Issue 2 - 6 October, 1997
In this issue...
Wot's on the telly?
Our trip to Ireland
A glimpse into the British psyche
Notes from the Underground
Wot's On TheTelly?
British television is like no other.
To start with, it's sort of like having five channels of PBS, with an attitude, and well funded. Channels 1 and 2 are the BBC - the original, noncommercial television networks. Sponsored by mandatory television license fees (about $140 per household per year) they are independent, intelligent, and very British. Channels 3, 4 and 5 are the "commercial" networks, deriving their operating costs from advertising revenues. Even though they are commercially sponsored, the quality of the programming is generally still very good, and even the commercials (called "adverts" here) are smart, sharp, and fun to watch -- you can sit through 50 seconds of a one-minute spot and have absolutely no clue who the sponsor is. (My favorite so far: An aboriginal youth stands on a parched landscape, speaking in his native tongue. A voice-over translates: "Water is a rare commodity in the desert". Cut to an old aboriginal man digging a hole with a stick. "My father digs to find frogs in mud below the sand. When he finds one he squeezes out the precious moisture." The father finds a fat bullfrog, puts it to his lips and begins to squeeze. As he climbs out of the pit, he comes face-to-face with a kangaroo and shrieks, dropping the frog and startling the kangaroo. Cut to the youth, now inside a pub. The kangaroo is behind the bar, polishing it with a rag. Youth speaks, voice-over continues: "Then again, my father was never the sharpest tool in the box." The last three seconds show a bottle of Foster's Ice Beer, with a frog kissing it.)
British tastes in programming runs more towards "real-social" rather than "fictional dramatic" programs, and seem to fall into five genres: game shows, cooking shows, gardening shows, antiques shows and detective shows. They love their detectives, and have every concievable variant: Male detectives. Female Detectives. Detectives in the future. Detectives in the past. Detectives who time-travel (no, not Dr. Who - this was a series called Crime Travellers). Detectives way in the past (Cadfael is a Quincy-like character who is a friar at a monastery in the MiddleAges. His investigations are deductive and intellectual, because modern forensic science hadn't yet been invented. Then again, the criminals don't have it any easier - gunpowder hadn't yet been invented, either.)
The game shows here are tough - even their version of Wheel of Fortune asks Jeopardy-like questions to decide who gets to spin the wheel. Game shows are fertile ground for genre-crossover: there's an antiques game show (two teams compete for points by evaluating, dating and auctioning antiques), a gardening game show (which team can edge that lawn the fastest?...) a cooking game show (two professional chefs have raw ingredients brought in by audience members, then its a race against the clock to see which chef can make the best course out of those ingredients in twenty minutes) and, yes, even a detective game show. (Sort of. "Stalkers" have to find "Hiders", each of which has a video linkup to the studio where the audience sits. I still haven't figured out why the teams don't just arm themselves with portable televisions - the show is broadcast live - but, maybe that just wouldn't be cricket.)
There are crossovers in other fields too - there's a detective drana about a police investigator who moonlights as a restauranteur, and loves to cook and develop new dishes, all the while solving crimes. And then there's this bizzare gardening program where one spouse gets the other out of the house for a couple of days, and a crew called the "Ground Force" comes in and completely redoes the couple's garden before the mate returns.
I'm just waiting for a program about an antique-loving detective who investigates a crime at dinner party held for game-show contestants in a garden...
Shortly after our arrival in Ireland, two events, like omens, set the tone for the rest of the trip.
First, when we landed, the Aer Lingus 737 came to a stop, did a U-turn on the main runway, and then, unhurriedly taxied back along the runway to the terminal building. I watched in disbelief -- Cork is a small airport if they can pull off this kind of maneuver.
This was a foreshadowing of driving (and life) in Ireland: roads are narrow; there is rarely more than one lane; and fifth gear in a car will never wear out because it's not used. And this is all quite all right with the natives, because the pace is unhurried and gentle.
The second event occurred shortly after we arrived, while driving from Cork to Bantry, where we had booked our hotel. Finding ourselves getting quite hungry as the afternoon progressed, we resolved to stop at the next reasonable place.
The "next reasonable place" turned out be an intersection of two roads that (we later found out) was a town called Inchegeelah. "Town" only in the academic sense - there was barely a handful of houses, two stores, a main-street bed-and-breakfast hotel ... and two pubs.
We picked the one on the left.
It was a dark place, smoky and populated by locals - a man in front of the bar greeted us, another man in a corner was happily nursing a stout (beer), a few workers were seated around a table discussing loudly, and two couples conversed in muted tones. It was quite uncrowded - we'd obviously missed the lunchtime crowd, and the evening patrons hadn't yet started to gather.
