Max_Porter_Grief_is_the_Thing_with_Feathers

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast: Max Porter, whose debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, is the official June pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize, it is available now from Graywolf Press. (Photo credit: Lucy Dickens)

 

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Shit and Death

By Sarah Zhang

Travel

The Devil Incarnate was airborne again. One shit-covered hoof landed on my hand, and the other kicked off the pump milking her teats. Two for two. She wriggled her black rump in triumph. Many have tried, but none have succeeded at exorcising this notorious Shetland ewe. It was my first day on a British sheep farm, and I was already locked in a losing battle.

Nursing my bruised hand, I reconsidered why I was here in the English countryside. It made sense logistically as part of my not so Grand Tour of Europe: two weeks of room and board in exchange for labor. I may have also mumbled something about “cultural immersion” and “work ethic” and namedropped Michael Pollan in a manifesto of sorts when I chose this organic sheep farm. The fact of the matter was I had no idea what I was doing, and I was just a suburban kid whose only previous contact with farm animals was the petting zoo and that time I chased goats around a biomechanics lab. Not a match for the Devil Incarnate.

The people patient enough to put up with my foolishness were Lawrence and Karen, the farm’s owners. Both were architects until the 80s, when the British economy collapsed, and they found themselves looking for a new line of work. With no farm experience other than beekeeping on the rooftop of their London apartment, they learned the necessary skills from the Soil Association, bought a farm, bought some animals, and set up for business. I admired their gutsiness and liked to think that my own escapade was in the same spirit of independence. However, I suspect they were considerably less clueless than I. Lawrence went to Cambridge, but he is a man of both head and hands. For fun, he used to drive a beat-up truck out to the middle of nowhere, have it breakdown, tinker with some things under the hood, and drive back. Karen, originally from South Africa, liked to say she had outback in her blood.

Most of their income these days comes from their flock of sheep, whose wool and cheese they sell at local farmers’ markets. It is an entirely family-run operation, with Karen making and selling the cheese and Lawrence doing the farm work, occasionally aided by his son and volunteers through the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF), which was also how I found myself in at their farm.

It didn’t take long to settle into the daily rhythms of the farm. At 10 in the morning, I set out with the sheepdogs to round up sheep for the day’s milking. Ewes were let into the milking parlor a dozen at a time. Most were cooperative, the Devil Incarnate being an obvious exception. With their heads in the trough, we milked from the back. Here’s a dirty fact – not a secret but often overlooked: a sheep’s teats are located at its rear end, so milk is dispensed in proximity to urine and feces. Not to worry sheep milk and cheese consumers, the teats are thoroughly disinfected with iodine before the pumps are attached. The milk stays clean, but the milker is sometimes not so lucky. It was not uncommon for an ewe to leave something other than milk at the parlor.

While I milked, Lawrence scanned the ewes for those in need of “haircuts and pedicures.” Two of the most common ailments afflicting sheep are flystrike and foot rot. Flystrike occurs when flies lay eggs in the sheep’s wool. As the maggots hatch, they eat their way into the sheep and kill it from inside out. The docking of tails, a practice much maligned by animal rights activists, is actually a preventive measure, as a sheep wagging its wooly tail spreads feces all over its hindquarters, attracting flies. Flystrike in its early stages can be treated by shearing away the dirty wool and applying an insecticide – a haircut and shampoo for those having bad a wool day. The pedicures were similarly a treatment for foot rot, which is an infection between the two toes of the hoof. A trimming and antibiotics usually had a limping sheep back to jumping hedges in no time.

* * *

Farms will make you nonchalant about touching shit. It was a matter of ubiquity. On a farm with 180 sheep, fifteen cattle, six cats, four dogs, two pigs, and a dozen each of chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl, the sheer volume made shit unavoidable.

Which isn’t to say the farm was filthy. This was the natural order of things: input (food, water) begets output (meat, wool, milk, and yes, shit). The process, though, is more circular than linear. Sheep spend the days grazing in the fields, deriving their nutrition from the grass and then returning the favor by dropping some nutrient-rich poop back into the field. Such was the ethos of organic farming, grounded in the harmony of nature. The grazing diet of sheep was supplemented by silage, cut grass that has been fermented in plastic-wrapped bales. In the rare event of three consecutive sunny English days – the moisture content of silage is important for its proper fermentation –grass in the ungrazed fields is cut for silage. Sometimes, a few wily sheep will have found their way into an ungrazed field and left a token of their presence. “You’ll pull out some silage from the bale and out comes a clod of shit,” said Lawrence.

The ubiquity of shit on the farm did not mean it could be ignored but rather than it needed to be dealt with, constantly. “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil,” philosophized Milan Kundera, but on the farm, we operated with the philosophy that shit was a more onerous logistical problem than is…anything else. It may take slipping on a pile of shit and falling into an even larger pile of shit to learn this, but so quickly one learns. Each day’s milking culminated with scraping down the yard outside the parlor. The “shitscraper” resembled a shovel whose blade had been replaced by a three-foot wide metal bracket, and it was remarkably ineffective at scraping up shit. The topmost layer of shit was pushed to a large pile at one end of the yard. It was usually then deposited in a field for fertilizer, but the tractor was out of commission during my time there and the pile simply built up. On rainy days – almost every day as this was England – a small pond formed in the middle of the pile and leaked streams of shitwater down to the fields. Irrigation and fertilization at once.

* * *

Lambing season begins in April, so when I arrived in July, the earliest lambs had grown to adult-size, but the late lambs were still in their stage of maximum cuteness. With their floppy pink ears, saucer eyes, and fleece as white as snow, the three smallest lambs were ready for their close-ups. Floppy, the smallest of the three, was even being hand-nursed with a bottle. Photogenic as this scene looked, it belied the fact that Floppy was in danger of not making it. Late lambs suffer the disadvantage of not getting their mothers’ colostrum, antibiotic-rich milk produced by the ewe right after birth. Ewes will also abandon a weak lamb, which is what happened to Floppy and also why we were bottle-feeding him. Floppy’s adorable disorientation was actually a sign that he was sliding south. He died the first week I was there.

A few days later, the two other small lambs – twins, one male and one female – were left alone in the barn after the other sheep had headed out to graze. A bad sign: their mother had also abandoned them. We moved them to a pen, fitted a heat lamp, and tried to hand-nurse the twins. It was difficult to feed the resisting lambs, not because they could wrestle free but because I was afraid of using too much strength against their delicate limbs. When they finally stayed still and allowed milk to be dripped into their mouths, it seemed out of defeat rather than a desire to eat. They coughed and sneezed and grinded their teeth, which sounded all too human. Lawrence said that they probably had pneumonia. From then on, the first thing I did in the morning was to check up on the twins. I would dread finding them limp on the ground, breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing them standing, and then unsuccessfully try to feed them. Cuddling with the furry creatures brought a rush of maternal instincts, and I briefly considered naming the twins. No names jumped out though, and I remembered the pity in Lawrence’s eyes that said there was no point in getting emotionally attached. The girl died three days after, and the boy the next night.

* * *

The day after the second twin died, Lawrence announced that he had to pick three lambs for the abattoir, a kindlier word for “slaughterhouse” borrowed from across the channel. We drove a tractor up to the fields and picked out the three fattest lambs. These lambs, almost as heavy as me, had to be wrestled in. They were driven to the abattoir on Wednesday and returned as vacuumed-packed cuts of lamb on Thursday. Thursday dinner was fresh lamb chops.

“This lamb is real good, mum,” said Lawrence’s son, “What’s in it?”

