Things that put the ‘great’ in Britain

I’ve been living in the UK for thirteen of the past fifteen years, and, due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ll be going back to the States this summer.  And while I’m happy to be going back to my family and friends in the US, I am also heartbroken to leave this wonderful country and the friends who have become a family to me.  As a farewell and thank you, my next few blogs will be on what makes Britain great.  I’m not talking about the obvious things—the NHS, the Olympics, the Queen, or even that way they have with putting on a show.  I’m talking about the small things that you realise are great only when you’re about to leave them.  They’re in no particular order, because they all mean something to me—I just wrote about  them as they occurred to me.  So here goes part one of my love letter to Great (really Great) Britain.

1. The proximity to animals

It’s pretty stereotypical to say that the Brits love their pets.  As Bill Bryson explained, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed after the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—and as an off-shoot.  I’d like to further point out the impact of ‘Royal’ as opposed to the distinctly non-imperial ‘National’: you don’t want the Queen pissed off at you for neglecting your budgie.  But the stereotype is essentially true:  animals are more highly integrated in day-to-day life here, and I think that’s a good thing.


Cows: ubiquitous and yummy!

 Animals are everywhere!  I’m not just talking about cats and dogs (although they are abundant)—it’s a common sight to see cows hanging out, having a nosh in a field in the middle of a village.  I just saw three girls— graceful as centaurs—riding their horses down a busy street in my village; the cars slowed waaaaaay down and gently manoeuvred around them.  How often do you see that in Baltimore?  Chicken coops and beehives abound in towns and cities, while watching the lambs gambol is one of the keenest pleasures of my drive to work in the early spring.  (Actually, watching the lambs gambol is probably the only pleasure of my drive to work in the early spring.)

 Rubbing alongside animals so comfortably is definitely part of what makes Britain great.  First of all, animals break down barriers.  Strangers will come up to you to say ‘hi’ to your pooch, or they’ll strike up a conversation about your cat while waiting in the vet’s office.  As somebody, somewhere said, ‘dogs make us human.’  Also, such a profound familiarity with so many food sources has, I believe, resulted in some of the highest standards of animal welfare for beef, lamb, chicken, and pork.  As a result, despite mad cow disease scares in the past, I feel far more confident eating British meat than I do eating American meat—there are no antibiotics, steroids, or other yuckinesses to trouble my mind when indulging my carnivorous appetites (which is pretty much all the time).  Plus, the easy availability of free range meat gives my conscious a sop on the rare occasions when my inner Jiminy Cricket decides to pop up.  (‘How can you eat that wee baby lamb?  It’s so cute!’ ‘Shut up—he had a happy life.’) One of the top items on my ‘to do’ list when I move back is to find a consistent source for meat of the same quality (wish me luck).

 But even more delightful is how this love of animals engenders a gentle and infectious eccentricity.  Everyone knows (or is) a mad cat lady or a greyhound rescuer who adds new beasts to his or her various collections with the mad abandon of a miser let loose in a mint.  Nor is animal-mania confined to mammals:  the ‘Most Eccentric Animal Lovers’ award must go to the legions of bird watchers (‘twitchers’) who populate these shores.  The RSPB (you guessed it—the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has a network of reserves where you can sit down in hides in order to spy on our avian friends in a way rather reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.  (‘I say, dear, but didn’t we see that same Tufted Scrotum down in Norfolk?  I recognise the cheeky little devil by his missing toe!’)  And they are so nice!  Not only are they more than willing to tell you the precise name of the bird you happen to be watching, but they are incredibly generous with their monstrously outsized and enormously expensive optical equipment. I have seen so much beauty thanks to them.  In fact, I enjoy twitching the twitchers so much that I’ve become one myself:  my best Christmas present this year was a pair of excellent binoculars from my husband, which I’ve used on many rambles to stake out the birds and their watchers.   Happily, this new mania of mine is easily transferable to the States—but I never would have started if I hadn’t fallen in love with those mad hatters sitting next to me in the hide.

