15 Jul London, Part II

Yesterday, Jill and I got a personal tour of Ramsgate, the seaside town that was Captain John Marshall’s home. It’s on the eastern shore and so close to the Continent, you can see the purple smudge of France thirty miles across the channel. It was the gateway to England for invading armies, which is why it was first called “Romansgate.” The marauding Danes and Anglo-Saxons stormed through here too.

Our host was Robert Holden, a tall, energetic retiree who sped us around in his red Ford Escort. “Goin’ on 97-K for the second time,” he chirped. “Never a bother.” We told him it wasn’t the kind of Ford Escort we’re familiar with in the States. When we got out to walk, we nearly had to jog to keep up with him. Ramsgate is as quaint as a seaside town gets. The harbor was commissioned by the crown in 1705 and completed by the time John Marshall was born in 1748. Most of the significant architecture is regency era, circa 1800. We made Robert show us his way-cool 1920 wood sail boat in the way-cute harbor. Robert rehabbed the boat all by himself. “When you grow up in a sea town,” he explained, with a shrug, “you get on the water early.”

I imagine John Marshall answered a similar call back in 1760 or so, when the harbor was England’s only eastern seaport. Compared to the rural doze of Ramsgate’s daily life, the arrival of tall ships must have been wondrous. Like Baltimore, Ramsgate has retained a lot of its architectural heritage because the city didn’t do well enough to encourage development when “urban renewal” was the rage. Robert’s concerns nowadays center on historic preservation. He’s the president of the Ramsgate Society. We were surprised and grateful that, at short notice, he could give us an afternoon of special attention.

Jill and I have found the English to be accommodating and thoroughly polite. Even in the tube, you’ll hear “sorry” “sorry” “sorry” instead of “excuse me” as commuters jostle and elbow. Every day is an apology fest. But I did have one encounter that wasn’t quite chummy, though it was hilarious in its way. But first some background: I was spending the day at the National Archives, which is an amazing place, crowded with paper and film and parchment and vellum, recording the history of this ancient nation through death duty records and muster rolls and ships’ registers and bills of lading and all manner of official minutia. I was looking for Captain John Marshall’s will. You should know that, back in the day, all legal documents were written by scriveners–professional scribes. They were the precursor to the office typist. You could not write out your own document. The scriveners’ highly stylized hand-writing is virtually unreadable to us nowadays. Nobody at the Archives could explain to me why the scriveners’ handwriting was so bad, “except that they were given bottles of watered-down ink, sat (sometimes stood) at an uncomfortable station, and made to write for fourteen hours a day.”

When I handed one of these wills to a professional at the Archive help desk and asked for some assistance deciphering, he glanced at it and smiled as if I were joking: “I can’t ever make sense of this rubbish.” Quickly, I learned that few of the archivist can read this stuff and some don’t even try. Which made me feel much better about my own failure. I’d been working on one will for days. It was as bad as working the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

Fortunately, there are a handful of archivists who have taken up the deciphering challenge. Their translations enabled me to eliminate a number of false leads from among the many documents I was dredging up. I have discovered about 100 John Marshalls who lived at the same time as mine. These included muffin makers, cheese makers, collar makers, victuallers, fringe weavers, cabinet makers, upholsterers, innholders, shoe makers, tallow chandlers, glovers, carpenters, and yeomen. To learn this much, I had to scroll through miles of microfilm in dark viewing cubicles. I did so much scrolling, gazing at the glare of passing documents, one after the other in fast succession–thousands of wills in speeding window panes–I started getting motion sickness. Really, I was reeling like a drunk. Or a man just stepping on land after a long sea voyage.

When my microfilm reader broke, I found myself assisted by the Archive’s official microfilm reader technician, a small, silver-haired Indian lady who carried a cane, though she appeared in no need of it. She wore no-nonsense flats, a simple collared blouse, navy slacks and a cardigan. Her expression seemed one of perpetual skepticism. She narrowed her eyes at me and then the machine and said, with that beautiful accent the English Indians have, “What have you done?”

I wheeled my chair back, to show I meant no harm. “It won’t make photocopies,” I explained. “It just prints white paper.”

“Because you have done something wrong.” She shook her head in disapproval, then glowered at the machine.

I explained that I had followed the instructions.

“You see these buttons?” She started pressing them.

I explained that I had pressed those same buttons.

“But you did not get the results, did you?” This sounded almost like a taunt.

“No,” I repeated. “I just get white paper.”

“Then you are doing something wrong!” she concluded.

I felt like I was in seventh-grade math again, being scolded by Mrs. Rutledge, a woman who wore orthopedic shoes and bulky cardigans, no matter what the weather. We called her “sarge” behind her back.

But we also knew how to butter her up when it was to our advantage. So I said to the Copy Machine Lady: “I am so pleased that you are going to make it run right!”

She gave a decisive nod. “Right!

The Brits love to say “right.”

She pressed some more buttons, swiped her copy card, and the machine printed a page. It was as blank as the ones I’d been getting.

“See?” I said.

“Look what you’ve made me do!” she said with a grimace. .

“It’s the buttons,” I protested. “They must be off.”

She pushed the buttons again, swiped her card, and then, faster than you could say “Lord Nelson.” we got a copy that was almost readable.

“There, you see?” she said with satisfaction.

“Amazing,” I answered. I thanked her profusely. She nodded her acknowledgement, and then I was on my own again.

A while later, as I was spooling yet another roll of film, she appeared at my kiosk (I think she had her eye on me because I was trouble). “Here, let me show you,” she said. Leaning over my shoulder in a very teacherly way, she demonstrated how to spool the film more quickly than I had been doing. The right way, in other words. She was taking pity on me. And I was appreciative, but a little nervous whenever she came hiking back in my direction, jabbing the carpet with her cane as if walking through tall weeds.

Jill and I have become so accustomed to taking the tube, we have also taken up the Londoner’s habit of reading the tabloids, which are a great way to pass time on the noisy ride. They’re free too, shoved at commuters by hawkers at the entrances to the stations. Today we read about Amy Weinhouse, the troubled pop singer who has just returned from eight months in the Caribbean where, according to one tabloid, she was banned from every bar or, according to another tabloid, she quit drinking and got her life together. When asked if she was happy to return to London, she said, “I don’t give a fuck.”

Speaking of music idols, Iggy Pop is doing a car insurance commercial here–something we’d never see in the States, mainly because he’s a freak. I assume the pitch here is to young drivers, though I didn’t imagine the young would be that familiar with Iggy Pop. But the English have a quirky sense of humor. Think Monty Python. The Brits also appear to be franker than we Yanks. Consider medical warnings on cigarette packs. In England, warnings come on both sides and they don’t mince words: “Smoking seriously harms you and those around you.” Good luck finding that kind of honesty in the States. Add to that a color photo of open heart surgery. Really.