England and the UK: A Cross-Cultural Channel Surfing Odyssey

I am confused. It appears to this American (channel-surfing between PBS and the other networks) that there are two Britains: England and the U.K.

In contrast, the people of the U.K. seem to be dominated by some sort of tribal clique whose cultic practices include “moshing” (possibly related to the Canaanite deity “Chemosh”), squashing (a popular practice at soccer matches and Led Zeppelin concerts) and sloshing (a devotional practice especially popular in the pubs and keenly pursued by disaffected urban youth on the dole). For cuisine, citizens of the U.K. rely almost exclusively on fish and grease-sogged “chips” and never seem to have heard of fresh vegetables.

Also, in stark contrast to the urbane musings of English members of government, members of the U.K. Parliament seem to routinely indulge in shrill verbal fisticuffs and tawdry scandals which are reported, not in the Times as in England, but in the Daily Mail next to the pictures of the two-headed children claiming to be Elvis’ illegitimate spawn. In music, the people of the U.K. seem to have formed a special attachment to a screeching, incoherent punk style which is indistinguishable from the sound of 10,000 cats being fed slowly into the turbines of a 747 engine.

In England, the buildings are made of stone and are forbidden by an ancient and royal decree from being newer than 1800. In the U.K., people live in condos and vacation in New York.

In England, crime is virtually non-existent. That’s because crime “simply isn’t done”. It is, as they say, bad form. In the U.K., punks and skinheads rant incoherently while 11 year olds indulge in the grossest crimes and receive lavish media attention. In England, all the books are beautifully written and illustrated, all the artwork (which is found hanging in virtually every home of the realm) is impeccable and tastefully rendered. In the U.K., the principal reading materials are newspapers which announce: “SHAME ON YOU FERGIE: ROYAL REDHEAD IN TEXAS TRYST!”

The English are vastly superior to Americans in virtually every area that doesn’t involve roping steers, stomping in manure, spitting in public, or acting like a yahoo. We make “Wheel of Fortune”; they make “Hamlet”. They build London Bridge; we build malls. They have the ancient mystery of Stonehenge; we have Golden Arches. They have St. Thomas More boldly defying Henry VIII; we have Shannen Doherty pitching a hissy fit.

But Americans don’t feel this inferiority to the U.K. Sure we like certain U.K. heroes like Emma Peel and Dr. Who. But mostly we figure we’re lucky to not have to put up with the rain and the crummy TV. In the U.K. they have dog obedience shows; in America, we have “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (starring Patrick Stewart, who is in exile from the U.K. for making an interesting television show) . In America, we churn out brilliant comedies like MASH; in the U.K. they have “Benny Hill”. In America, the cars are cool; in the U.K. only James Bond has a cool car. Everyone else has teensy little matchboxes on wheels.

English romance is classier. Lovers perish from tragic misunderstanding, flinging themselves in wild grief over the prostrate form of the beloved and drinking poison. In the U.K. Sid Vicious and Nancy drown in vomit or stab each other or overdose on heroin or some such thing.

English war is classier. Bold admirals go down with the ship as pirates cackle gleefully. In the U.K., wars are fought over rocks off the coast of Argentina noted mainly for their vast quantities of penguin guano.

But most intimidating for Americans, English is spoken perfectly in England (except of course among the ruddy and hearty denizens of London who charmingly drop their “aitches” with a Cockney zest). But even Cockneys would cringe in horror at the unlettered ruffians who swarm over American television every night. Compared to any subject of the crown, Dan Rather and Connie Chung have all the verbal finesse of squealing warthogs. You’ll never see them introducing “Masterpiece Theatre”!

But in the U.K. the language is hard to follow. The words are clear enough. It’s just the ideas they express that are incomprehensible. How, for example, is a bishop in the Church of England who denies the deity of Christ and the Resurrection a Christian, much less a bishop? In England, this would be coldly dismissed as “silly” with a shattering sniff more forceful than a thousand anathemas. But in the U.K. no one even notices the contradiction since language seems to be primarily a species of soothing noise rather than a mode of actual communication.

Which brings us to the last strange contrast. On the one hand, English religion is incredibly classy. Every church, resounding with awesome Baroque music, luminous with medieval stained-glass art, filled with the majestic sight of the liturgy in progress is a thousand times classier than American churches thumping out the latest worship chorus and trying to figure out the blurry words on the overhead projector just as the Apostles commanded us to do. The quintessential English Christian is C.S. Lewis, who learned his art by simply immersing himself in the normal life of English Christendom, where all English children are conversant in Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Dante, Aquinas, Hooker, Donne, Law and the other great minds of Western culture by the time they reach puberty.

On the other hand, we have the U.K., where religion is the sole province of fuddled curates, old women with thousands of cats and Druids who contact UFOs on a regular basis. In the U.K., the Christian religion is a stifling matter of tasteful prayers and studied politeness which obliges polished men and women to take off one’s hat when the vicar comes for tea. It is useful in that it affords a good whipping boy for those moments when U.K. repression expresses itself in a royal divorce or a squalid pedophiliac scandal on the floor of Parliament (“This is what comes of trying to adhere to the tired mores of a patriarchal Church!” say the U.K sociologists on National Public Radio). But, in fact, any talk of actual faith in Jesus Christ is greeted with the traditional U.K. response: “Good God, man! You don’t mean to tell me you believe such preposterous nonsense?”

So rather than the ancient liturgy that so dominates English religious life, citizens of the U.K. have instead created a complex liturgy of words which have “tion” suffixes. That is why U.K. newspapers are fond of discussing things like “The evolutionary socialization of the nationalisation of mechanisation” and so forth. Such polysyllabic terms hold for them the same soothing quality that Gregorian chant once had for their barbaric ancestors. And for those who do not derive deep comfort from these droning resonances of the Spirit of the Age, there is always the option of Druidism, Celtic neo-paganism and various Gaia rites plucked from the Spirit of Another Age before evil Christian influences uprooted the simple earth-affirming matriarchy that was Avalon.

So you see the problem. If my TV is right, apparently there are two Britains. And as an American committed to multiculturalism I can see only one solution to the riddle:

Tomorrow I will buy another television.

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