Visiting England

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The strangest part about visiting England was that it felt so familiar. My grandmother had come to Canada when she was a young girl and was teased in school for her English accent (though she had acquired wide American vowels by the time I knew her!).  Although they had been Americans for generations, my husband’s mother and grandmother retained a sense of British propriety that I understood better after reading Jane Austen.

Indeed, many of the formative books I read as a child had been written in England about English children (or magical English creatures) in an English countryside: Alice in Wonderland, The Railway Children (and many others by Edith Nesbit), The Wind in the Willows, The Prydain chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which takes place during World War II.

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In Oxford, we came across a grave “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame,” the author of The Wind in the Willows, a book we read out loud as a family.

WWII is written into the British landscape in ways it never was in America. Our friends who lived just outside London had a bomb shelter in their backyard. They also discovered a beautiful brass bell on a grandparent’s bicycle which had been painted black. A lot of things were blackened to hide them. During “the last war,” windows were papered over at night and cyclists kept their lights turned off so that the entire country would appear completely dark to German bombers.

Even the iconic large chalk horses on Wiltshire hillsides were covered to prevent them from being used by enemy planes as signposts. I was struck by how much cooperation this must have entailed. In 1940, the UK population was 46 million (compared to nearly 67 million today). GPS and other navigation systems make this question obsolete, but I cannot help but wonder if such a large group of people could be convinced to work together in a similar way today.

After the war, it had been so long since there had been bananas in Britain that a whole generation of children didn’t know what they were.

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