, ,


My 9-year-old daughter Meg was a Girl Scout back in the US, so when I heard from two of the mums in her new school in Cambridge that some of the girls were going to Brownies tonight, I asked about it and they said I should go along and see if Meg could join.

So I toddled along with Meg to St Mark’s Church where they were meeting.  It turned out that there was one spot left, so Meg is now an English Brownie.

The leader was a large, kind, swoopy woman of indeterminate age, wearing a loose top and skirt, cinched at her waist with a wide belt.  I filled in the form and gave it to her.

She read it over, saying, “fantastic,” and “great,” something I’ve noticed that English people say when you’ve done something as incredibly difficult as filling in a form or even just showing up somewhere and saying your name.  I’d be rich if I were given a pound for every time during the last seven months I’ve lived here in England that someone’s said “brilliant” when I told them something of absolutely no importance, but I have to say it’s rather endearing and certainly beats hearing the word “awesome” all the time.

I introduced myself to the troop leader, and she told me her name was “Brownnowl.”

What? I tried to make it into something else:  Brannell?  Brownell? but nothing came to mind. Perhaps it was a Celtic or Irish name, like that of Meg’s friend’s mother, Sioned, pronounced “Shon-ed,” which is Welsh.

So I asked her again, and she said it again, two distinct and completely recognizable words.  Brown Owl.


Back in America in the 70s, there were lots of people with odd names.  I remember a woman who called herself “Meadowlark,” and of course there were the children of rock stars with names such as “Dweezil Zappa” and “Zowie Bowie.”   Well, there have got to be hippie types here in Cambridge, too, I reasoned.  It takes all sorts, and if this woman wants to call herself “Brown Owl,” “Brown Owl” she will be.

I left Meg with the group and returned home to make dinner.  My mother asked me how it went, and I said, “Meg seemed fine, but the woman leading it sounds like a bit of a nut-job.  She calls herself ‘Brown Owl.'”

A look passed over my mother’s face as if she were desperately trying to contain herself, then she broke into great peals of laughter.

She finally choked out, “They’re all called ‘Brown Owl!'”

What?  They’re all called “Brown Owl”????  Then I got it.  Brown Owl wasn’t her real name;  it was her name as leader of the Brownies.

I felt like a total idiot, or as they say here, a right berk.  I guess there are still some things about British culture about which I don’t have a clue.