Today, President Obama met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As much as I support and admire Obama, his glaring diplomatic misstep in the press conference afterwards was a bit embarrassing. And I quote BBC news,
"Asked about their personal rapport, Mr Obama said they had 'spectacular wives and wonderful children in common'."
That's all fine and good, but I'm afraid Obama was merely showing his neophyte understanding of interpersonal and political dynamics by citing such a transparent and superficial connection. Proof? Well, when George W was asked about what he had learned after a crucial first meeting with Tony Blair, he was ready. Relying on all of his years of international experience and personal charisma, Dubya stunned the world with his incisive grasp of the relevant when he responded: "We both use Colgate toothpaste."
To his credit, however, Obama recovered somewhat when he noted: "Great Britain is one of our closest and strongest allies and there is a link and bond there that will not break."
To what bond is Obama referring? Some might think it's our common heritage under British rule. Or, perhaps, our shared preference for English muffins over a breakfast bagel. It could simply be the use of the English language (or a semblance thereof in the case of US leaders that make me wax nostalgic). But, all true policy pundits immediately know what Obama was getting at. The real tie that binds us Americans to our British compatriots -in-spirit is one thing and one thing only: really bad jokes.
(Could it be that Bush was inadvertently and unwittingly more astute than we all realized? I guess we'll just have to do like he says and "See what the history books decide." Oh, I can hardly wait.)
Obama clarified: "This notion that somehow there is any lessening of that special relationship is misguided... The relationship is not only special and strong but will only get stronger as time goes on." Gordon Brown concurred, stating, "I have come here to renew our special relationship for new times. It is a partnership of purpose born out of shared values."
They both went on to warn about the dangers of isolationism and the prosperity that is certain if we all refuse to "'project inwards' by encouraging protectionism." I wholeheartedly agree. If we cannot come together with our English cousins in fair and equal comedic commiseration, with an unfettered exchange of goods, services and puns in particular, how can we ever expect to find common ground on other, less significant issues like preventing world economic disaster? Let's learn from our past. It wasn't called the Great Depression for nothing.
I didn't really need this segueway to discuss bad British humor as a means of excusing my own. I admit I've been feeling sheepish and somewhat apologetic about my pun-laden prose since this blog's inception and have been mulling how to go about redeeming myself intellectually ... But, just yesterday, I caught sight of this headline on BBC's front page news:
Wheely bad: Thefts hit Paris bike scheme
With that, I feel absolutely no need to recuse myself from future blogging and the lofty heights to which I pun. Besides, even Shakespeare includes a healthy smattering of puns in his plays, so I figure I'm in good company. (True, his use of such undignified humor was an attempt to amuse and thereby quell the low-class, raucous urchins who occupied the pit of his Globe... But, then again, how is his writing so different from mine? Now, if you keep reading, blame only yourself.)
I am not asserting that England has any claim to superiority in comedy. For instance, despite calling myself an English major, I never ever could tolerate Monty Python marathons - any clever allusions in Holy Grail are unmercifully negated by chauvinistic slapstick that fully escapes my sensibilities. And, despite his eerie resemblance to my husband (at least according to several of my admiring/bewildered students), Mr Bean does little for my desires to relax heavy & punitive protectionist taxes on imported humor.
But, in terms of "the man on the street," in our travels thus far, we consistently find the grandest rapport with the gentlefolk we meet in Great Britain. (No slight intended to Joe Six-Pack, Main Street America, you betcha!) Sure, part of it is our common language, but it is also a shared willingness to use language for inclusion, nuance and a certain joie de vivre. (Mais oui, bien sûr, that is borrowed French... but the French too often miss the point, so it's okay to appropriate their phrases. Besides, the girls and I actually speak French, but, in our months there, we enjoyed little in the way of repartee or outreach beyond our being repeatedly corrected on the pronunciation of Juuuuuules Verrrrrrrne. Quel dommage. Zut alors!)
Two examples of England's convivial conversationalism occurred in Dorchester. We'd gone there on a quest for Thomas Hardy, but then got sidetracked by King Tut. (Isn't that always the way?) We'd arrived a little later in the afternoon than we'd hoped, meaning we'd just missed the admission hours for Hardy's home tour, so we found ourselves with an unexpected Hardy hometown respite.
