DRIVING IN ENGLAND, EPISDODE 6: THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
From Ravenglass, a harrowing drive across stony hills with a bonus track of fog. But it isn’t until the final left turn, within a quarter mile of the rental car drop off at Leed’s Airport, that my entire body forgets what it has spent the past three days learning. I look right instead of left, aim the Fiat at the airport, and turn directly into the path of a bus that is bearing down the hill.
From airport to train station, we are both shaken, silent. I feel like I have little sparks of electricity coming off both hands, which is the very strange way pure fight or flight manifests for me. But we’re alive. And we’re going to York.
DAY 8: YORK
York is where the indie rock tour piece of the trip commences. My partner runs a small record label, Repeating Cloud, and his friend Jim of Safe Suburban Home does too. Together, they co-released a tape by the British Band Teenage Tom Petties, the home-recorded garage punk project of Tom Brown (of the indie-rock duo Rural France. They’ve put together a band to play the album, and it will be Tom’s first ever live show.
York is where I build a weird house out of Lego’s with Jim and his wife Emma’s nine-year old, Edith, drink a bottle of wine with Emma on the couch each night after Edith goes to bed, and spend a fair amount of time wandering off the estate and along the river Ouse. (Pronounced “ooze.” It is not a fast-moving river.)
DAY 9: THE QUEEN IS DEAD
York is also where we are the day Queen Elizabeth dies. I’m weirdly moved. I never cared a thing about English royalty until I read Wolf Hall and then, later on, saw the BBC’s fictionalized account of Elizabeth’s life, The Crown. The moral of the story there seems to be: let people sleep with and marry who they want, and there will be a lot less misery.
DAY 10: THE NINETY-SIX GUN SALUTE
My partner and I are walking along the medieval walls of York. On Jim’s recommendation, we’ve gone around the back of the Minster, a dazzling cathedral at the center of the old city. The city is gorgeous, Harry Potter-ish, if overrun with tourists. Then, as we near the Norman arches of the York Museum garden, canons start going off. I figure it’s a tribute to Elizabeth. Twenty-one guns is standard for a military funeral, but the booms keep coming, clouds of smoke drifting in the humid air.
Ninety-six guns, for ninety-six years—or at least as many as they can set off before the rain dampens the occasion.
ROCK WIDOW, PART 1: THE FULFORD ARMS
One of the best things about our time in York is that, for the nights we stay with Jim and Emma, I’ve got a rock widow friend to chat with about all sorts of things, like the monarchy, falling in love, and why the United States doesn’t have national health care.
It isn’t always easy having a partner who is a performer. Having an ally is key. (Props to my friend Amy Kretz for coining the phrase “rock widow” to describe us, way back in the 90s, drinking beers and commiserating while our boyfriends were on tour with some unsavory boys from Boston.)
Emma and I dress up in our rock and roll finery and go to the Fulford Arms to hear the band. They are endearing as hell. Afterwards, we all go to a big chain pub with cheap beer and I talk with the Englishmen, charming and polite to a fault, about the finer points of British cursing and whether “cunt” or “twat” is the nastiest swear.
DAY 11: YORK, STILL
ROCK WIDOW, PART 2: THE LONESOME AIRBNB
A thing I hadn’t considered about this trip is that—when you are playing a show in another country in a different city with a brand new band each night—during the day you (I mean, my partner) are about as useful as a turnip. A tired, mildly nervous turnip who can’t really get its head into anything. And that, in the evening, in true rock widow fashion, I will be marooned in a cute Airbnb in the most densely touristed part of the city listening to other people have a merry time while I eat Indian food standing up in the kitchen and drink chardonnay. We have only one set of keys, and our tiny medieval alley is locked up by a large gate at night, so I put the keys under a potted plant and then wait up until after two a.m. when my partner returns from his show in Manchester. I am grumpy.
DAY 12: THE PROCLAMATION!
After several aborted attempts at an outing: Viking Museum line is too long, Clifford’s Tower too tall, etc., we head for the York Castle Museum, where a bunch of people are gathered. They are there to hear the official proclamation that Charles is now King, and a truly Monte Python level of whackiness is happening on the dais: a guy in velvet knickers and fluffy collar, some sort of Bishop in full regalia, local political flaks, a representative of the military, the BBC, and a saucy secret service agent who is posing in his sun glasses.
The proclamation is made. A “York cheer” is solicited, and everybody yells “Hip Hip, Hooray!” three times.
My mood is improved. Lunch in pub.
ROCK WIDOW, PART 3: THE QUEEN IS STILL DEAD
And then a repeat of the previous night: leftover Indian food, chardonnay, feeling sorry for self while partner goes to Manchester, with the sweetening addition of The Smith’s “The Queen is Dead.” I know. Morrissey is a racist twat. But damn if I don’t still love that album, and the self-indulgent, self-pitying tone plus the departure of the monarch and all those choice bits about Charles and apron strings feel quite correct for the evening.
DAY 13: HOMEWARD BOUND
Train from York to Kings Cross in London, Tube to Heathrow, schlepping of suitcases to airport hotel/jail. Beers on deck watching planes take off. There are flights from airlines I’ve never heard of, to places I have always wanted to go: Egypt, India, Quatar, Thailand.
I’ve read so many English novels and seen so many English movies that finally going to England has felt like a return, not a first-time voyage. I’m ready to test my post-pandemic (yeah, yeah, it ain’t over, but we need to demarcate these things somehow) traveling self against a place where I don’t speak the language, or even, perhaps, understand the alphabet. But first things first. For right now, I’m glad to be home.