by Beppie Harrison
I lived in England—in London, to be precise—for 10 years. Have lived on this side of the Atlantic for the 40 after that, but now that the kids no longer need to be brought with us (expensively) we go back nearly every year, to spend time with old friends and family. They are, regrettably, also getting older. But we were all young together, the ones who were old then now being the stuff of memory, and we do enjoy many of the things we enjoyed then, plus getting more amusement out of simple things like kippers on toast with tea in front of the fire. Although we usually go in the summer or early fall, this being England, the weather is often optimal for a fire even then.
But I am endlessly amused by the differences between my experience of London as an ex-resident compared to what it was when I lived there. Take the Tower of London as an example. When living there, I got so tired of taking visiting relatives and friends to the Tower that in the end (the last couple of years) I would take anybody so inclined to the Tower, smile cheerfully, point at the entrance, and pick them up an hour or two later. I found the charm of the Beefeaters, the ravens, and even the execution site of Anne Boleyn paled after the first ten exposures. However, when we took our granddaughter to the Tower a summer or two ago, I was of course charmed to escort her. AND we had the added benefit of the fire brigade showing up with sirens and smoke! It seems one of the guards at the Tower (or his wife) who live in one of the cottages overestimated the amount of time it takes to produce toast and instead of whipping it out of the toaster at the correct moment to be allowed to grow cold (but crisp, which is what the English require) the guard or his wife left it to eventually burst into flame, and . . . . Although I think it’s unlikely that any toaster could set a stone cottage afire in a row of stone cottages, the Tower is something special, and obviously they had to make sure it was safely extinguished.
Then there is the matter of the Underground. In Central London the Underground is the only way to get about, unless it amuses you to watch the fee for the taxi ratchet up and up into infinity, presumably, as you and the taxi sit in virtually unmovable traffic. But guess what they’ve done! When I was there, there was the sensible Circle Line that chugged around the middle of London and the other lines intersected it here and there and occasionally crossed with lines that extended into the suburbs. Even the extreme suburbs. They did add a line while I was there, with great publicity: the Victoria Line. I rode on it proudly at least once. Well, while I’ve been gone they’ve gone nuts and added a whole new bunch of lines. Two or three at least—probably more. But the Circle Line no longer circles. It’s interrupted by one of the new ones, and at some point to continue your circular tour of the bowels of London you have to get off and change to another train. And then again to get back on the Circle Line. Are they trying to confuse me?
Then there’s the price of things! My goodness. Now I imagine that prices have gone up a trifle here in the USA and since I’ve been around to notice it, it hasn’t struck me as suddenly, but in England it’s ridiculous! When I took my oldest daughter in her pram (pram=perambulator=baby buggy) to Kew Gardens it cost thruppence—3 pennies. That covered carriage (the pram), occupant (my daughter), and attendant (me). I just checked online and the present fee for entrance for an adult is 13 pounds, plus 75 p. A child under 4, as she was then, is still free. But from 3 pennies to 13.75 is shocking! Other prices seem to have risen commensurately. Our house in the village of Kew, which had 3 floors but was only 14 feet wide, is presently worth uncomfortably close to a million pounds, because it’s so close to London. I guess we can’t really move back.
But the really odd part is that I’d still want to. Of course having a fat bankroll to take with me would be comforting. And I’d have to learn about the money all over again: the pound notes I remember (and still possess a souvenir to keep) are no longer legal tender. They are now a coin. I remember that when I first moved there the 10 shilling note—half a pound—was roughly equivalent to a dollar: it helped with knowing what I could afford. So is the five pound note I remember no longer in circulation: they have smart new ones. But the money changed while I was living there. In fact they went to decimalized (sorry. decimalised) currency when I was in hospital producing our first daughter. Most unfair. I came out of hospital with a firm grasp of pounds, shillings, and pence and had only pounds and new pence in my purse. I remember at the counter in the bakery the next day pulling out a handful of miscellaneous coins and asking the kindly woman with my loaf of bread in her hands to pick out whatever it cost. And she did.
But at least those kindly women—and some wonderful cab drivers and bus conductors and passersby on the street and even the occasional shop assistant—are all still there, as I remember them when I first came all those years ago. And our friends, who have had the tact to become white-haired and wrinkled in places as we are and remember the right things . . . they’re still there, too.
Guess we’ll go on going back.