A Brief History of England
'No one's interested in your trip to Venice,' Eva-Lynn says.
She isn't being harsh. It's no more than I said myself a couple of months ago, before I knew we'd end up in Venice. Venice. What more could anybody say about Venice? If you exclude me trying to order what I thought was the vegetarian scampi at the trattoria near Devil's Bridge, nothing's happened there since about 1468.
Anyway, here we are back from our trip to Venice. We live in England now, for reasons I can't immediately bring to mind, not in late February. We've been on one of these cheap flights to the continent, the ones that supposedly only cost 99p. It's the first weekend of the Kyoto Protocol, and the government has been celebrating by subsidizing jet fuel to encourage pub crawls in sometimes unpronounceable regional capitals throughout the European Union. Well, we've been to Venice. No one in Greenpeace has to know about this.
We have been walking through the terminal for about twenty minutes. Stansted Airport is one square building and a landing strip hacked through the herbaceous borders of a couple of villages. In order to get a twenty minute walk out of this, you'd have to run the corridors back and forth inside the building like a maze. Apparently someone's taken the time. This is probably to help citizens clear the alcohol out of their systems.
The corridor splits up ahead. Maybe everyone who still believes it only costs 99p to fly to Venice is supposed to go the left. Maybe there'll be good deals on basement flats in the city of canals.
Let's see. European Union citizens to the left. Everyone else is to go under the sign marked 'Others.' I've lived pretty much my whole life as an Other in America, so I'm used to this, despite having been conceived and carried in the womb nowhere but in Midland, Texas, and a few points south of Elm Street (okay, Mexico was one of them) there in the oil town which has produced the latest president (my mother nipped over the line -- the other line -- to have me be born in Toronto). My usual compadres in the land of Other and its various dressing and interrogation rooms are Mexican. In America, African-Americans get harassed everywhere except at borders. A strange exclusion. In fact, their great grandparents were received into America with open arms, if I have my history right.
We are in a big room now. Mostly British people on one side, moving quickly past the checkpoint, together with a few Poles and Greeks and Basques, first-class citizens all. On our side, mostly blacks, Canadians, and other coloreds. I try to be politically correct and not notice the startling visual component of this apartheid. But, well, you know me. I don't try too hard. I mean, let's be honest. On one side of the room, the Pinknoses. Not a pretty nation. It was people who looked like this about whom we used to say, with what passed for diplomacy in high school, 'geez, they must have a great personality.'
Over here on the side of blacks, Canadians, and other coloreds, I should admit that I'm the only bona fida Pinknose. I contracted a cold as we were heading to Venice and my nose is in full flame. Words like scarlet and crimson come to mind. Eva-Lynn's nose is hardly pink at all. Our kids are sleeping, and don't count.
Noting that the line hasn't moved recently, the Texan part of me thinks, briefly, 'let's get a move on here, folks. No wonder we have to fight y'all's damn wars for you.'
The fact is, though, that our side of the room is so much more beautiful than their side, I'm embarrassed for the non-Others.Normally I don't like to make race-based observations.But try not doing that for half an hour in line at Stansted. If you don't want me staring at you, don't give me so much time to do it. I've been over here long enough to write a history of England. Good titles, too. Land of Shopkeepers. War of the Worlds. The Empire Strikes Back. The History of Pink. Oi.
The kids and I recently heard a broadcast of the American Orson Welles' adaptation of the Englishman H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. I hadn't noticed before how the Martian pod landed in Trenton, New Jersey, the African-American city where Sebastian, our nine-year-old, was born. Trenton's motto, printed on a bridge as you come into town, is 'Trenton Makes, The World Takes.' I had never noticed how the tension between Princeton and Trenton acts, in the famous radio broadcast, as one version of a war between worlds.
I do remember the color scheme from that part of New Jersey, the beige on one side and the dark creamy luster on the other, meticulously drawn without the faintest drip of overlap, Africans serving 'whites.'
It's uncanny, being in the Other line with blacks and not Mexicans.
As I'm proofreading this, Sebastian walks by and wants me to put in a poem from his Maurice Sendak book. The poem has as much right to be here as a Canadian Texan in England, so here goes.
When I was a chicken
As big as a hen,
My mother hit me
And I hit her again;
My father came in,
And ordered me out,
So I up with my fist
And I gave him a clout.
Aren't children dears? 'May your quiver be full of them,' we used to say in my subculture. Back then, I didn't notice the ambiguous nature of this blessing.
Along the walls of the Stansted terminal, her majesty has posted signs warning her officers to be careful about importing cheese, fish, Moroccans, Canadians, fresh vegetables, and farm products. There are little icons representing each of these entities, but it is difficult to tell the difference between a Canadian and a fish, except that the Canadians don't appear to have legs. The Moroccans and the cheese share an icon. There is also a sign discouraging loitering. I always get nervous at borders. I wonder to myself, 'Have I been a farm product in the last two weeks?'
The largest sign of all has a great deal of fine print, but its headline is bold and unmistakable: Violence Directed Toward Her Majesty's Officers. I haven't thought of this, until the sign brings the idea up. You could say this more economically, I reckon, if you put a target on the forehead of the officers, with a little red x across it to indicate 'No!' On the other hand, it might frustrate would-be criminals even more if you put random, incomprehensible icons on the smart uniforms of the officers. Who's going to hit someone bearing the image of a fresh Stilton? Or, say, Queen Elizabeth next to a Canadian flag?
I am smuggling something dangerous into the country -- the cold germs which have pinked my nose. I got these in England, though, so this shouldn't count. Penalizing me for this would be like prosecuting a thief for returning what he nicked.
The personal is the political, they say. With all this time to kill in the coloreds' line, I have been able to condense five hundred years of British imperial history into a brief -- if microbiologically inflected -- chronology, which I now offer to my reader:
A Brief Chronology of England
Starting around 1500 English peoples traveled around the world and breathed on other people.
The rest is history.
© David Thomson 2005