BY KATHY PERUTZ
England swings like a pendulum do,
Bobbies on bicycles, two by two.
Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben,
The rosy red cheeks of the little children.
– Roger Miller, 1965
“Those rosy red cheeks,” said my friend Sally at the time, “are broken capillaries – from the cold.” Sally was an American girl (born in Hollywood), living in London at the time. Her British father had been expelled from the U.S. during the McCarthy era for his questionable politics (he published The National Guardian, a radical newspaper) and the family returned to London. Sally was my best friend in the way you are best friends with someone when adulthood is very new on you and doesn’t yet fit properly. We talked on the phone many times a day. We were both blondes, both American girls, both writers. To the men we sometimes found in our beds, we were hardly distinguishable; they’d call me by her name or her by mine, and neither of us minded. That’s the kind of girlfriends we were, our link forged by the slightly foreign world around us, whose people had never bitten into a pastrami sandwich or felt the thrill of a BLT whiskey down, heavy on the mayo. The rosy cheeks, she said, were an illusion, a piece of everyday British hypocrisy (or a simple miscarriage of metaphor) in which a symptom of less than blooming health is taken for its opposite. Those poor kids were freezing, in a country that hadn’t yet discovered or consented to central heating.
We were freezing too. Americans in London at the time bravely wore sweater upon sweater, woolies underneath; went to the theatre and sat wrapped in suit-plus-overcoat from beginning to end, with a shot of whiskey at intermission to warm the plumbing; spent the winter months with hacking coughs, sucking on lozenges especially recommended by apothecaries for “bronchitis – the English disease.” We watched the Thames freeze over, we drank coffee not much better than ink-stained water, we dreamed of radiators. And yet we remained. London in the early 60’s was where it was all happening, or so it seemed. The Beatles, formed in Liverpool in 1960 had become the Fab Four and set loose the British Invasion. Laura Ashley was dressing us in floral patterns and styles of the 19th century, a paradoxical comment on the Teddy boys of England, mainly young working class men in the industrial centers of the country who wore Edwardian clothes. Vidal Sassoon, the Cockney lad with a salon in Mayfair, invented a way of cutting hair to make it sleek as seal’s fur, capping the head of It-girls with geometric precision. The BBC was opening up in the face of competition from Granada, a private tv company, allowing regional accents to creep into the voices of their announcers. The Angry Young Men of literature brought John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (and the film made from it) and many new works by the kind of people who hadn’t been published before, on themes of class and social privilege (or lack of it) that hadn’t been raised earlier.
England was changing. William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, a book considered scurrilous by most people and praised by Mary McCarthy, along with Nabokov’s Pale Fire as one of the two most important international novels of the time, moved to London from Paris where the American-born author had been living. A big fuss was made by the literati, though when Burroughs was asked by interviewers why he’d moved, his answer was a laconic, “for the food.”
The food, atrocious by most standards, had actually begun to improve. Though “British cuisine” was still recognized as an oxymoron, it was occasionally possible to find something edible in London. The new espresso bars had something like coffee, and eventually even croissants were seen in Soho. English cheeses were excavated from buried memory and Victoria Station actually had a little eatery where British cheeses abounded. The senses and what they could offer were reviving again, after long hibernation through the reign of Queen Victoria (“close your eyes and think of England”) and her followers, and the sex scandal of 1963 was a real peach, involving Cabinet ministers, Russian spies and some London call girls. This was the Profumo Affair, starring John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, Stephen Ward, a socialite osteopath (the facilitator), Yevgeny Ivanov, Soviet naval attaché, and the girls – Christine Keeler,
Oh what have you done, said Christine,
You have wrecked the whole party machine.
To lie in the nude
Is not at all rude,
But to lie in the House is obscene.
– Time Magazine, unattributed, reporting on the affair, summer 1963
and Mandy Rice-Davies, who happened to live opposite me when I was staying in the mews house of a friend in Knightsbridge, off the Brompton Road. Her clients would arrive in Rolls and Bentleys, their owners let off on the other side, away from my window so that I could never see more of them than their bespoke trousers, and then the sleek cars would purr off over the cobblestones until it was time to retrieve the newly-satisfied (one hoped!) politician or other celebrity and whisk him off to dinner.
These doings led to the collapse of Prime Minister MacMillan’s Conservative government in the fall of 1963, at a time when America was recovering from its very different summer, of civil unrest and racial violence before the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington at the end of August, where Martin Luther King gave his “I have A Dream” speech.
