A year ago today I landed at Heathrow for a ten day trip home and I haven’t been back since. How did that happen, where did that year go? It feels too long since my feet were on English soil and so now I’m having a yearning-fest about things I miss. I don’t mean my friends and family, or my work or the specific detail of my home because all of that is particularly mine to miss (oh, and I do) and everyone has there own ‘particularly mine’ stuff that is to do with the who they’re without more than the what and the where to compare. So I’m meaning and dreaming of the things which are everyone’s there but no-one’s here. I’m sure there are loads, and you certainly won’t all agree with me, English or not, there or here or wherever you are, but here are four things on my list that might surprise you.
Flicking a v. Here, it’s up yours, giving the finger – the middle one, to be precise – but I think we all know that, it’s a universal gesture, or universally western perhaps. But flicking a v, that’s ours. You make a v with your index and middle fingers and stick it up provocatively, palm inwards, almost the same but opposite way round to the peace or victory sign. It means fuck off, of course, but it’s only good to give if you know it’s going to be understood. Recently I went with my pal M [you’re in M :)] to see Jake Bugg playing in Houston. He’s from Nottingham, England and one of his songs is called ‘Two Fingers’, by which he means holding up two fingers, flicking a v, saying fuck off. The audience swayed hippyishly giving the peace sign as he belted it out, and oh how we laughed knowingly, M and me. I’d not given it much thought till then, but since have been missing using it, in jest and in anger and in sarcasm and in defiance and in all sorts of possibilities in between. (It’s an ubiquitous flick of the wrist on the roads – as a cyclist, as a driver, as a pedestrian even – a dismissal of annoyance, minorly aggressive but in an ok sort of way – but which I couldn’t possibly use in even the slightest of road rage here just in case the sentiment were to be clearly understood and I found myself facing a gun.)
Ice cream vans. We all know the British Summer is often cold and wet (and, yeah, I know I know, last Summer was the hottest for ten years, I missed that too) but that doesn’t ever stop the beat. Apparently you get them here in the US (‘ice cream trucks’) but I’ve only ever seen hot food trucks. Or maybe I have seen one and just not noticed because it’s too appropriate, but I don’t think they drive round the houses and sit outside schools, and I’m absolutely sure you won’t come across one when it’s chilly. There’s something enticing, nostalgic, in your bones about the promise of an ice cream cone that the tune sings out whatever the weather, despite the weather. Many a 99 (Cadbury’s Flake in a Mr Whippy basically) with raspberry sauce has been consumed in horizontal rain on the sea-front or in low cloud and drizzle at the end of a damp and miserable walk up a hill and down again. Because in England there’s always a van there, just in case the sun does come out. And it might be a weedy, reedy, thin jangle piping out, but it was enough to get you worried as a kid that you’d see it disappearing round the corner as it wafted its way in and out of your local streets, sticky coins still in your grubby hands. I’ve just had a little google, and apparently there are about 5,000 ice cream van chimes available in the UK! In my mind, it’s always Greensleeves – which, it turns out is one of the most popular along with Match of the Day and O Sole Mio (of course! Just One Cornetto!) – but not ever as soothing and melodic a version as any of these examples. As I said, weedy, reedy and thin, and played way too fast. But there, and pleasing all the same.
Shopping trollies. Not supermarket shopping trollies/carts, but little trollies for the local shops that old ladies (never old men) pull along the pavement/sidewalk as they pop into the butcher’s to buy two rashers of bacon, a fabric basket on two wheels with a long handle. Occasionally you might see quite a trendy one and I have one myself, actually, purchased from the Eden Project in Cornwall, all eco-friendly and everything. Marvellous for transporting home the massive four rib of beef or what have you, even if your kids disown you as they walk right on by. I love mine (trolley that is). Or rather, loved it, symbolic as it and all the ankle-catching, door-jamming tartan ones being steered erratically by our mothers and grandmas are of the delightful if mundane pleasure of walking to the local shops, idly chatting to whoever you might bump into, chewing the fat, being the community. And although I don’t love those see-through plastic rain … scarves? hoods? … head coverings, worn by same old ladies and just as redolent of neighbourhood life, yet even these, provincial and old hat (sorry) and unstylish (like the trollies) as they are, are familiar and missing (though not from my head you’ll be relieved to know).
Meat pies. Of course I could make my own and I have done so a couple of times. But I don’t really mean the home-made meat pies that feed a family for dinner with gravy (that’s dark brown, meaty meaty meaty gravy) and buttery boiled spuds and peas, although that’s to die for too, isn’t it? But no, actually I mean the little meat pies for one that you get from Gregg’s or petrol/gas stations (neither of these the best but pervasively on the high streets and roads of the land so there when you need them) or preferably from whatever little bakery you can find. Chicken & mushroom, steak & ale, steak & kidney, chicken & ham, ham & cheese, spicy lamb & potato. I’d count Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, cheese & onion as well even though that’s veggie. Oh and pork pies, salty jelly and gooey pastry inside, crusty out. Savoury. Meat. Not sweet. Not fruit. But meat. Pies. I flick a v to ‘pot pie’ upstarts. You need pastry on the bottom too.