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Res Publica + Publican != Republican

At the suggestion of my web-friend Roger, I've written up a few reminiscenses and observations on my recent trip to the UK. As always, had a great time - what a country.

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Flew Virgin Atlantic, as is my wont. In addition to the generally good service and accoutrements they provide, I became a sympathizer early on, having learned of BA's shameful attempts to enlist the state to quash the competition (typical state-subsidized-Big-Business behavior). Richard Branson's biography is pretty inspiring too - he may be one of the most disarming Billionaires in the world.

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For the most part, stayed in "Wotton-Under-Edge," a village in Gloucestershire about a 15 minute drive up the M5 from Bristol. I'm always struck by how English life generally, and village life in particular, seems to give one a sense of continuity with the past that many Americans surely lack. Most buildings - certainly dwellings - are trans-generational hybrids: a new thatched roof, perhaps, or a new wall or addition, grafted onto a design which has been in some sense "the same" for decades, possibly even centuries. Wotton, probably like many English villages, has its local eccentrics -- for example, the pensioner who merrily trots up and down the High Street in his dressing gown (robe), his "willy" exposed and swingin' around for all to see. The mellow inhabitants merrily ignore or chortle at the superannuated proboscis ... Funny too how even a "village" will have its obligatory Indian restaurant - with "native" staff - and an Indian take-away, as well as some highly creditable Fish/Chips joints.

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Had a fairly anti-climactic debate re: Fahrenheit 9.11 with __ and __. The former took the Mobiot-ian view that of course the narrative was riddled with falsehood and innuendo, but still the whole summed to a potent indictment that somehow transcended the palsy afflicting its parts; the latter thought that the film sucked, being a frivolous distraction from the very real criticisms that could and should be made of the Bush Administration. Were I a Leftist, that's definitely the view I would take.

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I recall chuckling quite a bit, some years back, when I first read What is to be Done? by Lenin - how, in various asides, England is conceded to be a pretty decent place, relatively speaking. As his master would have it, a "nation of shopkeepers," but perchance that's an unintentionlly telling concession to the virtues of the (Anglo) bourgeoisie.

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Chuckled again on my penultimate day in the UK, rereading Twilight of the Idols by Nietzsche, and noting this piece of caustic sententiousness ("maxim" or "arrow"?!): "If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does." It's an interesting question whether many Brits are, in the final analysis, animated by a kind of utilitarian (social) calculus, as evinced by a dogged faith in the - always?! - flagging "public services" (for people who know sociology and economics, think of Pareto and his notion of units of satisfaction, and how that notion argues for a welfare state).

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I often display a "dentulous rictus" on being reminded at how tendentious English newspapers are - much more overtly so than their American counterparts. Lacking firsthand knowledge, it's probably a good rule of thumb to solicit a broad range of respectable opinion and kind of average out the differences; in England that would entail reading several newspapers' takes on the news. So, having been happily asleep during Kerry vs. Bush, round 1, I dutifully purchased the Guardian and The Telegraph the next day, and collated the two accounts. Even the Bush-friendly Telegraph was quick to note that GWB seem rattled and unfocused, essentially in agreement with the gleeful Guardian.

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Mastermind is a program that, dare I say it, would never stand a chance in the U.S. - either in drawing contestants, or an enthusiastic audience. It's amazing how these mild-mannered polymaths come crawling out of the crevices of English society, specializing in some arcane and/or refractory subject, and then freewheeling impressively with general knowledge. Many English seem to have this interesting combination of a notable mild-mannered modesty combined with a devastating competence in some department of learning. The University Challenge is another program where the Brits show an educational seriousness in regards to which - as I make bold to generalize - our Yankee students could barely hold a candle.

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Travelled down to County Dorset for a couple of days, to the village of Chetnole - a lovely setting of rolling green. Had an interesting debate/discussion with __ concerning the Fox Hunting ban. His take explicitly refracted the issue through the class prism, alleging that Fox Hunting, as the last "Blood Sport," had survived only owing to the machinations of the Gentry; earlier sanguinary zoological amusements, such as cock fighting, had been prohibited early on because they were merely the panem et circenses of the lower classes ... On earlier trips to Dorset, beheld such sites as St. Augustine's Well and - speaking of "willies" - the well-endowed Cerne Abbas Giant.

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I can hardly believe how much they drink over there.

October 7, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Paul, since you quoted Nietzsche, I'll quote a nice bit in English Traits:

"The english race are reputed morose. I do not know that they have sadder brows than their neighbors of northern climates. They are sad by comparison with the singing and dancing nations: not sadder, but slow and staid, as finding their joys at home. They, too, believe that where there is no enjoyment of life, there can be no vigor and art in speech or thought: that your merry heart goes all the way, your sad one tires in a mile. This trait of gloom has been fixed on them by French travellers, who, from Froissart, Voltaire, Le Sage, Mirabeau, down to the lively journalists of the feuilletons, have spent their wit on the solemnity of their neighbors. The French say, gay conversation is unknown in their island. The Englishman finds no relief from reflection, except in reflection. When he wishes for amusement, he goes to work. His hilarity is like an attack of fever. Religion, the theatre, and the reading the books of his country, all feed and increase his natural melancholy. The police does not interfere with public diversions. It thinks itself bound in duty to respect the pleasures and rare gayety of this inconsolable nation; and their well-known courage is entirely attributable to their disgust of life."

Emerson, however, then adds that he doesn't find them as gloomy as the French do. I wonder if Emerson ever encountered any Englishman running about with his johnson exposed.

Posted by: roger at Oct 7, 2004 9:28:21 PM

Did you have a pint of nice, warm ale at a pub? I can hardly believe *what* they drink over there. ;-) (Seriously, though, it's not difficult to order lager, or something else served cold.)

Posted by: Aaron at Oct 9, 2004 7:25:49 AM