England, particularly London, feels very much like a second home even though it was 12 years since I last stepped foot on her soil. My first encounter of the English last month involved two immigration officials stamping me in at Heathrow amidst feigned jealousy about my long holiday. How I have missed the British and their wry sense of the ridiculous! I spent my first ten days in and around London, revisiting old stomping grounds, playing tourist, catching up with old friends at our old haunts and meeting a few new people along the way too, including a political hopeful in the upcoming elections at a birthday party in Cambridgeshire.
The past week in rural England has flooded me with images of old farmhouse cottages, oceans of yellow daffodils, Tudor and Shakespearean style architecture, ancient churchyards and their crooked rows of gravestones, cosy nooks in pubs which have survived for centuries, houseboats floating past riverside beer gardens and public parks built around medi-evil ruins. My English hosts are entertained that their daily mundane could be perceived with such excitement. These same friends have been just as beguiled by my ordinary when visiting me in Australia. They also, while claiming humdrum, make some very telling comments about the culture they are immersed in. Last night I asked after the family of one friend, who nonchalantly stated “we don’t see much of each other, but we do catch up occasionally at the theatre or a concert”. Music and performance art are a very strong feature of British culture. Soccer, horse racing, golf and other sports also feature heavily, as I have experienced during my time in recent weeks as a house guest in a number of different English homes. A cold day at Fakenham racecourse last Monday included.
Arriving at a friend’s father’s home two days ago, the British Grand National was running at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool. Apparently this steeplechase is watched by more than 500 million people in 140+ countries. I sensed the fervor of these millions as we were ushered in excitedly to the televised sight of a string of jockeyed horses negotiating a hedge hurdle. They landed safely before one faltered, sliding clumsily to the ground and narrowly avoided by the 30+ horses following him. The race continued with tense anticipation, ending in lounge-room jumps and cheers as £100 in winnings was calculated. Dad then turned the channel.
Now some very excitable football commentators were broadcasting between the studio and various football stadiums filled with roaring colour-coded hordes not unlike a scene from a modern day Gladiator. The fast-paced commentary of Soccer Saturday bounced from one broadcaster and crowded venue to the next, with multiple games being reported concurrently, coordinated by a lead telecaster. Millions of people must follow football in this country on a weekly basis, and the broadcast reeked of a multi-million dollar industry. The mix of excitement, speed-talking and heavy accents reporting on teams in an unfamiliar game was both bewildering and hilarious. Some of the commentators were speaking so fast and thick that they could have been speaking a foreign language as my friend and her father listened intently, alternating between rooted silence and bouncing frenzy. The two of them made a sudden frozen gasp, holding their breaths momentarily before jumping and cheering. Once the room had calmed down a little, they translated that a last-minute goal in the Norwich-Bolton game was announced with a deliberately long pause before Norwich were named as the scoring team. A game which was about to end in a draw was suddenly won 2-1 by the much-loved Norwich Canaries. We then turned to yet another channel to watch the annual Womens Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities on the Thames. This historic event was all the more important because it was the first time in 160 years that the women have raced at the same location, on the same day and the same distance, as the Men’s Rowing team.
The sports excitement finally over, we headed out into the cold wind for a village stroll to the pub where we had a dinner reservation. The local church dates from the 13th century. It sits alongside towers behind a stone wall and grassed-in moat, which briefly housed Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife, in the 1530s. While we were admiring the medi-evil tombs, ceiling sculptures, bell tower and organ, the Church Warden arrived to lock up, heaving the huge, 13th century wooden door closed behind us and locking the thick iron grill. Wandering past many charming olde worlde homes, we arrived at the local pub which has existed since the 1500s when it was a stage coach inn on the road between London and York.
My friend’s mother was a historical guide in this village. She loved English history, loved to sing and was a regular at classical concerts and other performances up until her death last August. She was a member of the John Clare Society and she also enjoyed composing music. John Clare is a tragic figure in English history, a prolific poet whose work was not well recognised during his lifetime. He was from a very poor background, known as a “peasant poet”, which was out of fashion at the time of his contemporaries such as William Wordsworth. He spent the last 25 years of his life in mental asylums and it was only in recent decades that his work has become appreciated as some of England’s greatest poetry.
