Random Notes from Reading and Gloucester, UK (or “Redding and Gloster”)
Probably the greatest concentration of Balboa dancers per capita (at least, I’ve ever heard of) exists in the areas of Reading and Gloucester, an area an hour to two hours west of London. Between them, the groups support several workshops a year, Balboa practicing groups, and several local teaching couples with weekly classes. It’s hard to imagine a place in the United States where one can go to a Balboa class or dance almost any night of the week within a two-hour driving radius.
Like almost any part of the Old World, the area is full of history and personality. And a few recent trips to the area have given this anglophile a chance to get back to his British roots.*
At a workshop in Gloucester last year, we spent most of the weekend not in the city proper, but in small dell/glenn/foresty/Hobbiton locations. The area of England we were in was a giant flood plane next to a group of small mountains. The flood plane, near the city of Worcestershire (pronounced by the locals “WOORSTER-SURE”, and yes, it’s where the sauce comes from), was once the site of large battles in the English Civil War. Worcesterchire was then known as “The Faithful City,” because it sided with the Royalist. (Of course, had the Royalist lost, they’d be known as “The Traitor City.”)
A nearby church famously has musket-fire marks on its walls from the battle. Our host, Phil, who gave us the history on the drive from the airport, mentioned that occasionally one will still see Civil War soldiers fighting it out. He said it spookily, with a sense of awe and mystery. Then he changed his tone of voice and mentioned that it often is full of civil war re-creationists. They are apparently just as present in England as they are in America.
The first night, we were invited out for a home-cooked meal at a quaint rural cottage only approachable by a long, one-way road often overrun by sheep. The next night, we were invited to another home-cooked meal at even ANOTHER small, quaint, rural cottage in a town with only a dozen stone houses, most of them hidden under ivy. Furthermore, the workshop took place in a small, quaint rural community center, which was surrounded by picturesque fields, and occasionally suffered from the smell of horse poo. On the whole, the general peace and quaint-ness of these locations took away stress so obviously, it was like the feeling of relief you have when you take off a heavy coat.
I’m well aware that my idea of Britain is a large part fantasy and based on stereotypes of an intelligent, witty civilization that appreciates classical theater and ivy-covered pubs (And, well, there are a lot of people like this in Britain, but the country also has its share of white trash).
I also mistake Britain’s size. Even though it’s a small country, I for some reason, have exaggerated its smallness and think it’s roughly the size of Maryland, and that any location is just a few hours away. It’s a little bit bigger than that (but not much, I guess. A train from Gloucester to Edinburgh, Scotland, is only a 10-hour train ride.)
My stereotype-idea of England, though, was not helped by the first weekend we taught in Gloucester. The first thing we did was go on a hike up a rolling mountain chain called the Malvern Hills, to see the Worcester Beacon, which is one of those giant fire pits used to warn people the armies of Mordor were coming. The hills were lush, green, and overall gave the appearance that someone should be playing a soulful bagpipe dirge, even though we were nowhere near Scotland. This is what watching “Braveheart” seventy-three times when I was a teenager has done to me. I would now like to apologize to every British and Scottish person I have ever met.
Our next stop was then to have English Cream Tea (Which, I found out, means a tea and scone with cream, not a tea with cream in it) overlooking a valley from the face of one of the hills, at tea time (4 p.m., roughly). Of the Gloucester dancers who came with us, very few of them upheld the tea-time tradition regularly.
The Lord of The Rings theme continued throughout the weekend, as all the landscape we passed was rolling green hills and small forests. Nearby Birmingham (My notes say “BRUM”–I might be wrong about that one), which was once an industrial center full of giant smokestacks and black smoke and coal-covered child-laborers, was reportedly the inspiration for Mordor to J.R.R. Tolkien.
One dancer let us play with the sheep on the neighboring farm, which I found disconcertingly dog-like in their need to lick me and affectionately push themselves into me. Sheep, though with not a lot of meat in the legs, are a pure ball of muscle in the core, and are capable of surprising amount of strength. I kind of want one now.
Nearby was also Cooper’s Hill, which, our friend Tony pointed out, was a forested hill in the distance with a large clearing down one side of it. This is where the famous yearly Cheese Rolling event takes place. Cheese Rolling is when they take a giant wheel of Gloucester cheese and roll it down from the top of Cooper’s Hill, and men race down the hill after it. The first person to catch the cheese gets to keep it. “But, what technically happens,” Tony explains, “is they release the cheese and a bunch of drunks fall down the hill after it.”
Tony, a knowledgeable and hilarious man who’s wife organized the event, also mentioned that they had recently found an old Roman village near his house, which they occasionally dig up and let people look at before burying it again. (This is apparently done to keep it preserved.) “Well, you know the Romans. They built stuff all over the place.” Tony said. “They weren’t exactly soldiers so much as armed construction workers.”
One of the few other houses nearby to Tony’s belonged to a famous WWII General who’s famous bittersweet moment in the war was the subject of the film “A Bridge Too Far.” Tony and his wife are pretty sure the general shot their cat. The general apparently kept birds, and felt their cat was eying said birds too hungrily. Their cat has come up missing, and there’s not a lot of places it could have gone, if you saw their town.
