Dash It All Downton — You've Done it Again

Downton Abbey has done it to me again. Stirred up a longing, a feeling of homesickness for England so intense it's threatening to turn into a full blown case of Philopatridomania. A word that ends with mania is never a good thing: Philopatridomania is an 'insane' desire to return home, 'excessive' homesickness. Blame it on Downton's outspoken socialist, Miss Bunting! She's leaving the village behind—and Tom Branson with it—heading for a job at a school in Preston, Lancashire.

Preston! 'That's where my dad was born' I squeal to the flat screen. My insanity has not progressed to the point that the screen answers back so I turn to google, looking at houses and flats 'to let' in the north of England, wondering what a maisonette is and what exactly they mean by a one bedroom double?

I've been to Preston once, back when I was twenty, when I met my Grandma Good for the first and only time. It's funny, isn't it, how we call the grandparents we're not as close to, by their last names, not just grandma or bubba or pops or grandpa but Grandma This and Grandpa That? While I knew my other grandmother, my mother's mum who lived in the south of England—the grandmother who visited us when we lived in Canada; the grandmother who wrote to my mother on blue tissue-thin air letters that folded out to reveal a page crammed with tiny squiggles; the grandmother who sent a package every December, a box stuffed with soft bundles, Xmas prezzies — usually sweaters — rolled up and wrapped in colored tissue paper —I'd never even met my dad's mother. While we'd spent time at grandma's house in Hayes, Middlesex when I was a small child; me scrubbing her red steps and chasing butterflies clear down to the bottom of the garden where the purple-y blue Morning Glories climbed over an old wooden fence, Preston, Lancashire, held no such memories. If I'd ever seen Grandma Good or been to Preston it wasn't for years and years, there was nothing I remembered.

My dad left home at seventeen; his father was a 'sod', his mother, it was inferred, disinterested. One of the few family anecdotes from that side of the tree has my grandmother hurling a knife at her husband, and barely missing both her husband and her son. Another version has her aiming the knife directly at my dad. He escaped to Egypt, taken in by a distant relative in Alexandria, where he made the best of it; teaching himself Arabic, and dancing on floating barges in the Mediterranean Sea, strands of lights swaying in the breeze while he waltzed the night away with "exotic" Egyptian beauties and expat English roses. By the time he met my mother, over a dozen years later, he'd put his language skills to use, serving in the Middle East in World War II for the British Army. As the war wound down, the world settling around him, he wound down too, at thirty he was finally ready to marry.

The two women, my mother and her mother-in-law, didn't get along, didn't 'get on' as the truly English would say. The ill will began with a visit home to Preston to show off their firstborn, my brother Russell, to Grandma Good. According to my mother, my father and his mother left her at home alone to mind the baby. 'She' had taken my father off to the pub for a pint, 'She' rushed him off, my mother said, with a snippy "Just leave her with a pack of cigarettes and she'll be highly delighted." Except my mother always told the story with a cruel imitation of Grandma Good's north country accent. They loved to do that, my parents, take the mickey out of each other, making fun of where their parents had come from, the north vs the south, and 'oo ad the more common accent.' My father had shed the sounds of Lancashire in Egypt; the very act of teaching himself not just Arabic, but French, Italian and Spanish, had smoothed away the rough edges, until he sounded like a movie star, like David Niven, or Sir Alec Guinness. He'd shed his family ties in much the same way; he had a sister he missed, but he rarely mentioned his mum.

So in the summer of 1973, visiting my grandmother, the grandmother I knew, now living in my uncle's house in Chorleywood, using their home as a base while I had a look round London before I hit the continent, I wasn't sure I even wanted to go to Preston and get acquainted with Grandma Good. I didn't think I'd have time to go to Preston; it wasn't on my itinerary.

I spent my days taking the train into London, visiting Picadillly Circus, buying worry beads in Carnaby Street, seeking out the Elgin Marbles in the Victoria and Albert museum. I walked the Strand, the Mall and St James Place, alone, and saw the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. I went window shopping on Bond Street and bought some cheap souvenir tea towels at Petticoat Lane. I found Nelson's column at Trafalagar Square where I'd cowered behind my brother's shoulders when we were little kids, crying as the pigeons fluttered all around us, and felt profoundly, deeply lonely. I discovered that seeing the sights isn't much fun without someone to share them with. At least not for me. When I wasn't going in to London, I watched Wimbledon with my grandmother on the telly, or walked down to the shops to post a letter. I'd worked hard, and saved a long time for this trip. I tried but I just couldn't shake the loneliness.

They tried, my poor grandmother and uncle, to keep me entertained. My uncle, a cameraman with London's ITV television, took me to the City to see The Old Curiosity Shop: the Dickens themed souvenir plate he bought me was the start of a collection. Afterwards he treated me to a plowman's lunch of beer, thick bread and a hunk of cheese in one of the oldest pubs in London. On a sunny Saturday we toured the Tower of London and watched the buskers perform for the tourists. My relatives took me round to meet other relatives, my grandmother's sister, Aunt Glad, for high tea. More second aunts, more second uncles. We went to Windsor Castle where we stopped at a pub and drank beer at picnic tables on the green green lawn while boats on the Thames drifted by. We drove down to the coast to Brighton where I met another relative I'd never heard of, Janine, a second aunt or third cousin once removed, something like that. A youngish mother of a small child, she was kind enough to put me up overnight and let me tag along to the shops and a lunch date with a friend. They were all very kind but after three weeks I had a severe case of philopatridomania; desperately lonely, homesick for my family, my friends, for someone to talk to, really talk to.

I'd wanted so much to see Paris but I'd lost my nerve; if I couldn't have fun in London on my own, how could I enjoy Paris, where I barely knew the language? After a tearful call home, my parents agreed to fly my sister over if I would pick up the rest of the expenses. Deal. But there was a caveat; please go and see your Grandma, my dad said, your Grandma Good in Preston.  She'd really love to see you both.


Comments

  1. What a great adventure you had! So fun to look back at it.

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