August 20, 2013


Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome. (SARAH LYALL, 3/18/13, NY Times)

Britons admire and consume American culture, but feel threatened by and angry at its excesses and global dominance. They are both envious and suspicious of Americans' ease and confidence in themselves. They want American approval but feel bad about seeking it. Like a teenager worried that his more popular friend is using him for extra math help but will snub him in the cafeteria, they are unduly exercised by the "special relationship" -- endlessly deconstructing what it meant, for instance, when in 2009 Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, gave President Obama a handsome penholder made of wood from a Victorian anti-slave ship, while Mr. Obama reportedly gave him a stack of movies that were incompatible with British DVD players.

Also, Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities -- straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters -- and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.) Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons' unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you're supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. "Hi, I'm Stephen Bayley," my friend said, sticking out his hand.

"Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?" the man responded.

The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with "I can't complain" when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.

Sometimes in London I felt stupidly enthusiastic, like a Labrador puppy let loose in an antique store, or overly loud and gauche, like a guest who shows up at a memorial service wearing a Hawaiian shirt and traumatizes the mourners with intrusive personal questions.

Britain became more American while I lived there -- everyone did, thanks to the Internet and the global economy. By this spring, 25 percent of the adult population was obese, and doctors were calling the country "the fat man of Europe." Like a pale cousin of the Republican Party, the Conservative Party began squabbling with itself.

The rise of the right-wing British National Party, coupled with the populist influence of the popular Daily Mail, shifted the political axis to the right; the government cut welfare spending and tightened the borders. Even as London transformed into an international town square, there was talk that Britain might pull out of the European Union.

But the British character lay underneath it all, and that never changed. Many of the stories I covered had to do with the question Britons have asked themselves incessantly since their empire fell: Who are we, and what is our place in the world? It wasn't until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last summer, with its music medleys and dancing nurses and quotes from Shakespeare and references to Mary Poppins and sly inclusion of the queen and depictions of the Industrial Revolution and compendiums of key moments in British television history, that the country seemed to have found some sort of answer.

It was a bold, ecstatic celebration of all sorts of things -- individuality, creativity, quirkiness, sense of humor, playfulness, rebelliousness and competence in the face of potential chaos -- and more than anything I have ever seen, it seemed to sum up what was great about Britain.

Posted by at August 20, 2013 2:48 PM

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