We leave France in the morning and touch down in Washington, DC, that evening. In between is a long coach journey through Hemel Hempstead, a 60s shopping center to your left, a bucolic canal walk to your right, two old ladies in sensible walking shoes, ignoring the great rush of traffic being inflicted upon their woods, their Ladybird land. There goes a dog, a bloke, some girls with sculpted, partially shaved hair and stripy tights, a mum with a pushchair.
On a sign is my favorite town name, known to me only from seeing it emblazoned on a blue commuter bus that went along the Finchley Road, the street by my work, up and down which I rode the 46 bus for several years: Leighton Buzzard.
Hemel Hempstead is one of the New Towns, settled around 8 AD and rebuilt after World War II to provide that Ladybird-like utopia of order and rightness. It has a Magic Roundabout, a Catherine Wheel of mini-roundabouts in a circle, with a logic that is beyond my comprehension. The canal runs through it. The ladies maybe came to it when it was better than what they’d got, a bombed out street. You’d be happy, too.
At Heathrow, I call my mother to say happy birthday and discuss literature. Zola (he’s really good) from me, May Sarton from her, now merged in my visual memory with the criss-cross of silver poles and swathes of glass and tarmac-y landscape of Terminal 5.
We are camped on the fake granite floor waiting for our gate to open, eating our French provisions, the last packets of salami and bag of olives from the olive man. One last wild romp through Boots: Nurofen Plus, Olbas oil, flapjacks, expend loyalty card points on purple nail polish. A last fling with the newspapers, the cryptic crossword. The British man I sit next to bemoans the loss of his wife to duty free shopping.
In the bag drop queue we meet a Scottish man working for a French company in Qatar. We chat. If we had met in different circumstances, we probably would have become friends. The state of expatriatism, which actually is much like normal life, now that we don’t live and die, most of us, in the same place, and if you do, many others don’t, so you are always having to replace people, rebond, say goodbye.
And then we are filing onto the plane, away, away.
Washington: a place for which my mother actually made me buy a beige outfit circa 1980. We were going to a luncheon at the State Department. Knife pleat skirt, knitted top. The shoes from B. Altman’s, that I would wear again if I still had them.
DC is like a reprogramming center for American citizens returning from abroad.
We are held here for a couple of days, to be reminded that this, this, this is where we live. It is all about America and straightforward democracy, and not flashy. Cure yourself of pretentiousness, appreciate your history. The reference point is indigenous decency. Stop looking to Europe. Stop laughing at the cars marked secret police. They know they’re not being secretive. They are your protecting your president.
At the Smithsonian Museum of American History we see everything and go downstairs for lunch. One of the women clearing trays decides we might be worthy of a good view and leads us to a table on the other side of the room where we sit with a view of a victory garden with the Washington Monument rising up behind it. Pure symbolism.
I grew up with a set of Ladybird books and they make me happy. The children in them liked Shopping with Mother, Helping at Home, Going to a Party. They modeled things with plasticine, milked cows, learned history. It was Richard Scarry with realism. My children liked them, too. For a while, I trawled charity shops for them and amassed a collection. I even found one on this trip. They imposed an order, like that of the diagram above, which is not always possible but to which one may aspire.
I write this on the heels of what has been the week of disorder in Britain. Children the ages of my children, the children from the mother and baby groups, the holiday playschemes, the government initiatives, those savings bonds that we were ineligible for, running riot and everyone trying to account for it. Is raiding a mobile phone shop a faster path to the material goods you want or an expression of dissatisfaction with an increasingly materialistic society? Stealing the phones is acceptance. Burning down the Sony distribution factory is discontent.
We are held in a state of waiting to go home. I walk through galleries and galleries of American art and artifacts. America: The ideas are good. The food sucks. By the time our plane touches down for the last time, we are happy to be home.