Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Getting things right, the English way

There are times when things go exactly right. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect– just that they live up entirely to expectation.

Years and years ago my old friend Alasdhair came to see me in Oxfordshire with his American fiancee, who getting acquainted with this green and pleasant land. We lived near Oxford in those days, and on one occasion met to have a picnic in one of the city's glorious parks. I picked up some rather good things – pate and fine bread and fruit and cheeses and prosciutto and cakes – the ingredients of a picnic to remember. I think I may have got champagne too and, if my memory is letting me down, I’d still rather believe it since champagne fits the occasion far better than any other wine would.

It wasn’t however those ingredients, memorable though they were, that fixed the moment in my memory. It was that just before we met the heavens opened in what wasn’t simply rain but something far more torrential. A veritable monsoon. It was of course July, so you could hardly expect good weather in England, but this was really special. It certainly underlined the fact that England doesn’t have a climate, merely weather.
Fortunately, we found one of the University cricket grounds. These days you can’t get in but then you still could. There was a pavilion on the edge of the ground, an attractive wooden building with a deep terrace at the front. It even had a table and wooden chairs – true luxury. There we sat, completely sheltered, and watched the sheets of rain batter down on the cricket pitch.
Not perfect but exactly right, you see. Perfect would have been blue skies dappled with clouds, green grass with a white sheet on which we would have sat in our shirtsleeves, enjoying  a brilliant picnic in the pleasant warmth of an English summer. Lovely but unmemorable. But picnicking in the rain – now, that was quintessentially English and unforgettable. Particularly next to a cricket ground. And – as we were dry – why would we complain?
This weekend we had a visit from two old friends from Australia, Meredyth and Kenn. This time of course we weren’t anywhere near Oxford but, fortunately, there are places nearby that are just as spectacularly beautiful. One of the finest is Luton Hoo, a fine stately home, now a hotel, set in fabulous grounds part of which have been turned into a golf course. 
On the lawn behind the hotel the owners have thoughtfully laid out two croquet grounds, and even been kind enough to leave a full set of wooden mallets and balls for passers-by to enjoy a game.
Now that gave me another wonderful opportunities to introduce foreigners to somet English culture. Croquet is a game that embodies the essential aspects of the national character: it is gentle, delicate, slow, courteous – and profoundly vicious. You can be going quietly about your business, knocking your ball steadily through one hoop after the other when – suddenly and without provocation – one of the other players knocks your ball with his – or quite often hers – and this provides the opportunity, immediately seized, to knock yours right off the field of play, over to that curious little bit of shrubbery in the distance with a pond in the middle or it.
You might have been winning right up until then, but now suddenly you’re so far out of the game that you might as well start all over again.
What could be better for a couple of Australian friends than to introduce them to this piece of fiendishness? They happen to be from South Australia founded, as they assured me, by free colonists and not populated by convicts (inhabitants chosen, as the old expression has it, by the best judges in England). Even so, I was sure that they must have the same deviousness as all other Australians, inherited from their distant English relatives.
Kenn and Meredyth learning the niceties of English life
Before rubbing my nose in them

They took to it like ducks to water. So well in fact that they forgot rule 1 – let the Englishman win. But despite that deplorable oversight on their part, we all had a great time, contributing to the sense that we had picked up an old friendship after an eleven-year gap as though we'd only had a brief interruption in a long and pleasant conversation.
To make things exactly right, it even rained half way through the game. We played straight on, of course. That’s what the English do. And we dried off soon enough afterwards – the wind was blowing more than hard enough to ensure that.

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