Sally and I were back in America for that, but we overstayed and then Kennedy was assassinated in November, and we returned to England in late ’63. My friend Mike was there too, one of my three Michaels and my oldest inhabited pal, as I call him, since I have known him for all these consecutive years. Mike and I ended up sharing a flat in Fitzrovia, a part of London that was then more mongrel than most, with Belgravia on one side and the Tottenham Court Road and lots of foreigners all around. We congratulated ourselves that we were in the right place at the right time. It had been Paris in the 40’s, and earlier; New York in the 50’s (he is a painter) and now it was London. The older generation still reminisced about the time when the map was red – when England ruled the waves and held her colonies, or at least some of them – but the younger people were moving forward, recognizing the rest of the world. I dined at the Café Royal, haunt of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Shaw and other lights, including royalty, with His Lordship H, father of the man then in my life. His Lordship was jovial, cordial, but when he asked me what I did all day and I replied that I was a writer, he then asked where I rode. At the end of the meal, confections were brought out, including peanut brittle, a favorite of mine. Milord was entranced by the way I mispronounced it, briddle to his ears. “You Americans,” he said in his jovial way, “you think you’re speaking English. We ARE English!” And then he laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it.
But his son had lived in Paris for a time, where I’d met him. Nick had gone to Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, the high road to advancement, but he’d finally balked when he was chosen for the Queen’s Guards (he was 6’3″ or 4″), saying, “I’d rather go to Korea.” There he was sent, a young officer in the war whose arm was blown off when the grenade he picked up in No Man’s Land exploded in his hand. Nick was politically left and part of the new culturally diverse England, though he couldn’t shed the markers (accent, bearing, assumptions) that had shaped him.
Ultimately the Teddy boys with their long hair and tailored jackets gave way to the Skinheads, neoNazis roving the urban streets of England. As in America, the strains of liberty, libertarianism, xenophobia and racism combined. The working class Brits, once the salt of the earth and the best of Britain, along with the little shopkeepers and the rest of the struggling middle class became more globalized. Some bought cheap vacation cottages in places like Céret, where Picasso once lived on the French side of the Costa Brava or condos around Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where Spanish is rarely heard, and certainly not attempted by the beer-drinking flock that migrates south in summer.
I married an Englishman, Michael, who had fled England more than a decade earlier and was living in New York. He’d been brought up in the pattern I had learned from my earlier companion. My Michael didn’t go to war, though he was in the British army for a time (in Intelligence), and he wasn’t the son of a lord. But he, too, went to a private “public school”, Marlborough, and then, on scholarship to one of the Cambridge colleges named for the Christian savior – either Christ or Jesus. He left home at 8, and was away at school until he left England for good. He and I are not Anglophiles, though you can get the boy out of England, as they say, but you can’t get England out. . .
And for me – my time in England was probably the happiest and most exciting of my life. There I headed after college, and there I stayed for several years, writing books and being well-published and well-reviewed, meeting the kind of people I’d never imagined as anything but stars, going to the theater with Kenneth Tynan on one side of me and Noël Coward on the other, having friends of many nationalities, with a sizable proportion coming from Africa and the Caribbean; and, when I turned 25, on the quayside of the Thames, close by Westminster Abbey with Big Ben tolling the hour and light spangling the river below, I was in my white sharkskin dress, the white Jaguar parked not far away, and as the last of the chimes receded with midnight, I was in the arms of and being kissed by James Bond. The first James Bond.
England was my Cinderella time, and to some extent England made me. Here I was on my own, finding out who I was and what the world was about through the fine seine of English life and manners, English values and history, as well as being in the ferment of London, of people from all races and cultures coming together to do their work, to make art or love or politics in an atmosphere of extreme tolerance. With Sally to confide in and change places with, and my aunt and uncle to visit up in Highgate, being able to move up and down the social scale because I was a foreigner and belonged to no particular pigeonhole, except the glamorous world of Upper Bohemia, artists and journalists, painters, film makers, poets, a sprinkling of royalty, a few dabs of working class, gays and straights, black brown and pink. My world was one of freedom and youth at a time when youth led to love and freedom to compassion.
Last week England swung beyond the pendulum’s reach, voting to leave the European Common Market in the ignominious Brexit. It was a tremendous shock, not only to Michael and to me, but to most of the people I know in England, none of whom have casitas in Spain or maisons de campagne in Provence, all of which may eventually crumble from the weightlessness of the pound. But my friends are in great distress, either climbing the walls or taking to their beds. They are ashamed of what their country has done. And we are all united in an even greater fear: that xenophobia and racism will prevail over Europe, that elections in France, Germany and other countries (Austria immediately) may turn these nations inward on themselves in petty nationalism and much worse. And the greatest fear of all is harbored here in the daughter-nation, of this great country of ours with its persistent dream of individual liberty, falling to the hysteria of crowds and the ranting of a charlatan.