August 29, 2003


The other day, two five-year-old boys were sitting on stone steps near the Russell Square park. I didn't catch what they were talking about, but I did hear one of them demand, with feeling and in that fuzzy, Damien Omen II voice such children usually have, "well, why on earth not?" This particular phrase is something you'd never hear from an American, young or old, needless to say. It's hard to say why I find this sort of thing so charming, but I do.

People over here are always parodying the ubiquitous American tourist's manner of speaking. "Aw, gee, honey! Isn't that cute?" And they talk among themselves derisively about how, to an American, everything is "quaint", or "sweet", or "cute", or "darling." They have a point, of course, but so do we: most everything over here is quaint as hell, and speech patterns are as big a part of it as old-world architecture, elegantly crumbling infrastructure, or the widespread use of the romantic technology of yesteryear. I once stayed in a Slaughtered Lamb-style bed and breakfast somewhere in the north of England where, upon checking in, you were given a hand towel, a tiny bar of soap, and a big black rock. In response to a quizzical look, the dour, doughty proprietress said "don't be daft. It's yer coal, innit, my lover? For the heating." Great scenery, rustic ambiance, a matronly hobbit, a nearly unintelligible version of English, and a nice, big lump of coal. Just like in the olden days. Aw, gee, honey! Ain't that the cutest thing you ever did see?

Londoners fancy that they're a bit more cosmopolitan, modern, and less quaint than such country bumpkins (whom they also constantly ridicule) and by and large they have a point. But here's where they're wrong about it: no matter how fancy and up-to-date their "mobiles" may be, and no matter how many times they say things like "wha' a loud o' bloody bollocks," to visitors from the States, they always somehow end up coming off like a bizarre, unlikely, and in the end irresistibly adorable amalgam of Bertie Wooster and Samwise Gamgee unsuccessfully attempting to say "name is Michael Caine." And to be perfectly honest, even in London, a fair few of them seem like well more than 50% hobbit. It's very sweet.

"I'm so sorry, most awfully sorry," said the fashionably-dressed young lady in the pub the other night, "but would you possibly by any chance very much mind telling me what sort of time it is? At all?" It was just past 10:30. "Oh, lovely! Lovely! Oh! Lovely! Thank you ever so much!" she says on her way out. Like I'd offered to donate a kidney to her dying brother or something. My wife, a British girl who has been living in America just long enough to acquire the distance to recognize quaintness where it occurs (but who is still known to exclaim "blimey!" on occasion, to my great amusement), said "don't you just love England?" Of course I must say I should have thought it fairly obvious, as it were, that one would do. Love it, I mean to say. Gosh! Beggin' yer pardon and meanin' no disrespect, but blimey, my woman! Wha' a loud o' bloody bollocks, innit? Cuppa tea, Gandalf?

Fervent apologies and extravagant expressions of gratitude for trivia are just about the only occasions where British people seem comfortable and unembarrassed by overt demonstrations of emotion-- if "emotion" is the right word for what is really (I think) mostly a histrionic application of some mysterious standard of formal civility. I'm not sure if you'd use "emotion" for the heavy, gloomy, resigned "we're all doomed and there's no point" manner that most Brits seem to affect around 80% of the time: within every man, woman, child, banker, Queen, beggar, glamour girl, or bus conductor, there seems to lurk an inner Morrissey that doesn't have much trouble taking hold of the host organism in most circumstances. Other than that, though, the Brits have the unique ability to be embarrassed by just about everything. And I'm sure the tendency towards an extreme daintiness of expression (even among those who imagine themselves to be "rough") has to do with the need to create embarrassment-repellent distance in a city where everyone is always bumping into and standing on top of one another.

Sometimes, particularly when it comes to those in the service industry and low-level figures of authority like bank managers or airline administrators, the wordy over-the-top faux-politeness and a well-developed skill with the subjunctive mood serve in combination to mask, rather ineffectively in my view, the truth that they, as they might say themselves, "don't really give a toss" about you or any trouble you might be having. You know the kind of thing I mean: "I'm afraid I must tell you that I'm most frightfully sorry, and I imagine the information might, at the very least, be rather unwelcome, not to say just a bit frustrating, and were I in such a position myself, I should, I imagine, feel most dreadfully, awfully, put out and all that, but as I say, it is my rather less than enjoyable duty as a representative of this institution to inform you that, as one might have imagined in the circumstances, yet clearly, though you might have done, in the event for some reason you have not, in fact, done-- as I say, I'm awfully, frightfully, most terribly sorry to have to tell you that, unfortunately, by the time I have finished this sentence, you will have missed your flight entirely, and there's not a thing you or I will be able to do about it. Ah, as I suspected, there it went. Hard luck. I'm sure I don't know to whom you might speak to "rectify the situation" as you put it: my job is passenger delay. In any event, good morning." Tosser.

