour of the times, even if the actual events it describes are fictitious.

But like much historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, it also carries “the burden of the present”. George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is an allegory, a parable about how revolutions consume their own children. It is set in a differnt period, and uses different literary techniques, but the same message comes through. The dissolution in the title of the book is not merely about the dissolution of the monasteries as institutions, but the dissolution of the people whose lives are disrupted in the process, and the dissolution of the English Reformation into a cesspool of corruption and greed.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace

There was a protest against the dissolution of the monasteries, called The Pilgrimage of Grace, which tunred into a rebellion. It was defeated after its leaders were given a safe conduct to travel to London to negotiate, and were then brutally murdered.

And so there is much in it that reminds me of the dissolution of South African democracy, twenty years after its inauguration, where the high ideals with which we began have dissolved into patronage, greed and corruption. Apartheid was South Africa’s Lent, 1994 was its Easter, the following 7 years were its Bright Week, and now it is winding down.

The character in the book for whom I felt most sympathy was the exiled Carthusian, Jerome, who was regarded as mad and dangerous, but retained something of the original monastic ideals, and his integrity.

For more on this, and its relevance to our times, see Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

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