I have spent my Christmas vacation relaxing and reading a delightful, splendidly written travel memoir by Washington, DC playwright and author Denis Lipman entitled A Yank Back To England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns.
I made Denis’ acquaintance last year through his interesting and colourful blog, England Rents, Raves & Rants and after reading his book about his family’s annual trips to England over a six year (actually nine) period, I feel as if I know not only him but them as well! His writing is fluid, to the point, and extremely witty, and his English sense of humour and Dagenham, Essex upbringing sparkle in A Yank Back To England which is charming and authentically English.
Denis Lipman, at first glance, may seem an unassuming sort of English gentleman who has become fairly Americanized, but his life has been anything but mundane. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become an apprentice printer and within a week realized that magic was his calling so he left to pursue a career as a magician and magic dealer. It was this endeavor that initially led him to the United States where he would later meet his wife, Frances Erlebacher, and together, they and their only child, Kate, would spend their annual vacation visiting Denis’ elderly parents, the somewhat eccentric Lew and Jessie, in the Old Country.
When magic lost its luster, Denis experimented with writing scripts, songs, and even album production and after years of trying on different occupations for the right fit, he ended up relocating to Washington, DC where he became a senior writer for a major advertising agency and a playwright for the Washington Theatre Festival. In the early 1990s, Denis and Frances started their own agency, The Creative Shop.
It was Frances who decided that they should take advantage of their yearly sojourns to England when they would visit Denis’ parents and relatives and really get to know the country, both as tourists, and as their second home. Denis wasn’t initially all that keen on traipsing around to see the sites, but in spite of his reluctance, discovered that he really did enjoy his homeland and even fell in love with it. I certainly fell in love with the England (Hammill, close to Sandwich) he described in Year Six: A Regency Cottage on a Bridle Path as their accommodation at Madrigal Cottage is how I have always envisioned the beauty and charm of the English countryside.
This affectionate memoir actually reveals more about the characters portrayed in it than the sites that they visit. Restaurant and hotel names are not mentioned, although cities, towns and villages are, as well as some of the prominent sites one would associate with those places, which according to Denis are all within a half-day trip from London. Meals are described in such a way that you sometimes salivate and occasionally crinkle up your nose in disgust while tea and Jack Daniels flow copiously. The weather is always a force to be reckoned with and the countryside as charismatic and as challenging as one could imagine. This is a depiction of the reality of travel and it’s not always brilliant but it is remarkable.
A Yank Back To England is just as much about Denis getting to know his aging parents as adults, friends and grandparents as discovering what makes England the historical, magnificent country that it is. The events here are not sugar-coated in any way and Denis describes his parents, in particular, in a very honest and not necessarily flattering manner but you fall in love with them anyway. We also meet Denis’ aunts Flo, Vi and Mary and cousins Pam and Kevin and his wife Maxine, and briefly Denis’ brother Tony and his wife Tricia. We get a glimpse of Kate’s early years and recognize that Frances is ever thoughtful, practical, diplomatic, and easy to get along with and Denis owes the success of this book to her.
A travel memoir cannot be easy to write as it would be hard to remember entire conversations the way that Denis has written them here, but because he has managed to do so, the book reads like a novel and when it ends you find yourself sighing, smiling, reflecting and utterly yearning for your next vacation abroad. And don’t forget to dress in layers and place a bet on the horses while you’re at it!