‘What do ladies from Westwell do at night in the fleshpots of Obergurgle?’

Allan Fotheringham February 5 1979

‘What do ladies from Westwell do at night in the fleshpots of Obergurgle?’

Allan Fotheringham February 5 1979

‘What do ladies from Westwell do at night in the fleshpots of Obergurgle?’

Allan Fotheringham

In Tokyo, the headlines screamed BRITAIN NEAR CRISIS. In New Delhi, the news warned of ENGLAND CLOSE TO COLLAPSE. In Jerusalem, it was BRITAIN PARALYSED. In Westwell, in Kent, where the sheep dot the landscape like burrs, there is naught but paralysing calm. Not all Britain is composed of bad Peter Sellers imitations of thickheaded dock foremen. If the National Union of Public Employees instructs its workers in southern England not to smile—as a strike weapon—neither the sheep nor the burghers of Kent, content beneath their bulletproof tweeds, blink in their British phlegm. The inertia of the country is its saving grace.

In Westwell, a village of 300-year-old brick houses where the floors tilt and the hosts sometimes also, there is no discussion at 11 o’clock Saturday morning at The Wheel about the fact that lavatory attendants are on strike and ambulance drivers have announced that if some people are to die, it may be necessary. The Wheel is the Westwell pub. It might

hold 50 locals if packed in by those Tokyo subway-stuffers, and the conversation instead is on the new vicar. “Can he take his whisky?” is the operative query. Priorities count in Westwell.

The village is near Ashford—a tacky mélange of motorways and the pale British attempt at the supermarket— and a nice drive from the holy city of Canterbury. It is an hour by train from isolated, unreal London. London is the aberration. Kent is the bone-rock reality. Kent is far enough away to escape the virus of a capital that festers on its own troubles.

There is in the landscape that calming effect familiar to those who live adjacent to large expanses of water. There is a soothing injection to the psyche in anyone who lives on an ocean—and can see it. San Francisco and Vancouver and Cape Town can tell you that. So can, to a lesser degree, London and Paris, with a large, intrusive river cutting through, imposing its personality every day in every way on those

millions of lucky denizens who must cross and recross it, being instilled for a few brief moments with the sudden, grateful glimpse of peace amidst the chaos of a modern city.

Kent provides the same majestic calm—softly folding fields in the distance like green ocean billows, that sculptured English landscape where there is nothing rough-hewn, no unsightly stumps left, no obscene gravel pits, no untamed section casting a threat to the civilized remains. It is so, well, finished.

In The Wheel, where there is now a coin game called Sweet Add-a-Line and Dolly Parton is listed on a miniature jukebox pinned to the mantel above a roaring fire, the Jeremy Thorpe jokes have come down from London. (Thorpe received a letter bomb. He opened it and it went “poo/.”) There is the problem of the peacocks. One of the Westwellians, none too popular, keeps peacocks and they conduct flying raids on neighbors’ vegetable patches—more than a dozen of the huge creatures coming in low at sundown, as one excited pub drinker says, “like RAF fighters in the Battle of Britain.”

The country lanes, huddling beneath their protective hedges, wander with no semblance of reason from farm to pub, pub to farm, no doubt descendants of some meandering sheep trail—or perhaps the staggering route home traced by master from the pub. In one vista, the spare, erect poplars line a road like some cold version of Provence. The grey mists cling to the land, enhancing the

impression of farmhouses adrift on the oceans of rolling green.

The talk, in Westwell, is of the two wives from the village who have gone off skiing for a week at an Austrian resort the pub regulars have decided will be pronounced “Obergurgle.” The expedition has been mounted with the seriousness of the invasion of Normandy and is the subject of much speculation. How will their men eat? What do ladies from Westwell do at night in

the fleshpots of Obergurgle? Can the continentals be trusted with the flower of English womanhood? It recalls the member of English royalty long ago who felt “other countries were a mistake.”

There is the scandal of the wall. A newcomer to the village, without respect, has ripped out the lilac hedge that protected his 300-year-old house with the tilting floors from vulgar gaze. He has replaced it, for some inexplicable reason and without planning board approval, with a threefoot, six-inch brick undulating wall with spheroid

balls on top—an abomination that gives neither privacy nor esthetic pleasure.

After Sunday dinner, meaning lunch, in a farmhouse, the dalmatian and the spaniel sprawl before the fire in a scene out of Tom Jones. The host, as one can do in Westwell, dozes peacefully in a chair while his guests envy him. The serenity bathes the room overlooking the green waves of grass.

In one home, a Betamax records the key weekend soccer games so, at midnight, you can watch stale, four-day-old soccer. It is not as good as the Stilton, which moves itself. In the village where Moll Flanders was filmed, a sign says PLEASE BE LITTER CONSCIOUS. Church stones date to Richard Plantagenet’s 15th century. One of the lanes was Chaucer’s Pilgrims’ Way. The man who built the wall tries to recover local esteem by running for parish council on the anti-peacock ticket. In Westwell, Kent, while Britain goes on strike, the only thing you can hear are the birds and the tractors.