2.  Rambling

 I despise running, but I can walk until the cows come home.  And thanks to the extensive network of public footpaths that criss-cross the country, I can do precisely that.  After all this time, I still can’t get over the fact that I can frolic across the land—public, private, and in between—without trespassing.  The cheerful green signposts guiding you along the public footpath are in sharp contrast to the ‘Trespassers will be eaten’ signs that you normally see in the States.  You can walk just about anywhere here if there is a designated public right of way.  Now, you might not think the opportunity to acquire blisters, aching calves, or torn ligaments to be such an unmitigated blessing, but it really is.  For one thing, the countryside in the UK is FUCKING GORGEOUS (see illustrations for proof).  And it’s there!  For free!

2012-10-30 13.00.08

See? Gorgeous, right?

But I also like how something as simple and democratic as the public right of way enhances life on so many levels.  If for no other reason, rambling is good for us because huffing and puffing up and down the hillsides makes us fitter.  But it goes deeper than that.  We need to see and feel the land from time to time, or else we’d go insane.  That’s why high rises don’t work—they cut us off from the things can give us firm foundations:  the land, nature, a sense of place.   But, for the cost of some sturdy boots, a picnic, and an OS map, anybody can go for a walk anywhere and experience the beauty of this amazing country. You can feel wild and free walking through the stark moors of the Dark Peak—and be fewer than ten miles from Sheffield.  And did I mention how wonderful those OS maps are?  They are amazingly detailed—with a map and a compass, you have no excuse for getting lost, even if you’re as spatially challenged as I am (yes, even general experts on everything have their kryptonite).  I never fail to experience an exhilarating sense of accomplishment whenever I manage to get from point A to point B, with only minor detours from the generally accepted route.  And don’t get me started on stiles!  They’re sheer genius!

Aesthetics, accomplishment, aerobics.  Why wouldn’t anyone love to ramble?

And this--isn't this fantastic?  And you can even walk over the bridge-it's got a public foot path on it!

And this–isn’t this fantastic? And you can even walk over the bridge-it’s got a public foot path on it!


3.  A comfortable relationship with bodily functions.

Now, this one might surprise you.  Yanks tend to think of the Brits as stuffy and reserved.  But actually, we are the uptight ones, and nothing makes this more obvious than the Brits’ refreshing lack of euphemism about what goes on in the toilet.  I still catch myself saying, ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ and, man, do I ever feel asinine right after saying it.  As they never seem to tire of pointing out to me, the Brits know that there is no bath in there—but there is a toilet.  So that’s what they do:  they go to the toilet.  How honest.  Even their nickname for the toilet—the ‘loo’—somehow seems earthier than the ‘john’.  Maybe it’s because it rhymes with ‘poo’.

I’ll never forget hearing a news reporter talk about an official car ride she took with Cherie Blair.  They got caught up in the traffic for a few hours (it happens), and when they finally arrived at their destination, Cherie leapt from the car like a gazelle to get to the nearest toilet (not bathroom), because—wait for it—‘she was bursting for a wee.’  Now, we’ve all been there, and I suppose that on an intellectual level I realised that even the wife of a Prime Minister has a bladder of only limited capacity just like the rest of us.  But frankly, that was one of the most shocking things I had heard on the television.  And why?  Because at the time I would have no more expected to hear a news report about Laura Bush having to take a wicked piss than I would have expected to hear about my mother going out to meet the fleet, that’s why. It just isn’t the done thing.

But this reticence is just silliness.  Of course people wee and poo and all that jazz, so why pretend otherwise? It’s what makes us all human:  we’re born, we shit, we die.  The Brits know it, and as a result, the public amenities in Britain are far superior to any other country I’ve visited, including my own.  Every village has a public toilet, and they are (generally—no one’s perfect) clean, free, and stocked with toilet paper. They even have ‘Loo of the Year’ awards!  So do what the Brits do:  celebrate your excretions!  Go on, have a laugh.  Better yet, have a fart!

See? I wasn’t shitting you (yark, yark, yark).

So that’s it for now.  Next time:  churches, driving, and The Archers.


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