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.

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