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






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.

Invaders! The enemy is at the gates, and he looks just like us, but with better teeth. And really, we want to be his friend. And there are no gates. I’ve filed this piece under “Rants” and with good reason: I’m about to get right off my bike about British English’s gradual erosion and the slow, insidious advance of a simplified (dumbed down) form of American English.

But.

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…”