I once had a lunch with the Masons.
It was epic. I have rarely eaten so well in my life but the best thing about that lunch, by far, was the fact that I was so readily accepted. I had not anticipated it. Not knocking Croydon, town of my birth, but there is something of a stigma attached to the place.
For many of my early years in Devon, I had to explain that Croydon was not the same place as Croyde.
To explain: Croydon is in south-east London. When I was there, it rang out with the scream of car alarms and police sirens; it was the music of my childhood. There was a plastic bag in every second tree and only occasional break-ins. There was a tremendous sense of community, something I’ve yet to witness anywhere else I have intruded upon as a foreigner. We all grew up together so there was little in terms of culture clash or discrimination. We were friends. Our parents were friends. We knew our local coppers.
Croyde is in north Devon, rather more south-west and less breeze-block in nature than Croydon. I’ve never visited, so sadly, that’s the extent of my opinion on it.
Everyone, but everyone, picks up on my accent. Almost no-one can identify it. I suspect if I went back to Croydon this afternoon, the locals would swear I’d never been there even for a day trip. My accent is an affliction; a product borne of too much American TV in the eighties and my mother’s efforts in received pronunciation. As such, I have a strange mix of 1950s BBC newsreader and mid-Atlantic waviness. I’m usually considered South African or Canadian.
Unfortunately, a time came when I didn’t have to explain where Croydon was because it had been in the news.
In 2011, when I went out to lunch with the Masons, Croydon had been splashed all over the TV because of the riots and the subsequent fire that engulfed everything from the Drummond to Allders.
Allders was a large department store where my mother had built a friendship with a shop-girl and immediately copied her hairstyle, buying a teasing comb and enough hairspray to kill an elephant, and my dad looked for a travel razor, while I was at ice skating lessons over the way in Streatham.
All things being equal, my pride at being misidentified as a traveller from a distant land, became concern that I would have to explain the political landscape of my hometown. The Masons chattered to me, quite happily, asked where I was from, and made no judgment. Because of course they didn’t. They were decent. And all my nervousness melted away with the starter. They were wonderful people.
Arguably, they probably thought I was my volunteer granddad Ivor’s bit of stuff. I don’t think I’d ever before been considered crumpet, but there it was. A sliver of smile, a subtle nod. Ivor would never let anyone think anything indecorous of me. However, I think if they had thought he’d managed to get a woman near-sixty years his junior, he wouldn’t have been especially unhappy about it.
I’m not sure I’d given the Masons any thought whatsoever before that afternoon. Certainly, I had spent countless Sunday lunchtimes with a few of them at the Legion. They weren’t as hush-hush as I’d been led to believe.
They didn’t have a special handshake, at least not one that I observed. I suppose they were well-to-do, they hadn’t missed a hot dinner for some time, and they were well-spoken. They wore the ties of their old schools and various associations, and I have never heard so many dick and fart jokes in my life.
So many dick and fart jokes, in fact, that you’d think it was a Calling.