The Johnston Letter, Volume 5, Number 4
There'll awe ways be an England
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 1973, 2011 Jill Johnston
well i went to england and i didn't see any feminists nor too much of anybody else and i was neurotically famished and rationally cold and determinedly homesick and righteously paranoid but in nine or ten days i figured out the country and that was what i went for so it was an awful and worthwhile trip. The first thing i did i went to sleep for six hours on the top floor of roy jenkins's house on ladbroke square. the next thing i woke up and called george and peter and suzi and charlotte and carolee and i forget who else but the only person who answered was peter who told me there was an r.d. laing soiree of some sort going on at eight at paul somebody's house and i should go and i did i left roy jenkins's house on ladbroke square and never returned, much no doubt to the relief of whomever was there who never saw me as i was whisked up the carpeted stairways as though i was a poor relative of one of the cooks or something. anyway i took a cab over to this paul's house and thought how wonderful and clean looking london is and how all its cars are shiny and sleek in their small interesting economical designs, no dirty old crates all over the place, and i came to my first sweeping conclusion about england as i pondered the outstanding fact that none of its taxis are bent out of shape, they're spotless and scratchless and scrupulously immaculate and i decided this must reveal the character of the english in conjunction with their space which compared to ours is relatively small. later george told me this was ridiculous, that the taxis in england are built like trucks and the english are always having accidents, they drive around like demons as if they know what they're doing but they don't, and in any case the taxis he would've led me to believe can sustain the onslaught of a sherman tank and come out looking brand new the way they all look. i've never seen an accident in england and what rosemary told me was that the english are very frightened of touching each other, whether benign or repressed the fact is that it's a lot easier and nicer getting around since the people watch where they're going and are forever politely excusing themselves at any real or imagined contact, and i assume this is because their character has been molded by tight quarters and short distances, the pushy ones left long ago to invade plymouth and boston and cross the rockies and develop real amerikan sense of arrogant limitlessness etc, which i suppose includes a capacity for grand and gratuitous generalizations based on any fleeting observation and delivered with great confidence at the slightest provocation. nevertheless, i did find out what england is all about. It's all about my father, who died more or less when england did. the english are somewhat dead. amerikans may be brash and crude and ugly in a lot of ways there's no doubt we're a beastly lot actually, but we are alive, there's no question we're alive, even if we're alive with desperation and delusions and crooked impossible schemes for saving the universe and a greedy consuming materialism and a grubby untidy incestuous belligerence, whatever it is and however unpleasant, we are by comparison with a country like england alarmingly alive. all features great & small. can you imagine for instance that as dead an amerikan as andy w. is up in lights over the title of his flick trash at picadilly circus which is like our times square? or what may be equally significant that an amerikan as nervously alive as me arrives in england always possibly naively expecting the england of the representation in my new record book in the form of a photo blueprint made by jane of these suffragists around the turn of the century being led away violently by the bobbies outside buckingham palace? i mean that we can't even go someplace, and someplace for that matter which may be quite contented with its demise, without projecting our own agitation and restlessness which we think is being alive. i went quite dead in england anyway, i always catch the spirit. at the laing soiree at paul somebody's house i even exercised a bit of will power and restrained myself by not charging vocally into the excellent silences which at times would overtake the company. the company by the way was a large group of people packed tightly into a living room of a high ceiling, sitting on the floor in curving banks against the walls and facing the master with what i assumed to be a reverent attention awaiting the first utterances. i'm sure it was unamerikan for me to be there at all, it was certainly unfeminist, and although i respected the silences i did find the opportunity to more or less deplore my own attendance by being no doubt brash and crude and hopelessly undeferential and altogether predictably amerikan. old r. d. was getting off some good stuff too, stuff about the impossibility of relationships and all that should cross all race color age and sex lines and interest absolutely everybody, and i was certainly interested, and i even tossed in some two cents on the subject, i said if you want to know i said something smartassed about how it seems to me that any form of detachment, i. e. zen or yogurt, is another kind of attachment, a very deep comment, but essentially i realized at some point that i'd hate for anybody to think i really wanted to be there, in other words that i might have any intention of becoming an initiate into the london laing circle, a group of sycophants if ever i saw any. i know i'm full of contradictions on a subject like this, going and then trying to deny that one has even gone, and such, but that's the nature of my involvement in whatever vestiges of admiration i still retain for men, among whom i have to still say i think laing is a pretty good head. i even went out of my way, arising from the london apathy, to go over to his house in belsize park and have tea and cheese cake and admire his 2 yr. daughter and his beautiful german wife jutta and compliment his style in refusing to take advantage of the authority vested in him at such as these soirees by meandering awkwardly or haltingly in and around his subject without appearing to answer anything. the purpose of my visit