[The Explorations of a St Andrews student.]
During last Ski Week I took the controversial decision not to go skiing. Risking alienation from friends and ridicule from classmates, I decided to do something good in the world and lend my presence to an altogether less advantaged breed of people than your average sloane on the slopes.
I flew in to Gatwick Airport with the knowledge that I would be spending the next two weeks on a bicycle in a land where (as my governess put it) everyone wants to make money off you or talk to you about Coleridge. Some considered me foolish, even suicidal, to attempt a feat of such awesomeness. Ignorance if probably the best word to describe my attitude towards the whole of Southern England.
Travelling by train for an hour took me away from the metropolis into darkest Oxford. It was a gruelling journey, with fodder being a choice between the rustically named “Ploughman’s” and “Egg Mayonnaise”. The latter appeared to have been masticated already by a previous purchaser, indeed, considering the sanitation conditions of the train in general, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case. I opted for the “Ploughman’s”, hoping against hope that no burly common labourer would turn up to demand his sandwich back. This was my first taste of traditional Southern English fare and I was pleasantly surprised to find it edible, even enjoyable.
Buoyed up by my ability to successfully blend in with the natives in terms of luncheon habits, I exited Oxford station with a spring in my step. I had the good fortune to have been given the address of an ex-serviceman who lived here; one Rev Fortescue, an ex-vicar, who had taken services at one of the many Church of England establishments here in Southern England. Among the chintz curtain covers and historic watercolours in his home, he listed the dangers I might face: wild animals, chlamydia, people, and above all, white vans. I myself was scarcely concerned about such things, having spent my teatimes dreaming about only cordial things such as beautiful landscapes, sitting in Lyons’ teashops, Morris dancing, singing with indigenous peoples and even stabbing a fork into some black pudding.
However, I was soon to learn that Southern England was not a place to be taken lightly when, my first afternoon there, I almost made a most costly mistake. ‘Stop!’ the Rev Fortescue cried, ‘do not walk on the grass!’ Having made my first cultural faux pas, I returned to my “Bed and Breakfast” chastened, but wiser.
My next stop in Southern England was the village of Tunbridge, or Wells. Here one can still find natives dressing in nineteenth century garb and urging you to “drink the waters”; believed to be a panacea among the inhabitants. Fearing typhoid, I eschewed the well waters – despite many earnest entreaties, for the natives were a noble-hearted bunch, concerned for my health – in favour of a “stiff” Gin and Tonic. This local beverage turned out to be anything but stiff. It was as runny as water, but considerably more potent. The old wise women of Southern England use it to provoke spiritual experiences. The narcotic had little affect on me in this respect, no doubt due to my superior physique.
I spent the next two days swimming in the sea and playing football with the natives, after hopping on a provincial train to the coast. Few I met here had ever seen anyone with chest hair before. As a rule, the Southern English tend to be composed of lily-white types who use bow-ties to cover their lack of Adam’s apple.
Then followed some much-needed rest and, most importantly, food. Feasting on cod and chips, it was hard to imagine that there were fishing quotas here. Come evening, after so much roast beef I could hardly waddle to the lavatory, I began to wonder if this “economic crisis” I’d heard about was not one big joke.
Further into the wilds of Southern England I became more acquainted with natives who had to struggle for a living. Teaming up with a fellow explorer named John Everett, together we braved the famous moor found in Dart. After two hours, tired from trekking and with not a humble farmhouse in sight to break our fast at, John Everett looked around and said: ‘every mile I pray we may find someone with a 4×4 that doesn’t have mud on it, so we may be transported out of this hell. Then I realise, every 4×4 in this area got covered in mud long ago.’
I couldn’t have agreed more with his sentiments and then, as we thought it couldn’t get any worse, we ran out of champagne. I admit that the next half a mile was my personal hell. It was with God’s grace that we ran into a group of native children and their guardians, picnicking next to a copse of sycamore trees. People from every social background were glad to give us all they had. We even got a nearly-cold can of Coke Zero – something I had previously not thought to exist in Southern England. Although I blanched at the prospect of a slice of Victoria sponge that the flies had been sitting on, proffered to me with an eager smile by a toothless boy in a track-suit.
As I pressed on with my journey, on some occasions I would find a small community of Southern Englanders and distribute gifts in exchange for hospitality and teacakes. My mother had urged me to take along some Hershey’s Kisses and Marshmallow Puff. It gave me no small pleasure to hand these out to the women and children. The ecstasy and smiles on their faces as I gave them to them saying ‘this is from my country to you’, were a sight for the most jaded of eyes.
For the later part of my trip, I had a native guide who could barely make himself understood in plain English. After trying to decipher for the hundredth time why syllable ‘rrroyte’ was elicited in response to my simple greetings, I had to get rid of him. He may have been attempting to mock me or degrade my standing among the native folk and I couldn’t take that risk.
Alas, having a guide may have come in useful when my bike broke down on day twelve. I tried explaining to the Southern England workers what was wrong with it, but was met with only chin rubbing and curt exclamations of ‘arrrr’. Fortunately, I happened to bump into a Scotsman named Dougal MacDougan, who was typical of his race – no-nonsense, tight-fisted and dour. I gained his trust by explaining that I had Scottish antecedents. It later proved that he thought I possessed cleaning products from North of the border, but no matter, for he fixed my bike.
The natives were most amused when I explained that I had never seen a pasty before and that meals in my country always contained a vitamin.
It was with a heavy heart, and an even heavier suitcase full of trinkets that I my bleeding heart had induced me to buy off the cash-starved locals, that I sat in my First Class seat on the plane home. I returned to St Andrews with a broader mind and the satisfaction that I helped some people needier than us. I encourage all who read this to learn from my example and think of how all of us, in our world of privilege, may take a step out of our comfort zone in order to help others.
The Honourable Carl Quincey III
Disclaimer: Carl Quincey didn’t tell me what he was going to write before I gave him the use of my blog. It turns out he’s a bit of a prat. – Clarity Bell.