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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 25-35
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River of Words
Scott Russell Sanders
How Mama would have loved the flowers, I thought, as Ruth and I made our way by train from the port in Southampton to London, and how Dad would have itched to repair nearly every building in sight. Though the air of early October was alarmingly cool, flowers glowed in market stalls, in window boxes, in backyard gardens and sidewalk planters, in the arms of people waiting at stations, in the lapels of gentlemen striding along with rolled umbrellas, all as fresh and bright as a full moon on a clear night. Between towns, the countryside might have been one continuous park, a brilliant green, the trees carefully planted to call attention to streams, the grazing cows and sheep mere ornamental pets rather than livestock destined to be milked or sheared let alone butchered, and the hills neatly placed so as to improve the view.
By contrast, everything humans had made, as opposed to what they had gardened, looked timeworn and shabby, like the battered antiques Mama brought home from auctions for Dad to fix. The row houses, warehouses, [End Page 25] shipping yards, and shops were all covered in grime, which I imagined to be the residue from centuries of coal smoke. The churches hunkered down like toads under the weight of moss-covered roofs. The stone steps leading up to buildings had been cracked by weather and gouged by generations of feet, the railings had rusted, and many of the buildings themselves were leaning out of plumb, with ill-fitting windows and chimneys askew. Even the billboards, which I would learn the English call hoardings, advertised products that appeared to date from before the last war. The clothing people wore in the streets and aboard the train was a drab mélange of grays and browns—with the exception of miniskirts, which were as common and often as colorful as the flowers, and which, I couldn't help noticing, bared more of the female leg than was ever exposed in America this far from a beach.
No place were bright miniskirts and dingy buildings more in evidence than in London, where we spent a few days of orientation with the other Marshall Scholars. We were given a crash course in British etiquette. We shook hands with dignitaries over glasses of sherry, which I warily drank. In the House of Lords we met bewigged elders who seemed puzzled as to who these young Americans might be. We sat on back benches in the House of Commons—a room so small we could hardly believe a quarter of the earth had once been ruled from this place. We met Members of Parliament who had voted the funds for our scholarships, and in the streets and shops and pubs of London we moved among ordinary citizens whose taxes actually paid our bills. I felt an immense gratitude to these strangers for bringing me and my new wife to this storied land.
Our last outing before we all scattered to our various colleges was a visit to the British Museum. Since we had only enough time to sample a few of the hundred or so galleries, Ruth and I dipped into a room filled with literary manuscripts, where we read the opening page of Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's own handwriting; we looked at the Rosetta Stone, which had unlocked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics; and then, on my urging...