Trip to the old side

Porthleven: Photo by Theitalianpen

Sam Smith – The somewhat erratic nature of the Review over the past fortnight, including the absence of our e-mail edition, has been due to the fact that I overcame my antipathy towards lengthy travels and joined my wife, along with Des and Jane Wilson, on a trip that included marvelous centers of pre-imperial England, including Cornwall, Bath, Bristol, Salisbury, Avebury and Old Sarum. I wasn’t the only one who noted the context. When I queried a man working on a boat in Porthleven, where the tide rises and falls 18 feet, he called to a friend, “Hey Hal, there’s a colonial here with a question.” This was, after all, a region from which fishermen worked the Grand Banks long before America had been ‘discovered.’

Although I share Samuel Johnson’s view that Rome is worth seeing but not worth going to see, as well as the concern of the Mainer who didn’t like to travel for fear he might miss something, my wife and friends periodically overcome these eccentricities and usually to my advantage. This was no exception.

American readers may recall Des Wilson as a one time columnist for the Review while British readers will know him for more substantial reasons. Fifty years ago, he left New Zealand as a teenager, arriving in England with five pounds in his pocket. Within a few years he had started a program for the homeless and badly housed called Shelter that would change the nature of non-profits throughout the country, turning stodgy charities into strongly active campaigns. Des would go on to lead the effort to get lead out of the gas in Britain, as well as one to institutionalize freedom of information. When he wasn’t doing that sort of thing, he was writing for journals such as the Observer and the New Statesman, heading public relations for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, most recently, writing a couple of excellent books on poker. I have known him for nearly forty of these years, during which his most frequent reactions to my deep reflections has been, “Good God, Smith, have you gone completely mad?”

Although Des has been described as a British Ralph Nader, I also like to think of him as an anti-Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens proved that you can take the boy out of the empire, but you can’t necessarily take the empire out of the boy. Des was the boy who took some of the empire out of the empire. They represent two extremes of British activism and journalism: the clever confirmation of the conventional on the one hand and the constant assault upon it on the other.

So it may seem a bit odd that Des and this long time coconspirator ended up a few days ago meandering through the halls of Blenheim Palace. Or having drinks in a small gate house of the palace, which had been rented by a friend of Des. Even odder was that this friend drove us in the warm early evening through the almost empty 2,000 acre palace grounds, a wonderful privilege of his tenancy.

After drinks and the tour we went to dinner at a pub in a nearby town at the heart of the constituency of D.C. – a.k.a. David Cameron. According to the owner, D.C. had been in there the other night and quizzed him as to whether he knew the difference between the G8 and the G20. “Of course,” replied the pub owner, “12.” I found myself trying to imagine Barack Obama dropping by the Tune Inn or Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, but the image flickered and faded.

The real reason we were in places like Blenheim and Old Sarum was because Des is married to an artist and I to a historian. Both work hard at adding a bit of class and culture to our inclinations.

Thus is was, though Des and I tried to restrict the number of visited cathedrals, that we found ourselves at Evensong in the old Salisbury Cathedral, whose foundation was laid almost 800 yeas ago and whose tower is so tall the Nazis chose to let it stand as a navigational marker rather than destroyed as a target in World War II. Evensong usually has the advantage of being a succinct sacrament, but we just happened to stumble upon it on the very day that the Bishop of Salisbury was retiring after 17 years of what proved to be a lengthily celebrated service.

Still, to see someone voluntarily give up that much power in any country, is an impressive sight. The Bishop formally exchanged his crook for a merely priestly pole along with the gift of a scallop shell. An old labor song came back: “And off you pack with an ache in your back, and a pin for your lapel.”

Among the other surprises of the trip was to discover one of the scores of pianos that have been artistically enhanced and scattered around London (and now New York City) right outside the door of the London city museum. Thus it was that I found myself playing a little boogie woogie just a few blocks down the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Towards the end, I realized the true value of the voyage: to see for myself that a fallen empire can survive, still be interesting and quite a lot of fun. And so I returned to America with new hope.

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