Chapter 7 – England, Cambridge


Clare Bridge; view north from King’s College (Wikipedia, Ed g2s)

During my stay close to Vichy in 1954, I had said to the young French ladies from Alger (the two ‘widows’) when they invited me to come to Alger, that I was going to England the next summer after finishing my French major. Well, it turned out to be true.

My former English teacher, the wonderful Stina Lindeberg, helped me put together an ad for Cambridge Daily News that said something about ‘Mother’s helper… no pay wanted’. I got one reply. One only but that was it. The family lived in Babraham, a short bus ride south  from Cambridge where there was, and still  is today, a very well-known Institute of Physiology.

I took the boat to London from Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark and arrived in Harwich, up on the coast a bit north of the Thames, after spending the night on board. It was the cheapest way of getting to London and very convenient. There must be a good reason why the boat docks in Harwich and not closer to London. Harbor cost probably.

At the harbor, we were taken into London by a very comfortable Pullman train. We were served tea on the train – the English never let you down. There is always the cup of tea. A little tablecloth was put on the table in front of you and tea was served with little cookies, called biscuits of course in the UK.

The trip took a good hour and a half and we arrived at Liverpool Street Station. Hey, I was in London. But was I?

I got my train ticket for Cambridge, and as I had a couple of hours to while away before my train left, I got out of the station and walked down the main street that was probably Bishopsgate. I was amazed that there was nobody around. It seemed like a dead city. It was a Sunday and I later learned that this area is at the very edge of the City of London and so it wasn’t surprising at all to find the streets abandoned by human beings. Later one time I ventured into the very heart of the City of London,, the business district where few people live and thousands of people work with money and, above all, speculating.  I have never seen anything more dead in my life.

I finally spotted a gorgeous dark girl and I got my courage up to ask her what was the matter. I believe I was naïve enough to ask her if this was really London. She very nicely said that Yes it’s London all right, but this  was not an area where people lived.

Cambridge is not very far from London, about 60 miles straight north. So after a relatively short trip we arrived in Cambridge and I found a hotel room close to the railway station. I was tired and went straight to bed. The next morning there was a knock on the door and when I opened a woman said ‘Your tea, Miss.’ I said ‘Oh, but I thought breakfast was going to be downstairs’. She said ‘But this is just your first cup of tea.’ How very civilized!

All right, now I was in Cambridge. I walked toward the center, looking around me all the time, fascinated by the very idea that I was in England for the first time in my life. It was actually my first trip abroad after my two very different “trips” to France. I don’t consider Denmark and Norway as being “abroad”.

I got to what must have been about the center of the town, but without having seen any of the famous colleges by the river Cam. However, I did see a sight that amazed me, young couples in fluffy evening gowns and dinner jackets, flitting across lawns and through the streets of Cambridge in the rather early morning. I learned later on that the previous day had been the May ball.1

Since I had nothing to do really, I went into a milk bar to get, what else – a cup of tea. As I was paying I got confused when the woman told me it was twopence. Well, she said tuppence of course, but I was quite familiar with the pronunciation. I was thinking of the prices we paid in Sweden for a cup of coffee in what is in Sweden called a café or konitoru,, and I thought something must be wrong here. Two pence??? Did she mean two shillings?  But no, she had definitely said “tuppence”. Amazing. These were of course the days of shillings and half-crowns, halfpennies (pronounced haypennies) and even farthings. And you said threpence, not three pence.

In my confusion about the price of a cup of tea, a young man next to me said ‘Could I help you?’ I remember well that he came in after me and had sat down on the stool on my right side at the bar. I said I was just confused because I couldn’t believe a cup of tea could cost so little. And so we got to talking.

The young man showed me the way to the bus station, where I would find my bus later on to get to see Mr and Mrs Kenneth Hill. We talked a bit and it turned out, surprisingly, that he was a student of French, which I had just finished in Lund. I was very pleased to get some help since obviously I had no idea in which direction the bus station would be.

That afternoon I got on a bus to get to Babraham. I sat down on an aisle seat in the back of the bus. Right after I sat down a lady came in and wanted to chat with a friend of hers across the aisle. So she said to me “Could you move over, love?” I was tickled by the way she expressed herself. This “love” sounded so quaint to me.