“Just garlic. No salt or seasonings. Good meat,” replied Karen.

“Speaking of good meat, remember 15? Now he was a tasty steak.”

“Feisty bull he was,” interjected Lawrence, “Made that indent in the lower gate. You can go see it.”

It’s hard to think of the slab of protein, fat, and connective tissue that grows on supermarket Styrofoam trays as having personality, but Lawrence could rattle off the life history of his steak. These animals on his farm have had good lives roaming free in the pasture. While I could accept “15” as a feisty bull before he became a juicy steak, I still couldn’t imagine Floppy cut up on my plate.

I once asked Lawrence what he planned to do with the dead body of a sick lamb. The lines around his eyes crinkled. “Fancy rack of lamb for dinner?” but then he turned serious, “I’m going to bury it. The authorities will tell you that a dead animal has to be taken away and incinerated because of disease but this lamb grew up on my farm. It got its nutrients from my farm, and when it dies, its nutrients return to the farm.” Worse to let an animal’s life go to waste. As shit is a fact of life, so is the end of each animal’s life. The life of the farm goes on.

With thanks to Facebook’s search function, apologies to Dave Gorman, and gratitude to Northern Hemisphere Simon Smithson, who agreed to answer my questions and be my friend.

Hello, Simon Smithson! How are you, who are you, and what do you do?

Who am I? A 34 year old Englishman, father to my 21-month-old daughter Libby, husband to my lovely wife Becky.

What do I do? In a nutshell, I work in an office. It’s a very nice office mind, (we even have an escalator), but still 9 to 5 office drudgery. Sometimes I feel like a battery hen.

Not quite the glamorous, globetrotting lifestyle that you, my namesake, appear to lead. Strangely, since befriending you on Facebook, my Gmail inbox has been replete with invites to parties and other exciting gatherings. Though it seems possible that I might be invited to parties on the other side of world by strangers, it seems more likely that your friends have instead been confounded by our similar, yet mirror-image like, email addresses and have sent me these invites in error. However, I am now able to explain that I am not the handsome, literary Kiwi to whom they intended to extend the hand of friendship, but am in fact a grumpy, exhausted, Yorkshire-dwelling Englishman who simply happens to share the same name. They must find the experience confusing, and slightly disturbing.


I am glad to hear you’re good – and in three months, happy birthday to Libby!

You know, I’ve never worked in an office with an escalator? And now I really, really want to.

I’m afraid I have to correct you, however. I’m an Aussie, not a Kiwi. If I let that one slip through to the keeper, I’ll never hear the end of it. It’s similar to being confused for a Welshman – something I learned from my grandmother, who, as a matter of fact, was from Yorkshire, as is my mother. They were from Rotherham – are you anywhere nearby?

Which brings me, by a neat piece of coincidence, to something I’ve been looking into recently. Yorkshire puddings. I’ve never had one, and I’d always had a mental image of a creme caramel kind of thing. Tell me, is this something you’d regularly eat? I realise this is perhaps not the kind of question you saw coming.

The escalator is overrated. The office is supposed to be one of the most energy efficient in Europe, though how they can acheive this with an escalator (in actual fact 4 escalators!) that run 12 hours a day, and a glass roof is entirely beyond me. Perhaps it’s just one of those self-fulfilling proclamations, like ‘this is the longest bar in the world’ (my university bar) or ‘this is the longest pier in the world’ (Great Yarmouth Pier), both of which are blatantly untrue, but have entered local folklore.

My humblest apologies about the geographic confusion (I notice you didn’t contradict the ‘handsome’ or ‘literary’). I can’t claim that geography is a strong point of mine; this I can only blame on poor choices early in my education (choosing German over Geography is a somewhat confounding choice; I can now speak the language, but have no idea where Germany is, or how to get there).

Rotherham is about 40 miles from my doorstep. It seems a strange coincidence that your family originate from so nearby. I’m not a native Yorkshireman, though I’m rapidly approaching the point where I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived elsewhere, so will achieve honorary status. My father’s family originate from the next County south. Maybe we share a common ancestor?

You’ve fallen into a common trap with regard to Yorkshire Puddings, which are not in fact a dessert, but an accompaniment to a ‘roast dinner’, which otherwise consists of a roasted meat (typically chicken, beef or lamb), roast potatoes and boiled vegetables, all served with gravy. In a bizarre twist they actually have identical ingredients to pancakes, but rather than made thin and fried are made thick and baked in an oven. If done properly they come out delicious, light and air-filled. If I make them they come out thick, heavy, and much like an unpleasant pancake.

My university bar was never going to lay a claim to anything; I worked there, and let me tell you, it was a decidedly low-rent operation. But speaking of bars, and Yorkshire, is there still a bar called The Atlas, opposite a cemetery, in existence, that you know of? Apparently my great-grandparents ran it for a little while.

I wonder if we do share any ancestry – my English ancestors went by either the surname Walton or the surname Dewick; and I think they got around a little.

As for backgrounds, did you know we have a crest? We have an actual, honest-to-God family crest, that, I guess, we can officially use. I’m not sure how one goes about using a crest, but it gives me a sense of belonging that feels strangely comforting. Typing my own name into Google has never been so rewarding.

So how is life in England, at present? I’ve always meant to visit, but never gotten around to it. My great-uncle, who’s an ex-Royal Marine, keeps telling me I should go back and visit.

Yorkshire is a pretty big place. However, a brief bit of research on Google Maps shows this.

Which appears to be a pub of the same name, opposite a graveyard, in Rotherham, so perhaps this is the very place! At the point at which the Streetview car captured the image the pub was up for lease (and given the state of the UK economy it probably still is) so if you feel like a return to your roots it presents an interesting option!

Neither Walton nor Dewick ring any bells, though I do know that at some point my family name was ‘Smithson-Hogg’. Thankfully they dropped the second of the two barrels before I came along. Simon Smithson is quite long enough thank you.

Not sure about the correct usage of a family crest. Does it have a motto? Are there eagles on it?

I often wonder whether our name has any link to the Smithsonian museum; is this something that you’ve thought about? Have you ever been?

Life in England is currently fair to middling, it’s a pretty average kind of place. Where are you currently? You seem to spend a lot of time alternating between Australia and the US, why is this? Talking of Australia, are you affected by the floods that I hear so much about? Coming from such a small, and thankfully generally natural-disaster-free, country events on such a scale boggle my mind.

I was wondering recently how similar the signatures of different people with the same name will be. This then got me thinking about the possibilities of fraud between two people with the same name; to prove I’m me all I need is my passport or driving license bearing my name and picture. This I could also surely use to prove I’m you. How does this work if one has an entirely common name like John Smith? Can I just go into a bank with my passport and withdraw all funds for any one of the inevitable gaggle of John Smiths on the banks records? How fragile this concept of identity!


A pub landlord you say? Well… I’ve heard of worse ideas. Although I don’t know about this whole warm beer business. Is that true, or just a cruel and unusual stereotype?

Simon Smithson-Hogg? I can’t even imagine what kind of person you, or I, would be, with such a name. It’s just so… so very different. The emphasis on the syllables is all different, it changes the sounding out of it… how strange. Maybe this is something people should do as a daily meditation; throw a ‘Hogg’ on the end of their name to see how it sounds.

The crest has a knight’s helmet, three suns, and a number of feathers. I’m not sure how it’s officially used, but apparently you can get it in mousepad form. Which must have been what our ancestors had in mind…

I’ve never been! I’m not sure if James Smithson had ever been to the States – I know he charged his son with founding an institute for the benefit of all mankind, and he had enough ready cash that he could just up and order such a thing done and be reasonably confident it would be taken care of.

