Patriotism is a funny thing, and mine is somewhat complicated. On the one hand, I’m a classic American immigrant, in as much as I tend to idealize this country more than many who were born here, still get enthralled by the idea of going to Dallas or Miami or even Detroit (they’re just so American!), and get very defensive and angry in the presence of dumb-ass European anti-Americanism. But I cannot find it in me not to keep loving the place I was born and grew up in. I remain intensely loyal to England, and the longer I live, the more its quiet, sturdy virtues (and vices) appeal. I was never that comfortable in it – I’m much more characterologically American – but I now find it a crucible of accumulated human wisdom that looms larger than ever in my imperfect understanding of the world. Its stoicism, humor, empiricism, and pragmatism all seem more valuable to me now than when I was an ambitious youngster, chafing against the restraints they all imposed.
But when I go back, it’s the little things that really warm your soul. Of course, my New York experience may have made me more susceptible to London’s charms, and the astonishing idea that a cab might voluntarily stop to let you cross a street is still reverberating around my head. But then you realize this small set of manners is a cumulative collective achievement. Beneath the packed busy streets, there’s a quiet, low-level order that can become so familiar you lose sight of it. On the tube, for example, despite being crammed in like a container of skinny McDonald’s fries, people actually wait for passengers to get off the train before getting on (with some helpful corralling from conductors). On the escalators, people reliably stand on the right, while the left lane is for striders. Parks are ubiquitous, and convey a constant sense of the English countryside in the densest of urban neighborhoods. Buildings, from domestic architecture (I was constantly struck by simple Georgian beauty or Edwardian elegance) to commercial buildings (some of the new structures are breathtakingly good), are not obviously disposable or purely utilitarian. The exceptions are those constructed when post-war austerity met architectural isms – but mercifully those are slowly being demolished. The resulting affect is a constant struggle for a livable city, as well as a workable one. Maybe that is what has made London perhaps the premier global city. The whole world can find a home here and increasingly does, from the newest Polish immigrant and Brazilian dreamer to the Russian oligarch and the American banker.
Perhaps London has honed these habits so relentlessly because it has no serious British competitor. London is it. So people have made the best of it – over twenty centuries of communal living. The level of politeness you see had to be learned through the centuries, as the least disagreeable way of getting along in such close crammed quarters, and passed along to successive generations. It simply makes life easier en masse, even if it can be inconvenient in any one case for the individual. It reminds me of the wonderful and probably apocryphal conversation between a gardener in an Oxford College and an American tourist. The American asks: “Tell me how you get the lawn so amazingly smooth and perfect?” The gardener replies: “Well, you find the best sod, fertilize carefully, weed constantly, and mow religiously. Do that for about three hundred years and you’ll get the same result.” Yes, my dear late Lady Thatcher, there really is something called society. And England played a huge part in creating it.
And then the specifics that never get old: the reliable, crisp proficiency of the theater (now in a boom); the candy (my new love is something called the Twirl, which is essentially a Flake covered in chocolate); the radio (a constant unifying force of middle Britain); the tabloids, recently atwitter with a great story that united the “naughty vicar” staple, the “crooked banker” reliable, and “the decadent gay” classic. Take it away, the Daily Mail! And all propelled by the great power of a simple English pun. Yes, he was the “Crystal Methodist.” Which hack could resist that story … for days and weeks on end?
Other English imperishables:
Yes, as Orwell once noted in far grimmer times:
In whatever shape England emerges from the war it will be deeply tinged with the characteristics that I have spoken of earlier. The intellectuals who hope to see it Russianized or Germanized will be disappointed. The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.
It has and it will. And its role in shaping the future of humankind is far from over.
(Thumbnail image by André Zehetbauer)