Blighty – Reflections on Going “Home”

After a long hard winter, April has always been the “fashionable month to hit the road. Apologies for the long text from Chaucer, but here is what the “Father of English literature” says about April – it’s the time for pilgrimage.

When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower;

When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

Quickened again, in every holt and heath,

The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun

Into the Ram one half his course has run,

And many little birds make melody

That sleep through all the night with open eye

(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

I like to think of Chaucer as the first true travel writer. “The Canterbury Tales” – a trip to Canterbury, and to fill up the time on the long road, each pilgrim tells his or her story; Nowadays we might go by train or by coach – certainly faster forms of transport than back in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, but no less collective than a modern means of conveyance. Imagine us all on the train from London’s Victoria station, down to Canterbury – so the youngsters will be plugged into their game consoles or music systems, but the “old ones” will be comparing notes, gossiping, telling jokes. I don’t think we’ve changed much since the  1400’s – there is still a need and a desire to “chat” – And if we go by coach?  – well somebody might have brought a few tins of beer, we’ll have chat, tell a few jokes; and we might stop off on the way for a cup of coffee, a burger, a smoke, a trip to the loo, or just the chance to stretch our legs. No matter where we go we are all “pilgrims” in one way or another, and I suppose that with the onset of Spring, we all have thoughts of hitting the road.

“The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs. Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow. Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you and a horizon that’s always changing.”

So said Mr Toad in the Kenneth Grahame classic “The Wind in the Willows.” I like Mr Graham’s nonchalance and simplicity.

My musings do have purpose, for April is that my family undertakes its yearly pilgrimage to England. I use the “P” word without reservation, for, after twenty-five years living in my accidental land of exile, any trip back to the UK takes on all the trappings of a pilgrimage.

Off to Blighty.

“England as one’s native land; England as home:” – a defintion of Blighty gleaned from an on-line dictionary. The word is actually based on a Hindu word “bilāyatī” meaning home or homeland. British troops based in India would use the word to refer to Britain (their homeland). In the First World War,  British troops who got a wound serious enough to get them out the frontline and back to the UK for hospital treatment, would refer to such a wound as “a Blighty one”. From military usage, the word Blighty has become a slang term for all Brits returning home. My annual trip “home” is a return to Blighty, though the place is no longer my home, and very often a trip to Britian feels like going to a foreign country.

I would actually be wrong to talk in terms of the UK or Britian– our pilgrimage is to that strange land called “Ingerlund,” that place populated by tribes of obese, binge-drinking, knife-wielding savages who loathe foreigners – looks like not much has changed since Caesar’s day. Before the emperor’s first forays into the “sceptered isle” in 55BC and 54BC, Caesar was informed that the locals were a “wild, savage and quarrelsome” lot.  My equally jaundiced and even misinformed view of England is also based on reports – mostly from the pages of British national daily newspaper, The Daily Mail. I both love and loathe reading the Daily Mail. It paints such a negative picture of Britain as a violent, crime ridden place, that it would almost put anyone off going there for fear of being mugged or murdered.

To follow, a few ex-pat observations on modern “Ingerlund” gleaned from personal experience and from the pages of the tabloid press.

  • When the temperature gets above 15°c (that 65°f in old money), everyone feels obliged to wear shorts an start exposing vast expanses of their flesh. Many males of the  species also feel obliged to wear “too tight” Tee shirts, which cannot contain their massive bellies. Stomach overhang has become an urban fashion feature.

  • In the national press, there is always a surfeit of articles about “How lovely it is to live in France” – A few pages later there are always copious column inches given over to French bashing. In the travel section there is always a competition to win a “holiday home in France.”

  • In shops  and restaurants, no one actually speaks English. All the staff are foreign and communicate in some weird form of Ersatz estuary speak. When I try to converse with such people, they never understand me. Luckily, nowadays most restaurant menus carry photos of the dishes, so when confronted with a waiter speaking Martian, all the customer has to do is point at the  desired picture on the menu.

  • The service in restaurants is always lousy (unless you are lucky enough to get an American waiter). The food is always expensive and has a bloody silly name . “Honey roasted parma ham with provencal pickle, served on home made French rye bread” – It’s actually just a ham sandwich retailing at nearly £7.  How can the “French” bread be home made, we’re  not in France.

  • Everything is always expensive. There seems to be a national trend – if it ain’t expensive, it’s no good.

  • Old people are really old and they make themselves look even older with blue rinses, zimmer frames and electric buggies. All oldies have buggies nowadays – even the ones who can still walk. They whizz up and down the streets in their buggies, they even drive them into supermarkets. Sainsburys and Waitrose are mino racing circuits for “Crinklies” in buggies. They zoom around the aisles, colliding with other shoppers. A rip to the supermarket is now a very dangerous experience.

  • British workmen never change. There are roadworks and holes everywhere, but there is only ever one man standing in the hole. The others are all standing round smoking or drinking tea, until it is their turn to go down into the hole.  Why don’t they just dig a bigger hole and then all stand in smoking and drinking tea.

  • In the press, there are always stories about obesity. The Brits are all too fat, especially kids. To tell the truth though, I never see many fat kids in Britian. Near-anorexic girls seem to be more common.

  • The British press and politicians are always moaning about the education system. Kids are thick, exams are too easy and the education system is failing.

  • On the subject of kids, they all carry knives and like to stab one another to death on the weekend.

  • British motorists all suffer from road rage. If you upset a motorist in Britain, he or she is likely to get a shotgun from the back of their car and shoot you.

No doubt about it, if the politicians and powers-that-be do want to cut down on immigration, they should get all future immigrants to read the tabloid press.

As an ex-pat, you get into the into the habit of  “revising” before any trip to Britain. I am often bemused by this “foreign” land. My “revision” often takes on aspect of  a “quest” for the British soul.   There are numerous excellent books on the subject by the likes of Jeremy Paxman, AA Gill and Billy Bragg.

Casting an eye across the Channel

There is a long tradition of the French casting an eye across the Channel. Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot all wrote of their experiences in England.  Here are  A few quotes fro a certain Abbé Jean-Bernard Le Blanc, a visitor to London in 1737. History accredits him with introducing the writings of Voltaire to the English. Reading some of the Abbé’s coments on Britain, you can see why he thought that we were in need of « Enlightenment »

On weather, especially fog

« It is to the fogs with which their island is almost covered, that the English oowe the richness of their pastures and the melancholy of their temperament. »

On dress

« In Paris, footmen and chambermaids often ape their masters in their dress. In London, it is quite the opposite, it is the masters who dress like their servants, and duchesses who copy their chambermaids. It is an almost inconceivable absurdity. »

On humour and enjoying life

“Nothing is so rare amongst the English as gentle wit and gaiety of mood. They do not know how to enjoy life so well as the French. »

On our legendary eccentricity

“England is without contradiction the country with the most eccentrics in the world ; the English regard eccentricity if not as a virtue, as least as a merit. They criticize us (the French) for being all the same. Reasonable people are enemies of eccentricity – a fault as rare in France as it is common in England »

And finally . . .

« The English relieve boredom with alcohol »

Well I guess nothing has changed there

All above historical info was gleaned from an excellent book «That Sweet Enemy – the history of a love-hate relationship » by Robert and Isabelle Tombs 2006 – Pimlico Books (Random House) isbn 978-1-845-95108-5

To be continued