Swans Commentary » swans.com September 10, 2012  



The Sunset Of Empire: Memories Of Manchester, England


by Jonah Raskin





(Swans - September 10, 2012)   I don't remember everything about my years in England, where I lived in the mid-1960s. I don't remember, for example, that I refused to stand along with everyone else in movie theaters and refused to sing "God Save the Queen." My Cockney friend, Geoff, swears it's true and laughs when he tells the story of me sitting while everyone else is standing. In England, it was too easy to go against the grain; it felt easier to me, anyway, than going against the grain back home in the States. I didn't stand but no one came to arrest me or eject me from the theater or even to say anything in rebuke. Of course, the English were notorious eccentrics. They still are, but there was something harmless about English eccentricity. I take that back. Not always harmless. Oscar Wilde was an eccentric, and he was locked up in jail, or gaol, as he called it. In point of fact, Wilde was Irish and to the English the Irish always seem to be wild.

Nearly everyone I knew well in England in the mid-1960s was Irish, Scot, Welch, or from the former colonies. Where were the English anyway? At home in bed watching "Coronation Street" on the telly, or putting their children to bed, or perhaps even having "medicinal sex." I do remember an often-repeated joke about three different couples that have had sex. The American husband asks his wife, "Did you come, did you come?" The French lover says, "Ah, zat was so beautiful," and the Englishman asks solicitously, "Are you feeling better now, my dear?"

English houses went unheated in those days. My own flat on the third floor of a house had a coal fireplace, and I had to lug soft coal from the basement to make a fire. Most of the time I wore sweaters, tweed jackets, and wool trousers. My wife, Eleanor, was cold much of the time. We were newlyweds and must have had sex; we had to have had sex. But I don't remember the sex. I do remember Eleanor reading aloud to me all of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and Strider kept me up until late at night and enthralled for more than a year. I was 22 when we arrived; she was 18. Her mother wouldn't allow her to go to England with me unless we were married.

England in the mid-1960s was the perfect place for a young American couple to be. The War in Vietnam was a long way off; the riots in Harlem and Watts were a long way off, too. Parents were thousands of miles away. Yes, England was in decline. I could see it and smell it and taste it in the bread, the bacon and in the air itself. The glory days of the empire were gone, but there was something more appealing about the decline of empire than there was about the rise of empire. It was clear, too, that the decline would go on and on for years and years before the final fall. To live in England was to learn the lessons of empire. The North of England, where we settled, seemed like a shambles. In Manchester, there were miles and miles of redbrick houses -- hovels really -- that were unfit for human beings. I remember them when we went looking for a flat to rent. The spoils of empire didn't trickle down, not very far at all. You could tell who was working class and who was upper class by looking at the teeth, noticing the height and the physical shape of their bodies, and by listening to their accents. The upper classes were taller and had better teeth. Upper-class men stuttered a lot and blinked their eyes. Apparently, it was fashionable.

My wife went to school during the week; I went to the library where Frederick Engels had written the Marxist classic The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. That was inspiring. On weekends, we went to pubs where my wife played the guitar and sang folk songs along with a Welshman, a Scotsman, and an English Communist whose parents were immigrants from Canada and who gave us good advice about where to shop -- where to buy bagels, for example -- where to bank, and where to have a Herringbone tweed jacket made inexpensively by an English tailor.

I thought that Herringbone was the height of fashion. I wore my jacket and smoked a pipe, learned to like room temperature beer, Indian curries, and, of course, fish and chips. England was heavenly. We had no money really; only a scholarship of 250 pounds a year from the British government. The government paid for our tuition. We didn't own a car, a TV, or a refrigerator. On Sundays all the shops were closed; we went to the local movie theater and ate popcorn and bonbons. We took buses everywhere, used the National Health Service when we needed a doctor, enjoyed the decline of the empire and listening empathetically as our friends complained they couldn't find work, or said goodbye and went off to Australia and New Zealand to teach and to write.

I remember one friend from university who said that he felt as though he was waiting for someone to die so that he could fill his shoes. He wouldn't leave for Australia. He was Irish and working class and wrote poems and was eventually discovered and published by a university press in the States and then hired by an American college to teach poetry. The United States seemed to be the salvation of the English.

That world that I once knew is long gone. I went back a few years ago and didn't recognize my old neighborhood; the redbrick buildings had been torn down. There were actually good restaurants and the air was much cleaner. Still, I felt that I knew the place and its history, that England had gotten under my skin, and that I carried it around with me. These days I brew a pot of black tea in the morning and drink cup after cup with milk, though I don't drink Typhoo tea anymore. In some ways I'm as much of an Anglophile now as I was when I first went to England as a newlywed in the 1960s. I rooted for the Brits in the summer Olympics, but I won't stand and sing "God Save the Queen."


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 10, 2012