Tag Archives: oxford

Summer British TV

Summer and Winter seem to be when the best of the British channels finally hits our shores. This summer is no exception. Just because Doctor Who is over, and Downton Abbey is months away, don’t despair! There are a lot of premieres in Summer and early fall. Starting in chronological order:

Family Trees

Family TreeChris O’Dowd’s new show on HBO started last month, and I have really enjoyed it so far! It’ll be running every Sunday through early July. Chris plays Tom, a somewhat depressed, slightly pathetic man living in London. His great-aunt dies and leaves him a trunk of family paraphernalia. He gets interested in his history, and goes about tracing his family lineage by finding out more about the objects in the trunk. It’s a very British show, so far, but later Tom does take a trip to the states to find out more about one branch of his family. It’s a hilarious show, very self-effacing and extremely odd. Tom’s sister, uses a monkey puppet to voice all her strangest and most offensive thoughts. She has conversations with this monkey all the time; she goes everywhere with the monkey. Tom also has a best friend, Pete, who is dumb as a post, and his dad is played by the always hilarious Michael McKean (of Clue and Spinal Tap fame). The show relies on awkward and embarrassing moments to make you laugh, which is a theme with British TV I think. Probably because awkward situations are the biggest fear of most English people.

Here’s a trailer (though I must warn you that it plays up the American part of the show far more than has happened in each episode yet):

In the Flesh

In the FleshThis is a miniseries that started June 6th. I’m not a zombie person, okay? I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that’s about it. Okay, I’ve seen Zombieland. And 28 Days Later. And Shaun of the Dead…okay I’ve consumed more zombie books/movies than I thought. Still, it’s not a concept I’m particularly attracted to. On the other hand, this is only a 3-part miniseries, so I might as well give it a try. It aired in the UK and March, to generally positive reviews. These zombies are presented as a socially-marginalized minority, have been diagnosed with PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome), and have been rehabilitated with medication and cosmetics. It sounds vaguely like True Blood‘s approach to vampires. At least In the Flesh won’t be just another scary movie a la Dawn of the Dead. I’m willing to give it a try. My only qualm is that I’m not very good with gore. Even in comedy films like Shaun of the Dead, I’m horrified by the sights and sounds associated with…zombies eating human flesh. Particularly while said human is alive. But it’s on BBC America, so it can’t be too bad. Here’s the trailer:

On June 23rd, the second season of Copper premieres.

Copper trioI was on the fence about this show throughout the first season. The three characters I liked (conveniently pictured above) are all coming back, so I’m going to give it a try (new motto for me?). This show always seems to be on the edge, teetering on the precipice of me not wanting to watch it anymore. I dislike the violence and blatant corruption, but I like the fact that it is set in the 19th century, and I think it always has potential to be a really great show. I’m hoping this year, now that it is a bit more established, it will reach that potential. Here is the trailer:

Also, on June 30th, the twentieth season of Top Gear premieres in the UK. No word yet on BBC America’s air dates, but last season they were only about a week behind, so hopefully more info will be forthcoming.

In early July, PBS will begin airing Endeavour, a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse detective series. I’ve only seen one or two episodes of Inspector Morse, so this wasn’t on the top of my Must-See list. But, I had second thoughts when I saw who they cast as Morse:

EndeavourAdd to the obvious appeal of…whoever this guy is…it’s still set in Oxford. Oxford is so picturesque, and so quintessentially English (it’s what we think of in America when we think of an English village) that I could watch just about anything that takes place there. Plus, I have a certain weakness for incredibly smart, rail-thin detectives, even when they are not played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s only 4 or 5 episodes, so I’m going to go ahead and watch. I hope not much will be lost on me for not having followed the original series closely. Trailer is here:

The same night Endeavour premieres, the biggest thing since sliced bread is set to hit BBC America.

BroadchurchDavid Tennant stars in Broadchurch and uses his Scottish accent, which is my favorite thing in the world. This show was a huge hit in the UK this Spring, and I’ve been waiting anxiously for it since. A second series has already been announced.

It’s a whodunnit murder mystery set on the Dorset coast. In addition to Tennant, Olivia Colman co-starred and co-produced the show, and Arthur Darvill (Rory!) also co-stars. This is at the top of my Must-See List, FYI. Trailer:

Since I will be thoroughly busy watching all of these shows, I’m glad there is a bit of a break before more begin. The next one starts August 18th. It’s called The Lady Vanishes.

The Lady VanishesPBS is airing this remake of a Hitchcock thriller about a woman who goes missing, and another who tries to alert authorities about the incidence, but is not taken seriously. Listen, I tend to think any remake of a Hitchcock film is just a terrible idea. Are they going to improve on his direction? No. Is the addition of color going to add more suspense and creepiness? No. Are there modern actresses/actors who could play these roles better than the likes of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart? Hell no. But, this actually got pretty good reviews, so I’m going to watch and keep an open mind. I’ve never seen the original, so that should help. Trailer:

At the end of August, PBS is also airing Silk, a legal drama. Prepare your powdered wigs, we’re off to the Old Bailey!

