My apologies for the lack of blog posts recently, but I’ve been reading ALL THE BOOKS and haven’t had time to write about them till now. Next in my Adventures in Research comes Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith, an American journalist who seems to have been the Bill Bryson of the 1940s and 1950s, selling “millions of copies” of his humorous books. Among Smith’s best-selling books were (I am not making these titles up) Lo, the Former Egyptian!, Larks in the Popcorn and Life in a Putty Knife Factory, with his novel Rhubarb being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Ray Milland and Orangey the cat.
Smith’s London Journal describes his visit to England in the autumn of 1951. His trip was partly for the purpose of attending the British premiere of Rhubarb, but also to study the “English character”, which he’d heard was the most admirable in the world. He sails over on the Queen Elizabeth, taking careful notes on the manners and accents of his fellow passengers, including the (mostly unintelligible) Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden (clearly, this was pre-Suez crisis, because Eden is described as “one of the world’s most skilful diplomatists”). On arrival in London, life becomes even more confusing for Mr Smith, but he does his best to cope with English money (“thrupnys and sixpuntses and arf crowns and bobs and double bobs”), English vocabulary (“A saloon is a sedan. Thus it is possible to be arrested in England for driving while drunk in a saloon.”) and English club etiquette (strictly no women allowed, not even Queen Mary). He happily follows in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson and Pepys; pores over English newspapers; watches a cricket match, a snooker tournament and the dog races; attends a session at the Bow Street Courts and an election candidate’s campaign meeting; buys a “weatherproof” from Burberry’s and tries to purchase the tie of the National Playing Fields Association because it’s the favourite of the Duke of Edinburgh; attempts to master the art of talking Cockney and asks how to address Lords and Ladies (as the only other titled people he’d previously met were “Grand Dragon Wimble of the Klan and Miss America of 1937”). Meanwhile, his wife Nelle visits historical sites, tries to start up a conversation with a King’s Guardsman (“CAN YOU TALK TO PEOPLE?”) and gets into arguments with monarchists (“I still say that the kind of adulation and worship you give to those people over in Buckingham Palace ought to be given to someone who has accomplished something”).
Mr Smith, unlike Nelle, is full of admiration for nearly all aspects of English life, although he does struggle with the meals, which tend to consist of either Dover sole or “flat chicken” (“apparently the poultry chef takes the meat and gristle from a chicken and flogs it with a mallet before cooking; either that or the British chicken is unlike any fowl in my country – a sort of feathered saucer walking around on chicken feet”). He fails in his quest to convince his new English friends that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (this theory is based on “an accumulation of knowledge in recent decades”, although it’s “most unfortunate that the man who did this enormous job of research and then wrote the book has the surname of Looney, so I didn’t mention that fact and was happy no one asked about it”). However, he does achieve his long-held ambition to visit Jeremy Bentham at University College1. Smith’s London Journal not only provided me with a lot of (possibly useful) facts about London, it made me laugh and laugh. Highly recommended, if you happen to share my sense of humour.
Less ridiculous, but still entertaining, is Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. This is another American-tourists-in-1950s-England guidebook, but this one ranges a bit further than London, travelling as far south as Cornwall and north to Yorkshire. The authors believe England is “the most beautiful, wonderful, exciting country in Europe”, but they caution their fellow Americans:
“There is a mistaken notion . . . that just because we speak the language (or some approximation of same) and are brought up on Dickens, Keats and Shakespeare, England is therefore easy. On the contrary, England is complicated, more obscure and difficult than Brazil or Abyssinia . . . Alas, a standard sight in the English summer-time is the harried American tourist, dismally trotting about the Tower of London or old St Bartholomew’s, afraid to ask what is Perpendicular, when was the Dissolution, and what happened for the eight hundred odd years after 1066?”
Accordingly, for each historical site, the authors not only tell readers how to get there and what to look for when they arrive, but also provide excellent potted histories of the events and people associated with the site, as well as clear explanations of architectural styles. There are also descriptions of various aspects of English life (an entire chapter on cricket, for example), all written in an engaging, informative manner. In addition, there are maps, a family tree for “The Kings of England”2, a chart of notable dates in English history, a glossary of architectural terms and a lot of charming illustrations by Osbert Lancaster (see below). I haven’t finished reading this one yet (I’ve been distracted by my piles of library books), but so far, Here’s England gets two thumbs up. (If my opinion has changed by the end of it, I’ll come back and edit this post.)
- Mr Bentham, author of Auto-Icon, or the Uses of the Dead to the Living, died in 1832, but provided very specific instructions in his will regarding how his body was to be preserved. ↩
- Although they do include The Queens of England. I noticed they fail to acknowledge Lady Jane Grey as a Tudor Queen, presumably because she didn’t last long in the job and didn’t have a coronation, but then, neither did Edward VIII, and he’s in there. I am willing to overlook this because lots of other writers follow their reasoning about poor Jane and the rest of the book is so carefully researched. ↩