Issue 5 - 23 March, 1998
In this issue...
The British are a very literate people. London's population is slightly less than New York's, a city where three major newspapers are barely surviving. In London, however, there are well over a dozen major dailies, catering to all tastes and segments of the popoulation. So much so, that during rush hour, you feel naked and left out if you're not reading while riding on the Underground (I always keep reading material in my bookbag for just such a purpose.)
The papers here cater to different audiences, and, surprisingly, not all of them try to be objectively neutral. It doesn't affect their news-reporting capability - they're far too proud of their long tradition of reportage - but it does color the presentation in subtle ways. As long as the newspaper is up-front about its political affiliation (and all are), it makes it that much more interesting to read journalism with an axe to grind. The Daily Telegraph (or Tory-graph, as it is called by its detractors), for instance, is staunchly conservative. In a recent article, they claimed that girls doing better boys in English schools is due to "the increasing feminization of our schools", the fact that standardized testing favors the "diligence exhibited by girls", and that boys are being "emotionally repressed" in such an environment. (Note to US readers: Rush would love this paper.) On the other hand, The Guardian (which I've quoted here before; yes, I read it often), has a decidedly more liberal bent; it supported Labour in the past election, but also works hard at keeping politicians of any stripe honest. (By the way, the L-word is not considered a bad thing here at all; in fact the general consensus is that many Thatcher-era policies made a few wealthy, but did not benefit the populace as a whole.)
Political ideology aside, another distinction between the various papers is "seriousness". Here, the difference between broadsheet and tabloid goes far beyond paper size. The broadsheet (large-size) papers are all quite proper news delivery vehicles. The tabloids (smaller, half the size of a broadsheet), however, span the continuum between fairly serious afternoon dailies and, um, the other end...
Which brings us to the Sunday Sport. This paper was recently the subject of a BBC documentary, so I had to buy an issue to check it out -- research purposes only, of course. Well, it's sort of a cross between MAD magazine, the National Enquirer and Penthouse. The front page is splashed with lurid headlines - "Monkey Shoots Councillor" (wherein an uzi-toting chimp, trained by the Mafia, shot a politician and his gay lover in a Sicilian restaurant). The rest of the "news" stories aren't any better: Millenium holocaust predicted because Russia's nuclear missile computers can't deal with the year 2000; Doctors have developed a procedure to enlarge breasts by growing them -- "...Insiders working close to the project predict that once the procedure is smplified, 'grow your own' boob kits will be available".
A rare "Special
Card" from the Sport - rare in that
the model has her top on.
And speaking of which, the, ah, female upper torso seems to be a major focus of this paper. In the inside column of page two, buried in amongst the masthead, is a box entitled "This week's nipple count". (This particular issue had 40. That's "news nipples" only; advertisements, the magazine insert and the "special collector cards" probably increase the number tenfold.)
Now, to be perfectly fair, Sunday Sport does provide coverage of the eponymous* topic - eight and one-half pages worth, to be precise. That's out of a 48-page paper, 48-page magazine insert, and the aforementioned collector cards. The rest seems focused on tickling the male fancy. (I was going to say "titillating" here, but that would really have been a cheap shot.)
Which brings up a bit of a paradox: In the press here, there has been a lot of prurient interest in America's obsession with pornography. It's been reported that Americans spend thousands per capita on smutty videos and publications, spending which actually exceeds some mainstream media (like films). Seems that they've solved that problem here, like they've solved many of the problems we wrestle with back on the Colonies. You can get all you want for 55p. (about 80 cents)!
* eponymous - adj.
of the same name. Like Sport the paper name and sports the
(Is this a high-class web page, or what - it even has footnotes!)
Telly two, the revenge...
Early on (B in B # 2), I'd mentioned that most British television could be distilled down to five genres: crime shows, gardening shows, cooking shows, antiques shows, and game shows. Well, after a year of intense research, I must hang my head in shame and admit myself guilty of gross oversimplification -- there are at least two other genres to be found on "the box".
Veterinarians are a perennial favorite. Folks here love their pets, and it shows. English dogs and cats are the best-behaved I've seen anywhere - friendly, respectful, and polite. They are treated as members of the family - a pet may well follow its master into a pub, and it's not uncommon to see dogs on the Underground. Small wonder, then, that any given time there may be up to three different vet shows on the schedule.
