This is a big deal in America. I shan’t show you my poor effort. It’s just sad. I won’t be entering any competitions, put it that way.
But look at these! Amazeballs!
Reflections on the UK, part 3
Here is the penultimate installment of American blog reader Rebecca’s visit to the UK.
You can catch up on parts 1 & 2 previously if you missed out!
I set off for Hyde Park, which I have always wanted to visit. It is much bigger than I realized and very beautiful. I wander around for a few hours, and come across the 7/7 memorial to the victims of the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London subway (tube). It is simple and solemn. I feel a pang of sadness—especially as British lives lost are like the loss of family—and take a moment of silence and say a prayer that Britain will be safe and happy and at peace, and throw in the same prayer for America too. I continue walking, end up in Kensington Gardens, and accidentally discover the Albert Memorial, which is amazingly beautiful and huge. I search around but cannot find any inscription explaining who Albert is or why he gets such a cool memorial. Later that night, I ask my friend’s husband and he tells me Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband, which makes him a prince and not a king, for reasons which are unclear to me. (Some time ago I gave up any real attempt to understand the differences between the different titles (Earl, Duke, Lord, etc.) and the rules of royal succession in Britain. At some point we all must learn to accept our limitations.)
My friend decides to cook a special dinner and the three of us sit down to eat together. We begin talking about our work. She periodically meets immigrants from places like Portugal who were doctors in their own country, but have to take menial jobs in England because they don’t speak English well enough. Having lived in Japan, I can sympathize —my Japanese is advanced but not fluent, and had I not been teaching English my job prospects would have been much more limited. “I remember how humiliating it was when I had to go down to the immigration office in Tokyo once and couldn’t understand all of what was said to me; it made me feel stupid. But it gave me a greater empathy for people who come to America and can’t speak English well.” Here, my friend’s husband breaks in with an almost incredulous grin: “People in America who can’t speak English well? Those are called Americans!”
Ah yes, there it is. As far as I can tell, in order to maintain British citizenship, it is a requirement that you must mock Americans’ English on a regular basis. While studying at a Japanese university for a year, I had a British professor for a history course taught in English to a mixture of Japanese and foreign students. Very nice guy, who scarcely let a class go by without finding some way to get a dig in about Americans’ language skills. The day before a big test, he announced to the class: “For my Japanese students, you can bring your English dictionaries to the test, in case there are any words you don’t know. And my American students, you may bring your dictionaries as well, since I know you have difficulty with English.” Later that year, by complete coincidence, I met Jeremy Bulloch, the British actor who plays Boba Fett, my near-favorite character in the original Star Wars trilogy (after Vader, of course). Naturally this excited me, and we got into a conversation. He was incredibly nice, down-to-earth, and talked to me for about 20 minutes. At the end, I thanked him, and he said, “Good luck studying Japanese, that’s a challenging language. And good luck studying English, I know that’s hard for Americans.” Et tu, Boba Fett?
Much as I would like to prove him wrong, I don’t end up making my case very well. We get into a discussion about parking tickets. He detests the parking attendants who give them. “They’re evil,” he says, “right up there with Peter Files and terrorists.” “Who is Peter Files?” I ask, wondering who could have done something so terrible as to be lumped together with terrorists (and apparently, parking attendants). Moments after the words leave my mouth, I realize too late that he was saying, with his delightful British accent, ‘pedophiles.’
They ask about my plans for tomorrow, and I tell them I’m planning to go to Leicester, prompting some raised eyebrows. “Leicester? What’s in Leicester? Nobody goes there.”
I’m actually going there to meet an officer in the British army. The Imperial army, that is. He’s a historical re-enactor who runs a group which does battle re-enactment and living history events of the Revolutionary War (or American War of Independence/AWI as it’s called in Britain).
I became exposed to the concept of historical re-enactments this summer when various nearby American towns which experienced battles or occupations during the War of 1812 marked the bicentennial. Re-enactors portrayed various battles between the American and British forces, and many towns also used the occasion to celebrate 200 years of peace and friendship between America and Britain (including DC, though happily they didn’t re-enact burning the White House). At first I found the idea of re-enacting a war a bit strange, even worried it might be trivializing a real-life tragedy where many lost their lives. However, through witnessing it firsthand and talking to the ‘soldiers’ who painstakingly research the history in order to accurately portray and share it with the public, I realized it can be a valuable way of preserving history and educating others about it. In researching some of the events, I came across this group in Britain which re-enacts AWI battles, portraying both the ‘Redcoats’ and the Revolutionaries. Intrigued, because I understand the Revolutionary War to be not a very big deal in Britain, I contacted one of the group leaders, and he’s invited me to meet.
I’m excited to get to see somewhere in England outside of London and Oxford (the only two places I’ve been on previous trips), though when I ask my British friend in DC whether he’d recommend Leicester as somewhere to visit, the answer is an emphatic NO. But I take the train about an hour from London anyway, and am greeted at the Leicester station by the re-enactor, who takes me on a short walking tour of the city as we talk. (Awfully nice of a Redcoat to be so welcoming and courteous to a traitorous Yank.)