In memory of his wife, my friend’s father wanted to commission a piece of music. He approached a composer whose musical performances he and his wife attended regularly for years. Ralph Woodward and the Fairhaven singers perform a number of times each year, mixing Woodward’s own music with that of other composers including Handel, who was German but lived in London. Next year their concerts have a nature theme and so the composition needed to be in connection with a written piece about nature. Nature poems were a speciality of John Clare and so a poem has been selected and next July the new composition will premiere at a Woodward concert in Queens College, Cambridge.
Talk of my planned travels led us to a discussion about European christianity. In the 600s AD a guy called Augustine travelled from Rome to encourage the Celtic population to convert to Roman Catholicism, from their Celtic form of religion. The power of Rome triumphed, but Celtic christianity has survived in certain places such as islands off the north-east and north-west coasts of Britain. Some of these islands, for example Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast, are tidal and can only be accessed at low tide.
It’s hard to write about this culture which, while it’s not entirely mine, is connected to my own heritage. It’s far more familiar here than the foreign world of Cambodia where I’m separated by language, opportunity and cultural norms so that everything I witness seems to be occurring outside of my reality. Here, things are “foreign but familiar”.
A year or more ago a Cambodian friend informed me he was hoping to follow his cousin to Australia, to enter on a tourist visa and work illegally picking fruit on an orchard. His cousin earns $1000 per month on this orchard and will return in a few years with enough money to buy a house and be secure for life in Cambodia. I showed my friend an online episode of Border Security, the Australian documentary series about Customs and Border Protection. He was genuinely surprised to see people being turned around at the airport and sent home, and authorities working to find visa overstayers. He recognised from this, that his plan is a bad idea with too many pitfalls. This morning here in England I watched an episode of this series, in which an Indian family were detained at the airport and sent home on the next flight after evidence suggested they had intentions to work illegally. Apparently immigration agencies in poor countries thrive, promising people a new life in the rich world for a fee. Sadly, destitution and desperation breed exploitation. It was dismal to see the anguish of this family, who had probably surrendered their entire livelihood for the fraudulently promised opportunity to live in the rich world, as they were deported.
An ex-colleague, a nurse with a Master of Public Health, is considering moving to Japan to work as a farm labourer, where she can earn triple her Cambodian income. This colleague has a disabled baby whose health and welfare is a constant source of emotional stress. Last week this 18mo boy was taken to a health centre by his grandmother with a fever. The nurse or doctor suggested there was no point in helping him, because he is brain damaged. His mother’s distressed messages about the incident were intense. There are no safeguards in Cambodia against systemic discrimination, as there are in the western world. Once such prejudice also flowed freely in our institutions but in recent generations we have established protective policies, procedures and structures. Enforcement of such systems is not possible in a weak and corrupt economy where people feel powerless to speak out and there are no processes in place to offer protection if they do.
One of Chom’s friends, another tuk tuk driver, traveled to Ireland some years ago for three months to work as a labourer under sponsorship of an Irish friend. He returned home, bought a house and has been able to put his sons through university. When we talk about this particular friend, the strongest message about him is that he had an opportunity in the rich world that most others do not have. Chom regularly alludes to the fact that if he could work outside Cambodia for a short time, he would be able to ensure his family’s security. I have promised to sponsor Microphone’s education but I know that Chom’s preference would be the ability to do so independently, which he recognises is unlikely and speaks openly and honestly about. Not because he is seeking assistance but because it is just how life is for most Cambodians and so it is a topic of conversation.
This lack of opportunity and the vulnerability it creates is impossible to imagine for us in the rich world. Here in England, when I mention I’ve been living in Cambodia, there is a serious sense of disconnection as we order our £25 meals in quaint olde worlde pubs and discuss our home renovations, overseas travel and other affluent pursuits. The incredible disparity in lifestyles and perspectives between the rich and poor worlds is intensified to me, by a (completely understandable) lack of awareness about what it means to be immersed in poverty. The adversity which exists in most of the world is as alien to us, as the possibilities and comforts which avail themselves to us, are to the poor world. Neither of us is particularly good at comprehending the other’s life experience. It’s hardly surprising given how very different our life experiences and world views are.