A recent development is the docu-drama, also known as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, or FOW for short. The premise is simple: follow a group of people at work, over the course of several weeks through their various ups and downs. The workplace isn't portrayed as terribly glamorous, in fact, often it's quite the opposite: a hotel, a large supermarket, a cruise ship, an amusement park. But it is real, and ordinary people attain overnight celebrity just because millions of people empathize with their work situation. There's Jeremy, the long-suffering Aeroflot gate agent in Airport. Every week we see him shepherding wayward and confused Russian travellers, cajoling them on to their respective flights. (Whenever we fly through Heathrow now, we keep our eyes peeled for Jeremy - we want to get his autograph.) There's Jane, the English lounge singer performing on a cruise ship between Miami and the Carribean. After appearing on several episodes of The Cruise, she got her big break back in England, singing on the National Lottery. (Unlike the state lottery draws in the US, the National Lottery here is a big production: world-class acts [Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, the Spice Girls], studio audience, celebrity hosts, the works...)
And then there's Maureen. In Driving School, we went on terrifying rides with her and steel-nerved intructors (I certainly hope the film crew got hazardous duty pay), and rejoiced (sort of...) when, after a dozen failures, she finally got her driver's license. She's a national icon now -- any comedy program simply has to mention Maureen and show a picture of a dented car to be assured of a belly laugh. And if you're thinking of driving in Wales (where she lives) be on the lookout for a dark-haired little woman behind the wheel of a Lada. And make sure your insurance is paid up.
Going Postal in England
Move over, Cliff Clavin
and Newman the postman. Britain's role-model mail carrier is Postman Pat,
a fine and upstanding civil servant. Not only the star of a childrens television program, Pat also
has a higly successful line of children's merchandise.
Colloquialisms don't translate well.
Take the term , "going postal". Any American will know exactly what it means. A little over ten years ago, a disturbing trend appeared in the US: a disgruntled worker would, over lunch hour, purchase a high-powered semiautomatic weapon, then return and open fire on co-workers, and sometimes, customers. At first, an inordinately high percentage of such incidents involved disgruntled postal workers, and so "going postal" entered the national lexicon. Not that it's completely without merit: several years ago, I worked as a contractor in the Postal Service Data Network Center - about as far removed from the daily stress of mail delivery as you could get. Still, the regular employees all seemed to harbor a disturbing fascination with weaponry - several days into the assignment, an individual introduced himself by showing me a glossy color catalogue of guns and knives and saying that "you gotta get one of these", pointing to a particularly deadly-looking specimen. When I politely explained that I did not own a gun, nor did I have any interest in ever doing so, he stormed off in a huff, muttering how the "damn stinking Liberals" were bringing the country down.
Use "going postal" in England, and you get met with blank stares. The Royal Mail is a point of national pride, as well it should be. Most city dwellers, ourselves included, can count on two mail deliveries on weekdays: the first is around 7 am, when I am startled out of the shower by the banging of the mail flap in the door; the second is sometime in the afternoon. Mail a first-class letter anywhere in England, and it's reasonable to assume that it will reach its destination the next day. And all the Royal Mail workers I've encountered are dilligent, responsible and pleasant. We've even participated in a customer satisfaction survey (Sample question: How would you rate your mail carrier's appearance? Among the answer choices: neat and orderly; reasonably tidy; a bit scruffy...)
And then there's the portrayal in the media. Shortly after we arived, there was a comedy-drama on the BBC called "The Missing Postman". A genial older mailman, who served his appointed rounds by bicycle (yes they have quite a few of them here, even in London) was being forced into early retirement by automation. He decided to deliver his last letter to its destination personally, by bicycle ... taking him all the way to north of Scotland. It was a warmhearted adventure, one that made more than a few subtle statements about the value of tradition and the peril of dehumanizing automation.
Finally, there's Postman Pat. As the lead character in a BBC children's series, the beloved mail carrier in the small English village would face a new postal peril every episode: rain, sleet, fog, dark of night ... even his birthday, which, by the way, he spent doing his favorite work - delivering the mail. So succesful a role model is he, that Postman Pat toys and dolls are not only a big hit in the UK but are also exported to other countries -- except Japan. Seems that Postman Pat has only three fingers on each hand (as dolls and animated characters often do) and in Japan, three fingers indicate membership in the yakusa, or the Japanese Mafia. So Postman Pat's been banned in Japan.
