All Anglophilia aside, if I were an American Colonist enjoying a toothless Boston evening in 1773 with the knowledge I have now of today’s American City versus present-day London, I should have taken the tax on tea to the chin and saved myself the hernia.
To compare one country’s megalopolis to another country’s has become one of my ways of measuring a nation’s relative cultural prosperity. My approach is essentially two-fold: statistical analysis and subsequent foot-patrol.
London gets high marks.
British humor is superior; that is called Common Knowledge. And comedy ranks high on my list of human traits. But politeness is no straggler. Now, I am not one to over-generalize or make sweeping statements, but, perhaps due to lingering undue post-Empire guilt, all of London’s inhabitants are polite: every one of them. They apologize, even if it were your fault. An interesting event indicative of this took place at the intersection of Baker Street and A501. One man, rather maladroitly, cut another off in traffic. In Philadelphia, this is grounds for public execution (see recent news). In London, the victim of this crime lowered his window, concerned his face, and submitted three apologies. And sincere ones, too. Swelled the breast, that. It does my soul additionally well that Englanders seem not to flaunt their mannerly outlook on the world such as the Germans do. In Germany, it is true, they treat you well, and, by way of politically-postered streetlamp, they remind you of the fact every fifty feet. But that is for a forthcoming article. Notwithstanding, one gets to enjoy all of this English politeness under a perfectly grey, dreary sky, rainy afternoons feeling not the cultural shame here as they do in other parts of the world.
Maybe it is all of the rain, but London is clean. I understand that rough, dirty neighborhoods must exist in the east of London somewhere–Dickens says it all the time–but I have not any evidence for it. I am convinced that a man could drop his Toad in the Hole on the West London easement and only add to the quality of its Yorkshire Pudding.
Speaking of quality, the American public transportation is one of the triumphs of Savagery in the Modern world. One foot upon American public transportation and you instantly understand The Primitive, two feet and you can feel your brow grow. In the United States, the Germans get all of the credit as engineers, as pioneers of both private and public transportation. These folks have obviously experienced neither London’s Underground nor England’s National Rail.
But neither are Englanders soulless utilitarians. Though a megalopolis larger and more populous than New York, London felt spacious and tranquil, its body kissed hither and thither by parks and gardens, even its streets buttonholed with floral arrangements. And they, those of England, seem to have a delightful obsession with flowers–in particular with gardens–so much so that they call their backyard a garden, whether it has one or not.
My literary hero is Karl Pilkington, but Shakespeare takes a close second; therefore, my seeing “The Tempest” at The Globe Theatre was something of a treat for myself, being the moderate agoraphobe that I am. My delight was additionally increased with each actor’s lines in the open-air theatre being challenged by the hooligans along the Thames reminding the welkin that they are England Till They Die, and furthermore intimating social reform in Italy, suggesting, to the rhythm of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” that Italy can “…shove its tacky TV up (its) ass”–for I had chosen to spend £80 on a Shakespeare play that occurred two hours before the start of the England versus Italy Euro Final.
Later, in a pub, a man with a penchant for making beer disappear with his throat muscles asked if I were Italian. It is fairly easy for even the cultural layman to deduce that this, for me, is certainly not the case. But, what this gentleman lacked in observational skills, he made up for in vim and national pride. I informed him that I indeed was not, after which I could not have asked for a better friend.
Some might read the previous descriptions of hooliganism as gross impropriety, and I should agree, if, as I know in Philadelphia to be the case, the city stayed trashed for a generation or two after the warm-bloodedness of the evening. But it did not.Yes, it was a right, proper, bloody mess, but only for the evening. By morning, there was precisely zero evidence suggesting that a national crisis had occurred. And that brings me to my next point.
I, for one, am impressed by the duality possessed by English citizens to be both entirely civil, yet possess this Bulldog Breed in them to, in a moment, operate as jackals do over fresh opponents. But, never against Sandford’s Most Wanted:
The Sherlock Holmes Museum was a perfect tourist trap, but a good one.
The Dickens Museum was similar.
There’s good evidence in the United States that books have become defunct technology, but it is apparently not so. One literary delight is true: they read more in England. Everyone–and, by everyone, I mean about twenty percent–are reading. I have never seen so many bookstores. I saw a teenage girl walking through heavy traffic knee-deep in a Russian triple-decker. And this goes for the rest of Europe as well, perhaps even more so on the continent. So, it is no wonder why so many American writers turn ex-pats in Europe: it is the only way that they would taste anything but their shoes for supper. You may even have them with tartar sauce here, if you like.
Of course you will likely experience most of the abovementioned whilst indeed eating your shoes, as you will not have any money left after your first day in London. I was selling my soul each day to inhabit a closet that my host called a “cozy apartment.” I ignored my cardinal rule to be always suspicious of adjectives, especially if they are in the ameliorative.
If it seems to you that I have done too much putting up of London, that perhaps I am naive, that perhaps my nose looks a bit darker than usual, you would be right. Neither did I expect a city to get such a high rating from me. But we cannot control with whom we fall in love, for better or for worse.
Canterbury, however: Now here is a stinker if I have ever smelled one. The Canterbury Tales–especially the part where Absolon is duped into making-out with what is certainly not a woman’s mouth in the night through a window, and thence commenting on her beard–is one of my favorite books. But, Canterbury The Town lacked the same magic. I made the pilgrimage, sure–to a load of shops, and bad ones at that. Sadly, I did not make it to the Cliffs of Dover, mainly because I thought that, after seeing Canterbury, I might jump off.
Bath was indeed a special place. A bit too much of the medieval-town-turned-shopping center again, but it was at least a nice slice of Roman Antiquity to look at.
Strangely enough, Bath also possesses an establishment called The Black Fox, which has the same name of the pub that my family used to own in Bury St.Edmunds. So, naturally, I stopped for a beer and a fish therein.
Matthew Arnold wrote something about Irish poetry being charmingly sentimental but not logical enough, and German poetry as being excellently logical but without enough pixie-bone. He asserted that The English were an extremely successful, likeable bunch with a great literature due to the fact that, both genetically and culturally, they posses both the Irish and German sentiments. And Matthew Arnold, much unlike yours truly, was something special.
Now, I know that there’s no such thing as perfection, but England strives for it, and fails, but there is something to smile about in its attempt.
One thought on “The Dosser Chronicles: London, England”
Great article. Good pics too!