Who is the greatest Englishman of all time? William Shakespeare? Isaac Newton? Winston Churchill? Bobby Charlton? Horatio Nelson? Alexander Fleming? Mr Bean?…
The list could be endless and I think it would be safe to say that the jury’s out on this one. But, according to a local character my wife and I ran into a while ago here in Malmo, Sweden, there’s only one person even worthy of the title of “The Greatest Englishman of all Time”.
We met this character one summer evening a few years ago when our children were still small. We very rarely, if ever, got the chance to go out together but on this occasion my sister was staying with us over the weekend and she kindly offered to babysit.
We took the chance and took a pleasant walk into town. We found a small, oldy-worldy pub with some tables outside. It was a nice evening, so my wife sat at a table while I went inside to order drinks at the bar.
I perched on a barstool and waited while the barmaid served another customer. Someone had left a nearly empty beer glass and a screwed up cigarette packet on the bar in front of me. I moved them aside.
Then I felt someone nudge me in the ribs. I turned and came face to face with an unshaven, broken-toothed old sea dog. His eyes, to quote the old song, looked like “two cherries in a bowl of buttermilk”. Oh, and his breath reeked of alcohol and stale cigarettes. Oh, and he didn’t really stand in front of me. He swayed. You’ve got it – the local wino!
“That’s my seat!” he growled.
“I’m sorry”, I said. I got off the stool and moved a couple of feet along the bar. The old sea dog perched on “his” seat and even though I avoided eye contact with him I could feel his bloodshot eyes studying me.
The barmaid came over and I ordered the drinks, eager to get served and join my wife out on the terrace as quickly as possible.
“Where are you from?” the old pirate growled at me.
“England”, I said, without looking at him.
“Where in England?”
“Bah!” he scoffed, “That’s not real England! You’re not a real Englishman!”
“So, where is real England?” I asked.
He drained the rest of his beer, slammed the empty glass on the bar top and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Midsomer!” he said.
I could hardly believe my ears.
“Midsomer?” I said, “As in the TV series ‘Midsomer Murders’?”
“That’s right”, he said, “Now, that’s real England. And as for your Inspector Barnaby, he’s a real Englishman!”
“Interesting”, I said. “But I don’t think there’s a real place called Midsomer or a real person called Inspector Barnaby!”
“Bah!” he scoffed again. He turned his back on me in disgust.
The drinks came. I paid the barmaid, who smiled sympathetically.
I picked up the drinks and went back outside to my wife.
I’d just sat down and finished explaining what had taken me so long when I saw my new friend lurching across the terrace towards us, replenished beer glass in hand.
He hovered in front of us, swaying, drooling and leering.
“Scuse me”, he said to my wife, “I’d like to ask you a question. Just one question, then I’ll leave you two lovely people in peace.”
“Sure, go ahead”, my wife said, before I had a chance to stop her.
“Can I sit down?” he asked, even though he’d already pulled up a chair and parked his backside on it before he’d even finished the question. He plonked the glass of beer on the table.
My wife and I exchanged glances. It was becoming clear that our “once every five years” romantic evening out was not going to pan out as we’d hoped.
He planted his elbows on the table and leaned in close.
“So, here’s my question”, he whispered, “Who is the greatest Englishman of all time?”
It wasn’t so much a question as a threat, a ticking bomb planted in the middle of the table, a question that if not answered correctly, perfectly to our friend’s liking, would be liable to blow my wife and I to smithereens.
A terrible silence ensued, while we both racked our brains for names. My wife tried to charm him and offered him a few of the most obvious suggestions -Shakespeare?… Churchill?… Bobby Charlton?… Isaac Newton?…
With every one he just shook his head.
I had a feeling the answer was going to be far removed from the obvious answers, that it was going to be as far off the map as our friend was from Soberville, Arizona.
I decided the best bet was to wave a white flag in surrender, to appeal to his sense of mercy (if he had any!)
“We give up!” I said, “Who is it? Who’s the greatest Englishman of all time?”
He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt to reveal a name tattooed over his heart. I leaned forward to read the faded blue text.
(TO BE CONTINUED)