We ordered our food, and took our drinks over to a side room that was a bit less smoky. Sipping our drinks (a Coke for Jane - she was driving - and stout for me - I was navigating and needed all the help I could get), we unfolded the map and tried to puzzle out exactly where we were.
The man who greeted us came by and introduced himself as the owner, and started talking with us. Over the next three-quarters hour, he told us about his family (eight brothers and sisters), but mostly we learned about Ireland - her history, her peoples, and the intense pride that the Irish have in their country. He obligingly sketched out more day-trips than we could possibly take, told us what places were worth seeing and which were over-rated, and even recommended some hotels that were run by relatives of his. (In Ireland, it seems that the entire country is one big happy extended family.)
And so it was, over and over again, that we found this to be a beautiful land, populated by warm and friendly people.
Originally, we had intended to drive around this entire island country in our five days here. We soon found that we had grossly overestimated our abilities - we didn't ever get out of County Cork! The roads make it difficult to get anywhere fast, but much more than that, tiny gems await you around every corner. Lonely lighthouses on outcroppings of rock; unspoiled beaches that (even in mid-August) were almost deserted; and craggy cliffs looming over the thunder of the ocean below. Yes, we did do the touristy stuff (Blarney Castle, and while you're there, you gotta kiss the stone ... didn't seem to help me any), but the best memories are those of drives taken down country lanes with just a vague goal in mind, and letting serendipity take its course.
Bantry House, overlooking Bantry Bay
We stayed in Bantry, a small fishing town on the southwest coast. No, that's not our hotel above - it's a manor house overlooking the bay, that has since been converted into a museum and youth hostel. The town itself is has a population of about 8,000 permanent residents (making it a booming metropolis by Irish standards) and probably half again as many tourists. But it's not a tourist trap - you feel more like you're staying with these people and sharing their life for a while.
The southwest coast of Ireland is composed of a number of peninsulas, fingers reaching into the sea. Each peninsula has its own charm, and we spent many hours exploring them. There are many spots along the coast where you can sit and watch the sea. We had found just such a secluded spot, when a woman and her two daughters came riding up on bicycles. In the pleasant conversation that followed (the Irish are natural conversationalists), we found the mother grew up in this area, but for the past ten years her husband's work had taken the family to Saudi Arabia. The mother works there as a teacher, and two months out of every year, she and her daughtetrs come back to Cork. It's easy to see why.
In looking back on the trip, I realize that it's kind of odd: it doesn't seem like we did very much, but rather, we just were. That's kind of like the country, it's a feeling, a flow. You marvel at how many different shades of green there are; you absorb the sights, sounds and smells; you weave yourself into the fabric of its tapestry; you become part of it, and it of you. No, I don't have any Irish blood in me, but it's easy to see why so many people look with fondness on this land.
There are many more roads to explore. We'll be back.
A tiny glimpse into the British Psyche...
We have been privileged to be here for two historic events, and have seen the British at their finest -- in times of happiness as well as in times of grief.
The first, happy, event occurred in April and May, when we saw first-hand the electoral process at work; a process that ultimately overturned the decades-long Conservative dynasty in a defeat of landslide proportions. The day after the election, the Guardian, a national newspaper, introduced the election results with the following essay: "This was our Velvet Revolution, and yesterday the population went wild, British-style. People were seen breaking into half-smiles in public while reading the papers; some thought about making eye contact in the Tube; others even considered talking to complete strangers, then remembered themselves and drew back."
"After all, almost one adult in five had missed the mood sufficiently to vote Conservative, and it was remotely possible that you could meet someone willing to admit it."
Since then, people have begun to mutter about how little has really changed. I suppose that is the same on both sides of the Atlantic...
One amazing aspect of the entire process was its speed. In the US, we're used to a year of campaigning, with probably an equally long period of posturing and positioning before. Not so in Britain. The entire process - from announcement of the election to installation of the new government - takes about a month. The electoral process works something like this (...and I apologise - note the correct spelling - to all our British friends if the details aren't quite right, I'm working from memory):
The government and Prime Minister serve for a term of five years. An election can be called by the Prime Minister at any time; it can also be triggered by a vote of no confidence; and finally, it's mandatory after five years (although it's considered bad form to serve out your entire term). Opposition parties have a "shadow cabinet" - ministers for all posts occupied by the majority. Once the election is called (or forced), it must occur within a month, and the training of the shadow cabinet kicks into high gear: they are briefed in detail on all aspects and decistions of government. That way, no matter which party wins, handover occurs within days of the election.
