England

Where the Eurostar eases out of the Channel tunnel into Kent, at Ashford, there is a vast parking lot of trains, named for English and French writers and composers. While I was musing on the prospects of an engine called Debussy, a woman nearby was coolly dictating a series of numbers to her husband. This was the first of a wash of indications that I was in England. Here were trainspotters. Behind me, a man with a trans-European voice was talking to his mobile phone. ‘Where can I get any rabbits? No rabbits!

You don’t know where …?’ It wasn’t clear whether the rabbits were intended as pets, circus props, or for the table, but somehow he had the numbers of at least four suppliers. All of them let him down.

We passed oast houses and hop fields. The countryside was as parched as an Australian summer paddock. (In England it was a summer of records: the first time that the temperature exceeded 100oF; Sussex’s first county championship after 164 years as a cricket club; Labor’s first by-election loss in 15 years.) I was musing about Dickens, who was born in Kent, in the naval port of Chatham, when the train went by the Staplehurst Station. Here, in June 1865, Dickens was returning to England with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, when the train was derailed at a bridge. Several people were killed. Many were injured. Dickens gave as much assistance as he could, but was nervously debilitated by the accident. Five years later, he died on its anniversary.

No back way into a city by train is ever attractive, but the squalors of Brixton have intensified in the four years since last I had this view. From there, via Waterloo, to Twickenham was a leap across a class divide, into a busy and prosperous village by the Thames. Behind the block of flats where I was to stay was a large garden. Squirrels ran about in it. Apples ripened and fell. The planes from Heathrow passed close overhead every minute. Once a fox disdainfully strolled across the lawn. In the street, chestnuts cannonaded off the roofs of parked cars, although the drought had left them too small to make good conkers. We were at home long enough to see High Chaparral beat the desperately unlucky Falbrav (which should have won on protest) in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. Instead of the Cox Plate, Falbrav has been set for the Breeders’ Cup in the United States.

To meet friends, we went to a nearby pub, the Hobgoblin. This Saturday afternoon, England was playing a Rugby Union Test against France, intent on reversing a narrow recent loss in Marseille. The pub was as full in all senses as Australian pubs once used to be: ‘as full as a state school’, or ‘as two race trains’, in the unforgettable, nostalgic similes for drunkenness of Barry Humphries. It was standing room only, and most of those standing were beefy Englishmen in the white jerseys of the national team. The bar was thick with male flesh. We negotiated our way out the back, and found a table. Sharing it with four men heading for the Twickenham Stadium (‘the home of rugby’, etc.), I was reminded even more strongly of the glory days of Australian boozing. Here was a six o’clock swill at four. In a final preparation for watching the game, the quartet skulled a round of pints of Guinness.

That evening, I was surrounded by young Australians who were on extended working holidays in Britain. This latest of many waves of adventurers probably meets a less sardonic reception than any before it. Their passage has been smoothed by Australian wine (mainstay of English liquor shops) and by Australian television programmes. Their professional, especially medical skills, are sought after and well rewarded. English counterparts seem to be in such jobs as IT consultant to the police or fencing master or pudgy-handed, spotty, 20-year-old computer geek profiled as he dreamt of his first billion pounds (new economy or false economy?). On this balmy night, a barbecue was ventured, so that the backyard became redolent of Australia. Improbably, when one looked up (and because we were far enough out of central London), there was a sky full of stars. We could have been in either continent. Is that the reassurance, or the mild disappointment, of the present Australian experience of living in England?

Thirty years ago, when I first came to Britain, I walked over lots of London. Missed lots too: the distinctiveness of its neighbourhoods, the city’s ‘multitudinous littleness’ (as H.G. Wells finely put it) is an abiding delight, as one happens on places so near to where one knows, but till then unconnected. I fashioned a walk from The Monument, which commemorates the Great Fire of London in 1666, along the river, past the Tower and St Katharine’s Dock, through Limehouse and then down the length of the Isle of Dogs to the foot tunnel beneath the Thames that transports the traveller into the elegant and utterly different surroundings of Greenwich, with palace, observatory, museums. (Those seeking an alternative journey are directed to Iain Sinclair’s marvellous novel, Downriver.)

For me, on the nothern side of the river, there had been the romantic East London of small Hawksmoor churches, of flock mills and spice warehouses that closed in on either side of the street, of narrow alleys leading to stairs that went down to the Thames. Each morning and evening Christopher Wren was rowed across from the south bank and back to supervise the building of St Paul’s from such embarkation places as these. Fu Manchu went to ground in the East End. Sherlock Holmes knew the terrain as, of course, did Jack the Ripper. Once I lobbed in a pub in Shadwell to watch a race or two only to find, as I left, that its address was Cable Street, where Mosley’s blackshirts demonstrated against local Jews in the 1930s. Opening the door of another pub, on a day when freezing sleet blew horizontally, I was severely admonished by a stripper who had not wanted me to come in from the cold and bring it along.

