Off Piste - A Connecticut Yankee in King Alan's court

Thom Brooks is living the American Dream, not in the US itself but among the Geordies. And unlike Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, coming to the UK feels like a journey to the future, not the past...

July 7, 2011




Where we are from often informs who we are. I traded life in the American Northeast for life in the North East of England. New Haven - the site of the US' first public tree-planting programme, earning it the nickname "Elm City" - is famous for the great Patriot Nathan Hale, the cotton-gin inventor Eli Whitney, and for Sally's Apizza, a legendary pizzeria. As such, it is rather different from Newcastle, or "Geordieland", which counts footballer-turned-pundit Alan Shearer and politician and tea-godfather Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, among its most famous sons.

Yet it is a trade I would make any day. Let me explain why a Connecticut Yankee would prefer life as a Geordie-in-training.

First, it is necessary to explain what a "Connecticut Yankee" is. Perhaps the best-known example is found in Mark Twain's 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Twain - real name Samuel Clemens - settled in Connecticut after many years travelling across the US and Europe, coming to rest in Hartford, the state capital, where he wrote many of his most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Prince and the Pauper (1881) among them.

A Connecticut Yankee tells the tale of Hank Morgan, who receives a crushing blow to the head that knocks him out cold. When he wakes, he finds himself under an oak tree and discovers that he is no longer in 19th-century Connecticut; he has somehow been transported to the 6th century and to King Arthur's England.

The novel is an insightful satire about social and political thought from the perspective of a stranger in a strange land. Hank uses his knowledge of Victorian science to dispel the false magic of Merlin, win favour in King Arthur's court and reform society from within, contributing to a more egalitarian and republican state. While he holds in contempt the public's confidence in the Church and the aristocracy, Hank soon discovers that he "was just as much at home in that century as I could have been in any other".

He builds close friendships and has a family. The story ends with his transportation back to modern Connecticut, where, in his dying moments, he is heard mumbling of his longing for his long-dead wife and lost life.

Twain's Hank is the archetypal New Englander of his time: highly educated, pragmatic and resourceful, with a general distrust of institutional authority.

He has a deep commitment to egalitarianism, which was also not uncommon: New Haven was the scene of a famous court case favouring the abolitionist cause against slavery that was later retold in the movie Amistad (1997). Hank is described as "a Yankee of the Yankees" and his Connecticut roots serve as a fitting background. (How much more "Yankee" can you get than a man from a state whose song is Yankee Doodle?)

It wasn't a blow to the head that sent me to England, but the allure of further study. I don't mean to say that the experience was not disorienting. My preconceptions were blown out of the water on day one, when I discovered that, contrary to expectations, not everyone in the UK speaks like John Cleese - least of all in the North.

It is often assumed that moving to the UK must be fairly easy for an American, or at least easier than the other way around. After all, how could an Englishman or woman survive in a country where kettles, decent chocolate and knowledge about the finer points of queuing etiquette are hard to come by?

I confess that the first time I saw a sign telling customers in a sandwich shop where to queue, my first thought was that a "queue" must be some sort of culinary offering: something containing eggs, I imagined.

The differences in everyday life are to be found all around. Take driving, for example. In the US, we park on driveways and drive on parkways. In the UK, by contrast, we park in car parks and drive on motorways. This clearly makes more sense.

But it is not all so straightforward. It makes less sense to use a white circle with a diagonal black stripe through it to denote a speed limit, far less so when this sign - representing the national speed limit - means different things to different drivers, depending on the type of vehicle you are driving, whether you are towing anything and the conditions of the road. Oh, and the signs are sometimes posted on the left, sometimes on the right, and they come in different sizes. Surely it is far more sensible to follow the US model of stating the speed limit for all in numerical form on the same-sized sign and the same side of the road?

But if my UK driving test had me in knots, it had nothing on the curiosities arising from the citizenship test. This involves an examination based on the Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship document and is a requirement for "Indefinite leave to remain" visas as well as citizenship.

The first oddity is that you do not become a citizen by passing the test. Instead, you must first receive indefinite leave to remain and then wait at least a year before applying for citizenship. The second is that you quickly discover that no British citizen seems to know the answer to most of the questions. The third is that those questions that may seem of most importance to any immigrant - such as British history or basic facts of law - are not part of the test. Instead, it grills applicants on whether the British government restricted immigration from Australasia in the 1960s, the percentage of young people in higher education, and whether "1 April is a day when people play jokes on each other".

My test included the following question:

Q: Which two places can you go to if you need a National Insurance number?

A. Department for Education and Skills

B. Home Office

C. Jobcentre Plus

D. Social security office

Readers who answered C and D can give themselves a pat on the back because they are, apparently, the correct options. But it is worth pointing out that two of the answers (A and D) no longer exist. This is because the Life in the United Kingdom textbook was last updated in April 2007. To pass the citizenship test in 2011, you must answer questions as if you were living in the past. It is hardly surprising, then, that so many fail the test.

To return to Hank's story, it is fair to say that his journey was very different from mine.

He travelled backwards in time, whereas I often feel as if I have gone forwards, given the many advantages of life in the UK over that in the US.

Healthcare is a clear example. In the UK, even the Conservative-led coalition government supports a strong NHS, even if there is serious disagreement about the best way this might be secured. But in the US, members of the conservative Republican Party condemn healthcare systems such as the NHS as "socialist" and even "communist" (to translate this for the non-paranoid reader, this means "very bad" and "much worse").

While capital punishment was abolished decades ago in the UK, many Americans still believe that the only reason why even more of their fellow citizens don't murder each other is the fear of lethal injection.

Oh, and several million Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens.

But this is not to say that I have somehow "gone native" and delight in denigrating all things American. Far from it. In fact, there is much about my Connecticut roots that fills me with pride.

For example, Connecticut launched the first municipal public library in 1659. It has the oldest continuing newspaper, The Hartford Courant, first published in October 1764. Connecticut also has a distinguished history in higher education, being home to Yale University and the Litchfield Law School, founded 1784 - the first law school in the US. In addition, the state gave birth to everything from the corkscrew and friction matches to the cotton gin. Famous Connecticut citizens include the showman P.T. Barnum, the composer Charles Ives, the politician Ralph Nader, the author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lexicographer, author and political reformer Noah Webster, and Jonathan Trumbull, the only colonial governor to support American independence: not too bad for a small state of about three million in a country of more than 300 million people.

One of the reasons I feel at home in the North East of England is the fact that the local population - at about 2.5 million, it is similar in size to Connecticut's - are just as proud of their region. There is a rich Roman heritage, and it is home to Lindisfarne, a "cradle of Christianity" in England, where St Aidan founded his Anglo-Saxon monastery in AD635. The area is awash with castles - Bamburgh, Bishop Auckland, Durham, Newcastle and Tynemouth: indeed, the land was once the home of the Northumbrian kings. And then there is the city of Durham and its cathedral, which my compatriot Bill Bryson described as "the best cathedral on planet Earth", urging readers that if they hadn't visited it yet, "go at once; take my car".

It is also interesting to compare the mysterious origins of the words associated with both places. The word "Connecticut" is believed to derive from the native Mohegan word Quinnehtukqut, meaning "Long River Place". But what of the origins of "Yankee"? One account is that English settlers referred to Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam as "John Cheese" (or "Jan Kaas" in Dutch) because they were known as cheesemakers. If true, it is a curiosity of history how and why a derogatory term for early immigrants to what is now New York City has come to refer instead to the citizens of New England.

Similar questions hang over the origin of "Geordie". One account is that it refers to Newcastle upon Tyne's support for George II during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, but there is much debate over its true origins.

Today, both "Yankee" and "Geordie" mean different things to different people. If you are not from New England or Newcastle, the terms are used as catch-alls - and not always in a positive way. But if you are from New England or Newcastle, you would never refer to people from anywhere else as Yankees or Geordies, and the terms are used with pride.

Mark Twain's Hank finds England a land of opportunity, and my experience has been the same. I'm often asked why I left the Greater New York area. You could say that I discovered the American Dream, but discovered it elsewhere.

The US is often thought of as a friendly country, but much of that friendliness is of the plastic variety typified by such platitudes as "Have a nice day" and "Have a good one" ("What 'one'?" I'm always tempted to ask). By contrast, I am constantly reminded of the genuine friendliness of the people I have met in the UK, not least the North East (Newcastle is not known for its nightlife for nothing).

Another aspect of the country that has a major hold on me is the history. Anyone who enjoys visiting castles and cathedrals half as much as I do would be in heaven in the North East. Perhaps Twain's Hank shared this fascination. While Connecticut has buildings dating from the early 17th century, they are mere buildings. There is something altogether different about castles and cathedrals, something more magical and enchanting - not unlike finding oneself transported back in time to King Arthur's court.

The UK today strikes me as a land of wonder, in which villages retain their charm and cities their unique personality. The same is not always true for the modern US. I find it much easier to find inspiration in the Northumberland coastline than I do in the shoreline along the Long Island Sound.

My family left England for New Haven in the 18th century and have remained there ever since. As such, I consider my return to our original home long overdue and while I will always be a Connecticut Yankee, the fact is that my life is here now. Is Britain best for me? Why aye, man.

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