It may be a cultural cliche, but the English have a reputation for behaving in a proper controlled manner at all times. When Princess Diana died and throngs of British people openly wept as the coach with her coffin rolled by, many declared, “We’re not like this.” Parliament has verbal brawls that tend to get raucous, at times, especially with the Brexit debate. Despite the shouting in Parliament, however, the English maintain an eloquent decorum.
I discovered a touch of that British decorum one summer past when I visited Jamie and Jeremy McOuat in Chichester, England. I had planned to travel with my wife, Karen, to see her daughter, Sherrill, teaching at New London College, but Karen died suddenly the year before so — still haunted by grief — I traveled alone. It was bittersweet, visiting with Sherrill.
One afternoon, we decided to visit Fontwell Park, a race track for the steeplechase, where the horse and jockey jump barriers. (The English often call it “hurdle racing.”) Here is a brochure description of Fontwell: “Set in spectacular surroundings and steeped in racing history, Fontwell Park is located in the heart of the West Sussex countryside and is the only remaining figure of eight jumps course in the UK. Along with the impressive and now one of a kind track, Fontwell Park boasts beautiful landscaped topiary gardens, and unique venue spaces. These are popular for private hire, particularly for weddings and celebrations.”
I have to mention that Karen was something of an Anglophile, insisting the Spencers in her family were related to the Spencers who brought Princess Diana into the world. Karen took the death of Princess Di, personally.
When I arrived with Jamie and Jeremy at the track, a well-dressed, middle-aged man blocked us.
“Michael Frost, here. I must inform you that all men must wear ties to attend the races. You gentlemen are tieless, I’m sorry to say.”
I had not worn a tie in decades, and though I left behind my Hawaiian sport shirt and wore a fashionable sport coat with my best 501 Levi’s, that didn’t pass muster with Mr. Frost. Jeremy decided to return home and get a tie. Michael Frost suggested that I buy one for five pounds, slightly under $10 dollars at the time.
“It will go to the injured jockey’s fund,” he said, and produced a plain brown tie. “Not very glamorous, I’m afraid.”
Despite being made of silk, I had to agree it was an ugly tie. Michael Frost even helped me tie it. I flashed on Karen’s spirit watching this scene with profound amusement.
“Looks good,” he said, stepping back. “Excellent. Good show.”
“Why does one need a tie at a race track?”
“Well, sir, in America, you Yanks can enjoy a hot dog and a beer in your blue jeans but we English feel a need to be a tad more proper. It’s the way it’s done.”
“How do you know we’re Yanks?”
“Oh please,” he said. “We pronounce our words, here.” Then he hastened to add, “You know, I’ve been to the States. I enjoyed your marvelous Yellowstone. We don’t have bloody bears walking about in England, you know.”
Jeremy returned, and we watched the Steeplechase, so different from thoroughbreds racing down an American track. One jockey fell going over a hurdle, a highlight of the afternoon.
The proper decorum the British prize so highly might not be a bad idea during these contentious times, where the president of the United States facing an impeachment inquiry thinks the fallacy of name calling is a strategy and his son, Donald, Jr., has written a book called, Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us.
I don’t hate those right-wing thugs, but members of Parliament are certainly showing a pugilistic side of themselves debating Brexit that would seem more proper in America.
I still have the brown tie and I have grown fond of it, though I may never wear it again unless I go back to Fontwell Park.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.