With apologies to James Baldwin for using his 1962 title to caption this post, I’ll share a few comments on a trip that Penelope and I made to the United Kingdom in October. I emphasize both words, united and kingdom, since both contain some irony. It’s also an opportunity to recall some often-confused geo-political basics.England is a country, occupying part of an island, Great Britain, which in turn is only a part of the political entity, the United Kingdom, which takes the northeastern chunk of another island to complete.
After just one quick day in London upon arrival (beautiful room, with a great view, in gorgeous fall weather, at the Sheraton Towers in Knightsbridge…dangerously close to Harrods), we traveled by car to Wales for a meeting of the Financial Planning Standards Board. Just past Bristol, the road signs changed to include a Celtic language, in addition to English. The driver explained that we were now in “another country”, Wales…and quickly added that the Welsh and the English don’t necessarily get along too well. English weekend homeowners sometimes find their Welsh properties put to the torch. Hmmm.
I also remninded myself that Charles is the “Prince” of this place and that Will and Harry have “Wales”, not Windsor, as their surname. If Charles ever gets to the throne, one presumes that Will will take over the Princedom. “Poor” Harry stays a mere Duke.
The country is green and wet and blustery in October; the sky changed dramatically from dark overcast to brilliant sun several times a day. Because FPSB kept me busy during the days at The Celtic Manor (home to the Ryder Cup a few years earlier), there was little opportunity to explore; but Penelope took the train from Newport to Cardiff one day and had fun shopping and negotiating lunch to avoid cream, butter, and cheese.
We were treated to a large Welsh Choir’s performance (excellent!) one evening and a trip to a nearby castle for dinner theatre on another night. Getting there was quite an adventure. The driver of our bus (one of two) made a woefully wrong turn and, with much skepticism from those at the front of the bus, took us a long way down a very narrow, unpaved (so quite muddy), one lane road till we reached a firm barrier. On either side were deep ditches and wheel swallowing mud, so we had no choice but to back up…at least a mile and an half, in total darkness…it was interesting to observe the range of responses, from great humor to near panic from the 40 or so international attendees, all of whom are accustomed to being “in control” in their own spheres. I think the driver nearly had a heart attack and many of us were much more concerned about him. Eventually, now very late, we found the castle and joined with our colleagues from the other bus who were refused (unexplainedly) anything to drink until the whole group had arrived.
After Wales, we flew to Edinburgh for several days of history (there is much: start with Edinburgh castle itself), art, great food, sighseeing, in town as well as in the wild and beautiful Highlands, and getting into the spirit of yet another country. So, of course I bought a kilt, learning that not many people really take specific tartans into account anymore, so my having not a drop of Scottish blood was no obstacle. A taxi driver later explained to me that the outfit wouldn’t be complete without a “dirk”, the small blade true Scotsmen always carry in their stocking and that always gets him in trouble with our TSA.
We visited the Parliament of Scotland (it proudly has a separate one; and something like 40% of the population say they favor separation, “devolution”, from the British crown) and so much of the history of this place is framed in terms of it’s soveriegnty struggles and actual battles, some won, some lost, with the English. A Scottish joke asks why God was so generous with Scotland: great beauty, fertile land, clever, handsome people; it seems unfair. The response, “but look who he gave them as neighbors!”
Still, Edinburgh won the competition to be the permanent home of the recently decommissioned royal yacht, Brittania. Touring it, complete with the Queen’s and Prince Phillip’s private quarters and the decidedly more modest quarters for the non-officer crew, brought to life the very strange (to Americans) situation of a hereditary monarchy living an almost other-worldly existence, now deep into the 21st century. It’s not just that the family is extraordinarily rich, and enjoys a healthy budget provided by taxpayers as well, it’s that they are treated almost as if a superior species.