I know something about this subject. In fact, you might say I’m an expert. I’ve been married to the most English-y of Englishmen for more than 25 years. Many of my friends are Englishmen. Many of my friends are Americans married to Englishmen. Yes, I’ve done my fieldwork; I’ve earned my degree.
Through the years, so many people have said to me, “Oh, it must be so much fun being married to an Englishman.” Since Downton Abbey fever swept the States, that refrain has reached a crescendo. Yes, it is “fun”, but a marriage divided by a common language is a lot of other things, too. In the interest of smoothing the transition for anyone who dreams of their own Lord Grantham, I offer these cautions and suggestions for your consideration. While I’m focussing on EnglishMEN, you American men looking to find your own Keira Knightly will find this a helpful primer as well. While it’s been my observation that Englishwomen are more flexible than the men (as all women are compared to men), you still may face some of these issues. Don’t call these warnings. I wouldn’t want to warn anyone off the English. They’re hilarious (often when they least mean to be). And I think their Englishness is a perfect complement to Americanness. Think oil and vinegar. Sweet and sour. Different as can be, but together, they work.
1. You will pick up his accent. He will never lose his. Not all of you will go full on Madonna — who had a fakey English accent within a month of marrying Guy Ritchie. Sometimes, it’s not even the accent. I’m not aware that any Surrey has rubbed off on me. But I still find myself, at least once a month, standing in the middle of the grocery store realizing that I can’t remember the American words for courgettes, aubergines and Swedes. (Zucchini, eggplant and rutabaga.) To whatever degree, you assimilate, remember that he won’t. And the accent will get thicker when he talks to his mother on the phone or when he’s watching BBC America.
2. He had a deprived childhood. I’m not talking about his family life. I’m talking about his family life. I’m talking about his television. No matter how quaint you find the old Mickey Mouse Club, how low tech the original Star Trek Enterprise’s control panel was, or how hokey it was that the Brady Bunch had an astro-turf back yard, you haven’t seen low-budget until you’ve seen British children’s programming. We are talking budgets so low the props could have come out of that play you and your second grade friends once put on in the back yard. Take the Daleks of Dr. Who. Does anyone else think that they were made out of trashcans or am I the only one saying that the robot has no clothes? Because there was no money for sets or special effects, it was written in that the Daleks couldn’t climb stairs. Hey presto! Insidious space invasion foiled by running up to the second floor of a council flat. The absolute bottom of the barrel for Englishmen of a certain age is Captain Pugwash, which reduced animation to cardboard cutouts that apparently jerked around on thin strings of dental floss. I discuss this further in this post. But just be aware before you diss Captain Pugwash — seeing an Englishman of 50+ cry is not a pretty sight.
3. He will like pigs. It doesn’t matter if he is a lifelong city boy, give an Englishman a little bit of farmland and the first thing he thinks about aren’t horses or chickens, but pigs. I don’t know why this is. I theorize it has to to with the Englishman’s innate fondness for bacon and sausages. But I suspect it’s deeper than that. When I pressed my husband to tell me why the pig seems to be the Englishman’s favored farm animal, he said, “Winston Churchill liked pigs.” I don’t think you’ll get a better answer than that.
4. His shoes will be perfect. I remember years before I encountered Englishmen, reading an Agatha Christie mystery where the murder was solved because the alleged English Duchess was revealed as an imposter. How? Because her shoes were run down at the heels and Hercule Poirot explained that “an Englishwoman might be dressed in rags, but she will always be well shod”. This goes double for Englishmen. Start allocating a huge amount of closet space for all his shoes. And expect to run late to most events as he carefully polishes both the tops and the soles of his footwear. Okay, much younger Englishmen may wear shoes that aren’t polished, but they will be the height of hipster fashion. And the polishing time will be reallocated to the perfect ties tied perfectly. Don’t believe me? Look at the footwear of any of the top English bands today. I rest my case.
