This is my last post on the WPRI blog for my summer position. It has been a wonderful experience. As a forward-looking exercise, I will write about some of the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, where I spend the majority of my time, notwithstanding the summers (in the US, that is…one must be charitable to call anything in the UK “summer”). This entry will constitute something of a list of thoughts from a current American ex-pat. The following is a list of things that really jump out at me from an American perspective:
Food and Drink: Orwell said famously that the faults of Britain, “from a foreign visitor’s point of view, are the gloom of our Sundays and the difficulty of buying a drink.” After walking into an English restaurant—or having an English breakfast—one wonders whether the proverbial saying is true: “The best English cooking is, of course, simply French cooking.” In a famous essay titled “In Defense of English Cooking,” Orwell goes on ad nauseum about everything from the fantastic array of puddings to the variegated selection of marmalade, from the delicacy of English cheeses to potato cakes exclusive to the island. It reads more like a high-end shopping list at Dean & Deluca than it does any English food I have ever tasted. Fish and chips, pies, Cumberland sausages and potatoes (“bangers and mash,” as it is known), steak and kidneys, and beef stew invariably grace the pages of most English menus in my experience. English food is solid and reliable, if limited in its repertoire. Of course, the incredible diversity of England’s ethnic cuisine is one of its finest attributes, but in terms of purely English food, the name of the game is simplicity and reliability.
Weather: Rain, rain, and more rain. Summer is practically non-existent—except for a two-week stretch each May (thankfully around my birthday) that gets everybody hopeful that “this year will be different.” Invariably, it is not; summer fails to arrive and most weeks, my English friends spend their time hoping next week will bring consistent sunshine. Vitamin D supplements are imperative, as some parts of England receive insufficient sunlight each year for the human person.
Provincialism/Navel-gazing: Since I am affiliated with an academic institution in the UK, this is noticeable especially within academic departments. Many of my institution’s best departments have an abundance of scholars working on issues that are, quite frankly, not as impactful as others. While still perfectly legitimate fields of study in themselves, the History Department, for instance, has a multitude of scholars working on issues of early English agrarian policy, rural English development, and medieval religion in two specific rural towns, inter alia. What is a potential problem, however, is when these fields crowd out more impactful and international themes, such as the study of Soviet Russia, China, America, or even European studies. I am inclined to think that this strategic decision by many departments—and I offer here only one example of many—is linked inextricably to British nationalism. After the fall of the British Empire, nationalism lost its imperial and international edge and became relegated to the boundaries of a small island nation. I cannot help but think there is a nexus between the decline of the Empire and the increased provincialism of academic disciplines at some British institutions. When there is no longer a British Empire “out there,” study becomes increasingly about what is left remaining “right here.”
Despite the importance of the European Union to modern affairs, designed to temper nationalism for the collective security and economic union of all of Europe, the same old European nationalism that the world has seen repeatedly is flaring up in recent fights over the Euro currency, security policy, and economic cooperation initiatives like bank bailouts and the issuance of common treasury bonds by the European Central Bank. In Britain’s case, since it is not party to the Euro Zone Agreement, nationalism manifests itself in a subtler way: a sort of Euro-skepticism that crosses political parties and demographics. It is commonplace to hear such phrases as “Britain and Europe,” or “us and the Europeans,” as if the insular nature of the island provided it with an airtight bubble of complete protection from the worst aspects of Europe. (The early involvement of Britain in WWI and WWII, as well as numerous other wars waged on the European continent, belies this notion completely.)
The Coffee Shop: Despite some of my complaints about the quality of customer service (on top of a less than eight-hour work day), British coffee shops are terrific. Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate—coffee shops are a place of both individual and social flourishing. Whereas in America, one sees more people reading alone or taking their coffee to go, coffee shops in Britain retain the sort of salon feel that doubtless marked their existence around the turn of the century. Simply put, the Brits manage somehow to maintain the intellectual milieu of the coffee shop without the somewhat empty, capitalist feeling of transaction and departure, say, from an American Starbucks. After the coffee shops close, intellectual conversations shift to the pubs and ale houses. Another great British amalgam is the coffee shop/bookstore combination (with a much different feel, of course, than your average Starbucks inside of a Barnes & Noble).
Bookstores and Publishers: Bookstores abound in England, and not just in my university town. Many of them are independent, picayune bookstores that deal in both new books and used, often timeless, tomes. The country’s largest bookstore chains are Blackwells and Waterstones, the former being very academic—far exceeding the quality of many university bookstores—and the latter more akin to the now-defunct Borders or Barnes & Noble. Even Waterstones, however, is more academic in the quality of its selected titles than a mainstream American bookstore; this undoubtedly says something about the British demand for the availability of quality academic reading. The ability of these chains to not just stay in business, but do remarkably well—even in the age of internet giants like Amazon, where in the UK, shipping is always free—is truly a testament to their quality. Another discernable difference is the quality of publishing in Britain. In America, there has been an incredible consolidation of non-university, non-academic presses. Penguin, Harcourt, Simon & Schuster, Random House, and several others dominate the publishing market in America; meanwhile, in Britain, a panoply of smaller presses exist, without the kind of consolidation that occurred in America. This is hugely important when it comes to translated works and other rare books (or versions) one would be hard-pressed to find on American shelves (usually, one would be left resorting to Amazon’s “virtual shelf”).
London and the Arts: Is there a more vibrant city in Europe than London? Perhaps Paris if you are a Francophone. For the Anglophone, however, London is the place to be. The availability and quality of the arts in London is really the elevating factor in its prominence. The number of cultural happenings in any given weekend is truly staggering.