when I went running in a Cambridge mud field
February 6, 2011
…were torn leggings from la Redoute and a range of pieces from my personal a/w anti-sex line: a granddad raincoat, a jumper my husband rejected, Virgin Atlantic flight socks – the ones they hand out on board with a toothbrush and a cheap pen — and an iridescent pair of Nike trainers, which my daughter says are sad and hideous. The pug, lolloping at my side, was chic. She was wearing her leopard-print halter and the black leather leash I got in Manhattan.
The shop where I bought the leash was in the West Village, the gay center of the universe. Coincidentally or not, the pet accessories on offer looked like bondage gear: studded muzzles, spiked collars, leather harnesses and tight little butt-baring sweaters. Originally, I had planned to get her one of those wool-and-nylon affairs with Velcro straps, the kind of proper dog coat you see on whippets and greyhounds in English parks. I thought it would make me more acceptable to the other dog walkers in Cambridge, that it would help me pass. But standing in the pet shop in New York a few hours before my flight back to the UK, surrounded by pint-sized bits of chain and leather — it was like being in an S&M bar for midgets — I realized I didn’t care about fitting in.
The first year I lived in Britain I worried about it, constantly. At the time, fitting in was all mixed up in my mind with how lonely and homesick I was. I had discovered that English society was governed by a host of unwritten, unspoken rules, all of which I kept breaking. I was too earnest, too outspoken, too eager, too friendly, like one of those big yellow dogs with a lot of saliva — a lab or a golden retriever — that keeps jumping around and getting its dirty paws all over everything. I was convinced people were thinking badly of me: my co-workers, my husband’s colleagues, the man who fixed my bike. I resolved to conform. I bought wool skirts and pale cardigans, and a pair of fat green Wellies – gumboots — in which I clomped around like a pygmy farmer. All of this only made things worse; I was trying too hard, and the Brits hate that. So exhausting, they say, with a horrible little laugh.
So I gave up.
I reverted to my New York self. I wore my sunglasses and my leather jacket and stopped trying to control my American accent. I pushed ahead in lines, and refused to call them queues. If I didn’t want to do something I said no, instead of that long drawn out we-ell the English use to show their scorn and distaste.
To my surprise, the more I snubbed the British way of life, the more my acceptability quotient seemed to rise.
People started hanging around my desk at work. The grande dame who lived down the street, the one who terrified all the kids in the neighborhood, chatted me up in the supermarket. I acquired women friends — English women who had previously frozen me out with their thin smiles and clipped syllables.
It took a bit of time, but I finally worked out what had changed, what was different in the way people saw me. It was simple: I had become a licensed eccentric.
It’s still a shame culture here in Britain. People embarrass easily, and they’re scared of it. Even the most drunken lout is squeamish about speaking up, doing anything that might call attention to him. That’s probably why he drinks so much; he needs to be legless in order to feel free to talk above a mumble, barrel through a crowd and complain about lousy service in a shop. When he’s completely loose, he throws punches that don’t connect. But an eccentric, like an idiot savant, is free to do all that, in fact, is licensed to do just about anything — without judgement or a hangover. And the Brits like that; begrudging about so much else, they secretly admire anyone who doesn’t seem to give a toss.
I don’t jog seriously; it’s a start-and-stop business with a certain amount of hand flapping: girly running. The pug is better at it but after 20 yards she starts to retch and pant like a drunken asthmatic. It requires effort to run through muddy grass, I’m either slipping or losing a shoe in the muck. After one length of the field – it’s a short field — I decided to go home; any more was trying too hard.