On Seeing England for the First Time of the most sinister sides of imperialism is the way it foments the ruling nation S culture and rejects the colony 's. The effect of this on an impressionable young person is vividly ascribed in Jamaica Candid's sensitive and angry autobiographical essay about growing up in Antigen with the dark shadow of England continually looming over her England and a reverence for things English invaded every aspect of her daily life and education.
Yet it was not until adulthood that seminally Journeyed o England and really saw it for theists time. "The space between the idea of something and its reality, " Candid writes, "is always wide and deep and dark. " The real England she finally sees is far different from the other England, whose maps and history she was made to memorize as a schoolgirl in Antigen. Candid is the author of At the Bottom of the River (z? ), Annie John (jazz), A Small Place (jazz), Lucy (jazz), The Autobiography of My Mother (jazz), and My Brother (1997).
A staff writer The New Yorker, her stories and essays have also appeared in Rolling Stone, Paris Review, and other literary periodicals. She was born in Antigen and currently lives in Vermont. "On Seeing England for the First Time" originals a&&eared in Transition (?991) and was selected by Susan Contagion The Best American Essays 1992. When I saw England for the first time, I was a child in school sitting at a desk.
The England I was looking at was laid out on a map gently, beautifully, delicately, a very special jewel; it lay on a bed of sky blue - the background of the map-its yellow form mysterious, because though it looked like a leg of mutton, it could not really look like anything so familiar as a leg of mutton because it was England -with shadings of pink ND green, unlike any shadings of pink and green I had seen before, squiggly veins of red running in every direction.
England was a special Jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people. They wore it well and they wore it everywhere: in Jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains, on all the corners, on all the seas, in places where they were not welcome, in places they should not have been. When my teacher had pinned this map up on the blackboard, she said, "This is England" -and she said it with authority, rigorousness; and adoration, and we all sat up.
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It was as if she had said, "This is Jerusalem, the place you will go to when you die but only if you have been good. " We understood then -we were meant to understand then - that England was to be our source of myth and the source from which we got our sense of reality, our sense of what was meaningful, our sense of what was meaningless-and much about our own lives and much about the very idea of us headed that last list. At the time I was a child sitting at my desk seeing England for the first time, I was already very familiar with the greatness of it.
Each morning before I left for school, I ate a breakfast of half a grapefruit, an egg, bread and butter and a slice of cheese, and a cup of cocoa; or half a grapefruit, a bowl of oat porridge, bread and butter and a slice of cheese, and a cup of cocoa. The can of cocoa was often left on the table in front of me. It had written on it the name of the company, the year the company was established, and the words "Made in England. " Those words, "Made in England," were written on the box the oats came in too.
They would also have been written on the box the shoes I was wearing came in; a bolt of gray linen cloth lying on the shelf of a store from which my mother had bought three yards to make the uniform that I was wearing had written along its edge those three words. The shoes I wore were made in England; so were my socks and cotton undergarments and the satin ribbons I wore tied at the end of two plaits of my hair. My father, who might have sat next to me at breakfast, was a carpenter and cabinet maker.
The shoes he wore to work would have been made in England, as were On Seeing England the First Time 367 test we would ever take would be complete without this statement: "Draw a map of England. " I did not know then that the statement "Draw a map of England" was meeting far worse than a declaration of war, for in fact a flat-out declaration offer would have put me on alert, and again in fact, there was no need for war - I had long ago been conquered. I did not know then that this statement was part of a process that would result in my erasure, not my physical erasure, but my erasure all the same.
I did not know then that this statement was meant to make me feel in awe and small whenever I heard the word "England": awe at its existence, small because I was not from it. I did not know very much of anything then - certainly not what a blessing t was that I was unable to draw a map of England. Correctly. After that there were many times of seeing England for the first time. I saw England in history. I knew the names of all the kings of England. I knew the names of their children, their wives, their disappointments, their triumphs, the names of people who betrayed them, I knew the dates on which they were born and the dates they died.
I knew their conquests and was made to feel glad if I figured in them; I knew their defeats. I knew the details of the year 60th (the Battle of Hastings, the end of the reign of the Anglo- Saxon kings) before I knew the details of the year 1832 (the year slavery was abolished). It wasn't as bad as I make it sound now; it was worse. I did like so much hearing again and again how Alfred the Great, traveling in disguise, had been left to watch cakes, and because he wasn't used to this the cakes got burned, and Alfred burned his hands pulling them out of the fire, and the woman who had left him to watch the cakes screamed at him.
