Some years back, I wrote this in tribute to a beloved colleague at the magazine who was preparing to move home to England. We share a love of beautiful English slang.
Bob’s the Word
By Jim Dodson
A beloved English friend named Serena returned from a lengthy visit home and popped into the office the other day.
Naturally I asked how her trip to England went.
“It was lovely,” she said. “Though the weather was perfectly awful. As usual, lots of whinging about that.”
She wondered why I was smiling.
I explained that I hadn’t heard that word since the days of Sid Vicious.
She smiled. “What word?”
The English have given us many fine things across the Ages, from Magna Carta to mushy green peas, from the Beatles to Rumpole of the Bailey. But for my money their slang is without peer on the planet, almost Shakespearean in descriptive scope, probably the reason the Bard used so much of it in his own writing.
To “whinge,” it should be perfectly obvious, simply means to complain to the point of being such a nuisance someone is likely to advise you to “stuff it.”
That’s also a nifty phrase I picked up on my first trip to England in 1977. To set the stage, Elvis had recently toppled off a toilet in Memphis and the Queen was celebrating her big Jubilee party, 25 years of sitting on a throne of her own.
I rolled into town on a stormy night, a day earlier than friends of my folks were expecting me to arrive, and found that every hotel was filled to overflowing with Jubilee revelers. A grim youth hostel on the Belgrade Road agreed to take me in for five quid, however, providing a mattress in a basement full of Bulgarian teenagers on holiday who’d never heard of deodorant. At least in the morning the establishment sent you on your way with a free bowl of corn flakes.
As it happened, I had a date in the country that beautiful Sunday morning, catching an early train out of London to the ancient Roman spa town of Bath (which properly rhymes with “moth”] to have Sunday lunch with the family of one of my dad’s old Army chums. All I knew of the Turner family was that they resided on a “estate farm” outside of town and had two daughters about my age. What followed was nothing shy of a bloody crash course in British slang.
As rain clouds gathered outside Bath’s ornate train station, the tiniest car I’d ever seen wheeled up with the most beautiful girl I’d laid eyes on behind the wheel. Her name was Claire. She had violet eyes like Elizabeth Taylor, a face that could have made Heathcliff leap into the sea. The car was a wheezing mustard-colored Austin Mini. I could barely get both legs and my backpack inside.
“Looks like it’s about to start raining stair-rods,” she declared, slamming the Austin in gear and zooming off. “Mum fancies a walk to the Black Swan after lunch so you can see a real English pub. Do you have your Wellies?”
I had no idea what she meant and was too tongue-tied – or simply terrified by her driving – to ask as we banged along frightfully narrow hedgerow lanes.
“Cool car,” I managed to say as a giant truck loaded with hay ran us partially into the ditch. Claire barely flinched.
“Bugger these lorries,” she swore. “Yeah, it’s a bit of an old clanger, this. My dad restores them. This one belonged to him and mum.” She glanced at me and grinned. “I believe they shagged in it like bloody rabbits.”
Here was a word I knew thanks to my Southern exposure to Beach Music.
“I can shag,” I volunteered. “My brother’s girlfriend showed me how.”
Claire gave me a disturbed look.
She turned out to be the Turner family’s spirited youngest daughter, 17, in her sixth form and about to take her A-levels, whatever that meant. She had plans to soon go off to college in Bristol and become a pre-school teacher. She asked how old I was.
“Twenty-three,” I replied, feeling like a babe in the woods.
“Ah,” said Lady Claire with a knowing nod. “Almost a gaffer, I reckon.”
Her older sister Kat came out from the city in her own elderly Austin. She was my age exactly, a resident of the South side of London – the “grotty end of Clapham,” she explained over a lunch that included bangers and mash and a baked aubergine that turned out to taste a lot like my mom’s eggplant parmesan.
Kat of Clapham had florescent pink hair and a safety pin through her right earlobe. She’d moved to London hoping to become a news presenter for the BBC but was studying international relations at the University of London. In the meantime she was working as a hostess at a punk rock club in Chelsea.
“Couldn’t stand this bloody boring place when I was growing up here,” she confided to me during our after-lunch hike to the Black Swan for a pint with Claire and their folks, Jack and Silvia. “ All rich toffs and blue hair pensioners in Nike trainers round these parts nowadays. Know what I mean, Bob?”
I simply nodded, wondering who Bob was.
Silvia and Jack, parents of Kit and Claire, couldn’t have been more welcoming. Jack was retired from IBM and restored Austin minis for fun. Silvia worked for a local solicitor, which sounded like dodgy work. What exactly was this most attractive mother of two, I wondered, soliciting? Mum and Dad were both dedicated ramblers, I learned from Silvia as we drank warm beer at the Black Swan.
This turned out to mean that Silvia and Jack were active in Britain’s charitable walking society, an organization that had nothing to do with my brother’s first car. Silvia and Jack believed it was every walker in the nation’s God-given right to enjoy complete legal access to every piece of property in the realm, including the Queen’s.
“Oh, bollocks,” grumbled Kat. “Here comes Tom the yob.”
“Oh stuff it, Kat,” her younger sister told her.
Tom was Claire’s boyfriend, a strapping lad who looked like a young Albert Finney. He’d just gotten off work from a local stable. Claire wished me well and went off with Tom, breaking my heart.
“You must stay the night,” Silvia insisted. “Kat can show you the baths and drive you back to London tomorrow.”
I was in no hurry to sleep with the Bulgarians again so I happily agreed.
The next day Kat showed me the town of Bath’s famous Roman baths then she drove me back to London, inviting me to “crash” at her “flat.” My modest Southern nature prevents me from telling what happened next. Let’s just say it was a fine example of international relations. I’ve never been able to look at florescent pink hair the same way ever again.
On the plus side, Kat turned out to be a great tour guide, walking me all over the city of Shakespeare and Sid Vicious. She even took me to her punk rock club where I stood out like a pork chop at a bar mitzvah. I showed her how Americans “shagged,” which caused her to punch me and dissolve with laughter. We had a fine week in each other’s company, swapping native slang and hitting museums and pubs. Kat was fascinated by the American South and wondered if my daddy might be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I almost hated to have to tell her he was just an ordinary advertising executive.
“I love how y’all talk down there,” she declared with the worst Southern accent ever attempted by an English-speaking human being. “It’s so bloody primitive.”
Finally, she drove me to Kings Cross Station to catch the Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh. Or maybe it was the Caledonian Express. I forget which.
Truthfully, I hated to go. Kat and London had charmed and cheered up my primitive soul. I think I fell a little bit in love with both sisters that week. Eat your bloody heart out, Mr. Dorsey.
“Righto, Bob,” she declared, giving me a firm peck. “On you go. Watch out for Scottish blighters in wooly skirts! No soppy whinging now. Stay in touch.”
We did, too – at least for a time.
I later learned Kat got married and went to work for John Major. Someday I half expect to see Britain has elected its first prime minister with pink hair.
This is why I thanked my lovely English friend Serena for unexpectedly bringing back some nice memories from my first trip to her homeland.
Looking back, I can’t whinge too much about how things worked out.
Know what I mean, Bob?