Which segues neatly into my back-and-forth to the US and back. I used to live there, until I was left jobless by the GFC and moved back. Now I’ve got friends from my first stay, from back here, or from TNB, and that makes it a lot easier to go over. And, honestly, I just love it. Have you yourself been?

I’m in Melbourne right now, and, thankfully, unaffected by the floods. Queensland has been hit the hardest but my home state is also not faring too well, with record flood levels in some towns. What’s been great is the reaction of the country; people have been so good about coming together to support those affected.

Hmmm.

I think we’re going to need a passport comparison. Mine is shocking, by the way. It’s a horrible scrawl I developed in primary school and never trained myself out of.

We probably shouldn’t publish them to the internet though.

Glad to hear that the floods haven’t affected you directly. The news coverage in the UK has pretty much stopped now, which is either an indication that the situation has improved, or that something sensational involving either X-Factor or Pop Idol has overtaken events.

The warm beer thing is a bit of a myth, though until recently bitter (served at room temperature) was more popular than lager (obviously served chilled). I’m not sure Rotherham would prove a good location to cut your landlording teeth; it does have a reputation for being ‘a bit rough’, which generally means you’ve got a much greater chance than is acceptable of ending a night out with fewer teeth than you started with…

It would be interesting to know the origins of the family crest, though I suspect these things are just generated at random by some dubious website nowadays. Does it have a motto? I’m fascinated by the idea of having something potentially inappropriate in modern times as an official family slogan.

I can’t believe that with all your cross-Atlantic (does that apply if traveling from Australia to America? Remember my lack of geographical prowess!) traveling you’ve not yet been to our museum! I’ve got some friends who live in Washington DC, so I really ought to visit at some point. Unfortunately I’ve only visited the US three times, and I doubt either can be considered a real taste of the place; the first was to Orlando with my wife’s parents, the second was to Las Vegas to get married, and the third was to Los Angeles to do some work for Harbor Freight in Camarillo.

I have to confess I had to look up the meaning of GFC; I’m going to blame it on the late hour, and the lousy week I’ve had this far. What did you do before the redundancy?

You’ll be glad to hear that I’ve resumed reading Sparks. I absolutely need a break from Infinite Jest, which isn’t as riveting as I was led to expect. I’ll let you know my thoughts as I progress further, though so far I’m enjoying it very much.

There is no motto for the family crest; we’ll have to come up with something. ‘Orbis non sufficio’ would seem to have the requisite amount of flair – although I think that may be taken.


And no – I think that’s trans-Pacific. I’ve yet to set foot across the Atlantic; between the two of us, though, we’ve crossed the two big oceans. Maybe after the next redundancy I’ll have a crack at the Baltic, or the Adriatic.

Two jobs before the redundancy I was in PR; one job before I was in consulting, for the redundancy itself, I reviewed porn sites.

I know. Best job ever.

And speaking of which – I think it may be time to say good job, Simon Smithson, and adieu, on this interview – we’ve covered a lot of ground and the internet is a tyrannical master on how much space we can allocate. Sir, it was a pleasure, and I’m honoured to share the name.

What’s your middle name, by the way? Mine’s Nicholas.

Unfortunately we don’t also share a middle name, mine’s John.

It’s possible the redundancy was a blessing. I can image that job would play hell on your joints.

Thanks for the opportunity to get to know you better, though it may turn out that few others find this conversation interesting I’ve found it rather enjoyable!

Carpe Botulus!

Author’s Note: This has been written shortly after England retained The Ashes (it’s a real thing) in Melbourne. I am wearing a knitted cricket jumper and drinking tea. I’m doing my bit for the national stereotype.

A Brief History of Cricket

Cricket is an exquisite sport enjoyed by gentleman of fine taste, and tolerated by ladies of a discerning disposition. Invented, like all the best sports, in England it soon spread across the globe with the ever expanding Empire.

Originally devised by the Earl of Thannickshire to keep his staff occupied during the summer months, the eleven-a-side sport was soon picked up by the middle and working classes and played on the finest lawns across the country, every village green, and even in the streets by the orphaned ragamuffins of old London Town.

Unfortunately the great scoundrel epidemic of 1834 led to the imprisonment of up to seventy ne’er do wells, all of whom were exiled to Australia. These men quickly raised the popularity of the game in Australia, where they’ve been taking it far too seriously ever since.

Meanwhile merchant traders travelling to India and the West Indies taught the locals in all the major ports the game; a decision many regretted almost one hundred years later when the West Indies bowling attack was all but unstoppable. It was also taught to traders in China, but despite being able to understand mah-jong, the rules of cricket somewhat befuddled them.

Despite being the greatest game on Earth, the popularity of cricket was diminished by the invention of both rugby and football. The former being more entertainingly violent, the latter more easily understood by every nation on Earth.

Cricket took a further knock when the United States ended their Civil War and created violent versions of British sports to give the world baseball, FOOOOOTBALLLLL!, and basketball. For added measure they also took hockey, the game of choice for sexually confused private school girls, and added ice, Canadians, and Rambo-esque violence to sate any remaining bloodlust amongst the new nation’s sports fans.

In the modern age cricket is a marginalized sport that is often ignored in favour of more dazzling events, such as darts, snooker, and lawn bowls. However, it is one of the few English sports that has successfully blended old traditions with new technology and has recently seen a resurgence in England’s ability to win games. They have recently defeated Australia, in Melbourne, Australia. This is significant, because in its long and glorious history England vs. Australia is the only game of cricket that anyone really cares about.


The Ashes

The Ashes is a tournament held every eighteen months or so, hosted alternately by England and Australia. Each tournament is comprised of five tests (matches) and each match lasts for up to five days. If England are hosting it happens during the summer, but it’s played during Christmas if it’s in Australia.

The Ashes is almost as old as cricket itself, and was started because of the aforementioned habit of the Australians to take things far too seriously. The players essentially play for pride, because the actual trophy is a minute urn older than the jar of salad cream in my grandmother’s fridge. It contains, surprisingly enough, ashes, taken as a souvenir from the legendary ‘Hercules Test’ of 1844 which lasted twelve long months and ended in deserved draw.

The England-Australia rivalry is one of the greatest in any sport because it is fierce but good natured and rarely descends into violence. This is largely thanks to both sets of fans enjoying al fresco dining, the consumption of beer, and directing witty songs at each other.


Instances of Humour in Cricket

Cricket commentary is often rife with humour, as commentators spend five days alongside each other with admittedly very little going on in front of them. They can often be heard entertaining themselves by making lewd remarks about any young ladies in attendance, and satirize the faces of crowd members with the misfortune to be either unattractive or unusual in some way.

It has been known for cricket commentary to descend into absurd, existentialist games of I Spy which only ends when Shane Warne inevitably spies ‘B’ for ‘bosoms.’

For many enthusiasts the funniest thing that has ever happened in cricket is when Michael Holding of the West Indies stepped up to bowl to English batsmen Peter Willey. The commentator proudly announced that ‘the bowler’s Holding the batsman’s Willey.’

Tragically, listeners were unaware of the extra ‘e’ in Willey and many broke down in hysterics under impression that not only was the bowler sexually abusing the batsman, but neither the umpires nor commentators seemed particularly phased by events. Fortunately the mix-up was soon put clear, although by that point England had already lost and Holding was under investigation by the authorities.

