Many thanks for your many positive responses to last week’s email announcing the return of this newsletter. It was exactly what I needed to give me a powerful starting boost.
Some of you told me a bit about yourselves and many more simply wrote, “Yaaay Ralph!!” Which was more of a surprise than it should have been considering that I dangled the bait in the first place.
The next puzzle is figuring out what to write. I’m bursting with things to tell you but I don’t know where to begin. So, let’s start with something easy. Let’s go with politics. That’s usually a safe bet.
Everyone gets to hear their own country described as the greatest on earth. We heard it a lot during the recent (and excruciatingly entertaining) US election. But in the United Kingdom we’ve been masters of self-proclaimed greatness for generations. Indeed, when our ancestors came up with the brilliant idea of putting the word Great in front of the word Britain we set the bar so low that any country on earth could, one way or another, claim exactly the same thing forevermore.
During my time in Canada it was made clear to me that the whole area north of the 49th parallel was actually the greatest country on earth but we were keeping the knowledge quietly to ourselves because we didn’t want Americans stampeding across the border and spoiling it. Meanwhile, south of the equator, it is similarly apparent that Australians, with their huge rocks, jumbo prawns and tight little budgie smugglers believe that Oz is the greatest (although New Zealanders may quietly differ about that.) Good, so that’s settled then.
Now that I’m back in Great Britain I suppose you want to hear how great it actually is. Well, I’m happy to report that it is surprisingly great – that is, once you get used to the place and once you have, if not lowered your standards, then at least changed them a little. Fitting back into UK society after twenty-nine years in Canada was surprisingly difficult – almost to the point of traumatising. So much has changed that, weirdly, I felt like a refugee, albeit one that arrived already fluent in the local lingo.
Starting almost from ground zero I was shocked at what I didn’t know. Other than my student years I’ve never lived here as an adult and now I needed a home, a car, an income and all of life’s domestic bits and bobs. Due to my being middle aged, and speaking like a local, no one took me seriously when asking for help with things that even kids know: Why are car-insurance and car-tax totally separate? Where can I buy sandpaper? And who the hell is Gary Barlow? A common response to my questions was for people to squint their eyes and stare at me as they tried to figure out what I might be up to.
If you’ve never been to the UK you are probably imagining red telephone booths, real live queens and princes, friendly policemen in pointy helmets, nannies pushing prams in the park, bowler hatted commuters carrying umbrellas, chimney sweeps with mucky faces and bad cockney accents, hot chestnut sellers and eccentric people in tweeds and crooked teeth explaining their new invention while explosions go off around them. Well, all that may be true down south but not so much here in the north: Yorkshire is where I am. Our lifestyle is about as different from London as backwoods Alabama is from uptown New York.
Sure, some things are similar. There’s the toytown vibe that all North Americans experience when they arrive – due to everything being physically scaled down so that we all fit on this tiny island. You arrive at the airport and discover that buses and automobiles are ‘compact’ in order to drive on roads designed for stagecoaches. The houses are typically a third smaller than average North American or Australian homes and correspondingly everything in them is smaller: stoves, frying pans, tables, plates, sofas the lot. In the first few months of being here I’d pick up household objects and lose myself in wonder at this miniature world.
But all that has worn off. I’ve even grown accustomed to the novelty of British TV. In the first two years I would watch anything but now I’m less interested in telly and find myself obsessively turning on the radio. But what a fantastic thing it is to have well-funded public broadcasting. I love that.
I’m also lucky to be in a beautiful situation on the edge of the Pennines. The land is rugged and the climate not for sissies but when you walk up the hill at dusk and look back at the village, nestled, in the valley bottom, as the lights twinkle into existence, it looks positively Dickensian – especially when it snows.
I love the people in this area too. In contrast to the frigid winds that blow down from the moors their easy friendliness warms the heart and lightens the step. Nearly every-one says hello. Even strangers. Anytime I’m feeling down I get on my recumbent bike (it’s like a man-powered Harley – so cool haha) and go to the shops. Always I get recognized and friends wave, shout hello and honk their horns. It’s a never-ending tonic. My mum, a German, came here in the early 1960s and was genuinely concerned about how she might be treated in the wake of WWII. Instead, people took her into their hearts. No-one has ever said a mean word to her in 60 years.
And I love our local pubs. At their best they are places of raucous laughter, thoughtful conversation and quiet communion. Yes, there’s alcohol, but unlike pubs in other places it’s about so much more than the beer. A Greek friend of mine summed it up when he told me about his visit to England in the eighties, “We walked in the pub as separate people but by the end of the night we were all one company.”
My adventure into adulthood was just beginning when I left Yorkshire for Vancouver and, now that I’m back home, with three decades of acquired entertainment skills, I find I’ve become the local troubadour. I’m the guy in the pub who writes original comic songs and gets everyone singing together on special occasions. It feels good to be the one instigating the merriment. When I look around the room and see young and old, farmers, friends, barmaids, builders and business people raising their voices so that the ancient beams vibrate with laughter and song it feels like this is what I came back to do.
It’s a new me that walks these streets and every now and then, for a brief moment, it does indeed feel like the greatest country on earth.
Keep Smiling and Strumming!
© Ralph Shaw Music 2020