Having returned from three delightful weeks in Merrie Olde England, I am tempted to launch a new Priceton travelogue (“Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell:   A Chaucerian Pilgrimage through the Dis-United Kingdom”). But I won’t. Our English trip was far more paradisal and far less hellish to make for a decently harrowing memoir. In accordance with the principle that Milton’s Messiah is less interesting to readers than his Satan, there is no literary justification for it.

Allow me, nevertheless, a few random observations:

England remains reassuringly English. In spite of the widely-published horror stories to the contrary, it is still beatifically uni-cultural (outside of Londonistan and the industrial metropolises of the North, that is–which Mrs. P and I fastidiously avoided).

Liberals, I know, regard any demurrals from multicultural orthodoxy as silting up from the putrid floor of Hilary’s “basket of deplorables”; but the simple fact is that tourists visit X-land to encounter X-landers. (If they wanted to meet Y-landers, they’d head to Y-land) As a Canadian tourist, the last thing I want to discover upon reaching my destination is “cultural diversity”. (For that, I can stay[cation] in Toronto.) Tourists from multicultural enclaves who look forward to more “cultural diversity” in foreign lands are the worst kind of nativists.

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Throughout the English cathedral towns, villages, and countryside, Mrs. P and I encountered nary a niqab and many a Harris tweed. And almost all of the English we met wanted to keep it that way. The only places where it was even close, it seemed, were Oxford and Cambridge. But then, to borrow Bill Buckley’s famous quip, I’d rather be governed by the first thirty names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard. Nor was it merely xenophobic opposition to immigration that galvanized the Brexit vote. In the pubs I heard as many gripes from barkeepers about the diktats from Brussels on the ingredients legally allowed in the tartar sauce they served with their fish and chips. (It’s odd how often State-imposed multiculturalism and absolute cultural uniformity go together.)

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The English are the only people I’ve ever met who are both rigorously polite and naturally gregarious (unless you count the Japanese when they are drunk). Pause to look down at a map, and within thirty seconds a local will approach to ask if you need help. Should an English passerby accidentally bump into you, he or she will apologize gravely; approach an entrance, and the English will open the door for you. For a North American who has observed his civilization slipping into terminal barbarity, that kind of courtesy is a revivifying slap in the face.

During our three weeks in England, Mrs. P and I had more spontaneous conversations with strangers than in thirty years living in Toronto. English strangers come at you from every direction.  Reconnoitering the streets of Wells after arriving late at night, we encountered a lady walking her dog, who promptly invited us to her flat for tea. In Lincoln Cathedral’s Wren Library, we chatted with a Birmingham couple for a full hour, about politics, religion, medieval iconography, and provincial English accents, on all of which they were impressively well-informed. While leaning heavily on my cane on the steps of York Minster awaiting evensong, and looking as old and weary as I felt, a Yorkshireman of equivalent antiquity approached from behind in the queue to ask if I was quite well. That led to a stimulating twenty-minute conversation, and an invitation from the same man and his wife to join them and their group (Christians Against Poverty) for prosecco in the transept following the service.

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CAP, I learned, was being honoured that night with a special evensong convened by the Archbishop of York in recognition of their twenty years of charitable work worldwide. I had never heard of CAP, and cringed visibly when its leader, the providentially named John Kirkby, was invited to the pulpit to address the congregation. Expecting to hear the usual liberal cant about social justice, white privilege, equality, diversity, and the oppression of the poor, I was taken aback by the eloquence and dignity with which Mr. Kirkby preached. His theme was the sort of non-ideological Christianity one rarely hears about in church these days. At the reception, Kirkby deliberately approached Mrs. P. and I, to welcome us, inquire about our trip, and ask about ourselves.

Let me try to put this in its contemporary context. For the proudly egocentric graduates of today’s Self-Esteem High, grammar lessons rarely get beyond the first-person singular. Their only field of expertise –hence their only subject of conversation–is autobiography. Accordingly, in the vast majority of conversations we’ve conducted with strangers in the past thirty years, it’s Mrs. P. and I who do the approaching and the asking, and our natural interest in the other person is rarely reciprocated. As a sometime academic, I’m used to meeting IMPORTANT PEOPLE in social settings, and noting how, invariably, they scout the room over the present interlocutor’s shoulder for someone MORE IMPORTANT to talk to next. Yet, Kirkby’s gaze never left us while we talked, and his curiosity about our lives and opinions was all the more remarkable given the number of people waiting to congratulate him.