On the pitch ‘sledging’ is commonplace, and refers the exchanging of cheap insults between batsmen and bowlers. Often this amounts to little more than childish accusations of homosexuality, ineptitude, or a baseless questioning of the opponents ability to satisfy his wife sexually. On one occasion an Australian batsmen asked England’s Ian Botham ‘how’s your wife and my kids?’ Botham, widely considered the Oscar Wilde of sport, replied ‘the wife’s fine, but the kids are retarded.’ Haha!


Understanding the Complexities of the Game

Cricket has come along way from its humble beginnings, but is very much the same game played by the Earl of Thannickshire’s man servants all those years ago. You may, after reading this, be inclined to try watching an actual game yourself. The following is intended as an instructional guide to aid your understanding and following of the action:

Cricket matches can be played on beaches, quiet streets, school playgrounds, village greens, and even in hotel rooms with two or more people, a chair, a shoe, and a rolled up pair of socks. However, your best chance of viewing a test match will be by visiting a cricket ground, which will boast a full sized pitch, a good bar, and more men in white than a lunatic asylum— and nearly as many lunatics.

Cricket can be quite simple to comprehend, because almost everything is called a ‘wicket’ and wicket rhymes with cricket, so it’s fairly easy to remember.

A cricket pitch is vaguely circular, with a dusty strip in the middle. This strip is called a wicket. At either end there are three stumps of wood (stumps) with two bits of wood perched along the top. These are also called wickets. Like basketball, the aim of the game is to score as many runs as possible by hitting a ball with a bat. Runs can be scored by running between the wickets, or by hitting a ‘boundary.’ This can be achieved by hitting the ball to the edge of the pitch along the ground for four runs, or over the edge of the pitch for a tantalising six runs.

But the bowlers (pitchers) will try to best the batsmen by ‘taking a wicket.’ This can be done either by hitting the stumps, by forcing the batsmen to block the ball with his leg (against the rules), or if a fielder catches the ball between the time the batsmen hits it and the time the ball hits the ground.

Unlike most sports which last, at most, a few hours and are divided into halves or quarters, cricket lasts from 11am to 6pm over five days. There are breaks for lunch at 1pm and tea at around 4pm. 11pm is, contrary to popular medical belief, a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking— although it is considered quite common to drink anything other than ale before lunch.

At lunch fans and players convene in the pavilion dining hall where a light lunch is served. The salmon at Lord’s is famous the world over, although the oxtail soup is not to be turned away lightly! Tea is exclusive to players only, as they enjoy a full Devonshire cream tea and Vera Lynn records in the Gentleman’s Lounge. Of course it is possible to purchase equivalent sweet treats within the ground. It is considered polite, after tea, to move onto either wine or spirit drinks.

Clapping is the standard and only accepted expression of approval within cricket grounds. Unlike American sports, cricket does not encourage horns, whistles, face paint, body paint, costumes, or any form of nudity. This is relaxed slightly during the Ashes, but that’s largely to accommodate visiting Australian fans. Make sure to only clap when something happens (when it does you’ll know), and when everyone else is.

Fortunately for you, the uninitiated, cricket is full of nonsense terms which, when used heavily in a sentence, will make sense to those around you; for example ‘Oh, gosh. That reverse sweep of the googly was rather exquisite— if only they’d fielded fewer slips and shifted the gully leg-side I dare say we would have had a fair shot at nipping the bugger’s wicket’ is little more than a string of made up words with ‘wicket’ thrown in at the end for context. It really is that easy.

Finally

You hear the term ‘that’s not cricket.’ This refers to cricket’s standing as a gentleman’s game, with cricket a synonym of ‘fair play.’ However, it can also be accurate said of any object, activity, or person who is not a game of cricket.


Author’s Note: A surprisingly high amount of this post is factual. Seriously.

a sign outside Lord's Cricket Ground, London during the summer

a sign outside Lord's Cricket Ground, London during the summer




We’d spent five years dodging the wedding bullet. Now, though, after picking me up at the UK airport and bringing me to his rented house, dear Rodent was down on both knees and talking seriously about something.


Me: “It sounds—and looks—like you’re proposing marriage. Are you?”

Rodent: (Lots of words we don’t remember.)

Me: “But I thought we didn’t want to get married.”

Rodent: (More words we don’t remember.)

Me: “I had no idea you wanted to get married. Did you just think of it now or something?”

Rodent: “Oh no, I told my kids a couple months ago, and they were quite pleased.”

Me: “But you didn’t tell me! Why didn’t you tell me?!”

Rodent: “I guess I just forgot.”

Me: “Forgot?? You FORGOT to tell me?! How could you forget—“

Rodent: (Breaking in) “I wanted to ask you in person.”

Me: “Awww….”

Rodent: “But you haven’t answered the question.”

Me: (Swept away with joy and tears) “YES, OF COURSE!!”

 

After much discussion, we decided to get married in England before I had to return to the USA. I would need approval from the British government in order to marry in the UK—-unless we got married in an Anglican Church in England.

So we met with the vicar of the largest, oldest, most beautiful Anglican Church in town. Among other things, he told us we’d need to attend services once a month, so for the next few months we went to Evensong and very much enjoyed his sermons and the choir.

The vicar had also told us to go to our parish church and hear our banns read three weeks before the wedding.

Arriving at the parish church a few minutes early, we saw that no one had shown up yet. Since there seemed to be no church parking spaces, Rodent dropped me off at the door and went to find a parking place. I watched him drive off—and crash into the church’s brick wall—but he instantly rallied, backing up and driving off.

Minutes later he returned, but still no one had shown up. We waited for a half hour and then went to get groceries. Rodent happened to glance at the supermarket clock…..and saw that it was newly Daylight Savings time. We had turned up at the church an hour early! We rushed back and seated ourselves just in time, holding hands and smiling at each other as our banns were read.

Days later we moved into, and frantically readied, our newly-bought home for our children and grandchildren coming from L.A. and the East Midlands of England.

Meanwhile, I searched for proper wedding clothes since my usual garb is jeans, and Rodent found the suit he’d worn to his father’s funeral. I bought an antique wedding ring online which turned out to be too big, and Rodent found his father’s wedding ring which fit perfectly.

We were ready….and nervous….and it had begun to snow rather seriously. The entire family piled into two taxis, giddy that The Day had come. I was immensely relieved when we got to the church five minutes before the 2:30 ceremony.

The church was magnificent and silent, with large red and white bouquets on the altar.

The vicar smiled, greeted us, and said: “We didn’t think you were coming. The ceremony was to begin at 2.”

Horrified, I said: “OH, MY GOD!!!”

I glanced around, horrified again, and said: “OH NO, I JUST SAID ‘GOD’ IN CHURCH!!”

The vicar seemed amused but didn’t waste a second. He signalled to the organist to begin the processional, and gently started me walking down the aisle on my son’s arm.

We joined the waiting Rodent and his son at the altar and began singing a hymn, but for some reason there was a little red-shirted body between me and Rodent—-my grandson who’d decided to sing with us, after which he stepped back to take photographs. His blue-shirted twin brother had already begun to video the event.

As the ceremony continued, the vicar quietly said to Rodent and me that he’d picked up the wrong copy of the Bible, so he went to his office for the right one. The twins’ mother came up and asked where the vicar had gone, and I dug around in my pocket for our wedding rings, passing them along to Rodent to give to his son.

The vicar returned and read from the Song of Solomon. Then Rodent and I exchanged rings and said our vows. We were aware only of one another, as if no one else existed.

In closing, the vicar said he’d been told that happy couples laugh and read and talk together, and he felt that we were one such happy couple.

Thus the fallen-away Quaker and the lapsed Calvinist son of a Scottish minister were wed.



