12 people were shot dead in England yesterday by a taxi driver, who drove from town to town in the [county] of Cumbria, picking off those he saw as they went about their day-to-day lives.
In their white starched dresses
In their pitiful white dresses
On their foreheads and breasts the little round holes where death came in as thunder while they were playing their important summer games
(Norman Rosten, "Guernica")
This is not the England of my childhood.
This is not the England of gun laws, a Parliament, that, after the mass killing of kindergartners in Dunblane swore never again.
Dunblane is branded on my memory. My own child was four, a pre-schooler, and for weeks afterward, the idea that some man could walk into her class and randomly fire at them, picking those small bodies off, one by one, tortured me.
This is the England of my childhood:
I was nine when we moved back to England. Our last American home had been Indianapolis, where my only friend had been a boy, Jim, who wore heavy-framed dark glasses and had sandy brown hair and a slight build. Each day after school, Jim and I would go over to his house and hang out in his basement. We were intrigued by things beyond our ken, but we were in fourth grade, in Indianapolis, and had to use our imaginations to fill in a whole lot of missing information.
Though just eight, and going on nine, I was in fourth grade because I had skipped a grade—second. When people asked me why I had been moved up a grade, I never told them it was because I was smart. That was always their assumption. "Wow. You must be really smart to have skipped." No, I would say. It was because we moved so much, and the school districts were so different.
We had moved from an excellent school district in Michigan to a not-so-good one in Illinois, and, after two weeks in second grade, I was complaining to my parents that I was bored and "already knew all this stuff." A meeting with the principal established that I should be in third grade, and there I went. And so I was always a grade ahead.
I was small for my age: my mother is not quite five feet tall, and my dad is only a touch taller, so as a nine-year old fourth grader, all of my classmates towered over me. One of my report cards from that time reads: "While Lorraine is small, she frequently makes up for her stature by asserting herself with her classmates." Makes me think I must have acted like a banty rooster—puffed beyond my size--all the time.
Truth was, I was scared. I had a horrible fear of being beaten up. Each time I switched schools, the first day of sitting in a classroom where no one knew me was enough to make me feel as if I was about to throw up. I'd wait in silence, hoping the teacher would enter the room soon, and that I'd sit unnoticed in the meantime.
Once a teacher introduced me as the "new girl," things would be easier, because other girls would introduce themselves to me. If I was really lucky, someone would instantly declare us friends, and invite me into her circle of girls. Other times, I felt like a mushroom growing in a forest of tall trees: alone, in the dark, and hoping no one would step on me.
But in fourth grade, Jim and I found common ground. We were both interested in science and reading. We would disappear into his basement and, with his microscope and lab set, conduct our own science experiments. Or we would play ping pong.
Sometimes, we told each other stories. Jim claimed to have seen the forbidden A Clockwork Orange, which, in his own fantastic version, included Joe Namath and a naked Raquel Welch. Years later, having finally had Malcolm MacDowell actually scare the bejesus out of me, I realized that Jim had never seen the movie. He had, instead, been spinning a web of schoolboy bravado.
I knew, more than once in that basement, that I wanted to kiss Jim. I'm not sure we ever did. (I would remember if we'd kissed, right? ) But I do recall when my parents decided in the middle of the school year that they were sick of America and were going home… And that for weeks afterward I wrote in my schoolgirl diary how much I loved Jim, and how much I missed him. Turns out, I never lived inside of 500 miles of him again.
My dad did not immediately come with us to England. Rather, he had to stay and finish his Indianapolis assignment, and then join us in June. My mother wrangled me, my five-year old brother Steve, and Tony, who was a toddler, through three different airplane changes: O'Hare, Toronto, and Heathrow, before we got to Manchester, where her mother and step-father lived. These were still days when one wore one's best clothes when flying: really, it was like appearing at a fine restaurant. Women wore heels and dresses; men, suits and ties; and me—well--I was in some sort of skirt and knee sock combination (I never wore pants). So far as I knew, girls didn't wear pants if they were dressing up.
My grandparents, Hilda and Arthur, were living in a mobile home in Haslingden, a tiny dot on the map just north of Bury, where I was born, and not too far from Blackburn, made famous by the Beatles: "Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. And though the holes were rather small. They had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall."
Once again, I was starting a new school, this time, mid-year. Though school was a ways from my grandparents' home, I loved those walks to and from classes. Farmers' stone fences and walls traced across the countryside, marking that quilted patchwork English hillsides are famous for. I'd been told the walls were built by the Romans, who, to tame the heathens, constructed roads and aqueducts and, most famously of all, Hadrian's Wall.
These farmers' fences were patterned in alternating horizontal and vertical stones. Each wall's top comprised a series of flat stones separated, at intervals, by similarly cut stones set vertically. Walking the tops of these walls, I needed to carefully negotiate each vertical stone, then slap my foot securely on the next flat stone.
I could walk the entire route to and from school this way, playing the wall, filling my journey with all sorts of imagined adventures. My view from the top of the wall was glorious: dark green patches of moorland interspersed with heaths. At certain points, the drop-off on one side was steep and sharp; any slip would injure me, and--in all that time walking--I never encountered another soul. It was as if I had the English countryside to myself. From my wall, it was not hard to see myself as Jane Eyre, or Bess, the Innkeeper's daughter from Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman."
Best of all were the days I thought that, if I kept my head down, I would bump into a person traveling my wall in the opposite direction. That person was usually one of the Queen's younger sons—Andrew or Edward—and I would carry on clever conversations as the two of us continued on to school. He would be so enamored of my American accent that he would invite me to the castle for tea, and I would be taken into his royal conclave.
(from my memoir in progress)
These are the details I think of when I think of the England of my childhood: the patchwork countryside, those walls, the walk to schoool, Jammie Dodgers, tea, Flakes.
Nowhere in those memories are there guns. (Except for the bogey men of the IRA, a situation I was too young to understand)
I think of English schoolchildren today. Perhaps our children have become inured to this sort of thing. After all, we have mass shootings several times a year.
But this doesn't happen in England.
And now it has.