Last week’s Random Nomad interview with Melissa Stoey spawned a lively discussion on the subject of loving the romantic image of a country — namely England — rather than loving that country “as it is.”
However, the definition of “as it is” deserves its own debate. During the comments discussion, Melissa pointed us toward two posts on her site, Smitten By Britain: the first, “England Would Not Be England” by British gardening celebrity Alan Titchmarsh, and the second, “What England Is Really Like” by guest poster Tim Gillett, founder of Tourist Tracks.
They make interesting reading. Both are lists of items which in the authors’ opinions are representative of England, and yet, comparing the two lists, you could be forgiven for thinking they referred to different countries on opposite sides of the globe.
Titchmarsh’s version conjured up a gentle, genteel picture of eating cucumber sandwiches by a croquet lawn; indeed, his list included cucumber sandwiches (although not croquet.) Gillett’s list brought to mind a less poetic image of England: a picture of stuffing your face with doner kebabs in the High Street on Saturday nights, while stepping over puddles of lager-infused vomit.
Perception — or memory — of a country?
The thing is, though, there’s little I’d disagree with on either list. Maybe the “knotted hankies” on Titchmarsh’s list belong to the seaside excursions of fifty years ago, when Titchmarsh himself was a youngster. Then again — how many Ford Cortinas, an item on Gillett’s list, are still driving around in the UK? 1,317, according to the data on howmanyleft.co.uk., so they’re not such an everyday sight as they were twenty years ago.
No doubt age plays a part. I don’t know how old Mr Gillett is, but I’m hazarding a wild guess that he’s younger than Alan Titchmarsh, who turned 63 in May. From my own experience of reverse culture shock, I know that current perception is often confused by past recollection — my fond imaginings of England are rooted somewhere around the time when people wore Walkmans and acid-wash jeans.
But what really is “Typically English”?
What really struck me about the list by Tim Gillett, however, was the number of items that, while English, could also typify other countries. Titchmarsh’s list, for the main part, was stoically English, with the inclusion of Jane Austen, The National Trust, The Beano, Chatsworth, and Blackpool rock. Whether or not you agree that they are important or representative of England, they are nevertheless unique to that country.
Gillett’s list, on the other hand, had items such as “Misogyny”, “Reality TV”, and “Appalling public transport” — all of which could be placed on a list to typify America, when you consider the current abortion rights battles, the Kardashians, and the lack of buses everywhere. “‘Baby on Board‘ and other pointless car stickers”? Yes; and try the little stick figure families stuck on the rear window of every soccer mom’s SUV. “Almost everyone believing what they read in the papers”? Fox News. “Visible thongs”? OK, you’ve got me there — I’m hoping they will soon be a thing of the American past thanks to this tasteful little invention being sold on TV.
Coloring outside the cultural lines
What I’m saying here is not that Tim Gillett, in his funny, wry list, has come up with suggestions that are too general to be exclusively English (he also includes “EastEnders“, “Local pubs and real ale”, “Wayne Rooney“, and something so obviously English and cringeworthy I can’t believe I’ve never thought about it: “Ill-fitting brassieres”) but that cultural borders are gradually smudging.
I would love to know what a similar list would look like in another twenty years — so, please, let’s have your suggestions for how the American and English cultures will differ or be the same when the 2032 Olympics roll around!
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