Much is changed now, but not the pubs which are oases in a wasteland of mews and hideous apartment blocks that line both sides of the river. Bulbous, glassy, often in brown brick with blue trim, they must surely and rightly affront the Prince of Wales. On this journey the first pub by the river is the Town of Ramsgate. The building’s date is given as 1545. Wapping Old Stairs runs alongside it. On this Sunday morning, as we paused for a first half-pint, a routine of regulars was performing cockney. There was talk of a ‘right Jack the lad’, of 157 per cent rum, of chancers and charlatans. In Britain, class is often a droll impersonation of the attributes of the class to which the performers are supposed to belong.

We had lunch in a riverside terrace at the back of the Prospect of Whitby, where the bodies of traitors used to hang until three tides had washed over them. Further on was the Grapes, another intimate and narrow space that Dickens filled with life and intrigue in his novel, Our Mutual Friend. But by now the treats were over. No longer can one easily stroll the length of the Isle of Dogs. It is built out with apartments and offices. Canary Walk towers above them. There is a driverless light rail service to Greenwich, which meanders through a maze of nondescript, up-in-the-air stations.

With some initial relief we took a boat up the river, but this trip gave a starker view of the blighted array of apartment blocks, dourly facing each other from either bank. This reach of the Thames has been made drabber than in its days of romantic dilapidation when—if no other purpose was served—black-and-white television cop shows found congenial sites here. As the river winds around, one new building seemed to pop up on each side by turns—a new, emerald green insurance tower. Wilfully, as Thatcher’s acrid spirit lingers, London is being built out.

There was one more reminiscent journey to take—to Oxford. In the first week of October 1973, I had arrived from Melbourne via Hong Kong and Israel and been taken to Highbury to see Arsenal play (a 1-0 win, by penalty). As we left the ground, a 72-point headline in the Evening Standard proclaimed ‘It’s War’. And it was—the Yom Kippur War, which I had missed by a day. That made my first train trip to Oxford appear to be even more of a journey into the past. On cue, a vision of spires seen so often before at second hand loomed up, calmingly familiar. These days, one goes up and down to London much more cheaply and conveniently by bus. In the 1970s the train was cheaper, but hardly easy. During the three-day week imposed by Edward Heath no trains ran on Sunday. Every late train back from London had an intolerable stop and change at Didcot, where the cooling towers of its nuclear reactor still smoke.

Once, on a rainy Sunday, I caught a bus from Victoria to Oxford. It was so long ago that I was reading, with shock and admiration, Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Somewhere in the dark we stopped to take on a husband, wife, teenage son and a very large dog. Next stop a young woman boarded, only to be informed that the bus was full. She could wait an hour for the next one. Her utterly reasonable remonstrance: ‘what about the dog?’ frayed into the night. The vile youth (middle-class voice, but what was his family doing on a bus?) whinnied: ‘didn’t that woman know that we paid half fare for Rupert?’

This time, I went by car, through the western outskirts of London, bypassing Reading, detouring through Abingdon, missing Oxford altogether on a puzzle of ring roads. But there was a signpost to the village of Middleton Stoney, where long ago I had taught Shakespeare to senior secondary students. The Jersey Arms, tarted up these days, had been an exacting trudge down the road. We went on to Steeple Aston. It is near the former US F111 base of Upper Heyford. The infrastructure, which enabled many Americans never to stray even so far as Oxford (20 kilometres distant), remains. Friends of mine stayed at Steeple Aston in the mid-1970s. It is a hilly village of narrow streets, with an ancient church and the largest sycamore tree in England. Across the road from my friends’ place lived Iris Murdoch and John Bayley. Once I delivered a book to her, while on the morning of my Oxford viva I watched with trepidation as Bayley, one of my examiners,
gambolled on the roof of his barn.

Steeple Aston boasts two pubs: a White Lion and a Red Lion. The latter was my local. I had missed by less than a year the departure of the long-term publican and his wife, but the new owner welcomed us with Hook Norton ale and a beef and beer pie. This is a rich village, and some of the retired bourgeoisie use the pub. At lunchtime, we saw another English class charade.

A gentleman ordered a pint and drank it while he smoked a cigar. Then he ordered a cheeseburger, pedantically insisting on what should and should not be in it. Now for the wine: Gevrey Chambertin would do with the burger, after banter over prices. We were far from the East End, but had only come to a different theatre. In the words of Humphries’s Barry McKenzie: ‘I’ll never get to the bottom of the Poms.’    

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.

 

 

submit a comment

Similar Articles

Next generation

  • Michele M. Gierck
  • 11 June 2006

Michele M. Gierck speaks to Njongonkulu Ndungane, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town

READ MORE

Protecting the vulnerable

  • Moira Rayner
  • 11 June 2006

Children need help to protect themselves, argues Moira Rayner.

READ MORE

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review