The Bryttans in Britain

Issue 4 - 6 January, 1998

Welcome to issue 4!

A bit of good news: We've recently gotten two items that will affect this webpage.

The first is a scanner. A very basic, cheap unit, it's not terribly fast or smart, but it will allow me incorporate more photos into these pages. Don't worry, I'll try my darndest to keep this from turning into the dreaded "relatives' summer vacation slide show".

The second is a good dictionary - I've finally found one that passes the "anorak test". (Look up anorak. If it contains BOTH definitions - the windbreaker, and the socially inept individual - then that's the one. Surprisingly, many dictionaries don't even have the first.) Now I have a penultimate reference to the local flavour of this language that we supposedly share.

Actually, administering the anorak test was an interesting challenge itself. Brits are inveterate readers - newspaper and magazine sections of bookstores are usually three-deep in browsers and casual readers. I, on the other hand, would head straight for the reference section, and apply the test to each type of dictionary on the shelf. When a clerk asked if I needed help, I'd reply, "No thanks, I'm just looking up anorak". They'd smile knowingly and walk away...

In this issue...

British Humour

Year-End Round-up


Random Lines

British Humour

The British are a funny people. Not curious-funny, though that they are too, but genuinely humorous. And not the vulgar, in-your-face comedy that we Americans have become accustomed to. Rather, they have a quiet, self-effacing style about their humor that makes it genuinely endearing, approachable, and outrageously funny all at once.

In person, every English person I've met seems capable of engaging in a witty banter that leaves us seeming coarse and crude by comparison. Even the most hardened bureaucrat will have a disarmingly funny view of the world, making the "rules" that much easier to follow.

But it's the written word where British wit really shines. The English are voracious readers. London has over a dozen daily newspapers, and the quality of the writing is excellent. Here are some excerpts taken from a TV review written by Jim Shelley (who goes by the pseudonymn of TapeHead):

And, the next week...

Advertisements are another place where the written humor really shines. The Brits are very clever with their ads, and use humor and words to cut through the clutter and make their point. Here's a simple poster that appeared in the Underground last spring for the Museum of London:

Thumbs up, thumbs down...

Year-end Round-up:

The Best (and worst) of living in Britain

It's the end of the year: summary time. After nine months of living here, we can finally take on the question,"What's it like?". It's familiar yet strange, gentle and perplexing all at once. Some things are better here, while some are better in the Colonies. Among the most notable:

(Thumbs Up)Transportation: Oh, were that the U. S. had a transport network one-quarter as good as that of Great Britain. I'd even settle for one-tenth. The road system here is excellent, but one rarely needs it. You can get everywhere by public transport. Practically every city, village and hamlet has rail service, usually twice hourly. I remember the Amtrak rail schedule for the entire United States was about thirty pages long. Here, British Rail publishes a schedule that is 2,150 pages of very fine print. Long-haul busses are equally impressive; and in London, the Tube is without parallel. It all adds up to an efficient lifestyle where a car is a liability, not an asset.

(Thumbs Up)Television: It'll be tough to go back to TV in the US. Very tough. In the the words of an American comic, "I keep turning up the brightness control, but it doesn't seem to help any -- the programs are still stupid!". Despite the fact that there are only five terrestrial channels available, there's always something interesting to watch, most of it presented with a wry viewpoint. For instance, as I write this, it is the Christmas season, and on television, that's kind of like all three sweeps months rolled into one. All the best programming and first-run movies are trotted out at this time, the rationale being that you're stuck with family and not liking it anyway, so why not turn on the telly and lighten the load a bit by watching a fantasy of what Christmas should be? (Not my words, but those of a BBC program director - Brits are nothing if not realists.) On Christmas day, we watched a very interesting documentary on, of all things, Christmas specials, and how they have evolved in the last four decades.

(Thumbs down)Plumbing: I find this rather puzzling. For the country that pioneered steam power and hydraulics, and gave the world some of the greatest minds of the Industrial Revolution, the British seem to have a difficult time containing water. Every toilet where I work has ponds of standing water. Our bathroom at home has experienced several downpours from the apartment above. During a Virgin Airways flight, I got dripped on. (The flight attendant's explanation: "Oh, that's okay sir, they all do that." Very reassuring, indeed.) Even our coffeemaker at home is a game of chance - sometimes you get perfect cups of coffee, other times, it's perfect half-cups and brown puddles on the countertop. And don't even get me started about changing washers...

(Thumbs Up)Beer: English Bitters beer is, without reservation, the best in the world. Curious thing about the natives. In pubs, they have the fine bitters, hand-pumped from barrels that have a very limited shelf lives (about two weeks), and served in proper pint glasses, so what do they order to impress their friends? A 12-ounce bottle of Budweiser. Sheesh. Why? "Oh, well bitters are so heavy, I just wanted something lighter". Yeah, right. Even Americans don't drink Bud if they can at all help it.