may have been however to sort of apologize for my own appearance at the salon by saying that i would consider it humiliating to personally publicly invest any man with that authority etc etc, it's a hopeless contradiction i suppose. possibly the purpose of the visit was to talk to jutta who's a fine person besides being beautiful, and she didn't make me feel as if i had to convert her to anything, she might actually be satisfied living with the most amenable psychoanalyst of the western world, i don't know. i called joe berke too and he thinks r. d.l. is a terrific chauvinist (i suppose berke isn't), and tho he has great respect for him he can't work with him any more, it's impossible he said to be around him without being a sycophant, and all he talks about these days is what he has for breakfast and how many baths he takes a day. there are in fact now in london two sets of communities, freakout houses modeled after the original kingsley hall, and berke is involved in the set that isn't laing's set, in fact i imagine berke and a couple of associates formed a splitoff community, it sounds like the professional jealousies that arose around freud. we are reminded of the brief nature of earthly power and glory. berke of course is an amerikan, in case that makes a difference, and i for one think it does. i wonder if r. d. would've branched out at all, i mean get all involved in therapeutic communities and other extroversions if the amerikans hadn't sped across the atlantic in the first place in search of the english guru of psychology beside whom i'm suddenly imagining they rallied to the cause and rushed to the barricades of one sort or another, always of course respecting those intermittent silences. i have to say by the way about these silences that they're probably the most alive thing in england, these pregnant silences, silences by which we might enliven our own hysterical gatherings, characteristic again of the amerikan space of which perhaps we have too much. always rushing in to fill it all up. terrified no doubt of what might happen if we don't. we might die. yeah, well, i don't know truthfully how dead or alive the english are, but one thing is certain and that is it's impossible to get to know them, and i think now that's the real reason i always go dead there. i want to integrate totally with the situation. i begin speaking a polyglot of english accents as soon as i disembark and very quickly i become as difficult to know as the natives. i go to sleep more or less, even after recovering from the time lag trauma, not however until after i've been variously and repeatedly discouraged, learning my lesson anew each time as it were. the day after the laing affair i charged with bright amerikan anticipation out of george's place on dorset square into the gray london winter expecting god knows what and wound up being dizzy as a drunk dog in the mill of foreigners meaning english people on charing cross road walking up to tottenham court in and out of these highly confusing bookstores buying a satchel's worth of history and the grail, i thought i was going down or taking off, the disorientation was intense, until i brought myself into order by clugalugging two glasses of milk in a wimpy bar, and began already to feel chastened by the english chill, if only because as an amerikan i expect a lot to happen and suddenly all that's happening is that you're disoriented by streetsful of very polite and remote dead strangers. their avowed impulses are only part of their entire attitude. i have no idea what their attitudes are in the least. but i must admit that the analyses and conclusions i reached were corroborated by one englishman and one amerikan man, and in a sense by rosemary who reiterates that the english are simply repressed. i met colin naylor at the salisbury pub, he's the editor of arts & artists, and he said very cheerily that everything is quiet here, under the table, that it's usually in the form of a nervous breakdown when anybody in this country begins expressing themselves, and it was george (walsh), gregory's friend, who said what i suspected when it occurred to me that england was dead and so was my father, the two events being causally connected somehow, and that was that the individuals in england feel however consciously or un- that their country is a 3rd-rate power and that whatever they do won't make a difference particularly, which is why you get that muted or "given up" sensation when you disembark, and that by contrast naturally the amerikans do feel that what we do will make a difference and that's because we live in a greedy aggrandizing imperialist pig world power place, which is what england used to be. the whole place seething with savage enthusiasm. yet i don't imagine for a second that the working classes in england have been affected one way or the other by the alteration in their country's fortunes. i have more to say about that, and this and that. anyone may think i went over in this terrible time of year just for the hell of it but i really had a purpose and the trip was successful because i found out what i wanted to know, no fooling around. other than that, i'll probably continue making these devastating journeys, the fantasy is still very much alive. there'll awe ways be an england. (beware the ideas of march.)
It is no secret that Jill loved all matters English -- having half of her genes from England's kith and kin. She was an enthusiastic Anglophile, occasionally, though, with a tad of reservation as can be observed in this column, originally published in the Village Voice March 8, 1973 and later included in "Gullibles Travels."
While preparing the memorial for Jill, I was searching for a suitable opening number and came up with using the photo of Jill age circa two months accompanied by
"Land of Hope and Glory." It was just what I needed to carefully arrange all the succeeding segments of the program. Whenever we managed to catch the BBC program in which this Elgar march was always the finale, Jill would jump to her feet, swing her arms as if conducting, and sing from the top of her lungs, smiling and laughing with overflowing joy. Hence, following so close on the memorial, I chose this column for her Johnston Letter.
-- Ingrid Nyeboe
Also published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.