Pilgrimage to a Small Island: A Britophile’s Memoir

You are my first love, tossed by the sea of my soul. My blood has run with the timeless murmur of your rivers, and I have felt the stillness of your history stir a flame within me. You have fed with me your yawning silence that speaks volumes, your quiet concealment of your passion, your words of wisdom that strike through me and unlock the innermost chambers.

I dream, and the water sings to me, like tears flowing, for I missed you, long before I saw you, like the lost part of myself I had never seen. I felt the pulse of you alive in me, and knew I was your child. When you bled, I bled. When you were in pain, the knot of grief tightens in my stomach. The root is far too deep to ever be pulled out, like the root of the heart.

Your saints and scholars have carved your fame, your actors and orators have given you their voice, and the ghosts of the past mold you, and their breath still lingers on the fog. You have known heaven and hell, you have known the wild yearnings that drive humanity to the heights of glory and the depths of depravity. Yes, you have known them, and weathered them, and your cliffs stand tall against the waves.

You have plumbed the depths, and felt the cold water splashed in your face. You felt the stripes of agony, criss-crossed and martyr-crowned. You know the nature of tragedy as the blessing of renewal, and the nature of comedy to cut and clear the eyes of men. Your gravity has been matched by your wit, and the masks of your theater tell your tale. You are the land of the painted people, and the paint runs in my veins.

You are both tame and wild, breathless and panting hard. You have been rough-hewn in your ways, and in the paradox of living, an island set apart, silver-set in the sting of the star-light. You are like lichen on the ancient wall, like the stag’s cry at twilight, like the sun-shot stained-glass, colors bleeding everywhere. They stain me unto the bone.

So what do you mean to me in my heart? So many things it could break my heart. You are sometimes hard to love, eccentric, stubborn, impossible to understand, grounded in tangled roads and risen from a tangled constitution that was never written. You are imperturbable, rattling on with a lilting rhythm, and the world may think you speak nonsense.

But in the end, your paradox is your most profound truth, and the flecks of gold mark the courage in your well-worn eyes. And my God, do they shine in my young eyes too, sparks from the forge that leave your language upon my tongue? You have birthed me, rubbed me raw, and caused me to gleam. Are you not still our mother across the tempest of time?

How else have I pictured you in youthful dreams? Rain coming down in the summer, and the brooding comfort of a cloudy sky. The way the fog falls over grass so green it burns the retina. Old books from authors who seem to take you by the hand and pull you into the vortex of their borderless worlds, and the warm, sweet taste of tea and good company.

Music that is soft, yet strong, like the Evensong chanted, and then music that is strong yet vibrating, like the skirl of the chanter. You remind me of Christmas, of carols with poetry so simple and tunes so haunting they could pierce the soul. You remind me of frost that crystallizes and the wildwood frozen in time, waiting for the thaw of spring, and the May ribbons strung upon the oak.

My heart is made of such a tree, from which the shield of Arthur was carved and around which Robin Hood rallied his men. You remind me of the lion and the unicorn, of the symbols of power and struggles against it. You are the ink that ran at Runnymede with the passion of blood, and the grand doors slammed at Westminster in the royal messenger’s face.

You are thousands of forms and faces; you are swords cast into the lake and rosaries into the crowd. You are bound together by the ocean gale and an unspoken dream. You are contagious, and I have caught you. And I don’t ever want to let you go, your hidden warmth lightening flashing within a cloud.

This is merely a shadow of all that you are, but are not dreams reflections of some eternal state, some deeper reality which we chase, that wounds us sore? You are an idea and ideal. You are simple yet complex, wonderfully indescribable, forever socially-changing, conflict-ridden, always growing while keeping faith with the seeds first sown.

I love you most because you continue to be loved. Blood, sweat, and tears have been poured out for you, and so many wars have been waged upon your soil. You are no paradise, but instead a constant battleground. There is something here to sink one’s teeth into. It is the treasure always being sought after; it is the Evenstar always being reached for in the twilight of desiring.

The journey is just as important as the destination, and the destination is home, though I am so very far away. This is a state of the mind, of the heart, of the soul. This is the Britain that can never die nor be defeated…

May, 2019

So I come here, come to England – finding her waiting for me, and then leaving her behind, has carved a map on my soul. Oh, my little island, do I have to go away so soon? There are too many fragile, aching sentiments left in me now, and I keep hunting for you everywhere I go. How can I explain that? Have I ever been able to, when I am not even from you?