SilkI don’t have a lot of info on this one, partially because the title is very hard to Google well. Apparently it deals with two rival barristers. PBS is airing it in 3 two-hour increments from August 25th-September 8th. Bonus-it features Rupert Penry-Jones, of Whitechapel. Less of a bonus–his character looks like a d-bag, judging by the trailer:

Next, starting September 3rd, the all important Idris Elba returns to my life on BBC America.

luther series 3You gorgeous man, you.

There’s not a proper trailer for this one yet (that I could find), but they made an ‘announcement trailer’

Judging by this video, I’m guessing the episodes for the new season will disturb me just as much (if not more) than the last two seasons. Don’t care. Idris Elba calls, and I must answer.

Last, but not least:

The ParadisePBS is airing this one on October 6th, and calling it The Paradise. It’s an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel, and was sort of squared off against Mr. Selfridge when it aired in the UK, because of the similar subject matter. The show revolves around the first department store in NE England. It looks a little more soapy to me, based on the trailer. But I plan to watch and compare. Bonus–Arthur Darvill is also in this one (briefly).

Beyond here, there be trailers:

I’m going to be a busy blogger over the next 3 or 4 months. Yay!

Advertisements

British vs. American Universities

Last entry, I discussed lower school systems in the UK vs the US.  This time, we’re ditching the minors and heading to university!

Oxford academic dressFirst up, the British system. The picture is not something they wear every day, so don’t recoil in horror.  But, Oxford students have to wear this for ceremonies and exams.

I’ll pick up chronologically where I left off last time.

So, you’ve got your A-level scores, you’ve applied and had interviews at a few universities, and then you get accepted. Yay!  Here’s what I know about UK universities:  They are very different from US universities.

Take something like Oxford.  The whole thing is the University of Oxford, but it is made up of a bunch of small Colleges. You would apply to a specific college, most of the time, based on your interests, talents, where you want to live, etc.  You are admitted to a specific college.  I believe at Oxbridge your tutor will come from your college, but I could be wrong about that.  You go to classes with everyone in your subject, but you live and eat with your college mates.  Think of Oxford as Hogwarts and the Colleges as Houses…but without the competition.

Other universities are different.  King’s College London is part of the University of London, but the different colleges (UCL, ICL, Queen Mary, etc.) are even more separate. They operate completely independently of each other, and are geographically disparate. You have no interaction with students at other colleges (through classes anyway).

Big point for UK Universities–they are dirt cheap compared to ours.  Average tuition is something like £8000 (~$13,000)  And they are eternally upset about that.  I mean, yeah, it’s a lot of money.  Buut…compare it to the $40-50,000 you would be expected to pay at an American private university.  Add to that, in the UK (in my experience at least) you aren’t expected to pay anything until after you leave university.

UK students only go to university for 3 years (there are a few exceptions to this, like St. Andrew’s, but it’s mostly true).  They finish in 3 years by only studying the subject they came to study.  If you are a Lit student, as I was, you only take Literature classes.  No general ed. classes, and a lot less variety and fewer options for courses.  So, if you’re an English major, then there are no math courses, no science courses, no language courses.  If you’re a Chemistry major, you don’t take any English courses.  This boggles my mind.  I find it really strange that you’re expected to know at 18 the only thing you want to study for the next three years and then do in your career.  And that you might not need to know some other skills.  Scientists should still know how to communicate effectively.  English majors should still know how to do math.  I can’t say I use Calculus every day in my publishing job, but I do understand more about the world and how it works for having learned some Calculus.  I don’t like this system, I won’t lie.

The other big difference is how much time you spend in class.  Hardly any.  I had 4 classes.  Each one had 1 lecture per week and 1 seminar per week, which meant a total of about 8 hours of class per week. 100% of your grade for the course is based on a test you take at the end of the year (or a paper you write), so there is no incentive to go to class or to keep up with reading or to participate in seminar discussions if you don’t want to actually learn. I could have read one Shakespeare play in January, written a great paper about it over the next three months, turned it in and gotten an amazing grade…and never gone to class.  Also, there’s no reason to be polite to your teachers, because the exams/papers are graded anonymously.  From my experience, the seminars were interesting because some discussion took place, but the lectures were mostly random professors paraphrasing something they’d recently published.  But that is my very limited experience.