5. Vegetables will be an issue. Englishmen hate vegetables. Sometimes, they will tolerate peas and carrots. But don’t try to tempt them with all the wonderful vegetables we have in America, especially any orange vegetable. For some reason my Thanksgivings are dominated by English friends. They always gripe about “the obligatory orange vegetable”. They absolutely draw the line at pumpkin. As my English friend, Vickie, says, “Pumpkin is a silly vegetable.” Don’t even think about beets. Every English schoolboy has been subjected to beets that are boiled to a pink slimy mass. Even if you patiently explain that, in America, we roast our beets so the sugars caramelize, they will not eat them. Allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret of the English: even Englishmen who profess to eat vegetables don’t really. How often have you heard Jamie Oliver banging on about fresh produce. Well, if he really ate all the vegetables he claims to would his skin be as pasty and blotchy as it is? Believe me, the only vegetables he probably encounters are in Branston Pickle. Same with most Englishmen.
6. He will be a slave to fashion. You thought it all stopped with the footwear? The British are actually more fashionable than the French, just in a more subdued and ultimately confusing way. You will never figure out what is in fashion or out of fashion to a Brit. It’s not often in the magazines. In fact, by the time the magazines pick it up, it’s old hat to the Brits. The nearest I’ve been able to figure out, true fashion to a Brit involves vintage and new pieces, some designer and all mixed up in unexpected ways and worn in unexpected venues. I remember reading an article about the Duchess of Windsor who marveled that the Duke could mix five different plaids and make it work. Even more amazing, the accompanying picture showed him in those plaids among his roses with gardening shears. I would have dismissed it as a photo op, until I saw my father-in-law head out to “dig his marrows” in his gardening tweeds and tie. His son is carrying on this sartorial tradition by only venturing out to my garden in immaculately pressed cords, tweed waistcoat, Barbour jacket and matching cap. The shoes, of course, are polished.
7. There is a little Lord Grantham in all of them, especially in the country. You might want to reread the paragraph above. There is a reason an Englishman dresses so elegantly to garden. That’s because, like Lord Grantham, they seldom actually do any of the work. The English style of gardening is decidedly Grathamian. An Englishman will survey his land, perfectly dressed and direct his staff. He will imagine that he has the armies of gardeners, workers and laborers that Grantham had. He will probably have only you. You will do the work. He will look perfect. Later over a cup of tea, he will remark how rewarding gardening can be.
8. You will never make tea exactly right. Yes, that cup of tea. Don’t even try to make it. Here is where you will sit back and plead being an American. Because you will never brew a proper cup. You will receive detailed instructions on the tea to use, the way to warm the pot, the amount of time to steep the tea, etc. etc. It will never be right. But why bother? Do you really like tea anyway? Let the English brew it while you make a nice cup of coffee.
9. His comfort foods will horrify you. America has a legacy of some truly misguided foods. Jello mold salad, Captain Crunch cereal, tuna salad. It gets worse as you move back toward the Sixties and Fifties. But it never reaches the absolute food nadir of the foods Englishmen will fondly recall from their childhoods. I’m not talking Toad in the Hole, Bubble and Squeak or Rumbledythumps which are all unavailable except as homemade treats and are actually quite good. I’m talking about the packaged foods of Britain that seem to contain twice the chemicals, three times the food coloring and five times the sugar of any comparable American junk food. Bird’s Custard has got to be the epitome of this trend — a pus yellow, chemically tainted, powdered version of the noble Créme Anglais which even the French revered. Don’t bother trying to make a homemade version with organic eggs and fresh cream. Englishmen will always prefer the neon yellow Bird’s version. Branston Pickle is another mystery. I think it actually starts with vegetables, but it’s processed with what must be gallons of vinegar, pounds of sugar and a few weeks of boiling. I once reverse engineered the Branston Pickle recipe and made it with fresh vegetables out of my organic garden. The verdict from my English husband and friends: “Okay, but it’s not soft enough. And are there vegetables in here?”
10. He will continue to be unintentionally hilarious. Even after nearly 25 years of marriage, I’m still laughing at my British husband. I mean with him. With love. They are hilarious. Especially when they don’t mean to be. Eccentric doesn’t even begin to cover it. As I worked on this article, I thought it would be only fair to involve Andy, if just for full disclosure.
“So I’m writing about all the eccentric things that English husbands do? What is the funniest thing that you do?”
“I’m not eccentric at all. We don’t do anything funny or odd.”
As he said this, he was waving two pieces of toast over his head to cool them off. Then once they were stone cold, he began to scrape cold butter over them until large clumps of unmelted spread were embedded in the now ripped bread. Think this is one man’s eccentricity? Ponder the fact that the English invented the toast rack for just this purpose.
See what I mean?