If you visit England during a national election, you may well not know it's even happened, as the entire process is so low key. There's very little advertising and none of the hype that surrounds U.S. elections, because media spending is controlled and limited. And, if a party is found to have over-spent its allocation, the results of the election can be invalidated.
In the weeks that followed the election and the funeral, some spoke out about the "un-Britishness of the reaction" to both incidents. Newspaper editorials decried the "dropping of the traditional British reserve", and worried aloud whether this was the start of a worrying new trend: that it may be okay in England to express your feelings. For now, things seem to be pretty much back to normal. But I do know that we were very lucky to be here for two unique and special events.
With the exception of four days in Ireland and a day trip to Stonehenge, it's been almost six months since either of us has driven a car.
And not once in those months have we missed it.
Coming from an area where public transportation is almost nonexistent, I'm continually impressed by the British system. It's clean, efficient, and gets you where you want to go, when you want to get there. In many cases, faster than by car.
Most of it is rail-based. This nation's lifeblood flows through arteries of steel. You're never far from tracks, and in some cases the amount of trackage borders on the absurd: when we took the train to Paris (yes, Paris - two and a half hours via the Chunnel) there was a stretch south of London where nine parallel sets of tracks went across one bridge over the Thames.
In London, the rail of choice is the London Underground, or the Tube. (Don't call it a subway, that means something completely different here - a pedestrian underpass.) The Underground has no equal, anywhere in the world. They claim it's the largest system, an honor also claimed by New York. It depends on how you measure it (total trackage or number of stations). Though the locals will grumble about it (it's in their nature - they have to moan about something), it is efficient, safe, relatively clean, and for the most part, the best way to get around in London. And those are just a few of the system's many merits. I personally like it for the freedoms offered: if I'm tired, I can doze off; otherwise I can read, sightsee out the windows, or people-watch. (Try doing any of those while driving to work!)
Now, it may seem strange to get overly enthusiastic about public transportation, but the Tube has a lot by which to recommend it. In a city where car ownership is difficult at best, the Tube and buses are necessities for urban life. (Narrow streets demand nerves of steel while driving, and parking is so scarce that you routinely see Rolls, Jaguar and Bently hunting for street parking.) And, the system is incredibly convenient. The frequency of service and the availability of long-term passes (monthly, in our case) make you think of the system more as a "horizontal elevator" than a trains and buses - they become seamless elements in your journey. Just last night, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to pick up a book I'd seen in a bookshop in Victoria Station. Eighteen minutes later, I was in the store.
Okay, now here's the standard disclaimers: Professional Rider onWell-Known (and Properly Functioning) Path. Don't try this at home. Your mileage may vary. Jane swears that she's subject to a "Tube jinx" - anything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and delays her journey. Maybe, to keep the universal forces in balance, I have inordinately good luck with the Tube.
One of the neatest things about the Underground is that a lot of the system isn't. Underground, that is. Parts of the system were started in the 1860s, before electrification, and were designed to accommodate steam engines. So, many stations, and a lot of the trackage, is in cuts below street level, with an opening to the outside. This makes the rides really interesting, as there's always something to look at. Unlike driving along a highway, where the trip may be interesting for the first week or two, after six months of taking the same line to work, I'm still finding new aspects - an interesting bit of archietecture here, a construction site there, a row of neatly tended backyards somewhere else.
And I'm still trying to find that mannequin factory that I saw while looking down one side street.
Observations on life in Britain.
Of Boffins, Anoraks and Spods...
We really are "two nations seperated by a common language". On the surface, we both speak English, but it soon becomes obvious that distinct dialects have evolved quite differently on two shores of the Atlantic. The difference in word meaning is striking, and misuses by us colonists can range from the humorous ("pants", here, mean underwear; the outer garments are called "trousers", so if you get splashed by a puddle and complain of your pants being wet, your co-workers will smirk and chuckle) to the crude (in the US, a "fanny" is a polite way to refer to your hindquarters; here, it's a colloquialism for a particular part of the female anatomy). And there are many words that have no equivalents at all:
Finally, and in keeping with this theme, there's sad. Unlike the American meaning of simply "unhappy", a "sad individual" here is one who has invested far more time and effort studying some obscure or arcane subject than is healthy or normal. Thus, Trekkies (the really rabid ones, who know what Capt. Kirk's middle initial stands for) are sad. People who are proud of their complete Village People record collection are sad. Computer-games fanatics are sad.
I have been called an anorak for collecting fonts and studying typography, and have been termed sad for writing these web pages. When the insults are in the native dialect, I guess that means you've been accepted...