Oxford – it’s a posh and poised microcosm of old and new, students and tourists everywhere, the bright up side, and then the glint of a darker hue underneath, like puddles along the pavement…the beggars sleeping on the street, the cabbies and hotel janitors struggling to get by with prices rising, the sense of worlds colliding or flowing together, the conflict of class, still denting the atmosphere. Should not more be done to help those falling through the cracks, slipping off the margins? Is it so very hard for those in power to pay heed?

There are the eyes of so many different sorts of people in a single day. The sounds of so many different accents. I’ve come to England, and also met Spain, and Poland, and Albania, and Pakistan, and Iraq, and India. I love hearing their stories, connecting with them on some common, human level, even briefly. I love seeing the flash of a smile, even a weary one, after a long day’s work. And this is England to me more than anything. It has never been anything less than its many layers and dimensions.

The lady at the front desk at our hotel is from the UAE. She has a brightly colored hijab, and fuchsia lip stick. She’s pregnant, and we talk about when she’s expecting. The cabbie from Spain has a family back home, knows every slick “short cut” that takes longer, and is good at yelling at traffic. Why does he remind me a bit of Han Solo? There are two Indian brothers who run a tech and tourism shop, and I try on the Union Jack sunglasses for the sheer fun of it, and have them show me through their Harry Potter inventory.

The events manager at Lady Margaret Hall appears to me like an Anglo-Saxon shield-maiden, for her hair and eyes mirror my image of Eówyn, like a page of a book come to life before me. The security guard there is a Welshman, and I manage to pull a few Rosetta Stone phrases of the old tongue for him, and he shows me the red dragon tattoo across his arm. Is he King Arthur come again, or just a really eager rugby fan, or maybe a bit of both?

The English sky is still gray and glorious on late spring nights past the chime of 10, and I remember that I am in the north. I fall asleep easy there, yet always with the urge to get up every morning because somewhere, out there, was an adventure to be had. There is a sense that the whole world is buzzing about on this tiny island like some sacred hub, in its glory and its shame, in its beauty and its dysfunction, in its virtues and its flaws. It’s alive. It’s real. And the flags are blazing bright, snapping bold at the Randolph Hotel.

I become accustomed to walking with friends through the streets, moving in and out open plazas, feeling as if I am a spoke in a wheel, feeling a part of everything, everyone, my backpack slung on my back, and plans to make, and places to be. I could live like this, if only life would offer it to me. There are so many new sensations, too much to taste and touch and smell, a coursing, living thing, dappled and demanding, and I thrive in it.

There’s the food – bland English food one might hate, but once you’re gone, you’ll suddenly feel sad just thinking about it. The pizza without enough sauce or cheese. The “lemonade” that’s actually an abrogated form of soda. Honey-flavored ice cream that melts too easily. And the last bag of crisps which I didn’t want to eat on the plane, because that was the last of it, the end of it – bland, honest, filling British food.

The oddity of British TV and radio. The game shows where the questions range from the absurdly easy to the easily absurd, and the news which keeps flashing from politics to the puffin population. For the game winners, you might win a stuffed animal and a tea set, and for the puffins, an audio on mating calls to put you to sleep. In the morning, the chances are that there will be a toss-up between nostalgic kid shows or two chaps in search of antiques, traversing oddly names villages dotting the coast.

The taking for granted of old things, running fingers along centuries old stones, and breathing it in without counting the beats. The wandering in and out of places which were just begging to be explored, wishing there was more time to soak it in. The strange sense that you’ve been there before, maybe in some ancestral memory. The even stranger sense that there will never be anything to compare, and everything else will seem but a half-memory – a half-dream. Or maybe this place isn’t the dream at all, but everything else is…

In Anglican and Catholic churches, I see the Virgin’s statues, and Christ’s cross carved in stone, and my finger traces it. I listen to vespers, and see the effigies of knights. I find the Savior’s Body lying dead in wooden form, and see the mural of the martyrs, of Campion the Champion at Oxford Oratory. I see Walsingham, and hear the murmur of pilgrims, and there is rain in my face and cold air in my lungs, and my umbrella is broken and bleeding off the side. I want to stay longer, till I sink into the heart of these mysteries, and awake among the lilies of Nazareth.

Bad directions, politely given. Winding roads and frustrating roundabouts. The sun and the rain glinting or glittering along the bus and train stations. The humdrum boredom of getting stuck on a circular route to nowhere, and still feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, something clear and cutting to your soul, something about being more aware of the beauty of the average. Is this why British authors have been so apt at telling tells that capture the mysteries and magic of an ordinary life?

Nottingham – searching for Sherwood, and never finding it, getting pulled off a tram by security guards for certain confusion over tickets. I become fairly convinced I need to put them in legend retellings, as medieval guards, and we start to talk, and joke, while under partial arrest. It’s delightful. Slightly bizarre. And they let me off with a “you’re a tourist” warning. And then one of them proceeds to try and lure me to his village to go see one of the many graves of Little John.

