Over the Pond
By Frank Hatton
This is one of a large number of Scottish related articles by Guest Writers which have been added to Rampant Scotland. The pages were previously part of the "Scottish Radiance" Web site and there are many more articles in this series being added over a period of months.
The character/philosophy of the English
Among the many people who have spent time in the U.K., we were particularly blessed with the presence of a very charming American by the name of Bill Bryson who lived and worked over here for several years. He was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa and moved to England in 1977. He married an English girl and has a young family, he settled in North Yorkshire and worked for a local newspaper. He wrote several fascinating books on travel and the English language In 1995, he left this country, and returned to live in the U.S.A., so that his family could experience life in his home country. However, he continues to write a weekly column for a British national Sunday newspaper.
It is interesting to see the way he takes the most ordinary, everyday aspects of life in the U.S., and weaves them into an article that is both appealing, and informative to us folk over this side of the Atlantic. For instance, just two of his recent subjects were, (a) clearing out a refrigerator (an icebox), and the items you can find tucked away that you had forgotten all about, and (b), the tendency of folk in the U.S. to drive everywhere, even to a store across the street, or to their neighbours house 100 yards down the block. O.K., obviously there is a bit of exaggeration to make the thing more interesting to the reader, but the point is, he shows a view of America that we rarely see or hear about over here. Over the years, we have learnt a lot about each others lifestyle through the advent of the movie, and the media, and in addition, quite a number of idiomatic phrases and national customs have become familiar, both about us to you, and about you to us. However, even with this two way traffic of films and the media, we are still regarded by many, as 'two nations divided by a common language.' So, it is my fervent hope that I can reciprocate Bill Bryson's efforts in some small way, by writing a column for this magazine which will give an insight on the life style of us folk on this side of the pond.
First of all, it has to be appreciated that the so called 'British' people are a mixture of Scottish, Welsh, and the folk of the Northern part of Ireland. Plus of course, us English, and certainly the first three would be most indignant to be 'lumped' in with the rest of us. So, to start the ball rolling, I thought it might be an idea to give an insight into the character/philosophy of the English by way of a story, (which could even be true) it concerns a train journey from London, to the suburbs on a winters evening. You must understand that many of our trains to the suburbs are of a design where the carriages are divided into compartments, and each compartment seats two lines of five folk who sit facing each other on bench seats across the width of the carriage. There is a door on either side of the compartment to give access to the platforms (similar to the train shown to the right by Stephen Craven via Wikimedia). The time is around 7.30 p.m., it is dark, and the train is about to depart from the station, when a typical 'city gent' type, bowler hat, brief case, rolled umbrella, gets into the carriage. The other occupants are of the same type, and all are deeply engrossed in their newspapers. Nobody ever speaks to each other in these sort of circumstances. The train pulls out of the station, and in a very short while, the last chap to get in the carriage is fast asleep in the corner. About an hour into the journey, the train is suddenly halted in between stations by a stop signal. As the train jerks to a halt, the chap who was asleep, comes awake, and looking a bit panic stricken, he grabs his briefcase, hat, and umbrella, and pulls open the door of the compartment, and steps out into the darkness. Nobody speaks at all, and after a few minutes, the hat, briefcase, and umbrella are pushed in onto the carriage floor, and the very dishevelled bloke climbs back in. His trousers are torn and his nose is bleeding. Still nobody speaks. The chap looks around at his travelling companions, and remarks, " I say, you people must think me an awful fool," and he promptly opens the opposite door of the compartment, and steps out into the darkness..........
As I say, the Welsh, Irish, and Scots, would object strongly to being classified under this heading, but again, we are all gathered under the British flag, and what a hotchpotch (do you use this expression in the U.S.?--It means a dish of many ingredients) of a race we are. Although we look with pride on our long history, and our traditions, and in one sense, rightly so. This land of ours has evidence of settlements going right back to the Palaeolithic times, and considerable remains exist of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures. However, we are generously peppered with the arrival of the Celtic peoples, followed by the Roman occupation for a few hundred years, we then had the Germanic-speaking tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes putting their feet under our table, then of course we had our old friend William the Conqueror in 1066 to introduce another flavour to the pudding.
