England is like a garden, so said Emerson. These simple words capture the essence of this small island, and that is how I felt throughout the one month that I spend there in the summer of 2003. A beautiful country, with gardens that would soothe and heal a wounded soul, and a quarrel or two thrown in, that is England for you.
Landing at Manchester after a long flight via Dubai, it took some courage to face the immigration officer who stumped me by asking why it was going to be such a short stay! My stay was going to be at Fulham, a short distance from the city of Preston in the north.
Preston is a small city, and I often went there on foot, sometimes returning back late at night. It came to me as a surprise and a lesson in geography that the sun set at 9:00 pm, so that when we had dinner and went to bed, it was still daytime! In the winters, I was told the sun would set in the afternoon. So this is what they meant when they said days are shorter in winter and long in summer.
Visiting Preston and its shopping stores and malls made me
familiar with the English surroundings. The language spoken here
was almost incomprehensible, with a rising tone of voice. I often
did not simply understand them, and would end up nodding my head
and saying 'yes' whenever there was a query. At Preston I had my
first English pub experience at the Tokyo bar, and the 80s disco.
I visited the Harris museum, explored the streets, but failed to
really have any lengthy conversation with anyone except a
Pakistani driver! I saw street prostitutes, and one solemn
looking girl selling ice cream. I felt like approaching her, but
really lost courage at the last minute. I also visited the steam
and sauna centre at the local recreational centre. The Ribbleton
town was notorious, and I felt the same while passing through it.
A memorable experience occurred when I bought an old jacket from
a second hand store maintained by an old lady, the store's income
going to Rwanda in Africa. It turned out that she had been to the
top of world trade centre buildings as a young woman.
Blackpool is a cool city near Preston. I visited a number of crowded pubs and discos, and saw the English nightlife scene at close quarters. Come evening, and groups of girls and guys would come out of cars, draw cash out from ATMs and head towards the pubs. I felt the pubs and discos were really encashing on these youngsters by attracting and drawing them in. I even felt they were being misled and exploited by this culture.
Manchester has some magnificent architectural buildings, and Picaddily circle was just the cool place to hang out. I visited the Roman fort remains, and was unlucky to miss the timings of the science museum which houses the first ever computer built. I roamed through the streets, visited a massage parlour out of curiosity, and had a small quarrel with the counter lady who kept talking about 'full service' and said she was not allowed to say it included what I wanted her to admit. I made some purchases from a Chinese store at China town, and just before boarding the train back, I witnessed a small quarrel in a Pakistani restaurant near Manchester station, two white females with some men. The woman uttered profanities loudly, and the man quietened her by saying, 'Use your brain!' At the station, a young girl in the waiting room kept asking me, "Do you have alcohol?" I gave her flavoured milk that I had bought for the trip. She appeared to be in some distress, and finally took a Liverpool bound train.
The city of Liverpool has its own unique 'fresh-and-open' environment that quietens nerves and arouses one's curiosity. I reached here by a direct train from Preston, and was fascinated by its architecture and spread. Strolling through the streets, passing through the Cavern without knowing its Beatles link, I spend some time at the Albert dock. The big, stout cathedral never ceased to amaze me, and I made it a point to go near it. The China town here looked like it had been abandoned, with hardly a soul visible outside. The paradise street took my fancy, with its malls and a band playing on the street. The couple kissing freely in front of the museum was a prize 'catch' and I captured them on my video cam.
London is the queen of cities. I was not alone here, but with my parents, and we stayed in a budget hotel near Buckingham Palace, a short walk from St James (which I now learn is owned by the Tata Group) The Wimbledon tournament was in full swing, and I spotted Vijay Amritraj coming out of a taxi to enter St James. We had a friend who showed us around London. I saw the Kohinoor diamond, went up the London Eye, and visited the famous wax museum of Tussauds. Buckingham palace disappointed me as it is build on the ground and not on a raised platform, which took away that 'lofted and exalted' mark of royalty. It was amusing to see large vacuum cleaner vehicles cleaning the road leading to the palace, with no effort made to stop dust from coming over the road from the dry patches that ran along. Just planting a coat of grass would have been sufficient. A lone ice cream seller sells ice cream in front of the palace, and I unintentionally broke the queue to jump ahead of a man, who then grumbled an obscenity. The water of London has something in it that caused sores in my mouth, which went away after some time.
A small visit to the countryside we made was to the Lake District, at the Windermere lake, the biggest lake of the country. I went on a cruise ship down the length of the lake, and saw beautiful, lush green hills, best captured by the poet William Wordsworth who had lived there.
England made me realise the way to build cities. I feared throwing anything around, for every place looked spotlessly clean. Every piece of stone appeared to be set in its right place, rather than carelessly abandoned. The houses were built in a straight line. Every house had a garden meticulously maintained with beautiful flowers. Even the countryside villages were neat, clean, and very well maintained.
The English people are generally friendly towards strangers, and I did not feel like a foreigner during my stay. Many spoke to me, a lady smiled and greeted me, a woman driver gave me a free ride when I had no change on me, and a girl in a pub interacted with me, asking me if I was a Pakistani. I was also a little teased on the streets here and there, but overall I returned with a good impression of the people here, except the hotel girls, all Russian, who refused to come clean our room. The English breakfast was to my liking too, especially ham, which I savoured delightfully, thinking it was from a bird!
From a garden on earth, built with hard work, and maintained diligently to keep and comfort the human soul, I returned back to its dustbin, my India. If I am glorifying England, its because my education made me admire the western civilization before I set foot there. They may have their own problems, but the success of the west is a testimony to why it pays to give individuals the freedom they deserve. That's why the rest of the world feels jealous, and never tires to show its hatred through violent and other means.