Hmm. Wonder how the Japanese would accept a US postman doll, with interchangeable firepower and ammo clips?
An apology is in order:
I am getting WAY behind in writing up our various trips. Yes, in the last issue I promised
to write up Paris, from last April. But our latest trip, to Istanbul, was SO different, that it
it must take precedence, while the experiences are still fresh in our minds. No offence, Paris,
but perhaps next issue...
Istanbul is an amazing study in coexistence. East and West; Europe and Asia. A bustling port and center of commerce, yet home to truly amazing mosques and churches. Moslem and Christian live side-by side with calls to prayer from minarets mingling with the sounds of church bells. Commerce and spirituality mix: the spice bazzaar shares grounds with a major mosque. And, in an area with a substantial Islamic fundamentalist contingent, alcohol is readily available, and strip shows are openly touted.
And the people... Turks are tenacious bargianers, bordering on the obnoxious. (Note to Star Trek DS9 watchers: think of a city of 12 million Ferengi.) But when they're not trying to sell you something, they are a most warm and hospitable people.
sunset over the Bosphorous
Our first brush with Turkey occurred before we even left the ground at Heathrow. In line at the currency exchange, the gentlemen ahead of us was getting Italian money. 100 pounds sterling got him 300,000 Italian Lire. I snickered - how many tens of millions must a car cost in Italy? Approaching the cashier we placed 150 pounds sterling in the tray. The clerk got flustered; Turkish money was always such a pain, she said, and proceeded to count out 55 MILLION Turkish Lira.
Wow! We were millionaires!
The elation didn't last long, though - a cab ride cost a milion, a bottle of Pepsi, a quarter million, admission to a museum, another million ... a million here, a million there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.
These astronomical costs illustrate the underlying problem of rampant inflation. Checking the value of the currency during the month of February revealed a disturbing trend: at the start of February, the exchange was 357,000 to the pound, while at the end, it was almost 382,000. That's a drop of 6 % in one month! More importantly, it declined consistently during the entire month. With crushing inflation like that, it's no wonder that barter and street peddling are the rule of the day.
And its no wonder that everything looks dingy and ill-maintained. The museums and monuments, spectacular treasures all, look like funds were not available for routine cleaning and maintenance. Roads too. And public transport. To us, the concepts of macroeconomics were terribly boring and remote in school, but looking around Istanbul, they all come clearly into focus.
Ancient Science, Ancient Treasures
Istanbul was the focus of the world's archietectural, engineering and building talents. Take, for instance, the Ayasofya - the Church of the Divine Wisdom. Built 1500 years ago, this church would be a remarkable achievement even by today's standards, and it showcases a knowledge of materials and construction that was not available in the West for another millenium. Its main dome soars hundreds of feet above you, enclosing an interior space that is positively cavernous. Beautiful windows let in huge amounts of daylight. The upper gallery, some forty feet above the ground, contains priceless mosaics that themselves are almost a thousand years old. But the truly amazing thing is, that, despite starting out as a church, being converted to a mosque, and ending up a museum; despite wars, changes in government and religion, this monument is still standing.
Makes you feel insignificant, in time as well as space.
And the church is a relative newcomer when compared to some other monuments: The Hippodrome is a narrow park near the Ayasofya that displays various antiquities. The high point is an Egyptian obelisk carved in granite. The inscriptions in it are so crisp, the surface so smooth and undamaged by the elements, that you could swear that it couldn't be more than a year or two old. In actuality, it has been dated back to the 16th century BC, and was placed in its present spot in Istanbul in 390 AD.
They must have been great mathematicians, too. A pattern of two interlaced squares caught Jane's eye in the Ayasofya (as a template for a future quilting project). When we returned back to the hotel, we dusted off our knowledge of geometry and, using nothing more than a straight-edge, were able to discern "rules" for recreating this pattern to any scale. (A compass was the only other implement we needed, and it would have made the entire process more accurate.) Yet another surprise: knowledge that we had long ago dismissed, comes to life in this ciy.
