First, let’s acknowledge some of the things that might prejudice me. I did live in the UK for several years as a child of about 10 to 12, so there is an element of going back to scenes of what was a happy childhood time.
Secondly, I’ve spent a lot of my life in the study of history, a lot of it British, so that there sometimes seems hardly a town in England or a street in London whose name isn’t familiar to me and connected to some episode or other that has captured my interest at some time.
Thirdly, I just like having old stuff around me. I live in Bishop’s House, after all, and in Maitland because this is where our church’s story began in this diocese and I like things around me that have played their part in that story. In England, of course, as in Rome, such markers of continuity are all around you.
There are other things, though, that contribute to my enjoyment of English life. They do parks and gardens and public spaces very well, of course. But what particularly pleases me is that you are not met, at your first coming into a park, by six council signposts telling you what is prohibited. Do they seriously expect people to use their common sense and not kick their soccer balls through other people’s picnics? Apparently they do. And do people not sue the local authority for not preventing their climbing that tree they fell out of? Perhaps they don’t. Anyway, parks and garden are often heavily enough used to sustain a café for young mums and their toddlers and, despite the numbers, people seem to rub along together, seem to be conscious that they share community space.
In a similar vein, one of the things you need to learn in England is the gentle art of not looking at people. This is very different to not seeing people, as that art is practised by, say, a group of teenage girls walking four abreast in one of our shopping malls.
The common English practice on footpaths is that, without in any way looking at you, the approaching person begins to veer out of your way while still 10 or 15 yards off. Once I’d started noticing this, I couldn’t stop. It recalled to mind a line in a George Orwell essay of 1940. I don’t have it before me now, and it was wartime propaganda, but he said something like, ‘There must be no country in Europe where it is so easy to get someone to step off onto the roadway’. Nearly 80 years later, that still seems to be the case.
There are other things. I like it that there are still public telephones aplenty, albeit connected to high speed internet, and post boxes, even if the post offices have retreated into W.H. Smith stores. And bookshops with real books in them. And a considerable range of national daily papers, the quality end of which seems still to know the difference between reporting the news informatively and just using a bit of news to inflame public opinion. The trashy end of the English press, notorious as it is, at least doesn’t pretend to be serious journalism.
I like town markets. I like local pubs. I like buses and trains that are never long in coming. (I sent a text message back home to a friend, an old London hand, ‘Having a bad day. Just had to wait four minutes for the Tube.’) I like coppers without guns. I like full English breakfasts. I like the generally restrained advertising, the lack of huge billboards, the amateurishness of many TV ads, the 2-foot square ‘golden arches’ outside your High Street McDonalds, the more muted consumerism.
I ponder what it means that they still build whole streets of houses that are exactly the same design. Visually, it can look quite good, but does it mean something else? Are people less competitive, less ‘mine is bigger than yours’?
I’ll end with noting a little civility that wasn’t around when I was a boy.
Back then, buses had conductors, and as I recall they were a surly lot. Now there’s only the driver, under whose eye you stump up the cash or tap your card. But the custom has grown up of saying ‘Thank you driver’ as you get off. When it’s a bus that you exit from the middle, matronly ladies will call out their thanks from there, and others will get off, walk to the front of the bus and say their thanks before moving on.
The English do have their moments.