It produced the sort of cultural miasma one might expect if Madonna ever met and hugged the Queen Mum.
Here was England--tweedy, damp, sensible mother of perpetual tradition who still distrusts callow America as a nation. Yet she remains fascinated by Americans as individuals.
Here was my visiting son--a towering tribute to a teen-age regimen of weightlifting and Domino’s Pizza and an All-American freshman majoring in fine arts, mini-trucks, Skid Row CDs and Alpha Tau Omega boondockers. Yet he’s also a beginning cosmopolitan intrigued by half of his bloodline rooted in the England that Santayana saw as a paradise of anomalies, eccentricities, heresy, hobbies and humours.
So they came together, this land and my lad. As big dog and puppy. With common suspicion, fear and interest.
New friends and old family were impressed by:
* His accent.
* PJ as a name for anyone who isn’t a regular on “Dallas.”
* This young man’s priceless contribution to Anglo-American understanding: that Malibu, the drink, is not a big seller on Malibu, the beach.
PJ, in turn, saw Utopia in this civilization that:
* Eats a full dinner--eggs, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon and fried bread--for breakfast.
* Tolerates Motorway traffic at 110 m.p.h.
* Does not card teen-agers and allows its pubs to serve 18-year-olds.
His jury remains out on prime-time television coverage of snooker tournaments, Indian food to go that is known as tandoori take-away, and prim criticism of politicians’ sex habits by daily newspapers that publish pictures of bare-breasted secretaries from Liverpool.
PJ even began wrestling with bilingualism. As in “shed-yule” and “con-trov-azee” and “com-po-sight.”
He also remained understandably blank--yet blessedly refreshing--before the inexplicable lore of this elderly land.
Where, he asked, is the economy of communication in road signs that warned “Area Closed All Day To Heavy Goods Vehicles” when a simple “No Trucks” would do the job?
Why is beer called bitter when it isn’t?
Why must we be at Aunt Joy’s for coffee at 10:30 a.m. when this mid-morning social grace is called “elevenses?”
Then there was the compost heap.
His grandmother, the last of the grand Victorian rosarians, keeps a compost heap alongside her working greenhouse. The pile is fed daily by eggshells, tea bags, carrot tops and other earth-soluble detritus from the most productive kitchen this side of Julia Childs’. It is black and slimy.
“What,” asked PJ, “is that stuff?”
The face of humus, I explained, that has launched a thousand floribundas. It is Mother Nature’s condiment.
I rammed a garden fork deep into the mess and piled rotting grass upon suppurating cabbage leaves. That, I said, is compost.
“That,” said PJ, “is a smelly public health hazard. It also is moving.”
The finale of dinner one night, was Mother’s rich, home-cured, fruity, family-famous pudding saved from Christmas. Humming a belated carol, she carried it high and ceremoniously into the dining room.
“Dad,” hissed PJ. “There’s a tree growing from the middle of dessert.”
That, I told him, is a sprig of holly decorating a Christmas pudding. It is a tradition predating Dickens. Eat.
“But the pudding is on fire.”
Flaming brandy, I explained. It’s another British tradition alongside snooker tournaments and bare-breasted secretaries from Liverpool. Eat.
He nibbled as his grandmother spoke: “It should be a lovely pudding. I put it up two years ago.”
The horror on PJ’s face was a page from Stephen King.
“Dad,” he whispered. “I will not eat anything that is two years old.”
Son, if you have eaten salami, smoked oysters, microwave lasagna, Milk Duds, beef jerky and Cheddar cheese, you probably have eaten something even older than your grandmother’s Christmas pudding. And don’t tell me that Alpha Tau Omega frowns on 12-year-old Scotch. Eat.
In truth, and in the confusion of the serving process, I think PJ slid most of his pudding into a napkin that went into a pants pocket that was emptied in the privacy of an upstairs bathroom.
I couldn’t blame him.
I even understood his faux pas during 10:30 elevenses at Aunt Joy’s the following day.
She had offered PJ a raisin pastry with his coffee.
“How old is it?” he blurted.