Haggling and peddling as a way of life
I guess we should have picked up on it when we checked in to our hotel. "For forty dollars more, we can give you a room with a view", the clerk said. Er, no, thanks. (What, does the regular room not have a window? Turns out it did, and a nice one at that. The extra forty let you look across the Bosphorous into Asia.) We soon learned that you are sold everything, and you haggle for everything.
On our first day, we took a cab into the center of the city. Did we want a tour of the palaces, the cabbie asked. No, just downtown, please. 970,000 lira later (I suspect the cabbie didn't take the most direct route) he dropped us off in front of Ayasofya Church. Bad move on our part. A tall, fair-skinned couple get out of a cab in a tourist area, and the peddlers are all over you. Trinkets, scarves, brass tops, medallions - anything and everything is aggressively shoved in your face. One pre-teen was so convinced that we would buy his guidebook that he followed us for an entire block, dropping the price all the way. What started at 5 million could have been had for a mere million lira by the time we finally shook him. We were also joined by an older youth, who greeted us warmly and asked us where we from. (We figure that rule one in the Book of Peddling is: Ask your marks where they're from - it puts them at ease.) He then walked us to the Blue Mosque, chattering away, and appeared extremely surprised that mosque was closed to visitors because of the normal daily prayer service. Oh well, he said, he works in a carpet shop just around the corner, would we be interested in going there?
We went to Tokapi Palace instead. Once inside the palace, we had a brief respite from the sales pitches. Amazing place - emeralds larger than your fist, solid gold candlesticks that weigh more than 90 lbs, and porcelain techniques unlike any we've seen elsewhere, all displayed in dusty cases and protected by disinterested-looking guards - that economy thing again.
After Topkapi, we ran the gauntlet of peddlers to see the Blue Mosque again. This time we were met at the entrance to the grounds by an authoritative older man. "Closed. Prayer service." Funny, there seemed to be some decidely non Moslem-looking people inside, taking pictures. Our interceptor's English suddenly got very poor, and he chided us harshly in Turkish. With visions of Midnight Express in our heads, we decided discretion was the better part of valor, and turned around to leave. He followed us, and his English dramatically improved. "So, where are you from?" Oh, that again.
We finally did see the Blue Mosque, and Ayasofya, and the Hippodrome, but dealing with the constant peddlers was draining, so by early evening, we were ready to head back to the hotel. Approached a cab at a stand, "2,500,000 lira". Wait a minute, the ride in this morning was less than a million. "Traffic. Very bad." We finally settled on two million - you even have to bargain with the cabs here. (To give the driver credit, the afternoon traffic was very bad. And since the price was set ahead, the driver had incentive to get us to our destination, pronto. It was just a bit of a hair-raising ride - if on a scale of 10 for agressiveness, London drivers score 7 and New Yorkers score 10, then the Turks must be somewhere in the high thirties.)
Stupid tourist tricks
Guards at Dolmabahce Palace take one-hour turns standing absolutely still.
Visitors then take turns photographing and trying to figure out if the soldier on the box is real.
We were told when we arrived that Istanbul was a safe city - crime rates were comparatively low. We believe that, but it's not because the people are intrinsically honest, but rather, I suspect that the intimidating police presence has something to do with it. Everywhere you go, well-armed, tough-looking officers are on foot patrol.
More disturbing than the police everywhere, though, is the military. In our four days in Istanbul, I saw no fewer than five seperate military installations. (As compared with the one I've seen after more than a year in England - and that only because there's a Royal division near Buckigham Palace.) Our hotel faced a modern high-rise apartment building surrounded by a 15 foot perimeter fence, patrolled by military and dogs. I didn't ask.
Rather than making me feel safe, it all made me feel rather uneasy, as if the whole situation could erupt at any moment.
While Istanbul was well worth the visit, it was also good to be going home. We flew out and back via British Airways, and it was a bit of relief to be sitting among fellow Brits in the waiting area: people who know how to queue, post the final price on everything, and don't try to sell you things you don't want. Everyone else seemed to feel that way, too - the normally reticent English engaged in an animated banter, exchanging anectdotes about a shared adventure.
Two cultures, separated by a common language...