So, all in all, we are rather a mixed bag of folk, and this of course spills over into the use of the English language. It is the principal language of Great Britain, the U.S.A., Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries. It is claimed that there are some 300 million native speakers, and probably as many again as the main medium of communication. Internationally, it probably ranks as the world's unofficial lingua franca. It was never my intention to make this article into a sort of history lesson, but I do tend to run on a bit once I get going, so please forgive me.
Don't know how many of you have visited our part of the world, but those that have will, I feel sure, agree that we are alike in so many ways of life, but, at the same time, so different in many, many others. Looking at the field of sport for example, with golf, boxing, swimming, running, jumping, and lots more, we share a common enthusiasm. Move just a few steps away into the playing of baseball, and cricket, American football, and British football, and we might be from different planets. Department stores, and supermarkets are again very similar in both of our societies, but the small store in the U.S.A., and our little 'corner shop' have a distinct atmosphere of their own, each unlike the other. Personally, I feel a great attachment to the old 'corner shop', although, I suspect that this is rather a by product of my age group. The old fashioned shop, while possibly lacking in the efficiency, and competitiveness of the supermarket, was a great meeting place for exchange of gossip, and gave one a sense of belonging to the local community.
The modern method of supermarket shopping, to my mind, leaves much to be desired. Not only is it a very impersonal experience, ( very rarely do I meet with anybody I know), but there is also something a little supernatural about it. What I mean is, and I feel sure that I am not alone in this,--- every now and again, I completely loose track of my wife! She just disappears into thin air. I look down every aisle, along each cross walkway, and, very, very, meticulously I would add, so there is no possibility whatever that I have not looked properly. I have even been known to look on top of the shelf racks, to see if she is crouching up there. The only possible solution, other than my supernatural theory, is that there is some special secret room, into which the ladies go, and it is probably fitted with a one way viewing window, and from there, they can gleefully watch the antics of us poor menfolk as we feverishly try to find them. Of course, they will always deny the existance of such a room, and swear that they were just looking at the delicatessen counter or something. There is however, a sure fire way of getting my wife to reappear,--- all I have to do is find some attractive female, and speak to her on some pretext or other, and hey presto, my dear lady is suddenly right there behind me.
The first time I ever went to the U.S. was on a business trip to Mexico, when I had a change of planes at Dallas/Fort Worth, in Texas. This was back in the early 70's, and the plane from U.K.'s Gatwick airport was owned by Braniff Airlines. I guess it was occupied mainly by Americans going home after a holiday, because my first surprise was the applause as we landed at Dallas. It was akin to the end of a very successful theatre performance. Maybe it was the relief at being back on American soil, but I had never heard such enthusiasm from a bunch of passengers. However, the major shock to my system was on coming into the terminal building. As I came up the slope from the airport bus, I was confronted with the sight of a young policewoman, I would suppose she was in her late 'teens, but, the main impact was the view of a massive great pistol on her hip. It looked like a small cannon. She looked so young, and to someone who was used to very large policemen armed only with a small truncheon, the experience was a little traumatic.
Some years later, I took my family on a couple of extended holidays, firstly to Arizona, Nevada, California, and then over the other side, from Miami, right up the eastern side to New England, both times travelling by car. Then it was that I began to get an appreciation of the people and the country. Firstly, the joy of driving on the comparitively empty roads. You really have to experience the sheer volume of traffic we have over in the U.K. to understand this ecstasy. Our road system is fast becoming the biggest car park in the world, so, as I say, the rapture of being able to use cruise control for quite long periods is akin to heaven.
Another delight was the friendliness of most of the people we met, and the fact that we were from England seemed to increase the welcome we got. In fact, these two factors, the driving, and the helpfulness combined to make a funny experience. We were driving somewhere on the west coast side, when it seemed every car coming towards us was flashing its headlights. So, in my innocence I pulled into the next convenient parking place,(we call them 'lay bys') and stopped to examine the car for something wrong. I then noticed a police patrol car parked in the same area, and the cop was looking at me,--- so I wandered over to him, and explained about the flashing headlights, and that I thought my car had a fault, and that was why I had stopped. He looked at me in a pitying sort of way, and said that the folk were trying to tell me that he was there!
At this point, I get the feeling that I have rambled on for long enough, so, if there are any words or phrases which have caused confusion, I offer my apologies, and if we have any folk who reside in the U.K., and disagree with any of my writings, then please feel free to let me know. Conversely, if any of you good people have any bits of information you would like to see included in the next article, again, let's hear from you (via the Rampant Scotland editor).
'til next time,
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