Tuesday 29 May 2007

We English are a polite bunch of pirates!

Charlie Adley
As time goes by, my relationship with the land of my birth becomes ever more complicated.
I'm sitting in a service station car park, off England's M11 motorway, a couple of miles away from London's Stansted Airport.
In a little while I'll drive off to meet the Snapper, who is flying in from Knock, so that we can attend her brother's 40th birthday party.
All around me there wails howls and cries a cacophony of sirens from the many fire engines, police cars and ambulances making their way towards the petrol station forecourt not 200 metres away.
The English blithely go about their business. Having happily lived in Ireland for many years, I now twitch and react to the sound of sirens, but I never used to.
When you're born into a city that has more than double the population of Ireland, you can't afford to worry about strangers that much.
England is not so much a country of 70 million people, but a collection of a million villages of 70 people.
That's how you survive.
To be fair, I'm probably a little sensitive to the sound of sirens at the moment as my father is once more in hospital. Originally herself and I were due to take this flight together, but I've already been here for a week, and a hard week at that.
Aye, a hard week.
The sunshine is baking the interior of my rental car, and I'm having trouble staying awake, so as soon as I'm inside the aiport I head off to buy a bucket of coffee.
The guy on the coffee station is having a terrible time, As his colleague yells constant and complex orders, ("Double skinny latte no foam! Medium double house blend non fat choccomochacino! Blend with a shot, caramel. Cappuccino nutmeg no choc grande to go!) he struggles to keep up.
He spills an entire jug of foamed milk. He runs out of beans and has to abandon his post to grind a new pack. None of his orders are written down, and all of us in the ever-lengthening queue know he has lost the plot.
As he hands me the wrong drink I thank him profusely, aware that on another day I'd dedicate the whole colyoom to an angry tirade about the entire debacle, but right now, in the order of things, I couldn't give a damn.
Evidently Grumpy Charlie Bear is the creation of easier times.
Collapsing into a chair that feels far to small, I finally breathe out.
Opening my eyes, I realise that I am part of a world full of people. The life and death decisions we have collectively made this week sucked me out of your universe, down into a wormhole of family intensity, and now I've been spat out, into the seating area of Costa Coffee in Stansted's International Arrivals Hall on Friday at 5 o'clock on a Bank Holiday weekend.
I smile at the little boy sitting at the table in front of me. He smiles back and we launch into a happy exchange. I wiggle my eyebrows and he roars with laughter.
I do it again and he laughs again.
His mummy stares at me with cold hatred as she assertively says
"Face this way Charlie! Look this way!"
My young namesake turns his happy head away from me as I feel overwhelmed with more sadness.
Forgot that strangers aren't allowed to make children laugh any more, especially if they are men.
Even though the place is packed, it is quiet and calm.
This is another side of the English. Away from the violent abrasive multi-siren-inducing thugs, enslavers and criminals, we are an attractive and amazing bunch.
We ooze poise and patience, and when not off invading countries and massacring and enslaving entire populations, we're exceptionally polite people.
All of a sudden young Charlie falls off his seat, landing headfirst with a loud and nauseating 'clunk'.
Just a tad selfish, I immediately think 'All I need! Now there's gonna be a screaming child at the next table!' but his mummy calmly picks him up and puts him back on his seat, wonderfully embarrassed at how we must all think her the most terrible mother on the planet, her head twitching in peer pressure agony from side to side.
Charlie is smiling, bouncing with joy, his rosy cheeks, blond hair and blue eyes so very English; just as his mummy is also perfectly English, with her dark brown hair, pale skin and hazel eyes; just as his daddy is also perfectly English with his dark skin, green eyes and curly black hair.
Yes, all so English, and for a moment, already brittle with emotion and exhaustion, I worry I might cry with a collective love of the English.
As I fight back the tears, I hear a deep male South African voice behind me mutter
"Yeh, Britain sure does get the lot!"
'Yeh!' think I, 'that is what I love about it!'
Before you get the hump, I love Ireland and the Irish too, and even though English extremists wallow in fascism, I long for the day when the Irish learn to love all our differences as much as the English have.
A couple of days later I'm once again immersed into my little self-indulgent debate about what it is to be English. The Snapper's friends have brought us out into the Essex countryside, where the leaves of ancient oak and majestic poplar glisten fresh green and silver. We are ensconced in a sixteenth century pub, which famously serves a traditional steak and kidney pudding.
The romance of my surrounding is just about to get me feeling all gooey about being English again, when behind me there once more rings out a deep guttural male voice;this time unmistakably Essex-London English (think drunk Ray Winstone at 3 in the morning):
" 'E's a prick, 'e is! 'E's a prick, 'e's a criminalÅ  and 'e's a Spaniard!"
I almost choke with laughter. A Spaniard? Did that bloke just call someone a Spaniard! Okay, that's good enough for me. Mr. Essex wins this week's Award for Quintessential English Behaviour.
Whoever yer man's subject was, to you and me he would be Spanish.
But to that Englishman he's a Spaniard, with enough Francis Drake historical piratical baggage to make any Englishman stand proud, or cringe wincing.


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