The longer we live here, the more we realize that American and English are indeed two different languages. We both originally started from the same place, but after that, ah, little indiscretion some two hundred years ago we've been travelling down different linguistic paths.
It's not as if you can't be understood here. Quite the contrary -Brits are more forgiving of verbal faux pas than an American ever would be. And perhaps because of their proximity to the Continent and all its languages, they have a keen listening ability that can make sense of the thickest of foreign accents. So it's only after you've lived here a while that you realize that vocabulary, grammar, and especially meaning and subtext really does set our two cultures apart.
Words still trip us up. Of course, most everyone knows that a "rubber" is an eraser in Britain, and "fags" are cigarettes. (As in, "Wait just a tic. I'll join you for a fag."). But canvas sport shoes, "sneakers" in America, are "trainers" here. And a "sweater" is a "jumper". (With quintissentially British phrasing, a television program on au pairs shows young woman bursting into tears upon opening a package and finding "a wooly jumper from me mum.")
Going to a hardware store, one often runs the risk of getting mired in terminological quicksand. Another transplanted American told us about how, finding his home a bit cold, wanted to get some flexible strips to seal the gap under the door. Weatherstrip, we Yanks call it. After a long discussion, the store clerk finally brought out a package labelled, "Draught Excluder".
We had a similar experience upon arrival. In the US, we have an safety device that prevents electrocution by detecting current leakage and quickly shutting off the power - it's called a ground-fault interrupter, or GFI for short. Both of these terms were met with a blank stare in an electrical store. So, I proceeded to describe the function to the clerk. Moments into the description, his face brightened. "Ah, yes," he said. "A residual current device!"
Erm, yea, right. I'll take one of those please...
Theatre Tales: Americans in London
On behalf of my country, I would like to issue a blanket apology to the people of Britain.
This is a true story. Really. Couldn't make this one up if we tried.
We recently went to see "Les Miserables" in the West End. Lovely play, well-acted, imaginative staging, and lots of eminently hummable music. The trouble with seeing such big blockbusters, though, is that most of the audience is American. They bring whole busloads of them in from God-knows-where. Anyway, we sat next to a very nice mother and daughter pair. Daughter was on a semester college exchange program, and mom was visiting her. Together, they were "doing" England.
Before the play, the daughter turned to us and asked, "What's this play about?" Ah, love story set in the French Revolution, we think. "Oh, it's about France?" Well, yeah - the Tricolor on the tickets, in the entryway, and projected 30 feet high onto the scrim before the stage should all be subtle hints.
During the intermission she turned to us again. "I didn't know France had a revolution - was it before or after World War II?" (My forehead was getting sore from slapping it so often.) Let's see - musket rifles, candles, goofy uniforms -- 'before' would be a pretty safe guess.
"Oh. Who won?"
Dennmark. They came from behind, scoring the game point in the last quarter.
Ah, so that explains it...
Going to museums in the UK is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful, because the research, information content and displays are unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Frustrating because there's so much stuff, you can't even scratch the surface in a day, let alone in a few hours. It's all quite interesting and well-presented, and so you give into temptation to linger over the displays. Then, when the guards are politely ushering you out at closing time, you say to yourself, "Wow. Barely saw a small fraction of that place - got to return another day."
Now I have a dozen "got to return another day" museums, and I'm afraid there aren't enough days.
The British are absolutely amazing collectors and classifiers - it must be in their genes. Not only in the public arena, but also in their private lives. (No doubt it accounts for the popularity of antiques shows.) It seems to be a point of pride here to have a definitive collection of something: 19-th century buttons, World War II Christmas cards, roofing tiles, dried flowers, tapes of old TV series... you wonder where they must keep it all. We often say that this island may well sink under the weight of all the accumulated stuff.
Well, now there is independent corroboration. The exhibit at the Thames Flood Barrier explains how flooding on the river has become more severe with time, for three reasons: development has narrowed the river channel; global warming has raised the mean sea level and increased North Sea storm activity; and (here it comes, brace yourself) the island of Great Britain is tilting -- the southeast (including London) is sinking, while the northwest (which is populated mostly by sheep, and they aren't big on collecting) is rising.
People, you've got to get rid of some of your stuff. Or at least, move the heavier bits up north to redress the balance...
A new web feature ... Picture Gallery ... watch for it!