Thursday, August 26, 2010

Half-Arsed England And The Missing Kidney

Stodge for the English soul...
I spent six weeks this summer in my native England, but feel that the visit can best be summed up by one lunch time in a café in Settle, where I ordered steak and kidney pie with chips and gravy. Not the kind of food you’d want on a summer’s day, you might think, but this was an English summer’s day - outside it was chilly and raining. Okay, so not the sort of food you’d want on any day if you wanted to live a long and healthy life, but English food has a gray, relentless attraction to those who grew up with it, culinary merits aside. It’s always as bad and as good as you remember.

“How was your food?” asked the polite waiter. “Well, I ate the steak and kidney pie with hope in my heart right up to the very last mouthful, but I never found the kidney,” I replied. This was a big mistake. In England, when invited to pass an opinion on something, you must be too polite to tell the truth. Only afterwards do you bellyache, at length but safely out of earshot. It’s not the done thing to cause offence. “That’ll be six pounds 50,” was the indignant response. No urgent enquiries to the chef asking why the hell he’d served up a steak and kidney pie with no kidney. No generous discount or free dessert. Not that you’d want an English dessert, even for free. Dumping jam sponge with custard on top of steak and kidney pie with chips and gravy (even allowing for the absent kidney) would be the gastric equivalent of the bombing of Dresden.

I left the café feeling bad for having complained about the missing kidney. I was the intrusive foreigner who’d offended local sensibilities. In America when you complain, there’s usually compensation if you bitch long and hard enough. In England, after decades of mediocre government, the forgotten imperialists expect everything to be half-arsed. We stayed in a faulty cottage which had the most rudimentary equipment – blunt kitchen knives, cupboards with no backboards, power cuts when you used too many electrical items at once, loose shelves, a stereo and a TV remote control that didn’t work, and not one but two semi-functional barbeques. There was so much to complain about we didn’t know where to start, so we didn’t bother. Didn’t want to make a fuss. After a day or two you get used to it.

On our second day there we watched the half-arsed England football team lose to Germany in the World Cup, looking like they really couldn’t be bothered to play at all. Then the half-arsed weather set in – cool days, cold nights, a surplus of grey clouds, and the inevitable downpour on the day we took the kids to Blackpool. Another day I was on a train from London to Leeds and missed my connection to Settle by a minute. “When’s the next train?” I asked. Three and a half hours. “Why didn’t you hold the connection?” Different train companies, grunted the man at the Leeds station information desk, adding by way of further explanation, “Privatisation.” Even our excuses for things not working are half-arsed.

Since coming back to America, people have been asking me, “Did you have a good summer in England?” It was fantastic, I assure them. Because I’m not one to complain.