We strolled over to the Mayor of Casterbridge's house, took an obligatory photo while we tried unsuccessfully to recall the plot of said novel, & wandered around until we serendipitously entered the world-famous, two-roomed Dorchester Museum. (Travel tip: The exceedingly friendly receptionist talked us into purchasing the more economically-advantageous family annual membership, so that, in the likely event that we did not complete our perusal of their expansive collections, we could enjoy unlimited return visits.)
To my young Egyptologist's delight, the touring exhibit on display was that of actual replicas of King Tut objects, most of them in the ultra-realistic medium of wax (allowing us to skip a visit to Madame Tussaud's, so it was worth every pence). Lest you doubt the thrill of this experience, let me brag on and say that the ticket included an added sensory bonus - when we entered the makeshift tomb, it was exactly as it had been the moment Howard Carter broached it in 1922, down to the odiferous supplementary whiffs authentically discharged from a retrofitted Glade plug-in. This diversion was not on our planned itinerary, but it was nonetheless edifying. Indeed, before that moment, I'd never known King Tut was a Hardy boy...
I know, there's no humor in that. I'm getting to the funny part now.
When reentering the light of day and 2007, we squinted and rubbed our eyes only to find ourselves amid festive preparations for the Queen's grand procession. Apparently, Dorchester is the only town in all of merry England still permitted to assemble a queen's volunteer militia. We found a place among the waiting throng of Dorchester's multitudes, when my husband loudly quipped, "What are we all waiting for? A public hanging?" From the elderly gaggle of ladies next to us came: "Certainly, of Tony Blair." With that introduction, they graciously forgave us for being Texans, and we all immediately and with ease proceeded into a discussion of the merits of public beheadings and the foibles of the various King Georges on both sides of the Atlantic. We were having a jolly old time, but weren't sure if they were just humoring us Yanks from o'er the pond, when we suddenly realized our amusement and delight was genuine and mutual. While we were passing the time in anxious anticipation of seeing one of the women's husbands marching by in his regiment, I'd glanced up just long enough to become disconcerted by a man passing us with a ridiculous, leering grin aimed right for me and my young daughters. I dismissed it, as our little group's hilarity and social protocol regained my attentions. It wasn't until we looked out onto any empty street that the woman realized the whole parade was finished and she'd forgotten to even notice her husband... we quickly exchanged pleasantries and cheerios as she ran off to find him. It was only much later, when I got our pictures developed and again saw that scary old man so intent on catching our eye, that I realized I had seen her shining knight-at-arms after all.
After such excitement, we elected to pass that night in Dorchester and resign ourselves to a drive by (photo) shooting of Hardy's home at dawn. I'd read in my handy guidebook that Max Gate, the name given Hardy's residence, was now a National Trust site, as well as a semi-private residence occupied by a couple who were esteemed members of the Thomas Hardy Society. Visiting days and hours where very limited, with tours seldom offered, and we'd missed our chance due to being so understandably caught up by the festive regalia and charms of Dorchester. Arriving that morning outside of the gated compound at the edge of town, and finding that its sign verily confirmed that we were not welcome until 3 days hence, Chris consoled himself by stealthily trespassing to snap a memento (we are Americans, after all). Fortuitously, in the garden, he tripped over the cord of the electric weedeater wielded masterfully by Sir Andrew, aka custodian of the estate. We've all read enough Hardy and Dickinsonian English tales to know what happened next, have we not? That's right. We were all invited in for tea and a spontaneous, gratuitous, private tour of Hardy's home. We flipped through pages in Hardy's personal photo albums as we were regaled with as much Hardy lore as we could heed.
Much to our surprise, we were told that Hardy was a sentimental man. He loved animals and had several pets. In fact, the caretaker continued, when a pet died he carved and engraved a tombstone for each of them with his own hands. In particular, he recalled, Hardy had loved a cat named Snowball. But one day, tragically, Snowball had made his way over to the railroad tracks and was fatally struck. Hardy was devastated. My girls listened intently and nodded somberly. Oh, to be privy to such intimate details, we all felt privileged. He next insisted that we follow him outside and around the grounds to Hardy's pet cemetery, a quiet, shady grove scattered with a few small, stone markers. It was tranquil and humbling to stand there, where Hardy had taken such care of those dear to him. Our guide pointed out the names - a lap dog there, his wife's favorite collie here... Finally, he carefully directed our attention to a headstone which read "Here Lies Snow." And, a few feet over, "Here Lies Ball." Only then, did he emit a hardy laugh at our expense.
As his wide smile displayed his gleaming white teeth which glistened in the English sunshine, it made me wonder, "Could it be he uses Colgate, too?"