“Have you been to England before?” a customer back at the bar in New York had asked, when I told him I was leaving for a trip to the UK.
“I’ve been going since I was nineteen,” I said, unable to sum up my relationship with the place in one sentence. An odd mixture of awe, intrigue and comfort.
After all these years, when I am in Britain – without having to think about it too hard, like a photo of your own face in a mirror – I am still a stranger in a strange land.
Take the tea towels. I proudly announced to audiences in Glasgow and Manchester and then Louth that I’d printed my own with some help, based on my love of the charity shop versions I’ve been scoring for decades.
In Louth, deep in Lincolnshire, the audience chuckled. Eric and I have often driven through the rural county, famous as farmland and as the birthplace of Bernie Taupin and Margaret Thatcher; where the great eccentric musician Robert Wyatt resides these days. Britain’s version of South Jersey crossed with Kansas, it smells a bit like cabbage.
“How much are the tea towels?” an older lady asked at the end of the show, when I took my place behind my merchandise displayed on a hostess trolley. I was astonished, quite moved even, that she’d lasted my entire two sets. They’d been a lovely audience. And she wanted to buy something too?
“They’re twenty each,“ I said.
“So cheap!” she replied.
“Oh, I’m glad you think so – I wasn’t sure if they should be fifteen maybe but they’re all hand-printed and so each one’s an original artwork really…”
“I’ll just go get some money.”
I got on with the business of selling albums and talking to people. In a little while she came back. “The tea towel,” she said. “I’ll take two!”
Beaming, I placed two towels over her arm, while she handed me:
Two twenty pence coins.
I don’t think you can even buy a square of toilet tissue for 20P.
I couldn’t say anything. It would have been too embarrassing. For her, for me, for the entire county of Lincolnshire and the world in general.
The price list I’d hung up showed the amounts: 10 & 20 for CDs, LPs and towels. But I’d left off the pound sign. Being the alien, I’d had a crisis of confidence when writing up the sign. Did the symbol for pound go before or after the number? Was it one line or two through the L? Oh they’ll know what it means, I’d thought. Being the alien, you don’t always know what you’re dealing with.
I saw the triumphant lady heading back to her group of friends, tea towels slung over her arm. Before she had a chance to send them over to buy this bargain item, I shoved the rest of the towels in a tote bag and ran.
I hid in the dressing room as long as I could, to keep myself from blurting out “You! Are you kidding me? What costs 20P? Even in a charity shop you can’t buy a used pair of underwear for that.” I hid. When I came back upstairs she was still hanging out with her cronies. Don’t older ladies have to get to bed ? It started to dawn on me she was the mother of one of the promoters. Nice guys all. But when, one after another they came up to me to buy an album, I was hard as nails: “Twenty pounds.” I saw them wince. ” Yep, that’s how much.” (Okay, one I let off for a tenner and his Bill Hicks paperback that I’d been eyeing all night).
“Can we leave now?” I kept saying to Eric. “I really need to leave now.”
When we were finally in the car, I shared my shame. “I just couldn’t tell her it was pounds not pence! ” I said. “Do you think she was taking the piss?” (Sometimes an alien expression is the only one that says what you’re aiming for.)
“Forget it, Amy,” said Eric. “it’s Lincolnshire.”
I’m down to one towel over here now. But somewhere in a country kitchen just outside Grimsby, a redoubtable housewife polishes a dish with her bargain cloth, while the second one dries on the back of a chair.
“Quite good, these towels,” she tells a friend. “And so reasonably priced! You must get one next time Amy Rigby comes to town.”
Come see the alien and her English husband playing some bass and guitar over. Sorry, no more towels.
- Thu 8 Dec Bristol Thunderbolt
- Fri 9 Dec Southampton Cafe Reflections
- Sat 10 Dec Cromer Community Center
- Sun 11 Dec London Come Down & Meet The Folks Apple Tree 6 PM!
- Tue 13 Dec Brighton Prince Albert
- Wed 14 Dec Leicester The Musician