Saturday, February 19, 2011

Quintessentially British

Wrapping thing up here in Britain, collecting some loose ends that I’ve been meaning to write about…

I resolved to get back into some exercise here in the UK, paralleling my New-Year’s resolutions in the Netherlands.  There’s a key that remembers my progress but not my equipment settings, and complete lack of abdominal equipment (maybe the Brits don’t need it?)  No matter, it’s nice to have a break and some dyspnea.

The only hiccup so far was when I discovered, too late, that the door I thought led to the showers actually led to a public hallway.  The British are usually fanatic about labeling and warning: a bit of help here would have saved much merriment in the upper hallways of Royston Leisure Centre.

On the subject of signs, these anti-terrorism posters have shown up in the local Park ‘n Ride.  I have mixed feelings about them: where the treat is real, I suppose that they could save lives.  At the same time, they seem calculated to promote surveillance and suspicion and undermine community trust and tolerance.


More happily, MasterChef has returned to BBC One.  There’s a dramatic new studio that is dark and ominous, but Gregg and John are comfortingly consistent with their flair and shtick (“Then in comes that lovely smokiness of the bacon”).

I’m ready to bake a fondant and a rump of lamb (in that order, and in separate pans).


Elsewise, I have a habit of dipping into Starbucks for a coffee and an internet connection when I’m on the road.  It’s a great deal, as long as you keep some money on a Starbucks card and churn it mildly each quarter, you get near-ubiquitous access to high-speed wireless.

What I had not anticipated in the smaller villages was the 10 am and 2pm flood of Mom’s into the coffee houses.  A couple of leaders arrive to start rearranging tables and chairs, smiling helpfully as they ask for mine.  Within 20 minutes the room has filled strollers and children, sodas and snacks.  The mothers huddle, their kids diffuse widely, and the various business meetings and readers disperse.

Fortunately, they move to a regular daily schedule, so the tide is predictable and regular.  It' is also irresistible.  I am hoping for warmer weather so I can connect from the outside soon.

Finally, while spending last weekend in the British Museum, I started to wonder at the overwhelming national reliance on collecting and classifying things. I’ve seen it in the Cambridge museums as well, a goal of bringing back one of everything back to Britain, then laying them all out in neatly ordered rooms, chests of drawers, and progressive specimen tables. It’s all named, species and genus, then evolutionary and taxonomic links are drawn. I can’t think of anywhere else that seems as obsessed with it.

It may have been a passing phase as science found its footing during the 18th and 19th century: the drive to find general laws being driven by the artifacts returned by explorers. Some of these attempts, like ethnographic attempts to categorize humans and societies, feel misguided today.

But the spirit of collecting and classifying is still very much a national trait. From national bird-spotting days to efforts to collect all examples of antique planes, it’s e charming, sometimes bordering on good-natured eccentric, pastime with little parallel in the US (or the Netherlands).

No comments: