Robert Browning’s poem, Home Thoughts, from Abroad (read here by William Hurt), written in 1845 when the poet was visiting Northern Italy, has been voted one of the U.K.’s most popular poems. The speaker is clearly longing for England (which for British colonial civil servants always remained Home, no matter how long they were away), and imaginatively seeing and hearing the beauty of an English spring as unsurpassed by any other. In my view, though, the last line is jarring, the line in which he describes the humble buttercups as far more beautiful than “this gaudy melon-flower,” as if English flowers naturally had an unadorned, unassuming beauty, while the Italian flowers were gaudy—showy in a tasteless or vulgar way. Nevertheless, the poem’s language and images are quite moving in their simplicity, even if they do tend toward the sentimental.
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
But if Browning’s poem is sentimental, the take-off “Oh, to be in England” (also known as “Aachaa England”) is a hilarious corrective. According to the blog, Black South Asia, few people know that the person who sang the song in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy, The Party, starring Peter Sellers (see TMA #123, That Funny Accent for more on Peter Sellers’ Indian accent), was in fact Bill Forbes, born in Ceylon in 1938 and living in Britain since 1955, who recorded it under the name of Kal Khan. It’s not only Forbes’/Khan’s exaggerated accent and the ability to laugh at himself that is funny, but the way it turns the tables to observe strange British customs from the perspective of a South Asian immigrant.
Yinglish people sleeping in the sun to get a tan
Pouring oil upon their face just like a frying pan
Funny thing about it is they all go rosy red
Next day when the peeling starts they are crying in their bed.
Chorus: Oh, to be in England
Now that spring is here
Oh, to be in England
Drinking English beer.
Boiled potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding too
That is all you’ll ever find upon a set menu
They don’t know that I can make an Anglo English Fry
Tell me have you ever heard of Snake and Kidney Pie?
British people watching television every day
When the kiddies go to bed they show a sexy play
They don’t know that washing powder showing on the screen
Turning coloured clothing into white you’ve never seen.
Funnily enough, I am visiting England at the moment, and in April too, after many years of home thoughts from abroad (although for me, “home” and “abroad” are by no means settled or singular). Spring here, even in London, is beautiful, in a distinctly English way. These photos, taken on the streets of North London, may give you a little taste of it.