You have no idea how conflicted I am right now over your happy news. On one hand, I am over the moon that a black woman is about to become a part of the royal family. Such a thing was “unthinkable” at one time, and now it feels like the correct next step in my home country’s attempts to stop defining Britishness as only belonging to white people. But, I also have to tell you that in England, where I was born, I would be called a “Republican.” Not because I support the American Republican Party (perish the thought), but rather, because I believe that things will get better in Great Britain when the monarchy is abolished, which will take with it the aristocracy and their landed titles. While the class system has become less oppressive than it was during my parents’ day, it still has an impact on connections, education, aspirations, and opportunities.
But rather than fill this note with a list of Britain’s current problems, I’d much rather focus on telling you about some of my favorite things about a part of England that you may not get to see – things that your royal in-laws may not share with you.
I’d really like to introduce you to “the North,” the part of England that lies between London and the Queen’s estate, Balmoral. It’s a part of the country less-known to foreign tourists, who can find London so overwhelming that they never venture much beyond it, which is a shame. So, here’s an effort to give you a whirlwind tour of some of my personal favorite things about two counties to the north: Lancashire and Yorkshire, the red rose and the white rose from medieval days of yore.
I would start with Manchester, my hometown, Britain’s second-largest city and the home of the Industrial Revolution. Watching what was going on in Manchester inspired Friedrich Engels to write The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels had been sent to Manchester by his father, who apparently thought that getting a taste of the real world would soften some of Engels’ radical views. The plan backfired.
While many know that London suffered during the Blitz (read Connie Willis for her remarkable fictionalized account, Manchester, where my grandmother worked in the aircraft industry while my grandfather was fighting in North Africa, was also hit hard. I wrote about the legacy of the war on my own family and how it affected my childhood, even though I was born a generation after its last bomb blast.
After some hard years as a dying industrial town, Manchester made a resurgence as a cultural centre – it’s full of museums, music, and shops—and has produced musical acts including Oasis, Buzzcocks, and The Smiths. Manchester was also the setting for the cult TV show, “Life on Mars.” My wish for you is that you can disappear into Manchester’s club scene and be incognito enough to enjoy the music before the Royal Family makes their demands on your time.
If you’re a fan of the history of the Vikings, you must head across the Pennines to York. In addition to its glorious cathedral – seen in the recent BBC production of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one of York’s other draws is the Jorvik Viking Centre where you can check out a re-creation of Jorvik, the Viking village that gave York its name.
While you’re in Yorkshire, travel to Haworth, where you can visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum and other sites in Haworth where the Bronte sisters grew up. Anne, Emily, and Charlotte were each accomplished writers, although I’ve always had an obsession with Jane Eyre.
But Yorkshire also gave us James Herriot whose adventures as a veterinarian were captured in his series of books. And if your tastes run more toward mystery and mayhem, may I suggest the mystery series that teams together Tony Hill and Carol Jordan written by the amazing Val McDermid. Hill and Jordan investigate crimes in Bradfield, Yorkshire.
If you head farther north, you’ll find the setting for one of my current favorite TV series. “The A-Word” is about a family coming to (often hilarious) terms with having a young son on the autism spectrum. The show is filmed in the Lake District, a gorgeous area of high peaks and lakes that attract many English ramblers (hikers). If you are not up for a ramble, consider visiting the homes of Beatrix Potter or William Wordsworth. The Lake District was also the setting for one of the funniest British films, “Withnail and I,” about a pair of out-of-work actors who “accidentally” go on vacation and end up in the Lake District.
Loads of great football (soccer) is played in the north. In the Premier League alone, you could watch matches in Huddersfield, Newcastle, and Burnley, and in Liverpool and Manchester, the cities are represented by two separate teams. Next weekend in Manchester, for example, you would have a chance to participate in the madness known as “Derby (pronounced “dar-bee”) Day,” in which the city’s two rival football clubs will play each other. The team I grew up supporting – Manchester City – will take on Manchester United. Their rivalry extends back into the 19th century, and supporters of both clubs consider the Derby to be the absolute must win match of each half of the season. The stakes for the game on December 10th are even higher this year: Manchester City is chasing a historical winning streak that has them dominating the league, and United are in second place and need the win if they have any hope of catching City this season. As a City fan, I’m hoping for 2011’s Derby, when we beat them 6-1 at their home ground. But as a lifetime City fan, I also know that City is due to break my heart again sometime soon.
After the Derby, of course, the Christmas season will be upon us. Christmas is the time of year when I most miss England, although truth be told, my parents brought as many traditions with them as they could. We eat the traditional foods at Christmas. Mince Pies. Sticky toffee pudding. Christmas pudding. Christmas cake. Chocolate by the pound. You may notice that the foods I’m mentioning are all sweet – for us, the meal at the centre of the Christmas dinner could change from year to year, but the baking that accompanied the holiday was what really made it special.
I would like to imagine that the Royal Family participates in that most English of Christmas traditions: the Christmas Cracker. On Christmas Day, the cracker makes us all equal. Each of us must open a cracker (with help) and then read the groan-worthy joke contained within it. You’re also required to put on the silly paper crown, no matter what color, and eat dinner with it upon your head. The best Christmas photos always feature such silliness.
My hope is that with Harry’s invitation to join his family, you may come to love England as much as I do. There’s so much that’s worth saving, even as so much of it needs to change. I would like to think that you may be part of that change.
Happy Holidays, Meghan. And welcome.