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Letter to America: Beautiful Broads On:2022-05-21 10:17:13

My Dear Americans,
    I visited our local 'Big City' the other day: Norwich1. It bills itself as 'A Fine City', not without some justification. It has two cathedrals (one of each), a castle and all sorts of other fine stuff. It also has a big railway station.

Walking past that last item during my visit I suddenly remembered a Cartoon from the local paper and from absolute ages ago, even by my standards old, possibly not long after WWII. It depicted two American GIs arriving at the Norwich Station, and one of them saying to the other "So, where are all these beautiful broads we're always hearing about?" The other is shown as shrugging, obviously not impressed by the coefficient of pulchritudinocity of the local inhabitants (probably just the female ones, it was a long time ago). Of course as Americans they were using the word "broad"2 as the possibly offensive older slang term for a woman, which I always associate with gangsters, film noir and now no doubt with GIs, and, at least in my mind, almost always said in a Brooklyn accent.
The joke in this, at least for the locals, is that whilst the GIs definition was rather narrow, in East Anglia the word has a much broader meaning
The Norfolk Broads3 truly are beautiful. Not QUITE a National Park, they are a network of rivers and shallow lakes (presumably those are the broad bits) that were created by mediæval peat diggings that got flooded. Peat was the fuel du jour at the time and the local monasteries made quite a business of selling the stuff and I suspect that peat paid for quite a bit of half of the city's cathedrals. They are a big tourist attraction, and many people hire boats to explore them (the broads not the cathedrals that is). These boats are, of course, motor cruisers, and most of their 'captains' for want of a better word are NOT seasoned sea dogs, in fact for most of them that week's boating is their only experience of the year or often of their entire lifetime.
Now the one thing that marks every True Englishman is his knowledge that "Steam gives way to sail". It is in his blood, known since birth, and indeed traditionally he is not considered both an Englishman and alive until the midwife or doctor whispers into his tiny new-born ear the fateful phrase [whisper] "Steam gives way to sail" at which he stops wailing, smiles confident that his future is secure, and likely as not relieves himself.
This has held since time immemorial (which, by the way, was 3rd of September 1189 or according to some 6th of July of that year4) right down to the present day, though now it is silently amended to "Diesel or petrol or some such bloody motorised boat gives way to sail" not that he would admit it, even to himself. I believe the above also applies to the True Englishwoman (apart from the relieving herself bit), though I am not aware of any research having been done in this area.
Bear that tradition in mind for the next few moments.
As a boy I sailed these waters with my friend Mike Playle (or Bucket5 as we called him) manly on the Waveney6.
Whilst the broads are broad the rivers are generally narrow, so river sailing can be hard work, apart from the relatively rare opportunities of sailing with the wind, there is a hell of a lot of tacking involved. Since we almost always returned to the same location, the theory was 'tack out and run back' so you'd have an easier return journey. Of course the reality was that whichever way you went the wind would change (usually backing rather than veering) and you'd end up beating both ways.
As responsible young men (and one day I'll tell you of some of the other things we were responsible for) and as Englishmen steeped in our traditions, mainly the "Steam gives way to sail7" one, we would confidently tack ahead of holidaymakers' craft knowing they would give way to us. And as young guys we sometimes did this right in front of their bows (probably to teach them not to cruise on OUR river).
One morning we did this dangerously close to one of them, even for us, which had the effect of making the poor bugger motor straight into the muddy and ill-defined bank of the river. Aah! Youf! To my undying, or at least adult, shame we sailed on, vigorously not noticing their plight.
I seem to remember that they were still there when we returned that evening8.
Kindest regards,
Richard Howland-Bolton
and, of course,
Cheerio for now
from me!



Notes:

1 It is, according to the local paper, a quote stolen from Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, an 1851 novel by East Dereham-born writer George Borrow, in which he includes the following description of Norwich: "...a fine old city, truly, is that, view it from whatever side you will; but it shows best from the east, where the ground, bold and elevated, overlooks the fair and fertile valley in which it stands."

2 Broad: In the slang sense of "woman" in use by 1911, perhaps suggestive of broad hips, but it also might trace to American English abroadwife, word for a woman (often a slave) away from her husband. Earliest use of the slang word suggests immorality or coarse, low-class women. Because of this negative association, and the rise of women's athletics, the track and field broad jump (1863) was changed to the long jump c. 1967.

3 See here.

4 See here.

5 Playle ➔ Pail ➔ Bucket. Simple really. And I have actually essayed on the "other things".

6 And indeed see here.

7 Though, apparently, sometimes size does matter.

8 For all I know they may STILL be there, I haven't been that way in decades.





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