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Home truths
Why England isnít all itís cracked up to be

I just love your accent!" I must have heard those words a trillion times since I came to America. To this day, it still strikes me as odd. Back home, see, my accent says "pleb." To some people, it says, "Run!" Here, though, Iím English, and therefore Iím Prince Charles. It doesnít matter what I say. I can make a remark like "I just crapped in my pants" and someone will tell me how charming I sound. Tom-ah-to. Admit it, the very word makes you quiver. Tom-ah-to.

The thing is, Americans still labor under the illusion, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that we English are a cultured, courtly race, the type of people who sit around having tea with the vicar and saying, "Pip-pip" to each other on rose-stippled streets. In truth, we are far more likely to greet each other with a cordial "Piss off, you tosser" before heading down to the pub for 16 pints of Slöpshitte lager.

Recently, I went back to England on holiday (Holiday! Cute!) and got an immediate primer in just how uncharming my countrymen can be. I was on a train, going from the airport to central London, when a guy reading a copy of Jet Skier magazine belched thunderously ó like the death rattle of a bull elephant. Another rummaged around his buttocks as if endeavoring to produce a rabbit. But it was the guy sitting next to me who really caught my attention. Looking at this individual, I found myself wanting to grab the entire US population by the scruff of the neck, drag them onto this train, and say, "See! See!"

The guy was perfect, a prototypical example of Britannus vulgaris. A neck like a torso and a face the color of raw liver. His beer belly strained against the material of an England soccer shirt. His broad, square head was shaven, mottled with pink scars. I looked at his fists ó there seemed little doubt that those things had, more than once, tested the pliancy of the human nose. But now he was docile, slumped in his seat, a smear of spit on his cheek, his piggy eyes clamped shut. It looked as if heíd just been hit on the back of the head with a two-by-four. And, this being England, maybe he had.

As much as I enjoy going home, there are things about the place that sadden me. Foremost among these is the prevalence of ó to use the favored oxymoron ó casual violence. One day, I watched a Cops-like show that documented what happens on Englandís streets when the pubs turn out and was gripped with real, immediate fear. It was like a group audition for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer ó a blur of boots and blood and vomit. At one point a manís tooth arced, in slow motion, across the screen before tink-tinking onto the pavement. It was almost enough to put me off my Full English Breakfast.

Although Americans have an inkling that English food is not very good, they really havenít grasped the true horror of our cuisine ó at least not until theyíve tried a Full English Breakfast, which generally consists of an unspeakable combination of eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, mushrooms, blood pudding, beef nostrils, and pork eyelids. Still, the English cannot seem to get enough of these things ó me included. Iíll sit in little cafés, their tables waxy with grease, and feel the fat clotting on my upper arms. Sometimes Iíll encounter something tooth-like in one of my sausages and swear off Full Englishes for good, but they are a hard habit to break.

To be fair, there is more to England than grim violence and terrible food. Recently, I went to the venerable British Museum, which is filled with stuff the English acquired back when they were kicking the crap out of foreigners rather than each other. I have to admit, I was disappointed. For one thing, putting mummies on display without giving people an opportunity to poke them seems cruelly perverse. Also, as interesting as shards of decorative pottery may be, looking at three billion of the things can be a strain. To be honest, by the time I got to the Mesopotamian shoe, I was itching for a nice pint of Slöpshitte.

Even Englandís fabled high culture leaves something to be desired these days. After suffering through the British Museum, I went to the Tate Modern, Londonís prestigious gallery devoted to contemporary works. I can honestly say Iíve never visited an institution that so deftly blurred the line between art and amenity. At one point, I stood for a full 15 minutes admiring Bench before realizing it was a bench. And I was very taken with Paint Can until a decorator walked off with it. My favorite part, though, was Cup of Tea, which I was able to procure for a very reasonable sum ó considerably less than a weekís wages.

Which brings us to the worst thing about England. Despite having an economy shakier than Alan Greenspanís knees, it is a financially crippling holiday destination. London in particular will not only ravage the wallet, but will also put a serious dent in your sightseeing schedule. When planning to walk from Piccadilly to Covent Garden, for instance, you must figure in the time it will take to stop at each of the 320 ATMs along the way. You can drop 100 quid just window shopping. For me, the final straw came when a guy tried to charge me two pounds to enter a cemetery. "Piss off," I muttered as I skulked off, "you tosser."

But I said it in a very charming way.

Chris Wright can bloody well be reached at cwright@phx.com, mate.

Issue Date: September 19 - 25, 2003
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