London learning 

The unexpected fruits of a liberal education, British-style.

…It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossoms in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air…

When Americans think of Great Britain, we see a colorfully rigid class system, everyone trapped in the place where they were born, comfortable or depressing, as the case may be. A silly and stifling arrangement, we think, though it might be fun to dress up like that. In our country we can move up, down or through the various social levels, depending on our abilities. That’s American democracy.

But in 1984 we were living with Eckerd students on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, London, where so many of the great books about England were written — and we discovered even back then that English society was a lot more fluid than expected.

In that year, we took the students for little trips around the country, stopping in local homes rather than hotels or motels. Early on, near York, we stayed with a policeman and his family. We were eager to talk to him about his work, patrolling the streets with only an extendable baton and a couple of spray cans. But when he came home in the evening, all he wanted to talk about was Jane Austen, proudly showing off his collection of Austen novels and biographies. In my long life, I’ve met lots of wonderful American policemen, but none of them read Jane Austen — or Joyce Carol Oates, for that matter.

Then, back at Gower Street, Jeanne and I were relaxing in the Museum Pub with some visiting colleagues, husbands and wives. While we chatted, a workman was playing at a nearby slot machine. Suddenly there was a big clatter and clanking — he’d hit the jackpot. We applauded, and he came over and dumped a double handful of coins on our table. “Sure and I’d like to buy these lovely ladies a drink,” he said, in a roguish brogue.

He turned out to be an Irish bricklayer living in London, who had an unexpected afternoon off. When he heard we were literature professors he got excited. “So you’ll be knowing that great poet, William Yeats!” he said.

“Well…” we began.

“And what are your favorite poems, then?” he asked.

“Well…” we said. At that point, he recited — beautifully — Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” and after that, encouraged by congratulatory pints, many more. He was still reciting when we had to leave.

Around that time, the newspapers announced the finalists for the Booker Prize Award — now the Man Booker Prize — given to the year’s best novel. Late to a meeting, I had to take a rare cab ride, and while winding through London, the cabbie asked, “Are you the teacher there?” He had observed that 35 Gower Street was full of students. When I admitted I was, he asked, “Well then, who should I put my money on?” It took me a while to figure out that multitudes of English citizens, rich and poor, bet on literary awards the way we bet on horses. In 1984 J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was the runaway favorite at 6-4 odds, but the Booker winner was a long shot (6-1), Anita Brookner’s lovely Hotel du Lac. In any case, the cabbie knew more about all six of the finalists than I did.

These pleasant encounters, and others like them, convinced us that a society so lively and literate couldn’t be cooped up for long. And indeed, in the years since then, our countries have traded places on the mobility spectrum. These days George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, with its total government surveillance of a trapped populace controlled by a small elite, hits a lot closer to home than to that little island, where the humanities seem too be taught a lot, and with more pizazz.


I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

—Both quotes from “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

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