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These minor-miraculous epiphanies of human decency befell us practically every day, and left us drunk with the wine of Christian charity. Even the security personnel at Gatwick (security guards coming normally from a sub-species of humanity bred specifically for surliness and bellicosity) were amiable. When a fragile, antique Queen Anne mirror we had purchased in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire wouldn’t fit on the conveyor belt, the security guard called his manager, who apologized because he would have to unwrap the package in order to inspect the contents visually. Did we want him to proceed? If so, he would bring duct tape and bubble wrap to help us with the reassembly.

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The most charming Englishmen we met on our trip —amongst the most charming human beings we’ve encountered anywhere—were the cathedral guides and museum guards. In Italy, as I’ve observed elsewhere in these pages, the unionized, State-employed functionaries in these capacities are invariably sullen and bored. Their all-volunteer English counterparts are, by contrast, knowledgeable about the most arcane architectural and social-historical details, and avid to share their knowledge with any visitor who will listen. (If you happened to be wondering about the date and iconography of this particular stained glass panel, or that reredos, there was always a guide in the vicinity to answer your questions. If you weren’t wondering, a guide would soon educate you.) Palpably glowing with enthusiasm for English history, architecture, and art, these impeccably dressed but usually very elderly ladies and gentlemen hovered like tutelary spirits over their sacred precincts.

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Can there be anything more surprising about the English than that they really know how to cook? In the thirty years since I last visited, England has undergone a culinary revolution, in which the ancien regime of baked beans, marmite, and wonderbread has finally been overthrown.  Whether the perpetrators of traditional English fare have lost their heads to Madame Guillotine, been exiled to the Siberian Gulag, or reassigned by the NHS to hospital kitchens (where good food goes to die), it is now possible to find fresh, properly prepared, and flavourful meals practically everywhere. While the English diner is subjected to none of the tiresome propaganda of the fresh-and-local food movement, fresh and local is indeed what he gets: beef and lamb you can see foraging in the fields through the windows of the village pub, vegetables from the farmer across the nearest hedgerow, wild pigeon, fresh seafood (cod, halibut, sea bass, crab) caught in local waters, and all cooked a point. In our travels, Mrs. P. and I have observed that the possibility of finding non-frozen, non-overcooked fish is inversely proportional to one’s proximity to the sea. (The one place one can never enjoy decent seafood is on the coast, in a soi-disant fishing village.) The Sceptred Isle is the exception.

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But revolutions are rarely so benign. It need hardly be said that the English Gothic cathedrals are magnificent. The exteriors of Salisbury, Wells, York Minster, Lincoln, etc., are scarcely less impressive than those of the more famous Chartres, Rheims, or Amiens; and walking around the vast circuit of the former late at night, when we were the only people about, was one of our most moving experiences. No less spiritually hypnotic is the intricate fan vaulting that is the glory of the English Perpendicular Style. But otherwise—the one disappointment of our trip–, the interiors are insipidly austere. Even provincial Italian and French churches are repositories of great pictorial and sculptural art, and kaleidoscopes of colour: polychrome marble veneers covering the pavements, columns, and pilasters; carved or stucco friezes picked out in enamels and gold leaf; frescoes adorning every surface; glittering mosaics in the vaults, domes, and hemi-domes. But from Henry VIII to Cromwell (with apologies to Donald, the real founders of the Taliban and ISIS), Reformers have systematically cleansed the English churches of their “pagan” images (whitewashing frescoes, smashing stained glass windows, and pulling statues from their pedestals), leaving a monochromatic limestone shell in their place. One is left to wonder what the medieval English cathedrals would have looked like before they were desecrated by the progressives of their day.

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The English drive on the left, as you have probably heard. But for North American and European drivers, that is not the problem. The real problem is that the driver sits on the right, making it difficult to judge how far the left side of the car is from the curb (or, more commonly on the exquisitely narrow roads that meander through the English village, town, and countryside, the hedgerows, or the jutting facades of half-timber Tudor buildings). Alarmed at my proximity to the same, Mrs. P spent most of her time in the passenger seat shouting “Go right, go right!”, which, having always been a reactionary conservative, no one has ever had to tell me before. With both Mrs. P and Mrs. Garmin keeping me on the straight and narrow, the worst I did to our rental car was to scuff its tires. The other challenge, of course, was the English roundabout.   The five most terrifying words in the English language are: Roundabout ahead; take third exit.

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