I quickly fall in love with Leicester. It has beautiful, historical-looking buildings, cobblestone-ish streets, and a very ‘English’ feel to it (or at least what I imagine one to be) which instantly brings forth my affection. After stopping to see the Jewry Wall, which is apparently the tallest surviving Roman structure in the UK, and dates from the first century AD, we go to a coffee shop to continue our chat.
I’m interested in how the Revolutionary War is thought of in Britain. It’s not thought of much, he tells me, as Brits don’t learn about it in school. But he became interested in it because of his interest in 18th-century history and started to study it on his own. The re-enactors in his group portray both the British and the American forces, speak to the visiting public about the war from each perspective, and work to create an immersive experience, sometimes even camping out at the battle sites with their ‘regiments.’ There are also online chat forums where re-enactors from both America and Britain discuss the war and means of re-enacting it, down to the minutest detail of the uniforms. They generally don’t bring politics or ideology into it, he says, but just want to better understand and preserve history.
He poses the question of how the Revolutionary War has influenced current politics. “I think it’s influenced current identity and views about the other, at least in America,” I say. “Of course the Revolutionary War was a critical factor in giving birth to America and shaping its identity. I think it has shaped our values still today, in that we’re proud of our independence, love freedom, and still sort of have a sense of rebelliousness and rooting for the underdog. But despite having fought for independence I think a lot of Americans today do have some sense of special affection for Britain, and some see it as our family or parent in a way.” (At least that’s my impression. The most touching way I’ve heard this expressed was by an American reader commenting on a British article on the US-UK relationship, who said: “Let’s remember you (Britain) are our mother, speaking as an older American. We’ve died for you and we’d do it again if necessary.”) “And my perception is that some Americans still seem to sort of ‘look up’ to Britain in a way, like sort of seeing it as a symbol of culture and sophistication…The American public broadcasting stations, for example, show almost nothing but British shows, like they see it as a higher form of TV….And of course, in many American movies the most intelligent people have a British accent ;) …Maybe in some ways that’s the dual legacy of the colonial history in America—treasuring our independence but still feeling linked to Britain.” We talk about the current popularity in the States of British shows like Sherlock, Dr. Who, and Downton Abbey.
On the flip side, he tells me about the popularity of American culture (TV, food, etc.) in Britain, particularly among younger people like us. In his view, British and American culture have become ‘integrated’ in a way. (As if to illustrate this point, as I look up I see a Maryland Chicken shop across the street, with a big American flag on its sign.) “Do people resent that?” I ask shyly. I’ve read about some Brits lamenting the ‘Americanization’ of British culture. “No, not at all,” he says. We begin talking about the TV shows we like, and he mentions he’s currently hooked on the new House of Cards. A British show popular enough in America to inspire an American version which is now being watched in Britain. Perhaps our cultures really are becoming integrated. (Any lingering doubts about this are somewhat erased later in the trip when, as I’m watching the season-opening episode of Downton Abbey (don’t hate me, fellow Americans!), a commercial for Virgin Trains comes on whose new slogan is centered around what I always thought was the most quintessentially American slang: “Arrive Awesome.” Which is rather awesome.)
As we get up to leave, I think about how if America and Britain could go from being bitter enemies to such close friends, surely there is similar hope for other countries currently in a state of animosity or war. Perhaps that’s reason enough to preserve the memory of the Revolutionary War.
He leaves me off at the Globe, a pub dating back to 1720, where Redcoats used to recruit in the 18th century. Naturally I can’t resist eating lunch there. Since I generally don’t drink alcohol, I wasn’t sure how well I’d fit in in a pub, but the food is good, and the people are friendly. As I go to pay, the bartender compliments my Nintendo T-shirt, and we get into a great discussion about gaming. While washing my hands in the toilet, a woman comes in and begins chatting to me about the nose piercing she’s just gotten. It makes me feel like I’m back in America, where I’ve had many a friendly conversation with random strangers in public bathrooms. Where are all the surly people the Brits keep warning about? It’s just like back home, except they have cooler accents.
I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Leicester, which I find beautiful and endearing because it seems like more of a ‘regular’ English city, not a tourist attraction—the kind of place I’ve been wanting to get out of London to find. I visit Leicester Cathedral and see the new place they are building at the altar to inter the recently-discovered remains of King Richard III. I visit the Town Hall and the remains of Leicester Castle. I wander clear off the map of the city I’ve gotten and struggle to find my way back. I love every moment. I can’t fathom why Brits seem to be so down on visiting Leicester. As I head back to the train station I get a wicked craving for ice cream. Remembering the food at the previous pub, I pop into the next pub I see to see if they have any. The bartender looks at me sort of pityingly at the apparent absurdity of this question and says with a grin, “How long have you been in England?”