Remember I grew up in formal Sweden where people don’t even talk to each other on public transportation. This familiarity was so English I could hardly believe it (Well, hmm, obviously not upper class English.) 

Imagine there is an accident in the street. A man is lying prostrate next to his bike and may have broken a limb. Some lady comes running and says, “Oh dear ph dear, did you hurt yourself badly. I’ll get you a cup of tea and you’ll feel better, dear.” Adorable. Oh, the English, taken separately, are so helpful and so friendly, a totally different species from us constipated Swedes.

After the bus stopped at Babraham, first stop before the village, I made my way to the Close, number 18, the family’s residence. ‘The Close’ was a somewhat circular street where the people who worked at the Institute of Physiology lived, MDs, veterinarians and of course a lot of people who were not academics. Typically for England, one side of the Close was for the professionals, the other side for the non-professionals. The house was ‘semi-detached’, cleverly arranged so as to give the impression that it was a detached house.

I rang the doorbell and a nice-looking young dark-haired woman opened the door. This was Gwenda. She said ‘Oh, there you are.’ I’ll call my husband so he’ll come over from the Institute. I hope I had timed my appearance so as to fit in with tea time. I guess I had.

So Ken came in the door 5 minutes later and I saw a typically English looking man. Enormously nice and friendly, and so very English. He also had a wonderful sense of humor. Gwenda was Irish by the way, and much later Ken said, only half jokingly, that he would never have married an English girl.

We now sat down on the two short green sofas (called ‘settees’) across from each other in front of the fireplace and we had – a cup of tea!

The problem in England is you have to balance your teacup while you talk and bite into your biscuit, all at the same time. I learned, however, that it’s not seen badly if you put your cup on the floor next to you. It’s acceptable.

All right, everything was settled. I was going to be there for almost three summer months.  Gwenda was pregnant and she felt she could do with a little bit of help. There were two little girls already, Jane 3 and Sally, 2. Adorable girls and Sally was so funny.

It turned out that I would have next to nothing to do. Gwenda was a graduate in Home Economics from Liverpool University where she and Ken had both been students and she was the best housekeeper I’ve ever known. She vacuumed the downstairs every morning, or as they say she “hoovered” it. I have never understood how they can get under furniture with an ‘upright’, but the Brits seem doggedly devoted to those strange vacuum-cleaners.

The market where Ken and I went on Saturday mornings. Cambridge University Church in the background. (Photo Wikipedia)

My one major task was to accompany Ken by bus to Cambridge to do the marketing every Saturday morning. It was amazing to hear the merchants add  up shillings and pence with no hesitation whatsoever. It absolutely astounded me. With the 12 p to a shilling system it seemed mind-boggling to someone used to the decimal system.

And food seemed cheap to me. I guess I found most things quite cheap in England. And life seemed easy. Ken got back every day for tea around 4 or 4:30 from his work as a research veterinarian at the Institute. And he stayed home after tea, which is a light meal. The girls were put to bed pretty soon after that, and we had a late dinner-supper around 8. How very civilized having a rather late and light supper, not an early dinner, the way Swedes do!

After finishing the marketing, Ken and I would go to a milk bar for tea or coffee. I preferred coffee and when I was asked black or white I was lost. I had never heard about white coffee. But I caught up without making myself look stupid. I don’t know which I chose since I like coffee both with and without milk (in fact, depending on the quality of the coffee, which is notoriously so-so in England), but I didn’t make the helpless figure I’d made at my first milk bar for the twopence cup of tea.

One time we had tea with a friend of Ken’s in a tearoom and so we had a pot of tea and some pastries on the table, as is customary. When the tea was ready to be served, Ken said, Siv, will you be the mummy. That was so funny. I knew the expression existed, but I had never heard it before. I’m sure Ken used the word mummy kiddingly, and it really made me laugh. I also lovee the way hey came up to your table when you were ready to pay, and asked “How many pastries?”  – just taking your word for it. The generally laid-back atmosphere in England was so pleasant after 22 years of bureaucratic and boring formality in the Sweden of my youth. But things have loosened up since then in Sweden too.

I was right away accepted as a member of the family and I enjoyed the little girls and the funny things they came up with. It was usually at the lunch table, which I believe they called dinner. It was the big meal of the day. Once when Ken said that Jane had the hiccups, Sally said ‘Yes, Daddy, hiccups and saucers’.  Of course we couldn’t help laughing out loud. But Sally just looked cute and didn’t mind a bit. Another time Ken was trying to get Sally to say “May I have” instead of ‘”Can I have”. So she made a huge effort, trying to be absolutely correct and said “May I can I have some more milk please”, pronouncing each word clearly and slowly.

I had probably brought my English grammar book and I entertained Ken with sentences from it, things you never hear but only find in school books, such as ‘Up jumps Boxer and barks for joy’ and a slew of silly sentences like that. Ken was a very good audience.

Ken liked classical music and knew quite a bit about it. He also realized that I was used to listening to the great composers. One evening he said that Mozart was not really a good composer. I was shocked and said “Of course he is”. How could he possibly say such a thing? All his wonderful symphonies, Jupiter and all that. And his Sinfonia Concertante that I loved! Ken laughed happily and said “I was just trying to get you to speak”. I was quite timid in those days and I actually didn’t get over my shyness until I got to the U.S. when I gradually became more self-confident.

I don’t quite know how Melville got back in touch with me, for Melville was the name of the young man in the milk bar, but get back to me he did. We had most likely decided to meet up that same evening after my little interview with Ken and Gwenda.

Melville was a gentleman. He always knew that to me he was just a friend and even though he was very clearly smitten, he never insisted on going too far, the way any French admirer would have. In fact, Melville was timid too.

I saw quite a lot of him, until he had to go to France since his tutor (what we would call counselor in the U.S.) had told him he had to spend a minimum of a month in France during the summer. His spoken French was not up to par.

Melville took me punting on the river Cam and we would sit on the banks of the river with lots of other young people, a sunny display of light-colored dresses and various skin colors, most of them probably foreigners, students who had come to Cambridge to study for a summer. There were most certainly some shorts around as well, but mainly we wore dresses or skirts in those long-gone days.

The Bridge of Sighs, one of the many beautiful bridges that cross the river Cam. (Wikipedia, Diliff)

Melville even took me to the most old-England restaurant in town, The Blue Boar. A hotel-restaurant can’t be more old-English than that. Huge brown leather armchairs in the lobby, discreet, refined. When the waiter took our order he asked ‘Are you staying?’ I was wondering why in the world we wouldn’t be staying since we had just arrived, but I got the meaning, when Melville said No.

Ken and Gwenda invited Melville for dinner one Sunday and they approved of him immediately. “Nice young man”, said Gwenda. “He helped taking the dishes back out to the kitchen.”

A young colleague of Ken’s, Geoffrey whom I knew already, took me by bus to Cambridge to watch the madrigals on the river Cam. It was most certainly Ken’s idea. The madrigal singers arrived in boats, came out from under one of the many beautiful old bridges that cross the river, and as the true British they were, their singing was wonderful. It was simply magic. It’s amazing how the English can be so musical, whereas the French mostly scream and holler. I did say ‘mostly’, though.

Gwenda had her baby in August when Melville was back from France. At the baptism, I held little Andrew James and Melville was invited too.  He told me later that he was so very moved by seeing me holding baby Andrew in my arms. I was by no means the Godmother, but it was such a very nice gesture by Ken and Gwenda to let me hold Andrew James at the christening.

  1. A May Ball is a ball at the end of the academic year that happens at any one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge. They are formal affairs, requiring evening dress… The balls are held in the college gardens, lasting from around 9 p.m. until well after dawn …”Survivors photographs” are taken of those who last until morning. … Many Cambridge colleges originally held the balls in May, sometimes in the week preceding year-end exams. Today, they take place in May Week, which usually starts on the second Thursday of June following the end of exams.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 7 – England, Cambridge

  1. Restored: Original comment: 12 Jan 2013 at 17:46

    A very nice portrayal of England the way it was back in the 1950s. And I do like your comparisons of English vs. Swedish attitudes–ever so true! Keep up this good work!

  2. Pingback: Sketches from the Life of a Wandering Swede | Siv’s sketches from her life

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