Friday, 24 January 2014

Englishness in Texas

I often wear a Stetson. Explanations for this millinerial choice posited by those of my friends who have neither lived in Texas nor ever worn a Stetson tend to vary, including my going native, irony, and it being a knowing wink to an episode of Doctor Who in which Matt Smith wears just such a hat, despite my strong dislike of the show in question. In actual fact I've been wearing hats quite similar to the Stetson at least since 1999 when I first travelled to Mexico and discovered it to be a good means of keeping my distinctly pale face from burning in the hot sun as I dislike having to apply sun-cream. In addition, such headgear also provides good cover during showers of rain, and has proven useful as a means of pooling coins, keys, and other metal objects when travelling through airport security; and it really is that simple.

I purchased my current Stetson at a branch of Cavender's Boot City, a chain of warehouse capacity stores specialising in western wear, as they call it. I guess my friend Dave probably wandered into a branch of Cavender's when he came to Texas in November. Dave was a tutor on the art foundation course I took at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further education back in England in the 1980s, just after I had left school. He and his wife had come to America, and had hired a car so as to tour a number of the western states over a period of a few months. Texas was their final port of call, so my wife and I took them to our favourite Jim's diner for chicken fried steak.

'There was this store,' Dave explained to us as though bringing back his report from the new world, 'and there were hats and boots as far as the eye could see, just hats and boots and nothing else.'

It had made an impression on him, as had the real live cowboy he'd met in New Mexico a few weeks earlier. As we ate, he described these wonders, and we couldn't work out whether it had occurred to him that, living here, we found neither cowboys nor their apparel out of the ordinary. We guessed that he was most likely setting his thoughts to order, thinking aloud, a hypothesis supported by some of these selfsame thoughts later cohering as Boots On The Ground, the blog he'd been keeping as documentation of his trip across America. I am referenced in Boots On The Ground as the Englishman in Texas, presumably to preserve my anonymity when Dave asks so who is this particular Englishman, with his self-styled moniker and blog of the same name? He attempts to answer the question by explaining that even after two years exposure to American life in San Antonio, he remains resolutely unaffected, having neither adopted any accent or phrases nor shaken off a predisposition towards serving tea as his afternoon beverage of choice!

The most puzzling thing for me was that I didn't really recognise myself from any of this. An Englishman in Texas was picked without much serious consideration as a reasonably descriptive title which might negate the requirement of at least some explanation. It was never a mission statement, nor an intentional reference to any song by that bloke from the Police; and the tea in question was brewed in a teapot I had purchased only a month earlier in Boerne, a town some thirty miles north-west of San Antonio. It was the second time I had used the teapot and I haven't used it since because I prefer coffee.

Nevertheless, a certain impression was either given by myself or taken by my visitor, and one that puzzles me a little. Complete strangers and even members of my extended family occasionally try to engage me in conversation about what is going on with the English royal family, or they will refer to some old country event so newsworthy as to have crossed the ocean perhaps believing I might be personally acquainted with those affected. At least one person, fully cognizant with the fact and duration of my marriage, asked how I was enjoying my stay in Texas, like being here is just a phase I'm going through. Others have launched into bewildering Dickensian caricatures in my presence as though I too am quietly amused by my own nationality. It becomes exhausting.

'Still black, I see,' I might say to our African-American mailman. 'I'm glad that's working out for you. Keep it up!'

No less exhausting was an encounter in an antique shop in the previously mentioned Cotswold town of Boerne. It isn't actually a Cotswold town, although I tend to regard it as such for its being one of a number which remind me a little of that region of England on the Gloucestershire-Oxfordshire border. Boerne was built from limestone in the nineteenth century by German settlers and does not resemble the typical American town as commonly seen on television; and the shop wasn't exactly an antique shop in the sense of selling antiques. I was on the look out for Christmas presents, and was considering an old ceramic teapot with a human face and the characteristics of a lemon, presumably made so as to appeal to fans of lemon tea. It had put me in mind of the ceramic pots collected by my father, pots combining human facial features with assorted vegetable characteristics and intended to store piccalilli, chutney, horseradish and so on. The price seemed reasonable and I had told the proprietor I would think it over and perhaps return, and so my wife and I continued to browse in the other shops along Main Street.

As we reached the end of the block, we entered another shop. A woman in her early fifties - I guessed - with long red hair was sat behind the counter, speaking to someone on the phone as a compact disc of The Smiths played in the background. We looked around the clutter of the store and, seeing little that immediately caught our eyes, went into the room at the back.