Vicar, Judy, Rodent









Signing wedding certificate






Imagine you’re an 18 year-old bloke born and raised in Sheffield, England. You’ve just finished high school, have no plans for university, and are trying to figure out what to do with your life. There aren’t many apparent options. Sheffield is a gray, aging steel town, and if you don’t think of something else you’re going to end up working in a factory. Or maybe not, because the local economy is shit and a lot of the steel mills are closing.

The one thing you have going for you is you’re an aspiring musician. One day you miss a bus and find yourself talking to another chap who’s in a band. He invites you to audition. You’re thrilled at the prospect of joining an actual band, and you want to play guitar, but it’s clear your skills aren’t quite up to the task. Or at least not playing an instrument. To your surprise the band asks you to become their lead singer, which at that point is the greatest moment of your life.

There I was in Islington, England, in 2004 BR (Before Rodent), my first time in the UK.

I had chosen Islington on the whim of it being Tony Blair’s as well as Sir Walter Ralegh’s sometimes home. My trip’s purpose was to visit sites I was writing about for a play about Shakespeare the woman.

After a brief night’s hotel sleep in Islington, I was down in the lobby awaiting a rental car to drive from London up north to Salisbury where I’d arranged a three-week stay in a B&B. The 2 ½-hour drive ended up taking 5 ½ hours—-and I was WAY alert the entire time.

The rental car deliverer handed me the key to a 5-speed Vauxhall, showed me where to put the key in the ignition and said: “You’re driving to Salisbury . . . and you’ve never driven on the left side of the road . . . seated on the right side of the car?” Exit a head-shaking rental guy.

Since the taxicabs behind me had begun blinking their headlights and honking, I did a quick seatbelt buckling, found the windshield wipers switch (it was raining, of course), headlights switch, heater switch, clutch, brake and gas pedals—-but not the gear shift lever. AH . . . on my left, of course! So I shifted up and left as the diagram showed for first gear, goosed the gas, and the car died (I later found out I’d shifted into third gear).

More big black taxicabs entered the little roundabout and piled up behind me. To get out to the street, the only way was to squeeze to the left. So I did, fully expecting a collision and arrest. Then I remembered The Rule: ALWAYS DRIVE ON THE LEFT.

Now I was at a traffic light with no car to follow and imitate. And I’d been told to turn right. Rolling down my window, I said to the poor man about to walk in front of me: “When the light turns green, can I turn right?” (I had too much pride to add: “Even though all the cars in those lanes are FACING ME!!?” He looked at the signs and said, “Yes, there are no signs prohibiting a right turn,” and walked past me as the light turned green. All I wanted was my mommy. Despite being dead, she encouraged me to proceed . . . perhaps so that I could more quickly join her.

The only way to avoid all those cars facing me on the right was to go beyond them nearly onto the pavement across the street—-which I did. I then was in the far left lane and at another light . . . again with no one to follow.

The car died again as I started up in third gear. Cars passed me (on the right) in frustration. A white van got ahead of me, and I followed its every move through central London (and several red lights) to Lewisham, where I lost it.

I’d gotten used to the strange first gear, but then became aware that I’d gone through Lewisham twice, so I stopped at a 7-11 kind of place for directions. A couple of men stood at a tall table drinking coffee.

“Does either of you gentlemen know how I can get to Salisbury?” I said.

“SAWLSBREE?” said the neatly dressed older man.

“No, Salisbury . . . spelled S A L I S B U R Y.”

“Right, Sawlsbree. I used to live there, but couldn’t tell you how to get there.”

“No problem,” said a much younger, work-uniformed man. “First take EYE TOY—-”

I had expected motorway letters and numbers, not body parts. So I pointed to my eye, and said, “EYE?”

He said, “No, no: EYE, EYE!”

“You mean “H”?” I asked.

“No, EYE!” he said.

“The first letter of the alphabet,” interrupted the other man.

“Oh! . . . ‘A’!!” I said.

“Yes, EYE TOY to M25 . . .” and the young man wrote very good directions on the back of my business card.

Then I asked where the loo was and thanked them.

On the way out I remembered not being able to get the car into reverse, so I stopped another man waiting to buy a bottle of soda.

He met me at my car and watched my futile efforts to shift up and to the left. We traded places, he fiddled around, then said, “Pull the shifter’s collar down, then do as you did.” Sure enough, it worked.

I then followed folks leaving the place (at the left exit) and aimed for EYE TOY.

I got lost several times and asked for directions, but at last, at nightfall and in vigorous rain, I was on the M1 motorway from London to Salisbury.

I hugged the left lane with huge lorries, and prayed, as cars speeded past in the right lanes. Lorries passed other lorries (on the right of course) and I continued to pray. At one point I thought my panic would overcome me, but I couldn’t imagine negotiating a stop on the side of the motorway. Then I noticed right in front of me a lorry with “NORFOLK” printed on the back. I knew it was Norfolk, England, but took it as a sign of hope representing my home in Norfolk, VA.

Nothing could break my optimism after that. I arrived safely at the B&B several hours later and had a marvelous three weeks in England.

I also racked up £200 in parking fines.

Stephen Moss, one of eleven candidates for Professor Of Poetry at Oxford University, has given TNB the following interview, just two days before voting begins on 21 May.

Moss is the Guardian‘s candidate for the P O P, and he’s a regular writer there.  A year ago, he explained to Guardian readers why he is standing for the Oxford poetry job, and in the article you can read or hear him read some of his poems:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/05/oxford-poetry-job-ruth-padel

Voting for the P O P closes 18 June.  The winner will assume duties in the autumn, primarily of delivering 15 lectures at Oxford University.

Last year, Derek Walcott, the front-runner, bowed out because the campaign had turned ugly. Ruth Padel won the election, but resigned after a few days, having admitted to alerting newspaper journalists about Walcott’s possible sexual misconduct with students.

The election campaign’s turmoil resulted in two new election procedures:  electronic voting, and voting for a month rather than a day. Previously, voters (only Oxford graduates who attended graduation) had to be present at Oxford to vote, and they had to wear their Oxford gowns.

Stephen Moss answers my questions in the following email interview:


1) Are you running for the position so that people will call you POP?

 

Yes, I have to admit the title does appeal. Even poets have ego.

 

2) What kinds of arguments are you having with the other candidates?

So far, all very good-humoured. Only slight disagreement was with Roger Lewis. I asked him to spread sexual innuendos about me to generate some publicity, but to my surprise he said no.

3) You’ve said that you will give the POP stipend to “needy poets and writers, and to good literary causes” as well as establish a yearly two-week poetry festival in Oxford (not Oxfam) and buy anyone who votes for you a drink. How will they prove that they’ve voted for you—–or is that a minor issue?

I will of course trust them. I’m assuming my vote will be so small, the round will not be too expensive.

4) When you deliver your 15 lectures (not all on the same day, we hope), will you be accompanying yourself on the lyre?

No, I will employ the London Philharmonic.


5) Will you need an assistant POP?

No, I want it to be completely dictatorial.

 

6) Would you recommend the meals at any of the colleges at Oxford U?

I was at Balliol in the mid-1970s and the foods was fine: spag bol for about 31p, I seem to recall, and nice desserts for 12p. I got very fat, and still am a bit on the puddingy side.




7) Which of the other candidates has the most attractive haircut?

An important question. I have not looked closely, but like the severity of Geoffrey Hill’s style.

8) Which previous POP most intrigues you?

I like Auden’s lines – the lines on his face, I mean. His poetry I can take or leave.


9) Are you wearing a sandwich board?

Not at the moment. Conventional jeans and short-sleeved summer shirt.


