The filial piety tour of the United States has to come to an abrupt end as I realize that the whole nation is about to be flooded with mawkish, groveling coverage and celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 99th birthday. With just moments to spare, I reach the airport, fling money on an airline ticketing desk and beg to get on the first flight to anywhere more than 2,000 miles away from this country. Seven hours later, I realize I have made a mistake…
I have ended up in the very heartland of the monarchical festivities. It is impossible to step a yard without encountering another representation of royalty, whether it is the stately figurehead herself, or her feeble-minded progeny and their embarrassingly untoothsome spouses. This small corner of England is not a pretty sight: a miserable people who under usual circumstances silently detest one another come together as a community to rejoice on the village green.
In a jet-lagged haze, I wander among children eating cake at long benches, mingle with adults guzzling the local alcohol and barbecued burgers, and watch the jousting, bear-baiting and other traditional entertainments. At one point, I stumble into a dark, humid church hall in which elderly women in faded hats sit around tables sipping tea from chunky white cups dispensed by a uniformed lady with a huge urn. It is like walking into a black-and-white movie where people whose homes have been bombed by the Germans are resolutely refusing to grumble.
On the wall in a corner, however, it is the 21st Century. A notice advertising the UK government’s public consultation on gay marriage looks like it was pinned up with a slight shudder. There is the inevitable school PTA meeting schedule. And I spy a pair of maps illustrating the Parish of Stonegallows as it is today and as it will be when a sprawling, underused medical facility hidden by woodland is replaced by a grid of residential development. The number of households will rise from 700 to 1,300 and the population will go from 1,900 to nearly 3,000. Looking around at all the Margaret Rutherfords gossiping over their jam sponges, I decide to keep the news to myself.
Back outside, men and boys in shorts are playing cricket. Out of deference to their ancient British ancestors, it seems, they have pained themselves in woad. Then I look at the rusty thermometer outside the hall’s door and discover why they are blue: it is 50F, or 11C. The rain drizzling down is colder still, as if it had been stored in a refrigerator overnight. I know for a fact that in Hong Kong it is in the low 90s. And Heathrow is a mere three hours away.