Thursday, March 11, 2010

London Calling: A Few Thoughts On The Mother Country

What -- the Radical is tracing her heritage to England? Well yes, sort of. To make a long story short, the Paternal Unit's family came to the colonies, from England, in the seventeenth century. The Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) traces her line of descent from somewhere in the Germanic middle of Europe and from Selkirks, who were herded onto ships two loaves short of starvation and sent to make a living in Canada circa 1811. The latter group, although ruined by colonialism were then, in a twisted historical accident, saved by it. As a result, my family came to identify as English in Canada. True, until Canada began to recognize that there were not only white people in the world, one had limited choices: English or French, Protestant or Catholic. Nevertheless, I have met other Scots-descended Canadian folk who identify ethnically as Scottish and do a lot of Scots nationalist things like celebrate Bobby Burns day.

Not our bunch. And we have the complete recordings of Winston Churchill's WWII radio speeches to prove it.

That said, there's nothing that makes me feel more American than coming to Europe, and it doesn't change anything that this is an Anglophone country. Partly that's because, even though technically we all speak English, I often don't understand what people are saying, or I miss crucial words. "'Oo wah' sa' ri' wi'-'at?" a waiter said to me in a Chinese restaurant the other day. I had already replied "Huh?" in a stupid tone of voice when I realized, too late, that he was asking me if I wanted rice with my chicken with black bean sauce. (Note: no Asian or South Asian restaurant I have visited to date gives you rice for free, and restaurants try to sell you water unless you insist on drinking it out of the tap.)

Strangeness and ethnic identification I am not feeling aside, I love everything about it here, and cruise the estate agents windows in Bloomsbury near my hotel looking for the perfect flat to buy or rent. Following my life pattern, my guess is I would land in the East End, site of The Women's Library, where I was doing research on the UK's Campaign Against Pornography. It's an odd part of town, with warren-like streets lined in squat, brick dwellings that suddenly give way to huge, ugly concrete and steel office buildings, many belonging to London Metropolitan University; or to Council flats, some of which seem nice and others of which look like they are made of cardboard left out in the rain. I suspect this odd layout has something to do with World War II and the German Blitz, which targeted the neighborhoods of London's working poor and the factories they worked in. Some of the old city remains, including Toynbee Hall, and the rest counted for an early version of Urban Renewal.

People say London is expensive, and that is true about real estate: it's at least as expensive as New York, if not more so. But other things are cheaper. Fruit, for example ($1.50 for six apples; 2.50 for two pints of raspberries, on special); and theater tickets (less than $50 for a nearly front row ticket to see Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in Covent Garden with James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad -- tonight!). But people also seem to have more fun here. For example, many of the station stops on the Underground (where trains come about every minute, Mr. Bloomberg) have funny names like Barking. "This train is for Bah-King" the lady intones every time the door closes. Today I was riding home from the LSE on the Piccadilly line, and a teenage boy with blown-forward teddy boy hair was amusing several girls around him by imitating the train lady's pronunciation of Cockfosters, "Cock! - fahsters," he would chirp, and they would all giggle wildly. Meanwhile, two girls also in this group (as I discovered when they all exited the train together) were at the other end of the car, lightly kissing and feeling each other up while everyone but me read the Guardian.

One of the teens caught me looking and said nicely, "Just a little lesbian fun."

"Indeed it is," I replied. Personally, I have rarely had more fun on a train.

But perhaps the nicest thing about England, given how routinely nasty the United States has become in the past decade, is that everyone is polite, and not just the many different people who are English: practically everyone who works here in a service position is Portuguese, Spanish or, more likely, Eastern European, and they are all lovely too, as are all of the students and tourists from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa that I've been running into at the universities. The night before last l went to dinner with an old friend, who told the waiter (as he delivered our entree) that he had failed to bring our starters. The waiter looked -- well, all I can say is, crushed, positively crestfallen at this terrible error -- which he had not made, as my friend had actually forgotten to order them in the first place. On the verge of tears, our waiter began to gather up our perfect aged Scottish beef, when my friend realized that it was his error and apologized. All was well, and the terrible moment passed.

People fall into conversation with you at the drop of a hat, and tell you anything you want to know. And it makes you realize what a very small world we Americans live in back home, and how much we gear our world view entirely to the United States and all of its petty concerns.

Oh, and by the way? They have National Health Care here, and I haven't talked to a single person -- Tory or Labour -- who thinks it isn't a spanking good deal. Perhaps I should check out the estate agent's againon my way to the theater tonight.


human said...

London is just really a wonderful place. People look out for one another in ways that they don't in the US.

Anonymous said...

Kind of depends what you compare it against - a lot of people who have lived there and elsewhere in the UK say it's much less friendly than the rest of the country!

If you can afford to live close to your workplace in a place of your own it's probably pretty good.... but not many of us can do that, otherwise it's 45-minute standing commutes and living like a student in shared flats until you see sense and move away.

Dr. Virago said...

You're in "my" neighborhood! I've stayed at the Euro right next door, and, for a longer period, in a student room at Goodenough College just south-east of there a few blocks at Mecklenburgh Square. And this summer, I'll be further over near Russell Square in Univ. of London's College Hall.

The world really does seem perfect when you're living in Bloomsbury, doesn't it? I have also browsed the estate agents with envy. There was a row house next to Charles Dicken's old house on Doughty Street that was for sale a few yeas back for 4-5 million, I think (pounds, that is), iirc. Imagine: once upon a time, Dickens bought that house when he was just starting to earn something like a middle class income, and now you have to be extraordinarily wealthy to live there.

Janice said...

Like Dr. V, I know precisely of where you speak. It's a very walkable city, well-served by public transit (another key investment than many modern North American cities fail to truly make). While things may be a bit aged, here and there (I'm looking at you, worn and scary wooden escalators in the Tube stations!), it's someplace that I love to be.

Much envy for your evening's outing, too!

Sister Singer said...

How wondrous. I remember OUR visit there together when we were 10 and 12, and our little blue blazers and so on. cucumber sandwiches (no crust, of course) at Brown's? lead soldiers for sale at the Burlington Arcade? A trip down the Thames! Sir Percy Flanagan's (which later became a hamster).

Let's take a trip to Merry Olde together again in this lifetime.

Take care and keeping having a jolly good time, especially on the tube.

Miss Trudy said...

I am spending some time in Guatemala and here, too, Chinese places do not give free rice on the side nor any place at all gives free refills! I think in the US we just take those things for granted, and they don't happen anywhere else. I love your post on England and wish I were there.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Mind the fucking GAP!