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Ghosts of Christmas Past #7: The English People, Part 2



“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The English People, Part 2

To the people who live here, to those born and reared here who still think of this square mile as home, Agincourt is America. But each small town and big city neighborhood surely feels the same about its own native turf. So it was with some surprise that our new friends Alec and Margaret Parks expressed their desire to visit Agincourt—and only Agincourt—for two weeks in the Spring of 1990.

Hal Holt and Alec had corresponded for a year or more on subjects of mutual interest—Alec in Heathfield, a market town in the English county of East Sussex about forty miles south of London, and Hal here at home—and the two discovered friendship. Believing Great Britain to be a very crowded island, however, it may come as another surprise that Alec’s community is only a fourth the size of ours; that he and his wife were coming from a village to a throbbing metropolis. Hard to think of Agincourt that way.

Alec had made reservations at the motel on Highway 7 by the fairgrounds entrance, but Hal would hear nothing of it, guessing that public transport in the UK was superior to what passes for it in the United States. Good bet. Rowan and I were renovating some bed-and-breakfast space that might be ready in time; and with borrowed furniture and kitchenware, it was almost cozy. We picked them up at Des Moines late one night, drove home and tucked them in. Then the fun began.

Mr and Mrs Parks were in their late 60s, early 70s. Alec, a former school headmaster had served in Burma and then as a farm manager in Rhodesia; Margaret, mother of two, had played piano in silent movie houses. Flaming Liberals in the thick of the Thatcher Regime. We found ourselves in what another old friend called “heated agreement.” When the car hit a pothole, for example, Mrs Parks blurted “Maggy bump!” from the back seat, a bad joke about Britain’s own crumbling infrastructure. There’s was where ours is going.

Heathfield is one of those organic English villages that grew through hundreds of years; a hierarchy of paths and lanes more like your circulatory system than an Enlightenment grid of American streets. So mid-morning Hal got a call from Alec admitting he’s gone on a “reckie” (i.e., a reconnoiter) of the neighborhood and got lost. Cartesian grids, apparently, are anathema to the English mind patterned by the Middle Ages, and Alec could never quite get the hang of which way streets and avenues ran. With luck, he’d read some of our Transcendental authors.

Everyone took a turn shepherding Alec and Margaret about. They were driven far and wide and often; the weather cooperated. They spent a day at Sturm und Drang. There was a play at the college and an opening at the Memorial Gallery. A barbecue in rural Fahnstock. Tea with Aunt Phyllis. Father Barnstable stood in for the C of E. Alec compared our landscape to his native Rutland. Margaret played the piano. And through it all, the Parkses were as curious as five-year-olds, inquiring about news and rain and real estate and brussels sprouts and things the rest of us find commonplace, like presidents and…oh, well, you get the point. Two weeks we enjoyed their lovely company. Then they returned to Sussex and, no doubt, told stories about us.

Visit Gnostic Grove in spring and enjoy the two-stemmed tree lilac planted there to commemorate the Parks family visit. What it needs now is the likes of their memorial bench in Sussex. Both of them are gone to glory, recalled fondly as “the English people”.

Learning from others is about discovering yourself.

Rutland, Rhodesia, Burma—three places you can no longer find on a map. A visit to Agincourt seemed in keeping with Alec’s track record.

1 Comment

  1. Yvonne Parks says:

    I loved reading this. Alec was my first cousin twice removed and we corresponded a lot about researching our family tree when in the 1970s when I was a teenager. All these years later I’m compiling our tree and still have many of things he gave me from our ancestors. It was lovely to read about him here

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