5 British myths and stereotypes and where I suspect they originated. Also, Are they true?
Of course, I only spent 6 months living in England, and am by no means an expert on meteorology or England. I must say, however, that it is ridiculous that people think London is constantly coated in fog. Yes, there is a brand named after it, and countless movies from Bedknobs and Broomsticks to several of the Holmes’ adaptations have led us (us being Americans in this case) to believe that the entire place is filled with dense white misty stuff. I suspect Charles Dickens is actually the culprit behind this stereotype. J’accuse, Charles Dickens! May I present, Exhibit A, an excerpt from the 1853 novel, Bleak House:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats …
It goes on like this for another 4 or 5 sentences. I think this may have something to do with the stereotype! In reality, London was never foggy. It was, however, incredibly polluted during Victorian times, mostly because of the reliance on coal for fires and for lanterns. The water and air were incredibly polluted, and it is said that you could barely see out your window at midday because of it. Think Los Angeles, but worse. Smog, not fog. But now, it’s actually a really beautiful clear city, in my opinion. If you want to see some footage of just how gorgeous it can be, particularly on the South Bank, I recommend the movie Last Chance Harvey. I watch it whenever I am missing London, because it features some incredible footage of the city and captures the beauty of a walk along the Thames. It’s also a great movie.
Of course, the English do drink tea. And they do drink quite a bit more than we do. As late as maybe twenty years ago, it was quite difficult to find a coffee shop in a lot of places in England, or so I’m told. But Americans seem to have an idea that drinking tea means sitting down in the afternoon for little cucumber sandwiches and a fresh brewed pot on a silver tea set, possibly served by a butler. The real story of tea services is quite different than the stereotype. There were different types of ‘tea’, which could be a full meal in itself (high tea) or a light snack to fill the long hours between luncheon and dinner (afternoon tea). The stereotype we have of a tea break would have been accurate about 100 years ago, and only among the upper-echelons of society. Today, however, the tea break is just like our coffee break in the States. There are no butlers, no silver tea trays, and (sadly) they often use tea bags instead of loose-leaf tea. You can still get an old-fashioned tea service in lots of restaurants and hotels. I had one at the National Gallery, and it was fucking delicious (pardon me, I get foul-mouthed when describing delicious foods), to be honest. Fabulous sandwiches, cakes, great tea (or a choice of champagne), and the miracle that is scones with clotted cream. Highly recommended, I can see why the rich liked this snack so much!
I will utilize, for this, a paraphrased quote from Stephen Fry during his trip round the states. He was driving through a (let’s be honest, not that bad) rainstorm in Kentucky or somewhere near it, and said “You know what gauls me when the weather’s like this? People say ‘Well, it must make you feel right at home’. We don’t get rain like this! This is preposterous. We get a nice steady English drizzle.”
As I said above, I was only in England for 6 months, and I am led to believe it was a particularly mild Spring. So take my experiences, with a grain of salt, but I must say I found the weather there wonderful! It did rain often, but only for short stretches and never very heavy. I don’t think I saw a single thunderstorm, nor felt the strong winds I associate with a good Nor’easter. I live in Philadelphia normally, and it’s not a city known for the rain, but the storms here seem to me just as common and at least thrice as dreadful. In fact, London was milder and warmer than a winter in Philly, with far less snow than we’ve had the last few years, despite London being quite a bit farther North. And the common (but quiet) rain they get leaves everything lush and green and gorgeous. Don’t believe me?
4. Terrible food
How are you doing in England? Remember, an elevator is called a lift, a mile is called a kilometer, and botulism is called steak and kidney pie.–Marge Simpson
My grandmother often told me that she wanted to go to England one day, but my grandfather had such terrible memories of English food during the war, that he refused to ever go back. Let’s be honest, English food from 1930 through the 60s or 70s was pretty dreadful. Rationing was far more severe and lasted much longer than here in the US.
I would guess that had a profound effect on the development of cuisine during that time period. The traditional English food revolves around a lot of meat and fresh produce. But with rationing, a large percentage of the population had to live without basic staples (milk, eggs, etc). and produce was hard to come by.
Certainly, as a vegetarian, I can’t eat almost any of the traditional British dishes. Nor would I want to, as I value my health. More modern innovations, like the deep-fried mars bar, aren’t much better. I cannot and would not deny that a lot of traditional and well-known British foods are either disgusting, or unhealthy, or both. But what I want to emphasize is that those dishes are not very often eaten anymore. Curry is now the most popular dish in England, and as the country became more cosmopolitan (well, mostly in London) international cuisine has become more popular than traditional English fare.
Of course, there is a lot of very unhealthy, dreadful food in England, and their obesity rates are similar to ours. But the idea that it is the same food that people think of (haggis, spotted dick, boiled veggies), is ridiculous. I suppose it is similar to people believing that American food is all burgers and hot dogs, when every kind of cuisine under the sun can be found by those who care to look.
5. Bad Teeth
I have to say that in some cases this one is true. But, as with a lot of these stereotypes, this idea seems to revolve around truths from half a century ago. Before (again, I’m guessing, based on my own observations) the 60s or 70s, Dental care did seem to be lacking, particularly in terms of orthodontia. I know fluoride toothpaste was not available until the 1970s, and But I found that anyone under 30 seemed to have straight, healthy teeth.
Whiteness is another story, and I’ve seen quite a few examples of the British finding us vain and superficial for spending money and time to make our teeth supernaturally white.
Of course, there are other stereotypes I could tackle, but this will do for now. I find anyone that uses these stereotypes, that actually thinks they are accurate, quite ignorant. They seem to, for the most part, come from men like my grandfather, who brought home miserable stories of a miserable land. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to visit England from about 1915 to 1960, because it was a bleak place indeed. But that is not the England I found when I visited it in this century.