Three years in Cambridge are at an end and we’re soon back to China’s Pearl River Delta. To celebrate this milestone, I’ve pulled together a list of 10 endearing English oddities.
Warts and all, I love that the English:
1. Are happy to watch “Lambing Live.” Several Aprils ago I stumbled upon a broadcast of a lamb being born. Jolly English commentators stood by in wellie boots chatting with a farmer. Odd, but I was even more astounded to see that the program was live and was broadcast for two hours during prime time every weeknight for a full week. They must have spent a lot of time waiting and chatting about which ewes were showing signs of imminent labor. Did I mention this was on BBC Two, a major channel, not just something way up the cable dial?
2. Teach their young the importance of a good cup of tea through children’s literature. For example, the classic, “Mog the Forgetful Cat” features a scene with a robber, who has just been caught stealing the silver, sharing a cup of tea with the victimized family, still in their nightclothes. Every visitor, even burglars, must be offered a proper cup of tea!
3. Feel very separate from “Europe.” As an American, I’d previously made the mistake of lumping Britain together with “Europe.” I’ve since learned that they view themselves as quite separate from Europe. You know, because they’re on this island way over here across the English Channel.
4. Are taken far too seriously by Americans simply because of their accents. I missed Downton Abbey on ITV in England and am playing catch-up via my American iTunes account. This means that each episode is packaged for an American audience by PBS’s “Masterpiece Classics.” The packaging is complete with lofty soundtrack, flipping book pages, and a serious announcement that this is a presentation of “Masterpiece Classics.” The audience is being told that it is about to watch something refined, high-brown, and artistic. Fancy period clothes, English accents and an “upstairs-downstairs” storyline means the American audience must be sufficiently impressed and in awe.
Too bad ITV is not BBC Four and Downton Abbey is essentially a soap opera in period costume with posh English accents. It’s good TV, but it’s not fancy. Naysayers, come on, the second season even had an “amnesia” storyline.
5. Must be very good at budgeting. When I look at prices in pounds and consider them 1:1 as dollars, then prices seem reasonable. Twelve for a paperback book, three for a latte, ten for a plate of pasta. Then I do the math and realize that it is really the equivalent of eighteen dollars, five dollars and fifteen dollars. Plus 20% VAT. My hats off to you for making ends meet.
6. Have a special fondness for patterns. Patterns on curtains, patterns on throw pillows, patterns on bags, patterns on wallpaper, patterns on tablecloths, patterns on sofas. I was stared at with shock when I said I hadn’t heard of “Cath Kidston,” the famous pattern designer.
7. Love privacy. Every house has a hedge, fence, or some other “screen” in front of it. Privacy is paramount. In America, unless you have a dog or live on a very busy street, putting up a fence in your front yard is viewed as a bit unfriendly. But it’s really the thing to do in England, with a hedge being preferable.
8. Live with contradictions, including serious invasions of privacy. They love privacy and yet CCTV cameras are everywhere. See for example, this strung together set of CCTV clips following a very, very drunk man on his walk home from the bar.
9. Think America = NYC + Orlando. Being from the West Coast of America, I’d never actually viewed the States at such an odd and narrow angle before. I’ve also heard radio commentators refer to American cities as generally “grim” on several occasions. So perhaps America is NYC, Orlando, Detroit and small bits of LA? Oh, and they will also occasionally talk about the South, mainly for the opportunity to poke fun at Southerners. See for example this Top Gear Special or Jamie’s Food Revolution. England, may I introduce you to Seattle, Portland and other great gorgeous swaths of the American West.
10. Like the BBC to guide their day. BBC Radio Four’s “Women’s Hour” starts at 10 am: time for ironing. Ceebebies (BBC for the under 8s) goes off air at 7 pm: children’s bedtime. The credits just rolled on EastEnders (serial drama): time to “put the kettle on.” The National Grid actually has to make special plans for the huge spike in electricity demand at precisely this time: “No other country in the world switches on so many kettles at the same time.” You can see a clip of the National Grid meeting this EastEnders-electricity-demand-spike here.
England: you will be missed! Thank god that, even in Hong Kong, I’ll still be able to ponder the strangeness of Marks and Spencer which simultaneously sells some of the poshest food and dowdiest clothes.