(Thumbs down)Haircuts: Sorry folks, but we have't yet found a reasonable place that cuts hair well. We've barely found a place that cuts it straight. I think that accounts for the popularity of the "skinhead" look here ... and most of the guys have pretty short hair, too. Really now, can you name one Brit with good hair? John Major? Bob Geldoff? Benny Hill??? Perhaps it's the weather, the wind, or something in the water, but folks here are tonsorially challanged and it seems that everyone (including us) has a prepetual "bad-hair-day". By unspoken general agreement, we all refrain from commenting on it.

(-) Food: Hmm, tough one. Everyone gripes about British food, especially the Brits. But in reality, I've grown quite fond of "pub grub". It's not fancy, mind you, but solid, hearty and nutritious. A perfect complement to English beer. But, I'd probably get booed off the stage (by both sides of the Atlantic) if I said anything complimentary about the eats here, so I'll stay politely neutral.

(Thumbs Up)Entertainment: Britain has a long tradition of theater. Live performances, be they classic drama, street theatre, or stand-up comedy, are found in abundance here. I suspect that every native is actually a frustrated closet thespian. Normally, they are mild-mannered and reserved; but get them going on a topic close to their hearts (or lubricate them with a few pints), and you can witness performances to put the Royal Shakespeare Company to shame.

(-) Weather: Let me clear up a misconception: The reason folks here are pictured carrying umbrellas is not becuase it always rains here. In terms of total annual rainfall, London gets less water than North Carolina. No, the reason you carry an umbrella is because the weather is so variable. If you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes. If you don't want to wait fifteen, wait five. It will change. Guaranteed.

(Thumbs Up)(Thumbs Up)Lifestyle: We Americans get emotional over every little thing - our jobs, the econonomy, wars, politics; Brits are more level-headed - they reserve their passion for the really important things in life: football and weather. Seriously, though, the lifestyle here is much more benign. Rarely does anyone put in excess hours at work - labor laws here are much more protective of the worker. You don't always have to be on your guard - there's more of a we're-all-in-this-together attitude here, and you can generally assume that most people will be honest and helpful. And they know how to relax here - go to a pub with good friends, and no matter how bad the day, you can put it behind you as it melts into evening.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Temple of the Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi

(21-24 November)

"If you see an open area, design it!" - guidebook on Barcelona.

In our adventure so far, we've encountered many superlatives: Ireland has the most beautiful countryside; London is the most livable and exciting; Paris is the most, er, French ... I'd like to add one for Barcelona. Barcelona is, aesthetically, the most beautiful city we've seen. (So far, of course -- but I suspect that the distinction will be difficult to topple.)

a very ornate streetlamp...Barcelona is a city of artists and architects, who abhor straight lines and undecorated spaces. Everywhere you turn, you practically trip over a masterpiece of building, decoration or sculpture. And the style of decoration, which would be considered loud and garish anywhere else, fits in perfectly here.

Now, I'm an architecture buff, and in Barcelona, I was like a kid in a candy store. Almost an entire roll of film was spent snapping facades. Anywhere else in the world, the function of a building determines its form: a utilitarian purpose - an office block or warehouse, perhaps - has an equally utilitarian look about it. Not here, though. Even the most prosaic apartment building is adorned with balconies, statuary, and rooms overhanging the main entryway (an architectural motif that is uniquely Barcelonian) that have a fluid, curvy feel to them. Even something as simple as a lamp post is festooned with leaves and flowers sprouting from a marble bench base, so that it looks more like a living creature than a rod holding a bulb.

The architecture of Barcelona reached its pinnacle in Antoni Gaudi. It's hard to say if Gaudi drove Barcelonian design, or was sculpted by his environment and was the ultimate expression of it; Gaudi and the archietecture of Barcelona are inextricably intertwined.

Gaudi's style was to take the round and fluid Spanish/Catlan style to the extreme, so that his buildings look more like some living creature that has become fossilized on the spot, than a series of masonry blocks stacked atop each other. His designs could be set pieces for a science-fiction film, and have no doubt inspired many an organic extra-terrestrial. (Casa Mila, below, would be more at home in an Alien movie than on a street corner in a major city.)

Gaudi's crowning achievement, the Temple of the Sagrada Familia, was started before the turn of the century, and so far only the exterior walls have been completed -- no roof or interior. Gaudi's untimely death, the destruction of his plans in the Spanish Civil War, and various fiscal difficulties have conspired to halt the project several times. The parts that are built, however, are absolutely amazing - one can spend (as we did) an hour looking at one wall, and still see new images in the stonework - such is the level of detail of Gaudi's design.

Casa Mila was originally designed as an apartment house, but fell into disrepair until it was recently accquired by a bank and converted into an office block. Like Gaudi's other works, it looks organic, as if it had grown out of the spot where it stands. The bank now runs tours to the roof, where you can see the ornate scupltures used to adorn the heating and ventilation stacks, and see the various (very modern) design features implemented into the buildings. Looking at the building, and seeing the exhibit, it's unbelievable that so modern a structure was completed before the start of the First World War!

Casa Mila, Barcelona

Casa Mila, La Pedrera

Random Lines

Observations on life in Britain.

