I discovered I was pregnant the same day I met the Queen. It was one of those lightless December afternoons when the sky clamps down on London like the lid on a cast iron pot. I went straight from my doctor’s surgery in Shepherd’s Bush to a media reception at Buckingham Palace where I was ushered up the stairs into a large drawing room hung with Old Masters and rammed with journalists sucking back free champagne, trying to look blasé. The courtiers gently herded us all into a queue, prised flute glasses from sticky fingers and prodded us one by one into the adjoining room.
And suddenly there she was: Elizabeth II, tiny and smiling beatifically in a mint-green skirt suit and gloves. She was paler and prettier than I’d expected, gave off a whiff of perfumed powder and had an extraterrestrial glow I have only ever seen in one other mortal up close: the teenaged Scarlett Johansson. Prince Philip stood to her right and a bit behind, looking bald and bemused. ‘Leah McLaren, the Globe and Mail!’ a man in a footman’s costume announced. The Queen clasped my right hand, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘How do you do?’
Now, I’ve lived in Britain the better part of the last decade — long enough to know that when an English person asks you this question they are not actually inquiring after your general wellbeing. In my first couple of years here I’d reply brightly, ‘Fine thanks! And yourself?’ Only to watch the speaker recoil in a kind of genteel revulsion. So I knew the Queen wasn’t actually interested in how my day was going. And yet, since she’d asked, the thought did cross my mind: why not tell her?
So I stood for a moment, squeezing the monarch’s hand and preparing my answer. Well ma’am, I’m pregnant. The father is an Englishman. We’ve been going out for a while now and we’re pretty crazy about each other. We both want children — more children in his case — but the problem is, and please don’t take this the wrong way, I just can’t imagine living in this country for the rest of my life. The weather’s the pits and the economy sucks. I once swore off your male subjects and now I’ve fallen for one. What do you think I should do?
I opened my lips but before I could unburden myself, or even execute a half-decent curtsey, the receiving line bum-rushed me out the door and into another room furnished with gilt settees and crystal bowls of pick’n’mix.
After that I went to the Groucho to meet Rob, the English journalist who’d made me pregnant. I found him having drinks with a writer, and in the sort of good mood that only 1.5 gin martinis and six olives on an empty stomach can produce. ‘Sit down, Macs,’ he said, giving me a squeeze. ‘You must be exhausted by our lovely royals.’ Rob works for a respected liberal newspaper, grew up in Liverpool and never says ‘How do you do?’ I was in love with him but hadn’t actually got around to mentioning it yet.
On the walk home from the tube I tried to tell him my news but dissolved into tears before I could get the words out. ‘What’s wrong — what is it?’ he said, looking uncharacteristically alarmed. When I finally managed to explain, he stopped walking and fiddled with the cuff of his raincoat for few seconds while I continued to snuffle. ‘Oh Macs,’ he eventually said, tucking my hair behind my ears. ‘We’ll think it through. It’s not the worst thing in the world, is it?’
Of course it wasn’t. But I wasn’t crying because of the baby — in fact I was delighted to be pregnant — I was crying because I was having a child with a Englishman who was firmly committed to England. And that meant I could never go home.
Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote a cover story for this magazine about dating English men in London. I was 26 at the time, and disappointed to have spent a whole six months abroad without having a single plummy-accented gent confess his undying love, or at least try to unhook my bra. The nerve! I concluded as a result that most British males were borderline alcoholic, fearful of women, socially and emotionally retarded and, because of the archaic boarding school system (I confined my dating to a small west London sample), probably repressed homosexuals as well.
It was silly season and the piece caused a great stir. Many people, mostly Englishmen and their (I could only assume) hard-up wives and girlfriends, protested. Gwyneth Paltrow and Heather Graham chimed in with cheery American-gal support, though the former later changed her tune and married one herself.
Eventually I wrote a TV movie loosely based on the debacle, a Canadian-UK co-production that was broadcast on the CBC and Sky. Everyone got paid handsomely, but the excitement soon passed. My paper called me back to Toronto, where I published a novel and soon found out that Canadian men were not exactly a perfect delight in the dating department either. Relationships, I discovered, were tricky. People don’t always act how you want them to, even if you cook them dinner first and ask nicely. I got married — to a very decent Canadian with no fear of the female sex — but I did so with all the foresight of a Jack Russell terrier plunging headfirst off a dock, only to watch the whole thing fall apart a couple of years later.
