In Hampshire, U.S. vote just distant notion

England: Colonists left here to settle New Hampshire, but America's election process is something of a mystery.

January 27, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PORTSMOUTH, England - Colin Nhennah is 74 and has lived here in the south of England his entire life, in the county called Hampshire. He is pretty sure he knew that people from his area colonized what is now part of the Northeast of the United States.

As far as he's concerned, though, nobody from his side of the Atlantic can be blamed for the peculiar U.S. presidential election system, which today focuses on New Hampshire, his home's namesake.

"As far as I'm concerned," Nhennah said, puffing on his pipe and sitting on his bar stool at the Ship Anson pub on Portsmouth's waterfront, "we have a cuckoo government over here and you have a cuckoo government over there, and any election that put those governments in power is cuckoo itself."

In Hampshire, from whose ports English colonists sailed west to found New Hampshire on behalf of King James I, not only do people disclaim responsibility for what their forebears' adventurism wrought, few have any idea what has become of the place.

Like New Hampshire, old Hampshire is a land of memorable rock cliffs and thick green forest, of large numbers of freshly arrived college students and no small number of people like Nhennah who have never wanted to leave.

It is also a land of cathedrals that survived the heavy bombing that Hampshire suffered during World War II.

There seem to be as many pubs as people, especially on the waterfront, and many, such as the Ship Anson, feature cigarette smoke in the air that seems darker than the whiskey in the glasses, and more people come to sit with friends on cushioned benches surrounding low-rising tables than ponying up to the bar.

Before Germany's Luftwaffe destroyed the London Tavern on the ground where the Ship Anson now stands, the pub's owners were credited with recruiting more than 25,000 people into the Royal Navy by giving drunken young men a king's shilling - effectively signing them up.

Its ports no longer export colonists but cargo - from food to chemicals - and are used for the importation of everything from bananas from the West Indies to cars from the Far East. The most famous ship in British history, HMS Victory, which routed the French and Spanish in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, is docked here, and the Royal Navy still uses the Portsmouth and Southampton ports.

New Hampshire got its name because Capt. John Mason of the Hampshire city of Portsmouth received a grant for the land in 1629 and decided to name his new land after his old. Unfortunately for Mason, he died in 1635 while planning his voyage to the new colony.

(The naming of old Hampshire is a bit more original. Hampshire is derived from the 9th-century Namtunscir, meaning "shire based on Hamtun," the original name for the Hampshire city now known as Southampton.)

Alike, yet different

Given the origins of New Hampshire, given that many of its residents are of the same ilk as old Hampshire's in blood and temperament, it is not surprising that people here share the concerns being discussed among the Democratic candidates looking for a boost from today's vote: Taxes, education and health care all come up in conversations here, though the English are at a loss to explain how a U.S. presidential campaign begins to address those issues.

"I know your elections are quite complicated, and it seems as though they're based more on personality than policy," said James Mason, a 27-year-old insurance investigator who lives in Southampton and was taking a stab at summing up the American primary system. "I guess when you think about it, ours is more about personality as well, just like yours. It's like naughty schoolboys having a sling at each other."

He knows that the Democratic candidates have been involved in debates, and his friend from London, Andrew Carter, an accountant, was even close to naming the winner of the Iowa caucuses - "Somebody whose name begins with K?"

By contrast, elections in Hampshire are a bit more refined, a bit less pep rally, a lot less in your face, a ton more befitting the land that gave the world the authors Jane Austen and Charles Dickens than elections in New Hampshire, whose most famous sons were a lawyer (Daniel Webster) and a newspaperman (Horace Greeley).

Campaigns here are propelled by candidates who knock on doors for a chat over tea and by volunteers who pass out fliers. Aspirants for the post of prime minister are not likely to come here seeking votes, and if one showed up in a hockey uniform or in an argyle sweater to flip pancakes, he would likely be laughed out of town.

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