I was reading a story in the New York Times the other day from Sunderland, England, where voters gave the strongest push – 61 percent – to pull Britain out of the European Union.
The reporter, Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura – the Times loves exotic bylines – conducted interviews in a pub to ensure the local louts would have their say.
John Todd, 18, an information technology apprentice, voted for the first time, and said he supported the U.K. Independence Party.
“We’re segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland,” he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. “It’s us against them.”
“The E.U. is a mystery to us,” he added. “We’ve never heard about it up here.”
Since I’d never heard of Sunderland, didn’t know where “up here” was, and didn’t realize people in England talk about the south versus the north, I began investigating.
(I have a quirky craving to learn stuff when I read the news.)
Sunderland is on the northeast coast of England, where the River Wear meets the North Sea, about 250 miles from London. Its neighbor, Newcastle upon Tyne, is the place you don’t need to carry coal to.
Sunderland (pop: 270,000) was once a shipbuilding and coal mining center. Now, a Japanese auto plant is the city’s largest employer, though the jobless rate remains high.
Living on the dole is a habit for one of Sunderland’s most noteworthy citizens, Keith MacDonald, who, at age 29, was featured last year in a TV documentary for fathering 15 children with 10 women.
Tabloids branded him “Britain’s most feckless father,” the “Sunderland Shagger,” and a “notorious love rat.”
Sunderland’s most famous descendant is George Washington, whose 17th century ancestral home is preserved as a museum. It hosts celebrations on the Fourth of July and American Thanksgiving, exhibiting no hard feelings for the general who won the Revolutionary War and booted the British from its former colonies.
Enough about the olden days, for now.
Early this week, Sunderland was all atwitter over the arrival of a contemporary American.
“Excitement is building for Beyoncé fans who are already queuing up outside the Stadium of Light,” the Sunderland Echo reported Tuesday. “It may be hours until the doors open, but fans of the world famous singer are making sure they’ll be in prime position when she kicks off the European leg of her Formation World Tour tonight.”
(Please note: Britain remains in Europe for Beyoncé.)
Echo entertainment editor Katy Wheeler promised in a tweet: “I’ll be reporting on every hair flick, booty shake and foot stomp.”
Since I couldn’t make it to the Beyoncé show, I checked out what else is coming up in Sunderland.
“Why endure the numb-bum of one two-hour-long story?” asks an ad for this weekend’s Sunderland Shorts Film Festival. “Why have only one epic tale when you can have ten?”
No thanks. I like long movies. Lawrence of Arabia is a favorite.
The event calendar for later in July appears equally uninviting. I stopped scrolling at: “Join the members of the Sunderland branch of the Knitting and Crochet Guild in the Textile Traditions Gallery as they demonstrate traditional skills of knitting and crochet.”
While this may not be my cup of tea, it seems hardly suggestive of the “barren wasteland” described by the kid who voted to leave the EU.
And while I may not visit Sunderland – ever – I would like to experience Britain again. The one time I was there was less than satisfying.
It was the summer of 1969, and I was stopping for a few days in London, en route to Switzerland and a promised job with UPI in Zurich. (That’s a long, sad story for another time.)
After a shitty interview with the bureau chief at the UPI office on Fleet Street, I returned to the Cadogan hotel, on Sloane Square, in late afternoon.
I went straight to the bar – which wasn’t open – went for a walk, sprained my ankle jumping over a stone wall in the middle of a roundabout near Piccadilly Circus, limped back to the Cadogan, took a taxi to a hospital, had my ankle X-rayed and taped – free of charge, my first experience with socialized medicine – took a taxi back to the hotel, made a reservation for a flight to Zurich the next day, went to the bar – which wasn’t open – and went to my room.
When the bar finally opened, I had a scotch, had another, had a double, went back to my room and thought about Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry and the Prince of Wales.
The barman had told me some of the racy history of the Cadogan: Wilde had been arrested in Room 118 and hauled off to jail for a sexual escapade with a much younger man, while the prince – later King Edward VII – and Langtry, a famous and beautiful actress, had their trysts in Room 109.
The son of Queen Victoria was quite the scamp. The married father of six was cited for affairs with more than 50 women.
Pity there is no record of his out-of-wedlock offspring, and thus no means for comparison with the Sunderland Shagger.