two faces of England

Underground_map_by_harry_beck Ask Londoners for direction, and you get a fine performance from the theatre of English Life.  They are prompt, courteous, intelligent, and thoroughly helpful.

But spin on your heel, and chances you are you will see a very different English face.  Chances are you will see someone looking at you with a little smile that is unmistakeably smug and self congratulatory.

There are several ways to read this look. 

It might express smug surprise that someone should not know the layout of London.  This is the provincial’s satisfaction.  And it contains a nice little contradiction.  The Londoner imputes provincialism in a gesture of provincialism.  (You may read this as my Order of the Garter revenge: Honi soit qui mal y pense.  Roughly, dishonor to him who dishonors thinks.  In our case, provincialism to those who impute provincialism.)

Or, it might be a moment an expression of anti-Americanism, and God knows, there is plenty of that in this fair city.  Behold, says the smile, a mighty American undone by the complexity of my home town.  (The Economist this week has an article on poor Scotland, with periodic references to how frequently the Scots look at England with a resentment born of envy.  The same is sometimes, and only sometimes, true of the English attitude to America.  I make this observation as a non combatant Canadian.  Observe, please, my blue helmet.)

Most probably, I think, we are looking at a Londoner paying himself off for the sheer difficulty of city life.  (And we have all done this in one venue or another.)  For all the delicacy of English life and the magnificently managed scale of this urban landscape, there are moments when the city bears down upon you.  As when you are obliged to step into a subway car that is already full to bursting.  There must be moments when you wonder, can this be worth it?  The answer is sometimes "no," but not when you see some poor wretch of an anthropologist wondering the streets asking ill formed questions.  ("He doesn’t even know where Brixton is!")  At that moment, we are the master of the city, not the other way round. 

Anyhow, today it’s back to the less tender embrace of New York City and the chilly incivilities of Connecticut.  I will remember even the self satisfaction with pleasure.


Pictured, the Underground map as designed by Harry Beck.  For more on Harry Beck and this map, go here

For more on the Order of the Garter and the origins of the phrase "Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense," go here.

3 thoughts on “two faces of England

  1. Graham Hill


    As an Englishman living abroad in Europe, I too see a growth in anti-American feeling in many British people on my occasional visits back to “Blighty”.

    But I do not put it down to envy of all things American, or to a dislike of American people as individuals. Instead, I believe it is due to the American government’s disdain for the things that British people as individuals have always stood for: the rule of law, fair play, neighbourliness, helping the underdog, etc. What many British people see today is an American government (and to a growing extent a British Government too) that has ridden rough-shod over many of these deeply-held beliefs in pursuit of other political goals. Increasingly, this is perceived to mean one set of rules for the American government and another set for everybody else. I don’t think I need to provide any examples for you to know what I mean.

    But look underneath the superficial anti-Americanism on the surface and you will probably find your average Brit likes your average American every bit as much as they did in the past. I know that I do.

  2. Peter

    “less tender embrace of New York City”

    As an antipodean who has spent a decade based in Britain, and also worked in and visited the US many times, I have to say the politest people I have met anywhere are New Yorkers. The British are not often polite to strangers, at least not in the manner we non-Brits expect. Only rarely will they say please and thankyou, or smile when stopped, or take time to be helpful to someone they do not know. The contrast with New Yorkers is noticeable. Part of this, of course, may be due to my accent: many British people retain an arrogant condescension to the citizens of their former colonies, which is evident in ther interactions with us.

Comments are closed.