Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oh, to be in England

RHYS: One of the things I miss most about England is its timeless quaintness. As an ex-pat one notices the weird and wonderful quirks of Britishness more than those who live there all the time.
One of the other panelists on my cozy mystery panel last Sunday was Hannah Dennison and she feels that same nostalgia for the silliness of England. Hannah writes the Vicky Hill mysteries set in the fictitious English country village of Gipping on Plym. Vicky is a reporter, supposedly stuck with writing obituaries, but each of the books features one of those quaint and anachronistic pastimes that still abound in the English countryside.

I thought of Hannah last week when I read an article in an English newspaper about the last surviving Mud Sled Fisherman. Okay, so picture this—a long wooden sled on which the fisherman lies, propelling himself over the mud by his feet until he reaches the ocean. He then attaches nets to little posts and strings them along the water’s edge, in the hope of trapping shrimp in them. Several hours later he will propel himself back out to the nets to see what he has caught. As an efficient, twenty-first century method of conducting a business, I think we can all pretty much see that this is sadly lacking. The man’s sons have expressed no interest in following him into the business—a fact that he understands but laments. And so the craft will die with him. In future the shrimp of the Bristol Channel will have to wait to be sucked up by giant Russian factory ships, along with everything else that swims, crawls or lies in the ocean.

Fortunately not all crazy pastimes are dying in England. In fact some are thriving as Hannah has found out when she researches her books. Snail racing is still going great guns, for one thing. As is stuffing a ferret down your trousers and seeing who is man enough to endure it longest. In East Anglia, that flat area of dykes, and waterways, there is the sport of ditch jumping. The participants run at a dyke, plant a pole and vault across. If they don’t make it, they get wet and muddy.

But that is marginally better than the sport of hedge jumping, which Hannah featured in her first Vicky Hill novel. Competitors leap over all kinds of hedges ranging from privet (easy) to hawthorn (spiky). She met one man who preferred to fling himself over backward in what he called “The Crucifixion Position.”
There was an attempt at synchronized hedge jumping but it proved too destructive to hedges. And I promise I’m not making this up.

Various villages have all kinds of races. The egg and spoon race is fairly normal, as is the pancake race on Shrove Tuesday. But most dangerous so far is the tar barrel racing in which competitors sprint through the village holding aloft in one hand a barrel of burning tar and hoping that they don’t spill it all over themselves.

So you see why I love writing about the UK, even if I choose to live in the US. I prefer a life style in which things run smoothly and efficiently but sometimes I wish that the city of Phoenix Arizona would conduct the occasional snail race….

10 comments:

Roberta Isleib said...

very funny Rhys, and congratulations Hannah! Those stories are so much fun, they are irresistible! My stepson had the honor of rowing in the Henley during one of his high school years. That was an amazing production. we brought my elderly father and stepmother--we all had to go shopping for skirts and hats. Unfortunately, they lost in the first race so we went on to other sights. Like Stonehenge--truly another amazing English oddity!

Laura DiSilverio said...

Hi Rhys,

We lived in Harrogate for a couple of years and fell in love with England and most things English. My youngest daughter was born there and we plan to show her where she was born some day. One of the things I liked most was not being thought an oddity for preferring tea to coffee!

Hallie Ephron said...

I LOVE this post, Rhys - Mud sled fishing! Sign me up!! I mean, how many careers are there where you can make money while lying flat on your back--don't answer that.

I am and have always been smitten by British lit, particularly the crime fiction with its hedgerows and lay-bys and cabbage roses and brogues. High tea and sherry. The races I had no idea about.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I stopped reading at ferrets... (Not really) SO funny!

Hannah Dennison said...

Actually, I've just polished off two slices of toast and marmalade. A nice light British breakfast. What a lovely warm welcome to Jungle Red! Thank you for your lovely comments ... and Rhys, for enlightening folks on our heritage. I wondered if you had been tempted to include Bog Snorkelling since the World Championships are held in Wales ...

Rhys Bowen said...

Hannah, you and I should write a non-fiction directory of English silly sports and country practices....

Deborah Crombie said...

I see I am sadly lacking in my knowledge of weird British sports. I'll have to do some research (but not with ferrets . . .) The wonders of the language, however, never fail to amaze me. Can anyone translate "rag and bone men arrested for fly tipping?" That was from a headline in the Newcastle Chronicle, and I have to admit I had to look it up. Obviously they were in the midst of a crime wave in Newcastle :-)

Hannah Dennison said...

Deborah - I don't often admit this (especially in front of Rhys whose blood is as blue as our Queen) but one of my ancestors WAS a rag and bone man. As for fly-tipping ... you wouldn't believe the number of mattresses that are just abandoned willy nilly on the side of roads.

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...

Obviously, this is the sort of stuff that made the British Empire great. Conversely, it may be that the early immigrants to the American, Canadian and Australian colonies were actually trying to escape the ferrets and burning barrels of tar.

Hannah Dennison said...

Julia ... why do you think Rhys and I live in California??