10) Would you live in/at Oxford or commute?

I would have a suite at the Randolph. I will be in Oxford on 3 June for an event at the Phoenix Picture House featuring other candidates (starts 8pm) and will be checking in then, fully expecting to be in residence for five years. Thank you so much for your interest and support.

Yours in poetry, SM






I love my country. Not in a weeping, slightly creepy Glenn Beck way, but in a sincere but emotionally reserved way. I’ve had people comment that I don’t often write about England, so this is going to be the first in a series of love letters/handy guides to English culture. In this first one I’m going to discuss our oft maligned cuisine, because that’s the tangent I ended up going on…

On February 2, 2009, the sentencing of reputed Mob boss Joey “the Clown” Lombardo was all over the Internet. I read about it while in the final stages of finishing a draft of a new novel, and the sensationalism of the trial felt far away and fake . . . which may be less a reflection on the nature of Mob trials and more on the nature of what seems real vs. surreal to writers finishing projects. I was, it is clear in retrospect, in a full-blown state of mania last February: the third or fourth in my lifetime, but probably the worst, the most disruptive and acute. Which is to say, the best, the most intoxicating. But the mania was just beginning at this point; it had not yet hit its peak, though already I had not slept in days or maybe weeks, not more than a couple of hours in the deep middle of the night, and already I was starting to drop weight (one of the more pleasant side-effects of mania.) Joe Lombardo was sentenced to life in prison, but it would be fair to say I didn’t give a shit about this; it was not on my radar. The legendary Mafioso, even now reputed to still be either Consigliore or Boss of the Outfit from behind bars, was reported as 80 years old at the time of the sentencing, and I remember, as I read the news off a computer screen in my home office, that being the only part of the story that really made an impression on me: his age.

It seemed crazy, because my father has always referred to Joe Lombardo as a “good kid.”

For the first time in my life, I googled Joe Lombardo. I was sure they’d gotten his age wrong in the news, but no, he was born in 1929. My father was born in the final weeks of 1921. When you grow up around somebody, I guess that window of time makes a great deal of difference.

Prior to the “Family Secrets” trial, Joe Lombardo was supposedly on the lam. He eluded the police for quite a long period, which would be curious enough considering he was already an elderly man and in no condition for life on the run, but was all the stranger considering that—during the time he was supposedly “in hiding”—people I knew from my old neighborhood, including my father, saw him frequently cavorting in plain sight. He continued to dine at my father’s favorite Italian restaurant, for example, where he was widely known and where he commonly bought drinks for other customers, including my parents. He did not, it would be fair to say, seem like a man trying to exist under the radar or full of anxiety about being apprehended. My parents never seemed to think it was particularly strange when they ran into him.

This makes sense when viewed from a certain angle. Once, many years ago when I was still a girl living on Race Street, across the street from Joe Lombardo, my father told me a story about him. In the story, my father asks Joe why he doesn’t move out of the old neighborhood. “You’ve got more money than god,” my father says. “What are you sticking around here for?” And Joe says simply, “This is the only place on earth where I never have to look over my shoulder.”

It was true. In our neighborhood, Joe Lombardo had the status of a President or a King. Though any powerful man has powerful rivals, such rivals did not dwell in our one step-above-a-ghetto near the intersection of Grand and Western. The men in our neighborhood were either average blue collar guys like my father—bartenders, truck-drivers, cops—or they were such small-timers in the Outfit that Joe was like a father to them, not a competitor. It would probably be fair to say that most men in the hood would have been thrilled to take a bullet for him. It would have been like the equivalent of becoming a war hero.

For a week now, I have been thinking and writing about my father, who turned 88 on December 14. Though one of my dad’s brothers was a Mob bookie, for the most part ours was a “civilian” family. Well, perhaps that would be an overstatement. My family, over the years, has included street-gang-founders, drug dealers, murdered gangbangers, and several criminals of the more “private” variety, whose crimes may in fact have been more devastating—or were to me. But ours was not a family that attracted media attention for lawbreaking, and in the neighborhood where I was raised, some amount of lawbreaking was par for the course, so what I mean is that we were “typical” for the milieu in which we lived. My father had worked in a factory, and later he owned a bar, and later still—after his back and leg and ulcer all deteriorated; after the death of his elder brother propelled him into a nervous breakdown that ended in his institutionalization—he sold his bar and worked at a friend’s until retiring early, in poor health, in his mid-50s, when I was only ten years old. He was a man who had claimed for years that he would never live to see 40, and with sound reason: he had had two-thirds of his stomach removed from his bleeding ulcer before I was even born, and throughout my youth he tended to be hospitalized and to hover at near-death almost yearly. Yet now he is an old man living on the first floor of my home, and in most ways his life has been an unremarkable one.

He was devoted to jazz, but he was never a musician. He was an Anglophile, but rarely traveled due to a lack of money and rabid fear of planes—the last time my father was airborne was 1961. Once or twice, our phone was rumored to be tapped due to my father’s relationship with people who might have relationships with organized crime; once he and his nephew believed they had been tailed by an unmarked car while they were driving to buy some doughnuts . . . but my father was, at the end of the day, an average guy whose relationships with the Infamous and Glamorous were casual and loose, and whose own life was certainly of no interest to the media. He was the sort of Italian man who lives below the popular radar, while Don Corleone, Tony Soprano and Joe Lombardo become American Icons. He was invisible, as most people are, and that has always been absolutely fine with him.

I have been struggling now for a week to find a way to define my father on paper, but of course anyone could have told me from the get-go that such a task was impossible. Like everyone, my father is defined by a complicated and paradoxical web of what he is and is not—by where he fits and has always failed to fit. The great paradox of Giovanni (“John”) Mario Frangello’s life may be the sentimental attachment he held until he was nearly 80 for his old neighborhood, where he had been born with a midwife in the apartment where I was raised. He refused to leave the neighborhood even after marrying a non-Italian girl who didn’t fit in there; he refused to leave even when, in the late 1980s, a rash of murders killed several people in one summer, including a teenage boy with no gang ties and was shot in a case of mistaken identity right across the street from our house, and well as an actual gang leader along with his pregnant girlfriend, an old friend of mine from elementary school. He not only refused to leave, but on the night I went away to college he wept to my mother, not so much because he was going to miss me (though I hope that was part of it) but because he felt betrayed. The way I was raised, family didn’t leave. Blood was thicker than water. Higher education was synonymous with putting on airs. My departure symbolized that I thought I was “too good.” When he told my mother that he predicted I would fail or drop out of school within the year, oddly this was probably wishful thinking on his part.

Though he adores me in the way the parents of only-children often do, I suspect I am still a bit of a disappointment to him in small but myriad ways. He does not like how much I work. He does not like my son, age 3, being in full-day preschool. He thinks I get angry too easily, though he is the only person in my entire life who has ever accused me of this. He doesn’t like that I straighten my curly hair. For most of my life he has chided me for my eating habits, mocking me for not eating more meat and—whenever I’ve been ill, which is admittedly often—saying there’s nothing wrong with me that a good cheeseburger wouldn’t cure. He doesn’t like that I don’t wear tweed, even though I am confident he has never met a woman in his entire life who did wear tweed. Still, it is something he aspired to in his daughter, and I failed to live up to it. The day I left to study abroad in England, which might have sounded like his lifelong fantasy given his Anglophile nature, he was hospitalized with a severe ulcer attack. He did not like me getting on airplanes, but probably he also considered my living outside the country as a form of high treason.

If it ended there, of course, it would be simple. How many stories seem to end there—with the ways fathers are never “satisfied;” with the ways they find fault.  Those stories hurt, but they are easy.