Sometime later, I find myself at yet another bus stop, with yet another security guard, trying to help me find my way to the forest…only for him to also become distracted, and insist that I should, instead, go visit his own village, home to one of the many graves of Will Scarlett. Yes, he’s earned a place in my legend-weaving too, along with the pub waitresses and concession stand workers who are pricelessly no-nonsense yet also wonderfully consoling about the plight of lost tourists. “Oh, bless you, love.”

There’s a mall in Nottingham, somewhere to get out of the rain. I find myself very tempted to hunker down there for the rest of the day, as it’s much more sparkly than the malls back home. There are Disney shops in here, and a massive food court. And there’s this lady that approaches us from the Build-a-Bear store, with the most inviting regional accent, and I am just about sold to get cracking with the fluff and stuff. But no, my phone is about to die, and must be off to get it recharged.

And sure enough, at the charging station, I meet yet another gentleman working there, determined to redirect me to his quite literal neck of the woods, on the border of Sherwood Forest. His name is Robert. I am convinced he is some reincarnation of the Prince of Thieves, just gone into retirement in his golden years. And he insists we have to make it to the statue at Nottingham Castle before we depart. So off I go again.

The statue – in the shadow of the ruins of the medieval castle, I catch my breath, as the rain comes pattering down, and pull up the hood of my jacket. It’s green, and I sit at the foot of the statue, where Robin Hood still draws his bow. I wander around the walls, and stop at each of the plaques, chronicling the most famous legends. I feel my heart beat high, as I read the words of a tale, about heavy purses lightened and noble “guests” wined and dined under a greenwood tree. And I now stand a part of it. I have always been a part of it.

The mournful gray of the last day, an emptiness, when even the chatter of pubs feels downcast. I am used to pubs now – The Eagle and Child, The Ned Ludd, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem – each with their own story to tell, a glimpse of a social state of being I must leave. And all of this, this whole new world that somehow feels old to me, must be left behind. So many “ends”, and slumping down in a hotel room, just listening to the pleasant, meandering British voices on a game show, eating the last piece of British pizza, and suddenly feeling as if I’m about to become an exile from the only place I ever truly wanted to be. I will miss being marked out by my accent by the man at the hotel who cleans up the rooms, and stops us at 11 p.m. to chat about world politics. “Oy, you’re Yanks, are ya?”

Heck, I’ll even miss those cheesy touristy things everybody laughs at, the royal key chains and stuffed Paddington Bears. Those miserably overpriced boxes of sweets. Those silly Union Jack sunglasses. I’ll miss them all, as much as I’ll miss laughing about their existence alongside friends. Yes, it’s the friends I’ll miss. The voice, the people of Britain – real, flawed, complicated, beautiful, crazy people whom I find myself missing like a part of my own heart, left behind across the sea.

The Muslim cabbie who drives us to Heathrow for our return is a regular with us now, picking us up and dropping us off in our daily routine. He puts on a Sami Yusuf song from his playlist, and I’m able to name it: “Hasbi Rabbi”. And the airport is a little world in a microcosm again, a ship in a bottle, and I linger there like a man marooned, looking at biscuit tins and Ramadan platters, and I want to stay for as long as I can, because at least I am still here, even in artificial surroundings.

On the plane, I cannot bring myself to look out the window before taking off. It’s too much, almost like claustrophobia of some sort, but not the fear I felt on the first flight over. It’s just pain now… and turning, looking for people to be there who I’m leaving behind. It’s automatic now, after ten days being with them, but they’re gone. I can’t touch them or look into their eyes anymore. I keep thinking I see one of them, in anyone wearing a blue shirt. And I suddenly feel very alone.

There’s an almost numbing sense that every hour puts me farther out of their time zone, so my Smartphone duly notes. So many things left undone, so many people I couldn’t meet, and so many plans thrown to the wind – and yet it’s over and done, and I must be content. It feels like a must shorter trip home than it was over here, and I don’t have the same fear that gripped me the first time round. But it doesn’t take the strange discomfort away, like a fish finding water, and then being yanked out of it again. It just makes my yearning grow to get back, somehow…

I find myself watching a movie to take my mind off things in the plane. It’s my first viewing of Disney’s Moana.

“I’ve been standing at the edge of the water, long as I can remember, never really knowing why…”

“I wish I could be the perfect daughter, but I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try…”

“Every turn I take, every trail I track, every path I make, every road leads back…”

“To the place I know where I cannot go, where I long to be…”

“See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me. And no one knows how far it goes…”

“If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me, one day I’ll know. If I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go…”

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