'Does she sound English to you?' I asked Bess.

We both listened, but neither of us could quite place the proprietor's accent beyond that it was clearly not American. We browsed further and the phone call came to an end.

'I'm sure she's from England,' I said.

'Go and ask.'

'I don't like to.' I didn't know why, but it struck me as a thin premise upon which to open a conversation. I was curious, but not actively interested.

My wife gave me a prod, possibly inspired by her occasional fear that deprived of the company of countrymen, I might pine and whither away to nothing, requiring a restorative course of Marmite and warm beer. 'Go and ask her if she's from England.'

I knew it would bug me if I didn't find out, so I shuffled up to the counter, half-wishing we hadn't entered the store. The woman wore orange lipstick and green eyeshadow which I found unsettling. Her appearance spoke of someone who clearly regarded themselves as a bit of a character.

'Excuse me, I hope you don't mind my asking but' - I hated myself for falling into the usual bumbling Hugh Grantisms - 'are you from England. It's just that I noticed your accent—'

'I am indeed,' she grinned. 'And so are you!'

She explained that she was from Manchester with the inflection of someone who clearly regarded themselves as a bit of a character, and I wished I hadn't asked. There is a specific brand of regional pride found in certain persons from the north of England I have never quite warmed to, a peculiar inverted snobbery based on the bumptious proposition of their being collectively more down to earth than anyone else, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. It seemed like this woman subscribed to this view, telling me how she had been in Texas for two decades and yet still never missed an episode of Coronation Street, a long running soap opera set in Manchester. I couldn't actually remember when I'd last seen Coronation Street, but it was probably not much later than 1985.

'So are you a City supporter or do you prefer the scum?' she asked. It took me a moment to unscramble the question as referring to my preference for either Manchester City or Manchester United football teams.

'Well, I don't really—'

'Who do you support then?'

I could have said either Gillingham or Millwall on the grounds of these being teams to which I will admit a minor degree of loyalty through mainly geographical and social associations without ever having felt the need to attend a match, but it didn't really seem like a conversation worth having. 'Well, I'm really not so big on football—'

'You like rugby then? Or is it the cricket?'

I indicated the dusty stereo system behind the counter. 'Is that the Smiths you're listening to?'

'Aye.' She seemed pleased. 'You like the Smiths, do you?'

Whilst I would agree the band had recorded some great songs, I've generally come to regard them as an overrated institution, but again it didn't really seem like a conversation I wanted to get into. 'So have you read Morrissey's autobiography?,' I asked, steering the subject like a canoe over the rapids.

The story of the former Smiths' vocalist's life had just been published by Penguin back in England, so this seemed a safe conversational gambit, at least equivalent to discussing the weather.

'I've got it on order. I can't wait.' She grinned and then nodded her head to emphasise some point or other. 'I love Mozzer, me.'

I shuddered inwardly at hearing the nickname, the use of which denotes the true fan, specifically the true fan of a man who had in my view come to epitomise the most parochial aspects of English culture. For all that Reel Around The Fountain was but one of many cracking tunes, this is the man who wrote crap like Bengali in Platforms and America Is Not the World, a song carrying the startling proposition that the United States is a land of fat people who eat hamburgers.

'So have you read it?' she asked.

'Not yet.'

I glanced at my wife, a silent plea as I pointedly orientated myself towards the door; but Bess seemed genuinely interested, apparently believing I'd found a kindred spirit; and so we listened as the woman expanded upon the theme of herself as a bit of a character, turning to those subjects to which English people always turn when their paths cross in foreign lands. As I listened it occurred to me that of all the things of the old country my kind are supposed to miss, there are very few which I miss at all. Furthermore, I don't understand why anyone would come to live here if they're going to spend the rest of their lives pining after sausages in batter or The One Show. I don't understand why anyone would wish to live in a distant land if they weren't going to bother engaging with it, and preferably on its terms rather than those they've brought with them.

We left the store, stepping quickly through a hole in the conversation, and crossed the road. I had decided that I would return to the first shop and buy the strange lemon teapot with the human face, but first we dived quickly into a third antique emporium, this one thankfully run by a Texan from whom I purchased a teapot for myself, a more traditional kind with a plain brown glaze from which I would serve tea to my two English visitors in but a few weeks time.

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