I loved King Alfred. My grandfather was named after him; his son, my uncle, was named after King Alfred; my brother is named after King Alfred. And so there are three people in my family named after a man they have never met, a man who died over ten centuries ago. The first view I got of England then was not unlike the first view received by the person who named my grandfather. This view, though - the naming of the kings, their deeds, their disappointments -was the vivid view, the forceful view.
There were other views, subtler ones, softer, almost not there - but these were the ones that made the most lasting impression on me, these his khaki shirt and trousers, his underpants and undershirt, his socks and brown felt hat. Felt was not the proper material from which a hat that was expected to provide shade from the hot sun should be made, but my father must have seen and admired a picture of an Englishman wearing such a hat in England, and this picture that he saw must have been so compelling that it caused him to wear the wrong hat for a hot climate most of his long life.
And this hat-a brown felt hat-became so central to his character that it was the first thing he put on in the morning as he stepped out of bed and the last thing he took off before he stepped back into bed at night. As we sat at breakfast a car might go by. The car, a Hillman or a Zephyr, was made in England. The very idea of the meal itself, breakfast, and its substantial quality and quantity was an idea from England; we somehow knew that in England they began the day with this meal called breakfast and a proper breakfast was a big breakfast. No one I knew liked eating so much food so early in the day; it made us feel sleepy, tired.
But this breakfast business was Made in England like almost everything else that surrounded us, the exceptions being the sea, the sky, and the air we breathed. At the time I saw this map -seeing England for the first time I did not say to myself, "Ah, so hat's what it looks like," because there was no longing in me to put a shape to those three words that ran through every part of my life, no matter how small; for me to have haddock's a longing would have meant that I lived in a certain atmosphere, an atmosphere in which those three words were felt as a burden.
But I did not live in such an atmosphere. My father's brown felt hat would develop a hole in its crown, the lining would separate from the hat itself, and six weeks before he thought that he could not be seen wearing it - he was a very vain man he would order another hat from England. And my mother taught me to eat my food in the English way: the knife in the right hand, the fork in the left, my elbows held still close to my side, the food carefully balanced on my fork and then brought up to my mouth.
When I had finally mastered it, I overheard her saying to a friend, "Did you see how nicely she can eat? " But I knew then that I enjoyed my food more when I ate it with my bare hands, and I continued to do so when she wasn't looking. And when my teacher showed us the map, she asked us to study it carefully, because no On Seeing England for the First Time were the ones that made me really feel like nothing. When morning touched the sky' was one phrase, for no morning touched the sky where I lived. The mornings where I lived came on abruptly, with a shock of heat and loud noises. Evening approaches" was another, but the evenings where I lived did not approach; in fact, I had no evening-I had night and I had day and they came and went in a mechanical way: on, off; on, off. And then there were gentle mountains and low blue skies and moors over which people took walks for nothing but pleasure, when where I lived a walk was an act of labor, a burden, something only death or the automobile could relieve. And here were things that a small turn of a head could convey - entire worlds, whole lives would depend on this thing, a certain turn of a head.
Everyday life could be quite tiring,' more tiring than anything I was told not to do. I was told not to gossip, but they did that all the time. And they ate so much food, violating another of those rules they taught me: do not indulge in gluttony. And the foods they ate actually: if only sometime I could eat cold cuts after theater, cold cuts of lamb and mint sauce, and Yorkshire pudding and scones, and clotted cream, and sausages that came from upcountry (imagine, "up-country').
And having troubling thoughts at twilight, a good time to have troubling thoughts, apparently; and servants who stole and left in the middle of a crisis, who were born with a limp or some other kind of deformity, not nourished properly in their mother's womb (that last part I figured out for myself; the point was, Oh to have an untrustworthy servant); and wonderful cobbled streets onto which solid front doors opened; and people whose eyes were blue and who had fair skins and who smelled only of lavender, or sometimes sweet pea or primrose.
And those flowers with those names: delphiniums, foxgloves, tulips, daffodils, floorboard, monies; in bloom, a striking display, being cut and placed in large glass bowls, crystal, decorating rooms so large twenty families the size of mine could fit in comfortably but used only for passing through.