Short Breaks: Edinburgh

Hogmanay. That's the Scottish term for a proper New Year's celebration, and we were lucky enough to be in Edinburgh to bring in 1998. The Edinburgh Hogmanay street festival, by the way, is THE place to ring in the New Year in Britain, if not in all of Europe. We joined 200,000 of our closest friends (whom we had never met before) on Princes Street and saw the best fireworks anywhere, heard great music, got sprayed by champagne, got crushed by the crowds, counted down to zero, and narrowly avoided being vomited upon. A proper New Year celebration indeed.Edinburgh's Hogmanay Street Artists

Oh yes, and there were the street performers. An interesting aspect of living in Europe (and something I have yet to see anywhere in America) is the presence - no, the active encouragement of street performance art. And Hogmanay had plenty (see right): Strange Fruit were Australian mimes-on-a-stick -- eight performers swayed back and forth atop fifteen-foot poles, alternately interacting with each other and the crowd below. Les Big Brozeurs were four performers that ran through the crowds costumed as big men in trenchcoats with telescoping rubber-necks and heads that had an uncanny resemblence to John Major. And Generik Vapeur proceeded down a street (cleared by a phalanx of local police) tossing barrels illuminated by flares, to rhythm set by an electric bass player and drummer on a flatbed truck, dressed in blue overalls and wearing blue body paint and red lipstick. Very unsettling and effective, in a post-apocalyptic sort of way. (Funny thing that -- after one of their performances, which we ran into quite by accident while walking along the street, we went to the pool in our hotel. The performers must have been staying in our hotel also, because we watched with some amusement as fierce and scary blue people dashed into the pool changing room and emerged as polite and reserved Frenchmen.)

Once the streets were cleaned from Hogmanay (which amazingly, only took about six hours), we got on with the serious business of touristing. Yes, the Scots are, er, thrifty. (Edinburgh Castle fires a one o'clock cannon daily as a time signal. Why not noon? According to a guide,"With the well-deserved Scottish reputation for proper fiscal management, it was obvious that firing one shot was much more efficient than firing twelve.") But they are also a warm and hospitable people, who, while perhaps a little befuddled as to why you would want to visit their city in the first place, are nonetheless happy to welcome you and show you around.

And what a beautiful city it is. A castle, a royal palace, great food, and more history than you could shake a stick at (including underground vaults, tunnels, medieval witches and grave robbers). Oh yes, and the Scottish Whisky Heritage Centre, which does a great job of tying it all together, not to mention the sample tasting at the end of the tour.

Cop Story

It's true. Most English police do not carry guns. (They don't have to - many types of firearms are illegal, and the rest are strictly controlled. Shootings are very rare here - so much so that they usually make the national news.) And, reflecting the propriety that is genetic to all natives, they are also polite to the core. A comedian here portrayed a constable chasing a criminal yelling, "Stop, or I'll ... er, say 'stop' again!".

The police are very effective, though. We had window perch in a pub, and watched an arrest take place - three police cars converged on an pedestrian island in a busy intersection, the officers leapt out and quickly handcuffed and took away two suspects, all in less than a minute. Several officers then came into our pub and politely asked a few questions and searched the toilets - apparently a third suspect was still at large. It was quite amazing how smoothly and quietly the whole operation went off: no gunplay, screeching tires,or violence - hardly even a raised voice.

No doubt the effectiveness of the police contributes to the general feeling of safety that you have in London. As in any large city, there are places where I wouldn't wander, but in general, I've felt safer here than in any city, and many small towns, in America. We overlook a busy street, and it's not uncommon to see women walking alone at midnight.

Which makes it all the more shocking when we travel to nearby countries for a weekend, and see local police walking in pairs, clad in fatigues, and brandishing uzi rifles.

Short Breaks: York

If you ever go to York, be forewarned: you cannot possibly tour the city in a day. It's not that it's spread out: a compact city, most of York's interesting sites are less than ten minutes' walk from the railway station. It's just that there's so much. We spent one weekend, and still had to proceed through most of the attractions at turbo speed, leaving some undone.

There's the National Railway Museum. For a train buff like me, this place was heaven. Built in an old trainyard (with a working turntable), it houses probably the most complete collection of locomotives, cars, and rail paraphenalia anywhere, from two-century-old locomotives through to mock-ups of the most modern high-speed systems.

We took a Ghost Tour. Residents of York are justifiably proud of their ghosts, and delight in telling you that they have the third most-haunted place in England (the first is the Tower of London; the second is a building in County Essex ... yes, the Brits are natural-born list-makers and statisticians, also). The tourguide had a black cane, a tophat, and a black overcoat. But is isn't all that scary -there's a heavy dose of British humor mixed in, too.

But our favorite site, and definite must-visit for everyone, is the York Castle Museum. The museum recreates everyday life, not with stationary display cases, but complete rooms from past periods, including sounds and smells. Most impressive were two streets that were completely recreated to represent different periods in English history. You could wander from business to business and see what goods and activities people of that time engaged in - learn about history by window-shopping. A truly brilliant way to display museum items.


...stay tuned!