Near Reading is Henley on Thames (pronounced “tems”), a small town by the river Thames where the Reading Balboa workshops are often held.
The town was coincidentally built on one of the straightest parts of the river, which means it is a great town for regattas to take place. You may think a regatta is a form of boating race, but that seems to be beside the point when it comes to the Henley Royal Regatta. The 5 days of international crew races are part of the “social season.”
The social season began several centuries ago as a calendar of events for the families of the country aristocracy who came to London for the political season. In a time when much of the upper class in England was landowners, and thus scattered about the country in often remote counties, they met in London during Parliament. It was also the perfect time for their daughters and sons to meet other upper class peers and search for fitting wives and husbands. Many Jane Austin books somehow involve the season in their plots.
Many seasonal events have dress codes, many of them socially enforced and the product of generations of fashion. For Henley, the dress code is boater hats (The flat, straw hats you imagine on Italian gondoliers) and rowing blazers for men. Rowing blazers are coats with candy stripes or piping made of the rowing colors of your school or club (all of this assuming you had gone to a school with a rowing team or were part of a rowing club.)
I mentioned to some of the dancers there how, given the right colors, I think a rowing blazer would be pretty slick and thought I might like to get one as a souvenir of all the great times I’ve had in Reading. They were happy to help me, but some had the unmistakable look of wanting to ask my why in God’s name I would want to do such a thing.
In America, I explained, if I were to wear a boldly-striped British blazer, I would probably be seen as a slightly quirky, but fashionable, old school dandy-type. “Ahh,” they collectively said. In Britain, they explained, such a blazer is specifically tied to an upper-class “privileged” personality. I liked the outfit because it looked classic yet unique. They didn’t because it was an obvious symbol of class division and elitism.
I have yet to get one, though, because the shop in Henley which sold them has closed. Our host thought this was an interesting sign, perhaps of the changing times. In looking, another common problem is that it’s hard to find one that doesn’t look like it was designed by a colorblind candy-maker on acid.
In 2003-2003, I lived in London for seven months on a post-college work visa. The result was that I began a liking for foods that are almost impossible to find in the states (thought they are becoming easier to find now with the popularity of world markets and upscale grocery stores.) In our recent trip to Reading, I realized I had eaten almost every single one of my favorite British/french foods on the trip.
(1) An Earl Grey cream tea at the Henley Tea room
(3) Incredible Indian food from a Reading restaurant
(4) French sausage and goat cheese from a French market
(5) Chips (fries) and a beer from a pub (I also like a Lager Shandy, which is basically a beer with sprite added to it.)
(6) A sandwich with Branston pickle on it
(7) A sandwich from Pret.
(6) And, finally, drinking port with a bunch of great people and friends
I also realize this is possibly not interesting to anyone but myself. But, it’s the small things…
I have recently come to believe that traveling as a swing dancer is the only way to travel. When a swing dancer goes to an event abroad, they meet and get to enjoy the company of the people who live there. They may see their houses, talk to them about life in their country, and get inside information on what tourist destinations and restaurants are worth it.
More importantly, though, it often reshapes or destroys the general stereotypes subconsciously hard-wired into all of us. Europeans who meet us hopefully walk away feeling like they understand America a little bit better, a little bit more realistically, just as every person I meet in a foreign country makes me see things a lot more clearly, and paradoxically, complexly.
The stereotypes I had of Britain, as I mentioned, are all taken from my love of classic British literature and Monty Python. One thing I’ve loved about getting to know the British is in what specific ways many of them do live up to that idea, but also in the many many more complicated sides and contradictions to those ideas that exist in each person.
Our host for the Reading workshops, Jean, is an excellent example. When I first met her, on the surface she seemed like right out of a Jane Austin novel–a happy and wise-cracking wit with a theatrical imagination. In getting to know her better, though, I found a devoted mother to a teenage son working his way through exams, a person passionate about her dance scene’s health and development, and a woman with her own criticisms for certain British ways of life. Though getting to know her better revealed nothing surprising, it makes all the difference in the difference in the world–or, at least, our two parts of it.
I’d like to give a shout out to the people of Gloucester, Reading, and anyone else in foreign lands where people are working hard to learn not just the moves, but the spirit of swing dancing. It’s tricky stuff when you’re in a different country, and have to import instructors at great expense. It’s also tricky when such an art comes from a unique cultural place like 1930s America. I believe that the spirit of Lindy, Balboa, Charleston, and jazz in general can exist in people of any nation, and I applaud those who want to embrace it and are searching for that spirit in themselves, despite the cultural and historical distances they have to travel to get there.
* — I have several different roots. One of which is the British side, which comes out in my love of sweaters, Victorian history, and curry. My other roots include but are not limited to African, French, Scottish, Southern Gothic, German, Argentinian, and Asian. You may question my Asian roots, but they are clear enough when I walk around ancient Korean temples. If there were a way to build a Gothic-style English country mansion with the architecture philosophy of the Asians, then…the house would probably look pretty messed up. But I would happily live in it.