Thursday, August 16, 2007

End of English excursion

In my article entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I described my delightful Friday, 3 August 2007, in the sunny village of Blandford. There, while downing a pint of Guinness in a local pub, and feeling far away from France, I picked up a newspaper with an amusing story on the relationship of the English with France, or rather, with the French language:

According to a recent BBC survey, it was found that French remains the most frequently studied foreign language in British schools [taken by 85 per cent of students]. But it would appear that most adults, following five years of foreign language classes, remember an average of no more than seven words from a language studied at school. In the case of French, this means that an average Brit remembers how to say bonjour, au revoir, s'il vous plaît and merci. They can count, but only up to three: un, deux, trois. And they can ask French people: Parlez-vous anglais? Funnily enough, the average Brit knows the French word for beer (bière), but not wine (vin).

Within the relatively narrow confines of my genealogical research, I've developed the habit of referring to the Dorset region to the south of Shaftesbury as "Skivington country". For all lovers of the work of Thomas Hardy [1840-1928], author of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, this region is better known, of course, as "Hardy country". These rolling pastures of rural Dorset are designated geographically as the Blackmore Vale. Well, as the author of a former tourist guide book on Great Britain, I was disappointed to discover a surprising news item on the front page of the local Blackmore Vale Magazine, hot off the Blanford press that very morning (3 August 2007):

The acronym TIC stands for Tourist Information Centre. In other words, on that very morning when I encountered for the first time my ancestral village of Blandford, the local press was announcing that their tourist infrastructure would soon be closing down, apparently because there wasn't sufficient local funding to keep it in business.

While regretting that I was unable to visit the surrounding villages of my "Skivington country" (which would have necessitated an automobile and more time), I took the bus back to Poole. The weather was exceptionally warm, and my feet were sore from walking all around Blandford. Since the shops were still open in Poole, I decided to purchase a pair of sandals with cushion soles and a pair of shorts. Changing from my walking boots to the lightweight sandals was a pleasure, which encouraged me to spend the warm evening on the Poole waterfront. Meanwhile, I was amused to think that an Australian residing in the south of France would find himself tempted to purchase sandals and shorts in England.

For the second evening in a row, I was tempted (nostalgia of childhood gastronomy) to eat fish and chips, seated on the wharf. Finishing my meal with beer outside a waterfront pub, I said to myself that it wouldn't take me long, in Britain, to increase both my weight and my cholesterol level. In fact, during the four days since my arrival in the UK, I had often imagined that a big proportion of Brits, including young girls, seemed to be overweight. Back in London, a prominent newspaper had in fact confirmed, with the following stark headlines, that this impression wasn't apparently a mere figment of my imagination:

According to the WHO [World Health Organization], one in four Brits is obese. In the newspaper article, the head of the BMA [British Medical Association], a certain Dr Hamish Meldrum, is quoted as making the following claims, concerning the way we talk of fat folk: "We are saying 'This patient has a hyper-appetite problem', rather than 'They are just greedy'. People like to put fancy labels that suggest things are a medical problem." I wouldn't be surprised if a few offended fat guys, reading those comments, were to decide to roll on Hamish Meldrum.

On the roadway in front of the pubs at Poole, the municipality had organized a display of elegant old sports cars, parked in a long line alongside the wharf. Personally, I was less intrigued by these automobiles than by the stunts performed by a few youths on curious circus bikes, with no saddles, who spent their time hopping between the stone walls and concrete pillars.

Don't forget that, stuck away in my Gamone wilderness, I haven't had many opportunities, over the last decade or so, of seeing how urban kids amuse themselves. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up buying myself such a bike, one of these sunny days, and introducing such stunts to Pont-en-Royans, on the parapet above the River Bourne, opposite the hanging houses [preferably after I'm naturalized, so that the authorities won't be tempted to expel me as a crazy old alien].

On the walk back home, as the sun was going down, I strolled alongside graceful birds on the lake in Poole Park, in a beautifully calm and typically English environment.

The next morning, I attempted to use my portable computer to book a hotel room in London, but I stupidly forgot to note down the name and address of the hotel. Consequently, when I finally arrived back in the vicinity of Russell Square in London, a kind Underground employee used his computer and phone to find me an excellent cheap hotel within a few minutes. There's no doubt about it that English people are basically kind, helpful and apparently altruistic, even in the noisy swarming ambience of London on a Saturday afternoon. Once settled in at the hotel [where the lady at the desk went out of her way to make sure that I knew which buses to take], I transformed myself, for the rest of the day, into a typical tourist. For example, I took a photo of the big ferris wheel on the other side of the Thames:

Then I joined a crowd of hundreds of other tourists to take a photo of Big Ben striking six:

Deciding to stop acting like the herd, I took the Underground across to the South Kensington neighborhood where I used to live for a few months [my only lengthy stay in England] during the 1964-65 winter, in a flat in Onslow Gardens.

Suddenly, a vague memory appeared in my mind. I decided to try to locate the local pub where I used to drink in 1964-65, called the Anglesea Arms. I was overjoyed to find that it's look and atmosphere had not changed one iota over the last forty or so years.

The next morning, I strolled through Hyde Park, where I was intrigued by the following recently-constructed monument:

At first site, I had the impression that the curious white crosses glistening in the sunlight at the top of the black pillars suggested that it was some kind of Christian thing, maybe memorials of British churches destroyed during the Blitz.

Well, it turned out, when I got up closer, that I was completely off the mark. This is a spectacular New Zealand memorial, evoking early conflicts between colonists and Maoris, and I would imagine that the white crosses are meant to reproduce the pattern of four stars found on their flag.

Finally, I was impressed by a dramatic monument dedicated to animals who have given up their lives in warfare.

I started to think of my donkey Moshé, back at Gamone [who, I hope, is rather unlikely to lose his life in a war]. One thing led to another, and I became frankly homesick when I imagined my dog Sophia waiting for me back in France, in the company of my daughter Emmanuelle. After four or five days on the far side of the stretch of sea that the British call the English Channel, it was time for me to return home.

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