Sunday, January 18, 2009



The first couple of weeks of 2009 I had the good fortune to spend with 30 or 40 other writers in an ancient English abbey in a tiny village called Wroxton. The abbey was once owned by Lord North, who was prime minister under King George III at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Lord North’s abbey is now owned by the American university Fairleigh Dickinson, a development Lord North could scarcely have anticipated, although it is long since he has been in any condition to anticipate anything at all.

Wroxton is a two-pub village, three if you count the bar and restaurant at the local hotel – which I definitely do. Closest to the abbey is the North Arms, small and cozy with a fireplace and a great fat cat, run by a congenial young couple. Up the hill past the duck pond is the White Horse, under new management once a year or two, a bit larger than the North Arms with facilities for darts, billiards and good company.

Needless to say, 30 or 40 writers holed up in an abbey for creative reasons would make good use of such establishments. We were also fed at the abbey, though institutional food tends to grow predictable. Thus, before too very many days had passed, five of us jumped the abbey wall in gloam of midday to mount the hill and cross the winding road to the Wroxton Hotel inn – a warm and welcoming place in freezing January whose lobby bar is furnished with cozily battered overstuffed armchairs and sofas and a crackling fire.

No doubt resembling a group of chilled and disheveled escaped monks, with one monkess, our gang of five – two Davids, one Andrew, a Sheridan, and myself – were received by a young waiter who looked a bit like David Hemmings in Blow Up, though composed of that perfect balance of dignity and deference at which the very best of British servers so excel. His name, I was informed by a button on his black vest, was Tom.

“Tom,” I said, my great coat smoking in the welcome heat of the room, “My name is Tom as well.”

“Excellent, sir,” Tom replied. “An excellent choice of name.”

“Tom, we are seeking meat and drink. Have you a table for five?”

“Certainly, sir. Wonderful.”

Soon seated at an excellent table, we began to order and be served – a three-course lunch preceded by aperitifs of various liquid measure, accompanied by various-colored wines, followed by ruby port with the fru-it and a cognac digestif with espresso. The food and drink soon warmed and relaxed us, indeed induced in the entire company an excellent humor, and I realized that as much as the food, which was very good, our humor was being discreetly created for us by Tom the waiter – not more, I’d guess, than two and twenty years but a man with a gift for instilling a sense of security and good cheer, and the way he did that was ingeniously minimalistic.

As he took our orders, he made each of us feel, with an encouraging word, that the choice we had made – be it drink, appetizer, main course, cheese, desert, wine, liqueur – was, as he put it, simply “Excellent, sir.” Or, “Marvelous, madam.” Or even, “Wonderful.” He managed to do this without being in the least intrusive, but neither was he self-abnegating. His was a presence that almost imperceptibly affirmed good spirit. And he seemed to have a perfect sense of when he might be needed, and when not.

Soon our spirits were so nourished by the sustenance of food and drink and comfort that we five broke out into an impromptu chorus of Händel’s Messiah:

Wonderful, Counselor! The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!

In this warmth and well-being, our conversation grew animated. We began to discuss various matters with passionate feeling, including – though I don’t know how – at one point the lyrics of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. In a paroxysm of opinion, I pronounced loudly, “Those lyrics suck!” Whereupon my four table companions fell still. They were all looking over my shoulder. I turned in my chair to see Tom standing behind me, waiting patiently to take our orders for coffee and liqueur. I looked into his eyes, and he said quietly, devoid of any judgment, “Very blunt, sir.”

And at that moment, I understood what I needed to shore up my sense of self and well-being for this new year that was facing me, my sixty-fifth, 2009. I needed a few days, perhaps a week, a fortnight of being shadowed by Tom. Of his observing and pronouncing upon my every act, choice and decision:

“Excellent, sir.”

“Marvelous choice.”

“Very well done, sir.”

“Wonderful decision.”

“Now that statement, sir, was a bit blunt. Did you wish to reconsider it?”

Ah, Tom: I hope that Wroxton knows how blessed it is by your presence. I hope you know how great your value is: Wonderful, counselor! Excellent, Tom. Marvelous.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

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