And the weather was so remarkable because the rain fell gently always, only occasionally in deep gusts, and it colored the air various shades of gray, each an appealing shade for a dress to be worn when a portrait was being painted; and when it rained at twilight, wonderful things happened: people bumped into each other unexpectedly and that would lead to all sorts of turns of events - a plot, the mere weather RANCID caused plots. I saw that people rushed: they rushed to catch trains, they rushed toward each other and away from each other; they rushed and rushed and rushed.
That word: rushed! I did not know what it was to do that. It was too hot to do that, and so I came to me. Y people who would rush, even though it had no meaning to me to do such a thing. But there they are again. They loved their children; their children were sent to their own rooms as a punishment, rooms larger than my entire house. They were special, everything about them said so, even their clothes; their clothes rustled, swished, soothed. The world was theirs, not mine; everything told me so.
If now as I speak of all this I give the impression of someone on the outside looking in, nose pressed up against a glass window, that is wrong. My nose was pressed up against a glass window all right, but there was an iron vise at the back of my neck forcing my head to stay in place. To avert my gaze was to fall back into something from which I had been rescued, a hole filled with nothing, and that was the word for everything about me, nothing.
The reality of my life was conquests, subjugation, humiliation, enforced amnesia. I was forced to forget. Just for instance, this: I lived in a part of SST. John's, Antigen, called Ovals. Ovals was made up of five streets, each of them named after a famous English seaman - to be quite frank, an officially sanctioned criminal: Rodney Street (after George Rodney), Nelson Street (after Horopito Nelson), Drake Street (after Francis Drake), Hood Street, and Hawkins Street (after John Hawkins).
But John Hawkins was knighted after a trip he made to Africa, opening up a new trade, the slave trade. He was then entitled to wear as his crest a Negro bound with a cord. Every single person living on Hawkins Street was descended from a slave. John Hawkins's ship, the one in which he transported the people he had bought and kidnapped, was called The Jesus. He later became the treasurer of the Royal Navy and rear admiral.
Again, the reality of my life, the life I led at the time I was being shown these views of England for the first time, for the second time, for the one- hundred-millionth time, was this: the sun shone with what sometimes seemed to be a deliberate cruelty; we must have done something to deserve that. My dresses did not rustle in the evening air as I strolled to the theater (l had no evening, I had no heater; my dresses were made of a cheap cotton, the weave of 370 for the First Time 371 which would give way after not too many washings).
I got up in the morning, I did my chores (fetched water from the public pipe for my mother, swept the yard), I washed myself, I went to a woman to have my hair combed freshly every day (because before we were allowed into our classroom our teachers would inspect us, and children who had not bathed that day, or had dirt under their fingernails, or whose hair had not been combed anew that day, might not be allowed to attend class). I ate that breakfast. I walked to school.
At school we gathered in an auditorium and sang a hymn, "All Things Bright and Beautiful," and looking down on us as we sang were portraits of the Queen of England and her husband; they wore Jewels and medals and they smiled. I was a Brownie. At each meeting we would form a little group around a flagpole, and after raising the Union Jack, we would say, "l promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and the Queen, to help other people every day and obey the scouts' law. Who were these people and why had I never seen them, I mean really seen them, in the place where they lived? I had never been to England. No one I knew had ever been to England, or I should say, no one I knew had ever been and returned to tell me about it. All the people I knew who had gone to England had stayed there. Sometimes they left behind them their small children, never to see them again. England! I had seen England's representatives. I had seen the governor general at the public grounds at a ceremony celebrating the Queen's birthday.
I had seen an old princess and I had seen a young princess. They had both been extremely not beautiful, but who of us would have told them that? I had never seen England, ally seen it, I had only met a representative, seen a picture, read books, memorized its history. I had never set foot, my own foot, in it. The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark. The longer they are kept apart - idea of thing, reality of thing- the wider the width, the deeper the depth, the thicker and darker the darkness.
This space starts out empty, there is nothing in it, but it rapidly becomes filled up with obsession or desire or hatred or love-sometimes all of these things, sometimes some of these things, sometimes only one of these things. The existence of the world as I came to know it was a result of this: idea of thing over here, reality of thing way, way over there. There was Christopher Columbus, an unlikable man, an unpleasant man, a liar (and so, of course, a thief) surrounded by maps and schemes and plans, and there was the reality on the other side of that width, that depth, that darkness.
