Sunady Journal: Startling discovery, so stifled, so British

By Marty Normile, Special to the Times
Published September 2, 2007

Living in London for two years in the late '60s was an eye-opening adventure into the larger world, and, as it turned out, a revelation of something else altogether.

The adventure began when my wife, Elaine, and I, being young and (briefly) unencumbered, thought it would be fun to live in Europe for a while after finishing a project I was working on in my hometown of Binghamton, N.Y. I scattered my resume around Europe. Eventually the British Ministry of Housing and Local Government agreed to hire me to work on urban planning. Of course I thought it was a big deal and fully expected to be greeted by the Queen.

Meanwhile, our traveling party had increased during the wait for job offers: the birth of two daughters, ages 1 year and 5 weeks. But we pressed on to London, no matter that we had no place to live once we got there.

We endured a small hotel and a temporary apartment for a few weeks before settling into the third-floor flat of a large Victorian house.

When I arrived for my first day of work, the ministry had no idea what to do with me. (There went any chance for tea with the Queen!) Early in my employment at the ministry, I shared an office with a young man who invited Elaine and me to join him and his parents for dinner at their home in the stately London suburb, Richmond on Thames. This was to be our first social invitation, and the closest we would get to being entertained by royalty. His father, Sir Geoffrey Crowther, had been endowed a knighthood by the Queen, and would later be named a baron. He was then chairman of the Economist, a prestigious weekly news magazine, dating from 1843. Lady Crowther was a most refined woman and gracious hostess. We enjoyed a lovely evening of quiet conversation alone with the Crowther family.

Sipping sherry before dinner, Lady Crowther inquired of our American hometowns. When I mentioned that I had grown up in Binghamton, she said she knew of the town. She explained that she, too, was born in America, in Los Angeles. As a young girl in the 1920s, she would spend summers with her grandparents in Philadelphia, and they, in turn, would send her to Camp Red Wing on tiny Silver Lake, not far from Binghamton, but a long, long way from Richmond on Thames.

I nearly choked on my canape.

The camp's dining hall, converted to a cottage after the Great Depression, is our family's summer home. I wanted to jump up and down and slap high fives to celebrate this wonderful small world discovery. Almost as stunning was the Crowthers' subdued, ho-hum reaction to it.

That evening in Lady Crowther's parlor, I learned the British trait of emotional restraint as the conversation moved quietly to other, larger world topics.

Marty Normile lives in St. Petersburg. His family's summer home, still standing and only slightly modernized, is now in its 60th season and fourth generation.