But the truth is, my father was also a role model in ways he never anticipated, simply by being himself. In a neighborhood where the heroes were Mobsters—reputed killers—as well as gang leaders and thieves who evaded capture and the occasional crooked politician who rose from our ranks, my father was a gentle man. Not a gentleman, perhaps, of the Cary Grant variety he aspired to just as he aspired to tweed for me, but a gentle man who rarely rose his voice. When I routinely watched the other kids around me get smacked around by their fathers—watched them come to school with bruises and heard their stories about “getting the belt,” my father never raised a hand to me, much less my mother. When I was in seventh and eighth grade and my friends were becoming prey to predatory older men—their divorced mothers’ pervy boyfriends or twenty year old guys who would give them coke in exchange for a blowjob—my father offered a silent protection by virtue of his status as a neighborhood patriarch: nobody fucked with me. When a former classmate of mine was gang-raped at fifteen by a group of neighborhood men who beat her with a coat hanger and threw her down a flight of stairs, and the men were never brought to trial because everyone—male, female, young and old—seemed to concur that the girl “deserved it” for being “a slut,” and many rushed to offer faux alibis for the rapists, I was forced to digest both the knowledge that this place, this neighborhood where such things happened under the radar everyday, was where my father had insisted on raising me, and yet also to digest in turn that my father was eons from those animals and would never hurt a woman. For that story—and for others much closer to home—I have often struggled with a kind of “survivor guilt” because I got out, relatively unscathed, of a place that, for young girls, could be a war zone, due in no small part to my father’s constant gentle protection. I had a safe haven, whereas most of my girlfriends did not.

And yet, when my best friend was raped by a man we’d gone to school with while she was asleep at his mother’s house, my father argued that it wasn’t “really rape” because she had gone there to sleep, and what did she expect?

This, the same friend of mine whom my father paid to bring on family vacations with us, whom he bought countless lunches and dinners and who practically lived at our apartment on the weekends when her mother, who was young and divorced, was out drinking and meeting men at bars. This girl he called his “second daughter.”

Can this be what he means when he says that I get angry so easily?

The truth is: the paradoxes of my father cannot be fit onto any page. They cannot be curtailed into one week of my mind. I will digest them, fight them, mull them over, contradict them, yearn for them, for the rest of my own life, in story and quietly, alone.

From my father, I learned or inherited a fear of planes. A propensity towards mental instability that, like him, I manage most of the time to keep at bay, occasionally succumbing to an undertow beyond my control. A cynical humor, a religious skepticism, a strange obsession with all things English even though as a kid I often said “I hate England!” just to spite him. A penchant for Valium and narcotic painkillers and old Woody Allen films and dark wood beams on ceilings and old dilapidated barns. A loyalty to family that borders—in the WASPy, middle-class America in which I now dwell—on the unseemly. And an abiding belief that “blood is thicker than water,” but—unlike the Italian blood lineage of which my father’s family spoke—a belief that I, with my Chinese daughters and surrogate gay, Latino “brother,” am the one who chooses what falls within the definition of “blood.”

This is longer than I planned.

I could go on.

Instead, one final story. Once upon a time, when I was maybe ten years old, I was given a bunch of M&Ms to sell for school. Whoever sold the most got some crummy satin jacket that nobody wanted anyway, even though we all wanted to win. I brought home my sales sheet from school, prepared to start humping it door to door like every kid who has ever had to sell some meaningless shit for some cause we can’t even remember anymore. My dad, however, said to me, “You know what, Flower, I was just at the club earlier today, and Joe Lombardo was saying he had a taste for chocolate. You should go over to his house first.”

“The club.” Yeah, that’s one for another post someday, not now.

Joe lived across the playground. Back then, the world in which I lived was so small that I remember being put out by the fact that my father wanted me to walk all the way across the playground instead of just going next door to troll my candy. But I did it. I was aware that Joey the Clown was “famous” and although his daughter babysat me sometimes, I don’t think I had ever been to his house before.

His wife came to the door. But when she saw it was John Frangello’s daughter, she fetched Joe.

I showed him my forms and told him about the M&Ms.

And he said, “I was just telling your dad I had a taste for chocolate.”

He bought every M&M I had. Though I may be embellishing this in my memory, I think he actually insisted on signing his name to every line, even though I explained it was unnecessary, and that under “quantity” I could just write “all.” Maybe things like this are what earned him his nickname.

I got the satin jacket. I never wore it, but for years this was a story I traded on in school, and the other kids liked the story, just as they enjoyed hearing about my mother’s grandfather who died by falling into a volcano while on vacation in Hawaii.

I realize now that Joe probably never told my father he had a “taste for chocolate.” I realize now that there was simply a kind of “Adult Group Think” going on that had to do with coming from the same place and having a similar sense of humor and code, and that it was somehow imperative to both men that I believe I was doing Joe a favor, instead of realizing that Joe was doing my dad one.

In defining my father, then, one small point on the scale–along with him not being a gang-rapist or abuser; along with him not being the kind of father who could help me with my homework or who was proud of me when I was accepted to college but who has come, over the years, to be proud of me for not dropping out after all, and for growing into the kind of mother who will be able to help my kids with the kinds of papers he didn’t understand–along with all of these things is this: my father is neither a criminal nor a glamorous public figure like Joe Lombardo.

He is an old man who refers to Joe Lombardo as “a good kid.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA-

It started in childhood, of course. Everything does.

The year: 1987.

The film: THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

Starring: Cary Elwes…and his steamy British accent.

Oh that melodious accent. It was scintillating. It was fatal. It was official: I was obsessed. From that moment on, I’ve considered myself an accent connoisseur (pronounced with the proper French intonation which evokes thoughts of sweet nothings whispered in a darkened chateau whilst clutching Bordeaux in vintage stemware). I love accents both thick and light, both guttural and pleasant-sounding. European, Australian, even Southern. Accents are music to my ears.

Now technically speaking, everyone has an accent. I mean, we Americans are considered the ones who “talk funny” to, say, the Irish. A very official (ahem, Wikipedia) search confirmed my theory. Groups of people develop accents because of geography, ethnic makeup, and social class. One interesting factoid I unearthed from Wiki: “It has been theorized that the accents of certain groups in the USA today resemble the English spoken by the settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries more than it does the English spoken by most Britons today.” Sweet. We speak the same English that John Smith seduced Pocahontas with.

But let’s get to the nitty gritty: American accents, fair as they may be, are old news to my wanderlusting ears. Ever since I heard Cary Elwes utter, “As you wish,” to Princess Buttercup, I was done. Sign me up. In junior high, a British foreign exchange student named Christopher charmed me (and all the other girls) when he read a poem to the class about his parents meeting in “Smelly New Delhi.” But Southern California in the 1990s was not hot-accent central, unless you swooned when you heard horny guys saying inappropriate things to you as they drove past. I needed more, I needed bigger. I needed the real thing.

My junior year of college, I had the opportunity to study abroad. First choice: England, naturally. I nearly made myself dizzy when I first got there, drowning in the wide variance of British accents that London had to offer. Everywhere I looked, cabbies were calling each other “Cheeky bastards” as they raced through the London streets (on the wrong side of the road, no less). Surly bartenders were calling me “Love” but somehow not really meaning it. Groups of intoxicated, track suit-wearing rugby fans on the street were constantly yelling “Tosser!” at each other and asking me if I’d “Fancy a ride, sweetheart?” And since they, unlike the cabbies, were without means of transportation, their offer could only mean something lewd. But I still loved the accents.

