Friday, April 25, 2008

A Short Trip to Foreign Parts

There’s nothing like a few days away from home. Last week I went to Henley-on-Thames, an excruciatingly English town located midway between Oxford and London with three Spanish friends.
It was quite wonderful. Forget all the stuff I’ve written over the years about never going anywhere near Britain which has changed irreconcilably over the past thirty years. I was completely wrong. Henley was perfect.
It’s too early for regattas and tourists and all the hurly-burly. At the moment, with surprisingly benevolent weather thrown in for good measure and a dearth of noisy tourists (present company excepted), Henley is at its finest.
We stayed at a boarding house. I’ve read about these institutions in Dickens but rather thought that they had died out. Not in Henley. Ours was comfortable rooms, a one-table dining-room where we joined the three or four other guests, a Russian lady who kept everything ship-shape, and a latch key.
Henley is rather smaller than I expected and it was easy enough to find our way about – from the station to the Henley College (eighteen hundred A-level kids in a splendid looking school), from the River Thames to the town hall and from the cinema to the pubs. Actually, we went straight to the pubs.
How much does it cost in England these days? That’s the beauty of a three-day trip: I have no idea. You simply shovel over a wad of English pounds and come away with two pints and two double whiskies, ice no water. ‘Spanish, are you?’ and ‘It’s a nice day today’ being the main conversation. You can’t smoke in British pubs and the outside garden shed has to be at least fifty per cent open to the elements. No one seemed to mind much. Of course, at £6.80 for 16 cigarettes out of the fag machine, smoking is not quite what it was either. The pubs are quiet, the carpeting and decoration, together with the low tones of the English in conversation, take care of that. There are a few TV screens in the Henley public houses, but the sound is turned off. One place we found, kept by an 84 year old lady and two sausage dogs, had a clutch of agreeably drunk male customers. ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ I asked. ‘Goodness, no’ she said ‘that’ll be nine pounds forty’.
One evening late, we sat on a bench by the river and enjoyed the view, an occasional splash from the sleeping ducks, the starry sky and the magnificent Henley Bridge.
The next day, we went to visit the mayor. It seemed like a good idea to broach the subject of an entente cordial between Henley and Mojácar. He received us in his office, on the second floor of an imposing looking public building. We took photos, exchanged a couple of compliments and then the mayor showed us around the upper storey, including the assembly hall walled with portraits of past incumbents. Nice chap. ‘Are you Conservative?’ I wanted to know. ‘Independent’, he answered with a grin. ‘We’re independent as well’, said Angel, my Spanish mate.
Henley has a Teddy-Bear shop. That’s all it sells – teddy bears of every size and inclination. Teddies, despite being named after Roosevelt or someone, are intrinsically English. There was Rupert Bear, Pooh, Paddington and a furry host of ursine characters lining all the shelves. ‘I watch the faces of everyone who comes in here’, said the lady, ‘they just light up with pleasure’. She was quite right about that. I asked her about St George’s Day – who’s saint’s day it happened to be that day. ‘No one seems to celebrate it’ she answered wistfully. It seems a shame.
I asked a few more people about the English saint’s day. Everyone agreed that nothing was ever done – but, all things considered, something most definitely should be.
The English have trouble in defining their Englishness – unlike the Scots or the Welsh – or even the British. It seems that no one can quite describe what being English is all about.
I would recommend a trip to Henley in the springtime. That’s English. Which is odd really, because the place is full of Poles.

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