He became obsessed, he became filled with desire, the hatred came later, love was never a part of it. Eventually, his idea met the longed-for reality. That the idea of something and its reality are often,two completely different things is something no one ever members; and so when they meet and find that they are not compatible, the weaker of the two, idea or reality, dies. That idea Christopher Columbus had was more powerful than the reality he met, and so the reality he met died.
And so finally, when I was a grown-up woman, the mother of two children, the wife of someone, a person who resides in a powerful country that takes up more than its fair share of a continent, the owner of a house with many rooms in it and of two automobiles, with the desire and will (which I very much act upon) to take from the world more than I vive back to it, more than I deserve, more than I need, finally then, I saw England, the real England, not a picture, not a painting, not through a story in a book, but England, for the first time.
In me, the space between the idea of it and its reality had become filled with hatred, and so when at last I saw it I wanted to take it into my hands and tear it into little pieces and then crumble it up as if it were clay, child's clay. That was impossible, and so I could only indulge in not-favorable opinions. There were monuments everywhere; they commemorated victories, battles fought between them ND the people who lived across the sea from them, all vile people, fought over which of them would have dominion over the people who looked like me.
The monuments were useless to them now, people sat on them and ate their lunch. They were like markers on an old useless trail, like a piece of old string tied to a finger to Jog the memory, like old decoration in an old house, dirty, useless, in the way. Their skins were so pale, it made them look so fragile, so weak, so ugly. What if I had the power to simply banish them from their land, send boat after boatload of them on a voyage hat in fact had no destination, force them to live in a place where the sun's presence was a constant?
This would rid them of their pale complexion and make 372 On Seeing England for the First Tim 373 them look more like me, make them look more like the people I love and treasure and hold dear, and more like the people who occupy the near and far reaches of my imagination, my history, my geography, and reduce them and everything they have ever known to figurines as evidence that I was in divine favor, what if all this was in my power? Could I resist it? No one ever has. And they were rude, they were rude to ACH other.
They didn't like each other very much. They didn't like each other in the way they didn't like me, and it occurred to me that their dislike for me was one of the few things they agreed on. I was on a train in England with a friend, an English woman. Before we were in England she liked me very much. In England she didn't like me at all. She didn't like the claim I said I had on England, she didn't like the views 1 had of England. I didn't like England, she didn't like England, but she didn't like me not liking it too.
She said, "l want to show you my England, I want to show you he England that I know and love. " I had told her many times before that I knew England and I didn't want to love it anyway. She no longer lived in England; it was her own country, but it had not been kind to her, so she left. On the train, the conductor was rude to her; she asked something, and he responded in a rude way. She became ashamed. She was ashamed at the way he treated her; she was ashamed at the way he behaved. "This is the new England," she said.
But I liked the conductor being rude; his behavior seemed quite appropriate. Earlier this had happened: we had gone to a tore to buy a shirt for my husband; it was meant to be a special present, a special shirt to wear on special occasions. This was a store where the Prince of Wales has his shirts made, but the shirts sold in this store are beautiful all the same. I found a shirt I thought my husband would like and I wanted to buy him a tie to go with it. When I couldn't decide which one to choose, the salesman showed me a new set.
He was very pleased with these, he said, because they bore the crest of the Prince of Wales, and the Prince of Wales had never allowed his crest to decorate an article of clothing before. There was something in the way he said it; his tone was slavish, reverential, awed. It made me feel angry; I wanted to hit him. I didn't do that. I said, my husband and I hate princes, my husband would never wear anything that had a prince's anything on it. My friend stiffened. The salesman stiffened. They both drew themselves in, away from me. My friend told me that the prince was a symbol of her Englishmen, and I could see that I had caused offense.
I looked at her. She was an English person, the sort of English person I used to know at home, the sort who was nobody in England but somebody when they came to live among he people like me. There were many people I could have seen England with; that I was seeing it with this particular person, a person who reminded me of the people who showed me England long ago as I sat in church or at my desk, made me feel silent and afraid, for I wondered if, all these years of our friendship, I had had a friend or had been in the thrall of a racial memory.
I went to Bath- we, my friend and l, did this, but though we were together, I was no longer with her. The landscape was almost as familiar as my own hand, but I had never been in this place before, so how could that be again? And the streets of Bath were familiar, too, but I had never walked on them before. It was all those years of reading, starting with Roman Britain. Why did I have to know about Roman Britain? It was of no real use to me, a person living on a hot, drought-ridden island, and it is of no use to me now, and yet my head is filled with this nonsense, Roman Britain.
