Mittwoch, 23. Februar 2011

The Travelogue, Part II - England: Proud Eccentrics

National Value Eccentricity 
- or be anything but boring

"Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character had abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and courage which it contained."
- John Stuart Mill

One thing I love about England is that it values being different. Being a freak is seen as a sign of having a rich and interesting personality. Whereas in Germany you'd better not stand out too much, over here a modicum of weirdness is almost required to be considered a normal person. This eccentricity will take various forms, from trendy Shoreditch hipsters and tacky hen night girls to trainspotters; everyone here seems to have their little perks they carry outward.
There's a whole set of famous eccentrics that are well loved and often referenced. Take the example of Jeremy Bentham, founding father of the philosophical school of Utilitarianism, who had his corpse preserved for display at the University College of London. For anniversary college council meetings he is marked in protocol as 'present, but not voting'. Or how about the 5th Duke of Portland, who disliked the company of other humans so much he created an 12 acre underground complex to live in – painted entirely in pink. For more recent specimen, scout for some Adam Ant, Russell Brand or John McCririck.
I also assure you that the most competitions of bizarre nature take place in Britain. Want examples?

How about Conkers Championships

 Chap Olympics?

Or maybe the Gurning Competition?


If you now find yourself wanting explanation for all this, I have heard many theories about why the English are just more weird than other peoples. One of my (British) friends argues that because the English are not particularly good looking, they have to carry their personalities outward just a notch more. My french flatmate argued it stems from the the persistent reluctance to get invaded by culturally superior people. An article I once read suggested that Britain's rapid colonisation of the world and ensuing influx of money and cultural multitude allowed the British gentry to be carefree and extravagant.

I'd personally like to think that it's not its territorial expansion as an Empire, but simply this acceptance (or even encouragement) of quirky characters that has made British music, fashion, art and humour world famous.

Samstag, 19. Februar 2011

The Travelogue, Part I - England: Tradition Trumps Practicality

My travelogue begins with...England. Yes. England. After all, it's a foreign country, and its peculiarities are not less interesting than those of Thailand or Iran. Having lived her for almost three years, I have had quite a broad range of experiences, from cider with BNP supporters on the train to wine with a British lord on his estate, and I thought some of these experiences and observations I have made might be worth sharing for education and entertainment. 
If you feel like I'm treating your country unfairly, or you find some of the information inaccurate, remember that it is only a subjective point of view, a collection of personal experiences, and little more.

Tradition Trumps Practicality

Anyone who has been to Japan will probably agree on this; people who live on islands are weird. The size of the island seems to matter little in this aspect, and separation from the main landmass seems to foster and preserve all kinds of eccentric behaviours and traditions. Like Japan does in Asia, England perceives itself to be culturally separate from the mainland, and many British will strongly reject the notion that they are Europeans. This comes with a silent assumption that non-locals will never truly grasp oder understand Britishness. Sometimes it goes as far as inhabitants helpfully explaining British humour to help your cultural integration.
I cannot deny, however, that some aspects of British culture do elude my grasp. One of these aspects is its reluctancy to abolish overcome traditions.
Generally, England has struck me as a place where patina still has some value. The Queen's Guard, Beef Eaters, Bobbies; all of the styles of the past are kept alive somehow. Even my staunchest British technophiles love their pubs of brass and wood and their rows of Victorian townhouses. Some, like my landlord, would not even part with separate hot and cold water taps for a modern mixer tap, or would think of installing a modern, easy to use window handle. Every flat I lived in had a different, utterly impractical way of opening and closing windows, which was reinstated in the same awkward manner when broken.
England is also surprisingly anachronistic administratively, to the point where I have come to believe that the English must love the quaintness of the system just as much as the masses of tourists that come each year to marvel at the remnants of its products.
For one, there are the leftovers of feudal times gone long past. No, I'm not talking about the Queen (she's actually a extremely valuable PR asset), but the system of leaseholds, which is essentially a beefed up version of medieval vassalage: unless you are a freeholder (usually equals lord), all land belongs to the crown, and you will only ever be able to hold a temporary tenancy on the ground (and what you build on it!). While these tenancies are usually generously scaled (a thousand years in some cases), it still means that Crown Estate is one of the largest landholders in Britain, owning 55 % of its coastline and large urban porperties. Becoming a freeholder is possible, yet difficult, and until then you are just another serf to till the land.
Then there is the House of Lords, while subject to tentative reform over the years, is still pretty much a gentlemen's club lobbying for the status quo of the British upper class. Only recently the amount of hereditary members was reduced to 90, which is only some hundred years since the abolition of inheritance of political positions in the rest of Europe. As an added cherry on this medieval cake, the Church of England provides twenty-six permanent members to the House, the Lords Spiritual, making Britain the only (officially) non-secularized nation in Europe.
Or how about common law? Devised in the middle ages (when it probably made more sense), common law essentially means that jurisdiction in a trial must be based on previous similar cases. That gives you about 800 years of British legislative history to choose from. For example, the Magna Carta, drafted in 1215, is still a partially valid legal document in modern England. Many old laws, some of them rather obscure, have also not been abolished. In theory, for example, every Englishman would have to practice two hours of shooting the longbow each Sunday as decreed by the Archery Law of 1363. If you happen to be in York, any Scotsman with a bow and arrow is stil fair game after sundown and can be shot down. It is also officially illegal to die in the house of parliament. Go figure.
The adoption of the metric system has been riddled with similar oddities. After being met with strong resistance, it has been compulsory since 1965, some 20 years after the majority of countries had adopted it. Even then, it was met with staunch conservative resistance. Some of the arguments brought to bear were “people (on the continent) have on their desks calculating machines while we in Britain do the same sums in our heads." or that “...the kilo is too heavy for the housewife to carry. Still today, the use of imperial measurements is far from in decline. Like so many other local quirks it has instead risen to further prominence to form an integral part of national identity and woe befall any who even dares mention any length or weight in metrics. In the case of one Austrian pub, serving their draught in German steins almost cost them their license, as beer, among others, is an exception from the metric law and must be served in pints.
I know that by even writing about this I have already upset a few of my friends to the point where I will get a stern lecture on the time-honoured superiority of the foot, the stone and the pint next time I meet them.

Mittwoch, 16. Februar 2011

My List of Ten Things to do while still in England - No. 8 - Posh Afternoon Tea

Thank you Miss Muckett and Lindsay for organizing this splendid display of tea and treats.

Still on the list are:

- Shooting clay pidgeons with an English lord (thankfully I have one)
- Learning an obscure English accent (Cockney, likely)