So it may take me awhile to get there, but my train for Norwich (where the hobbit-o-meter often goes up to eleven) leaves at two. See ya.

Posted by Dr. Frank at August 29, 2003 02:19 PM | TrackBack

Heh. Your "as they might say" example reminds me of lots of the dialogue in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, guv'nor.

Posted by: geoff at August 29, 2003 04:51 PM

If you really want to send that hobbit-meter thing into a frenzy, go to Cornwall. Truly strange and wonderful dialect, picturesque scenery, thousands of years of history. Like the north, it had a heyday of mining and smelting, but that ended around 100 years ago. Now, the abandoned mines and stacks are everywhere, but they're set in fields of heather, along with stone-age altars and settlements. It all seems very improbable to American eyes, like a movie director wanted 'history' and just plonked in everything the prop department had in stock. It's pretty damn wonderful, really. And in cornwall, the phrase 'My lover' seems to be required. I'd never heard it in the north...

Posted by: marc w. at August 29, 2003 05:17 PM

The people may speak funny, and the food is kinda crummy, but has any other city in the world inspired so many songs? Not New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Galveston (but what a great song!).
My Top 10 London songs:

10) Towers of London - XTC
9) London Girls – the Vibrators
8) Werewolves of London – Warren Zevon (a little pity for a dying man)
7) London Bridge is Falling Down – Some kid in Lake Havasu City
6) Dark Streets of London – the Pogues
5) London Calling – the Clash
4) London’s Burning – the Clash
3) London Boys – Johnny Thunders
2) London Girl – the Pogues
1) London – Dr. Frank

Posted by: J. Francis Gretchen at August 29, 2003 06:01 PM

lol. I though the same thing as Geoff. Your airport dude (or dudette) is dead on for the Heart-of-Gold's computer. The little kids thing is interesting to me because the other day I overheard a little kid at the video store saying to maybe his grandmother, I guess in reference to some other little kid, that he was going to "thrash him like a pinata," and I was thinking both how distinctively terse and American the idiom was and how weird it was that this little kid was already "participating." What impressions do you think people have of you as an American/Californian/__?

Posted by: spacetoast at August 29, 2003 07:40 PM

You should visit Scotland. You'll never hear swearing like you will in Scotland. Just this morning I was told 'away and get yerself tae fuck ya bastard'. 'Fuck off' is just too simple.


Posted by: Bal at August 29, 2003 07:57 PM

Frank, as I read your description of the English I kept thinking of the Village Green Preservation Sociey album by the Kinks, especially the title song ("we are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate/help save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards"), which, now that I think of it, has a modulation in the last verse. And do I remember hearing/reading a reference you made a while back to an MTX version of "Big Sky" somewhere? Which also reminds me, any list of London Songs should really include "Waterloo Sunset," too.


Posted by: Nick at August 29, 2003 08:54 PM

From a psychological test measuring proneness to violence (courtesy National Lampoon):

If a friend showed you a lamp he had just bought, would you be more likely to say it was:
a) too, too darling;
b) just the cutest thing;
c) absolutely cunning; or
d) good for hitting someone over the head with.

Posted by: Kevin Carson at August 30, 2003 10:54 PM

As for London songs; don't forget "London Traffic" by The Jam (the thing SOUNDS like a traffic jam), and Sir Paul's cute and quaint "London Town" (...flute / toot toot, toot toot).

Posted by: Tuning Spork at August 31, 2003 11:33 PM

I refer you all to Bill Hicks on Arizona Bay.


"You don't boil pizza!!!"
"It's how we eat here, it's how we eat!"

Posted by: Dave at September 2, 2003 06:14 AM

Thee best bloggg

Posted by: Creno at February 20, 2004 12:54 PM
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