In Bath, I drank tea in a room I had read about in a novel written in the eighteenth century. In this very same room, young women wearing those dresses that rustled and so on danced and flirted and sometimes disgraced themselves with young men, soldiers, sailors, who were on their ay to Bristol or someplace like that, so many places like that where so many adventures, the outcome of which was not good for me, began. Bristol, England.
A sentence that began "That night the ship sailed from Bristol, England" would end not so good for me. And then I was driving through the countryside in an English motorcar, on narrow winding roads, and they were so familiar, though I had never been on them before; and through little villages the names of which I somehow knew so well though I had never been there before. And the countryside did have all those hedges and hedges, fields hedged in.
I was marveling at all the toil of it, the planting of the hedges to begin with and then the care of it, all that clipping, year after year of clipping, and I wondered at the lives of the people who would have to do this, because wherever I see and feel the hands that hold up the world, I see and feel myself and all the people who look like me. And I said, "Those hedges" and my friend said that someone, a woman named Mrs.. Rothschild, worried that the hedges weren't 374 375 being taken care of properly; the farmers couldn't afford or find the help to keep up the hedges, and often they replaced them with wire fencing.
I might have said to that, well if Mrs.. Rothschild doesn't like the wire fencing, why doesn't she take care of the hedges herself, but I didn't. And then in those fields that were now hemmed in by wire fencing that a privileged woman didn't like was planted a vile yellow flowering bush that produced an oil, and my friend said that Mrs.. Rothschild didn't like this either; it ruined the English countryside, it ruined the traditional look of the English countryside.
It was not at that moment that I wished every sentence, everything I knew, that began with England would end with "and then it all died; we don't know owe, it Just all died. " At that moment, I was thinking, who are these people who forced me to think of them all the time, who forced me to think that the world I knew was incomplete, or without substance, or did not measure up because it was not England; that I was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up because I was not English.
Who were these people? The person sitting next to me couldn't give me a clue; no one person could. In any case, if I had said to her, I find England ugly, I hate England; the weather is like a Jail sentence, the English are a very ugly people, the DOD in England is like a Jail sentence, the hair of English people is so straight, so dead looking, the English have an unbearable smell so different from the smell of people I know, real people of course, she would have said that I was a person full of prejudice.
Apart from the fact that it is I - that is, the people who look like me- who made her aware of the unpleasantness of such a thing, the idea of such a thing, prejudice, she would have been only partly right, sort of right: I may be capable of prejudice, but my prejudices have no weight to them, my prejudices have no force Enid them, my prejudices remain opinions, my prejudices remain my personal opinion. And a great feeling of rage and disappointment came over me as I looked at England, my head full of personal opinions that could not have public, my pub lit, approval.
The people I come from are powerless to do evil on grand scale. The moment I wished every sentence, everything I knew, that began with England would end with "and then it all died, we don't know how, it Just all died" was when I saw the white cliffs of Dover. I had sung hymns and recited poems that were about a longing to see the white cliffs of Dover again. At the time I sang the hymns and recited the poems, I could really long to see them gamma because I had never seen them at all, nor had anyone around me at the time.
But there we were, groups of people longing for something we had never seen. And so there they were, the white cliffs, but they were not that pearly majestic thing I used to sing about, that thing that created such a feeling in these people that when they died in the place where I lived they had themselves; buried facing a direction that would allow them to see the white cliffs of Dover when they were resurrected, as surely they would be.
The white cliffs of Dover, when finally I saw them, were cliffs, but they were not white; you would only call them that if the word "white" meant something special to you; they were dirty and they were steep; they were so steep, the correct height from which all my views of England, starting with the map before me in my classroom and ending with the trip I had Just taken, should Jump and die and disappear forever. Re$? Sections and Responses 1 . Note that Candid opens her essay with various images of England. What do these images have in common? How do they reflect colonialism?
How do they reflect literature? Why do you think Candid begins by placing the images in the context of a classroom? Consider Candid's account of her father's hat. In what ways does the "brown felt hat" represent England? How does Candid view the hat? 2. 3. When Candid finally visits England, what aspects of the country does she dislike the most. 7 What does she mean when she says toward the end of her essay that "l may be capable of prejudice, but my prejudices have no weight to them"? Do you find her opinions prejudiced.? In your opinion has she or has she not "prejudged" England?