When I got settled in my exchange house in Oxford, I was a bit disappointed to discover that my three male roommates were all from America. Borrrrrrring. But when I finally immersed myself in the dining halls and common areas of Hertford University, which was actually pronounced HART-ford (I think the Oxford dons did that simply to test of who really knew what they were talking about and who was just bluffing), I discovered the most pleasant-sounding accent of all: received pronunciation. Translation: that hot, snotty British accent. I know, I know. Snotty is not good. Trust me, I found that out the hard way.

These British boys, always named Alistair, Duncan, or George, came to Oxford from moneyed families older than my home country, wearing gold rings on their pinkies stamped with their initials, which were also their fathers’ initials, and his father before him. These boys drank and partied like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I soon realized why: because their whole life was already laid out before them. They had gone to the best secondary schools (high schools, in Brit-speak), passed their A levels (the Brit equivalent of SATs), and now were living it up at one of the most prestigious universities in the world before moving to London, getting a top job at a bank, and marrying their equally-rich (and very bitchy) female counterparts.

This is a generalization, of course. But it was disheartening to learn that the majority of these golden-tongued males were only out for one thing: slags (hooches, if you will). And this American slag wasn’t so down with that. Sure, I may have made a few social blunders that made it seem like I was playing their game – did you know “knob” doesn’t mean doorknob in British slang? It was very well-received. As was my declaration that I liked Duncan’s pants. Trousers were what you wore on the outside, I was told. Pants were underwear. Oops.

Even after being pursued by a Jason Statham look-alike whose real name was- I kid you not- George Burns, I started to miss American boys. Men, I mean. Our country grows them nice, I realized longingly from 3,000 miles away. And I had never appreciated them as I should have. After an exciting (and educational) year abroad, I was happy to come home to a country where the men played real sports (cricket does not a legit athlete make), dressed like males (nary a striped sock or pink shirt in sight), and loved passionately. Take that, Italians!

Sure, sure, I still swoon a little when I see a movie starring an actor with a deep and intoxicating British accent (Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, and the ephemeral Johnny Depp have the best accents in the business today), or hear an Australian accent in a bar (and trust me, they’re always in bars). But the accent I’ve come to love the most is one I never thought I’d hear, let alone be obsessed with: a little bit rough-and-tumble Maryland, with a twist of New York by way of Florida. This accent caught my ear with the very first words it uttered: “So, uh, what are you doing later? Can I take you out?” And it continues to bowl me over day after day. It’s the first thing I look forward to hearing in the morning and the last sweet, comforting thing I hear at night. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not the accent so much as the person speaking with it that I’m obsessed with.

And that is true music to my ears.

I spent my first 10 days in the Americas, in New York City in November 2008, just after the election and right around the time the financial crisis was just starting to bear its rotten molars.

Walking around a deserted Lower Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon—along Gall Street, past the New York Doom Exchange and up around the Ground Zero mausoleum—as the sky promptly went black around 3.30pm, and the wind came howling in off the Hudson, it crossed my mind that perhaps ‘Ghostbusters’ had been intended as more of a tourist information film than I’d first thought.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man had come bounding around the corner.

The whole of Manhattan smelled fusty and decaying—like wet dollars mouldering somewhere below ground. The imposing historicist architecture and the rickety, clockwork subway clogged with the dust of ages made the experience feel like a voyage back into the dark days of the last century, in the company of Thomas Pynchon. The skyscrapers stood like pristine simulare; shining statues of the gods lining the entrance to a dead Roman city.

Like many Europeans, I get most of my cultural information about the modern United States from hip hop, and hip hop of a specifically New York bent, due to the surfeit of esoteric folklore exported by the Wu Tang Clan.

I felt like I’d been to Staten Island even before I (almost) went there.

Before, during and after my visit to New York city, I kept on encountering these frothing panegyrics to the advent of a ‘post-racial United States’, as if somehow decades of segregation and mutual hate had suddenly been magically eradicated from the record. So these ideas were clanging around my brainpan throughout my time in the country and for a long time after I got back…

I must explain what a completely alien universe I come from: I grew up in a small village in the Lancashire countryside which shares a postcode with the town of Blackpool—a place so right wing that it hosted the annual Conservative Party conference all the way through the Thatcher era. It was the venue for her infamous 1999 speech on “the callous and unjust … judicial kidnap … of Senator Pinochet” (sic).

The smoke only cleared in the bar of the local I used to drink in during my time at university in Leeds when someone leaned over to me in the last week of my course to inform me, in suitably hushed tones, that the place was “a BNP pub” – as in the jack-boot, Union Jack, shaved-head-and-a-pitbull, send-the-buggers-back, Jack British Nationalist Party.

I had absolutely no idea.

For four years.

I have to make it clear that in the entirety of my closeted Northern-English upbringing and early adulthood, before travelling to New York, the only person of African descent I’d ever really got(ten) the chance to have a proper conversation with was a Jamaican feller my auntie was going out with.

In the mid-1980s.

Unfortunately, as a great-grandchild of another empire built on slavery, and one which is perhaps still more overtly class-ridden than any other, I feel that I live and work in a white, middle-class Never Never Land most of the time.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Within a couple of hours of arriving in New York, I’d already bumped fists with and been christened ‘Big Andy’ by a purportedly-rising hip hop star in Times Square, and I’d been given a free guide to the Top of the Rockefeller Centre by the most cheerful lady I’ve ever encountered in the service industry.

Still mulling over those reports of the triumph of American ethnic integration, I saw the joyous chap dancing freely and screaming out the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ by Arthur Russell to the broad, freezing daylight air of a Sunday afternoon flea market in Brooklyn, as the harbinger of some ethnological Arcadia.

I’d heard apocryphal tales of people dancing in the streets following the election, but I did not expect that this would actually be the case.

It was all I could do to stop myself joining in…

“I wanna see. All of my friends at once!”

(So do I, mate, so do I!)

With all of those odes to the new, improved, supra-racist US of A ringing in my ears, I felt like the lead in a solarised version of ‘Coming to America’.

(That programme was worth ten freaking clams, dude!)

Standing on a train platform in Jamaica, Queens at the end of the trip and choosing to take the demographics in evidence as basis for a violent kneejerk reaction, however, I was struck by the fallacy of the notion of a ‘post-racial America’.

I do acknowledge that people dress this up as ‘more about poverty than race’, and I recognise how far towards this ‘new’ America things have progressed since the days of wholesale jiggerypokery by the Federal Housing Authority and full on white flight, but the smörgåsbord of cock cheese served up about the ethnic melting pot must be based on the diversity of Manhattan alone, am I right?

To the ignorant bystander: to someone like me, growing up in the politically correct climate of the United Kingdom of the 1970s and 80s, poorer areas where at-a-glance it appears there could be an African-American majority tend to engender the following kind of reaction:

“Post-racial America? Gimme a break, wieners! Where the Jim Crow did you get that idea!?”

Then the friend I’m visiting informs me they are off to something called a ‘Huxtable Party’ and all of this rarefied and constipated white guilt; all of that politically correct dogma and the full force of my inherent gormlessness about these things floods my psyche in such a torrent that I’m left spluttering and tongue-tied and utterly dumbfounded.

Despite what the media might say (even in the Guardian newspaper in March 2009), I can assure you, most of England is still pre-medieval in these matters.

In a not dissimilar fashion to Prince Henry of Wales, I just do not get it.

“A Huxtable Party?”

“Yeah”

“What? as in loads of white people dressing up as people from ‘The Cosby Show’!?”

“Well… Yeah. You should come”

“Thanks but I don’t think I’d fit in…”