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The Shipwreck Rose: Think of England

Thu, 09/30/2021 - 09:42

In high school I was friends with a Jersey girl named Andrea who lived in Tenafly, in the Palisades above the Hudson, and who was such a manic Anglophile she dressed herself in the Union Jack. With her Union Jack go-go boots or a Union Jack mac, skinny legs, and sharp-cut circa-1964 mod bob — with straight-edge bangs she called “fringe” — she looked ready to riot at Brighton. It was Andrea who took me to my first Manhattan nightclub, the Peppermint Lounge, when I was 13 or 14. Andrea brought along a lounge-lizardy male friend from school, who had a floppy New Wave haircut and went on and on about how much he loved Ayn Rand. We crossed the river by the PATH train and got home at dawn. I dozed for an hour or two in a La-Z-Boy recliner in Andrea’s basement, feeling like life had begun.

In those days, I would not have called myself an Anglophile. It was a bit embarrassing — not just claiming an affinity for an entire nation (silly), but voluntarily putting yourself into a subservient position as a fan, a follower, a wannabe. But I am old enough to admit it now: Deep down, I’ve always been an Anglophile. A terrible Anglophile. The worst. Along with my cringey penchant for romance reality shows in which women choose bridal dresses or fiancés, being an Anglophile is my greatest secret shame. Even in eighth grade, British punk meant more to me than American punk did. The Clash, X-Ray Specs, the Buzzcocks, Generation X (“The Snooker Hall is empty, cause they’re all out playing pool / Hustling down the Fulham Road, doing deals with Mr. Cool”).

By 10th grade I had slowly and surreptitiously started to acquire tacky Royal tchotchkes: a mug with the Queen Mum on it, a vintage ashtray with Churchill’s mug clenching a cigar. A decade later, when I was in magazines in Manhattan, I tried to figure out how to cross the Atlantic and work for British Vogue rather than American Vogue. I arranged an interview with a confused human-resources person in Mayfair, but that never happened. I did write twice for British Vogue, but one of those features (about going to motorcycle school in Las Vegas to learn to ride a Harley-Davidson) was killed for being “too American.”

My Anglophilia reaches its peak, annually, in the run-up to Christmas. The fever set in early this year: It is the last week of September and I am already finding moments in the crowded day to peruse the online selection of food hall hampers at Fortnum & Mason and select shipment dates for almond paste from Botham’s of Whitby. I assume everyone on my holiday-gift list wants to be subjected to reprints of obscure books from Slightly Foxed of Hoxton Square, London, or a brightly colored tea towel illustrated with “cottages and cornflowers of the Cornish coast.”

Here’s an unpopular opinion: British people have more fun.

I base this unpopular opinion on documentary evidence — viz. “The Canterbury Tales,” “Peep Show,” “24 Hour Party People,” “Fleabag.” British people don’t stop partying when they graduate from college. In Britain, middle-aged women put on short leopard-print skirts and high heels and go dancing. They get boozy in the local pub and karaoke-sing “What’s New Pussycat” with a motley chorus of neighbors (like the motley pilgrims in Chaucer, except in the cinematic England one of the cast is always an Elvis Presley fanatic with a pompadour). They hold one another up as they stumble home on rain-slick cobblestones after the club closes. They laugh till they choke while wearing paper Christmas-cracker crowns. They are free and easy when it comes to one-night stands (again, see Chaucer, see “Fleabag”), and when it comes to hats and fascinators.

My English friend Eve used to tease that the North York Moors were my spiritual home. Once, when Eve and I and a bunch of other English friends were renting a holiday cottage for a week in a village called Beck Hole — Beck Hole! — I got a cinder in my eye leaning out the window of the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Railway. “Proof,” Eve said. “No one else is getting coal motes in their eyes.”

This was 20 years ago. My late Aunt Mary and I, back then, used to love nothing more than to pop in a VHS tape, settle into the couch, and gorge on original-cast episodes of “All Creatures Great and Small,” set in the Yorkshire Dales. To this day, simply saying the words “Tricky Woo” will make me laugh. (Fans of “All Creatures” will know what Tricky Woo is.)

The internet has shrunken time and space and, for better or for ill — I vote ill — created a global pop culture that is fast homogenizing language and daily habits. But differences and strangenesses remain between us. For example, I totally don’t know what they mean on “The Great British Baking Show” when they say “short crust” or “bagsy.”

I have the distinct impression that the social lives of British friends are happier, and that this is so because they don’t lose hold of old connections as the decades pass, as we Americans do. The British are constrained geographically. America’s geography is too vast; we move around too much to maintain old friendships. Our childhood B.F.F.s wander off to Seattle or San Francisco and we never see them again. We have to keep remaking new ones at 30, and 40, and 50.

When I had a greater disposable income, I used to maintain a subscription to a weekly British magazine called “Country Life,” which is not like “Town & Country” but more like an oversize, glossy country-house real-estate portfolio also featuring meat pie recipes from rosy-cheeked aristocrats who raise their own hogs, odes to dogs, and articles on how to find the best barrel cooper, dry-stone-waller, or restorer of 18th-century plaster ceiling ornaments. Recent headlines: “At Last! The Return of Loose Sofa Covers” and “How (and Why) You Should Grow Chestnuts in Your Garden.” I had to hide my stacked back issues of “Country Life” from my friends, who are almost universally leftist.

But . . . and guess what? I’m approaching the main point of this column, at long-winded last . . . it was by reading “Country Life” that I became aware that there is in England a (to us odd) intersection where a certain brand of political and cultural countryside conservatism meets up with the preservationist instincts we here on Long Island tend to think of as liberal. Prince Charles is the most obvious resident of this ideological space. Any unspoiled forest or wood or stream or shore should be preserved; all old skills, all old crafts, all old knowledge should be preserved, too. Methods of thatching or cob-and-sod building or thrickwackling (I made that one up); rituals in which you paint yourself green, shroud your limbs in ash-tree branches, and knock on strangers’ kitchen doors while drunk on cider? Preserve them all.

Personally, I find this British upper-crust angle on preservation to be instructive. I’ve often felt that a smart politician here on the East End could really get things done — make hay — by uniting disparate strata of Bonac society around heritage and preservation. Wag the tale of two cities. A fiery pugilistic passion for preservation burns brightest on the farthest ends of the political spectrum. Citizens for Access Rights, meet the East Hampton Village Preservation Society. Baymen, meet the Peconic Land Trust. When it comes down to what deeply entrenched East Hamptoners value most, we share essential common ground. Most of us see the precious value in preservation, not just because the unspoiled landscape and all the Ye Olde buildings around here are our greatest economic assets — being, you know, beautiful and being, you know, what draws visitors here — but because we don’t want our culture, our heritage, or our landscape to die.

The surest mark of a Johnny-Come-Lately is that he opposes preservation. (You see? I’m an awful snob. Terrible. The worst. That’s probably the real reason I like “Country Life.”)


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