A random sequence of events had pulled me back to London by then, so in London I stayed. It wasn’t until I’d moved from my marital home into a tiny flat in a gothic tower block off Shepherd’s Bush Road that I realised the dark irony at play. If I didn’t want to be alone forever, I was going to have to date again. And that meant facing down my old enemy. I felt like an emotionally-battered Bond villain sucking on a long cigarette. Ah, Englishmen. We meet again. My plan, obviously, was to spend a few months licking my wounds then have an invigorating affair with a 28-year-old Spanish classical guitarist, after which I’d be ready to scour London’s colourful migrant community for a more suitable expat and settle down. Instead I met Rob — and that, as they say, was that.
During the past six months of my pregnancy, I’ve learnt a couple of crucial facts about English men, and relationships in general, that wholly eluded me that first time round. British men, I have learnt, are a much more diverse and captivating species once you push past the floppy-haired, pink-trousered stereotype. This is not to say I have anything against public school boys (on the contrary, most of my male friends still fall into this tiny demographic), just that British men, regardless of background, tend to open up and reveal their complexity rather slowly, like good wine, and are thus deserving of close and patient inspection, rather than a cursory assessment.
The second is that the clever, sexy ones tend to communicate almost exclusively through a kind of arch and playful banter. Once I understood this — and learnt the trick of engaging in it myself — a whole other world of connection opened up. I realised that when an Englishman says one thing he often means another entirely, and that the tension between what he says and what is actually meant is not just an amusement — but the way he expresses his feelings, including, but not limited to, love itself.
How could I have failed to notice this the first time around? Well a decade ago, I had this naive idea that relationships work best when people talk openly and honestly about their feelings all the time. It’s a notion that half a decade of expensive talk therapy and reality television has cured me of completely. My revised relationship motto today is one of emotional restraint: bite your tongue. As it turns out, this romantic
strategy dovetails neatly with the British male aversion to earnestness. ‘If I had to be kidnapped by a mad bird, you’re not the worst of the lot, are you?’ is essentially Rob’s way of saying, ‘My beautiful treasure, I adore you down to the tips of your pedicured toes.’ Even when he says ‘I love you’, it sounds vaguely sarcastic, like he’s mimicking the dialogue from a mawkish American rom-com. Like most Englishmen, Rob is at his best when kidding around. ‘Don’t be such a daft numpty,’ he’ll say if I express some irrational insecurity, or, if I get all gooey and sentimental, ‘Steady on now Macs. Don’t try to get me all soft.’
For the most part, I’m fine with this. After riding the emotional rollercoaster of my twenties it’s a great relief to just ‘get on with it’, as the English say. It’s nice to be with a man who is more interested in watching Newsnight or gambolling round Paris as we cover the French elections, than asking how I am all the time. Because you know what? How I am usually isn’t half as interesting as watching Paxo get cranky. And besides, if Rob needs to know how I am, I’ll tell him. And on the odd occasion when it’s actually mattered, I have.
And so, after prematurely dismissing all Englishmen out of hand, I have, to my astonishment, discovered that the best ones can be funny and clever and kind and generally unflappable. Better yet, I have found one with whom I’m very happy to make a life. That he is not boarding school-educated or from what he calls ‘the soft south’ (a place, up until now, I have pretty much thought of as ‘England’; and a place that Rob, hardly the professional northerner, openly adores) may have something to do with it. To be honest I’m not entirely sure, nor do I really care.
I have resolved to stay in England and raise an English son with an English father and brother. To be surrounded by Englishmen is not something I ever expected, but in many ways it’s been a wondrous stroke of luck. There are chasms between us, but in a culture defined by its minor class distinctions, sometimes big things — continents, oceans, countries — seem strangely minimal by contrast. I will always feel like an outsider here but I have been lucky enough to find someone who understands that, for a writer, that’s not entirely a bad thing.
The funny thing about ending up with Rob is that had I known then what I know now, it’s quite possible we could have saved ourselves ten years getting to where we are today. Shortly after my Englishman piece was published, an editor at the Evening Standard proposed setting me up with a man of her choosing so we could both write about it — a sort of DIY version of the Guardian’s Blind Date. The suitor she had in mind was a departure from my usual posh boy prototype — a charming, clever Liverpudlian journalist. This journalist and I had dinner a couple of times but nothing came of it. If you’ve assumed this man was my future babypapa, you’re wrong. I’ve since found out Rob’s name had crossed the editor’s mind when she imagined the piece, though I’m glad he didn’t end up doing it. If he had, I’m quite sure things would not have worked out.
I had too much to learn about the nuances of old world communication and the beauty of emotional restraint. It took ten years and at least as many false starts but in the end I’ve found happiness in England — the place I least expected it.
Leah McLaren appears on this week’s Spectator ‘View from 22’ podcast: spectator.co.uk/podcast