Generally, you live in a dorm (at least at first), and these are roughly similar to American dorms.  A few key differences:

  • Usually you have a single room. Some dorms have suites, where you share a kitchen and maybe a bathroom with a few others, but your bedrooms are still for one person only.
  • Dorms are mostly self-catered, meaning there are a few kitchens with communal fridges, cabinets, oven, microwave.  When I went to KCL, there was I think 1 fully catered dormitory that provided meals, so it is an option, but not a great one. I recall that they could not cater to specialty diets.
  • Some halls have en suite bathrooms, most have a women’s and a men’s on each floor.
  • They have housekeeping!  I had a maid come clean my room every Tuesday, and I could drop off my sheets to get a fresh set whenever I wanted (which I totally did, like all the time. I definitely didn’t go the entire semester without changing my sheets).
  • During vacation times, universities often rent out student rooms as tourist accommodation.  This is really strange to me.
  • Usually they are not really called dorms, but are called Halls of Residence (or just halls).

Activities in UK universities are varied.  There are university sports, but it’s not anywhere near as pseudo-professional as in the US.  There is no big NCAA equivalent tournament, and it’s more like what we would think of as intramural sports. So don’t expect to get accepted to a UK university based mostly on your tennis record. There are also active student unions and lots of activities.  I can’t speak to specifics because since I was living in London for the first time, I spent my days doing touristy Londony things, not specifically student-oriented activities.  I would imagine the activities are more important for universities outside a major metro area, just like in the US.

So, on to the grades.  I will admit this thoroughly baffles me.  When I received my essays back, they had already been ‘translated’ into the American system, so I didn’t have to think about it too much.  But here’s my rough comprehension:

  • Anything above a 64/100 is considered an A- or above.  Anything 50-63 is in the B range, anything 38-49 is in the C range.  I do not understand how this works.  Do they just grade  things much more harshly here?  Because in the US, a 59 would be a failing grade.  I think this has something to do with grading on a curve, or scaling all the tests to match this weird (to me) set of numbers. I have heard UK students say that it’s virtually impossible to get over 80% on anything.  Anything over 75% on an essay, for example, means you could probably publish it in a scholarly journal, etc. It’s that good. Despite not being able to explain how it works, I can at least tell you that if someone ever mentions they got a 65 on their exam…do not console them. They did fine.
  • When you’ve finished your degree, your work is categorized in a specific way.  If you got an A average, you have a First degree.  If you got an A-/B+ average (roughly speaking), you have an upper second (2:1) degree.  If you got a B average, you have a lower second (2:2) degree. Anything below that is a third class or just a pass, and probably shouldn’t be bragged about.

As far as I know, no one’s going to ask you about your grades on individual exams after you’ve finished university.  But getting a 1st or an upper second is really important if you plan on pursuing a master’s or PhD.  It also looks good on your CV when you apply for jobs and internships.  Firsts are pretty rare, by all accounts, so anyone who has one is pretty smart.

A word or two about postgraduate.  All (or virtually all) UK Master’s degrees are 1 year.  You are generally required to have a master’s degree before applying for a doctoral program. PhD programs and similar are typically 3 years.  Unlike the US, there isn’t a lot of funding for doctoral students.  On the other hand, no one expects you to teach 30 hours a week in classes while writing your dissertation, so if you can afford to go there it is easier on you.  They have different terminology for some degrees, partially because study is divided into ‘taught programmes’ and ‘research programmes’.  The first is very similar to any master’s program in the US. You go to classes, you are ‘taught’, you take a test or write a paper, you get your award.  These award the same degrees: an MA or MSc.  The latter type is more of a ‘leave me alone I’m working on this project for a year’ program(me).  You go and take advantage of the lab/library, you work with an adviser, but there are no/few classes. These award different degrees: MPhil, MRes and some can be 2 years.  PhDs can be called PhDs or DPhils.  There are others like LLM (law),  MPhil, MEd, DBA, DMus, DEng.

Okay, enough of that confusion.  What about US Universities?

frats and sororitiesFirst distinction: American universities are divided into State Schools (which receive public funding) and Private schools (which don’t).  Most of your better schools are private, such as the Ivy League, Stanford, NYU, the Seven Sisters colleges.  There are also really good public schools, like U of Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA.  State schools offer big tuition reductions to students from that state.  So if you are from Virginia it’s much cheaper to go to U of Virginia than the nearby University of Maryland.  I spent 1 marginally terrible year at Iowa State University, and at the time I think it cost a paltry $3000 per year.  Dirt cheap.  On the other hand, there was almost no financial aid offered.  When I went to a private college, I was given tons of financial aid…but I still ended up with student loans at the end.  Biggest difference between UK and US grads–US grads are 1 year older and $40,000 more in debt.

Campus life at US universities (or those of a certain kind) revolve around sports and greek life.  This isn’t all universities, obviously.  NYU tends to care far less about sports than the University of Nebraska.  As a rule, the more there is to do in the city, the less you care about the stuff the university organizes.  But, compared to the UK, all US college sports are more organized, higher stakes, more widely followed and watched.  The biggest example is the NCAA March Madness, where all the (good) college teams in the country compete in a basketball tournament.  Tons of money goes into that, and it’s broadcast on prime-time TV and is a really big deal for people who follow sports (aka not me).

Greek life means fraternities and sororities.  These are places where the cheeriest, happiest, drunkest, worst, nicest, meanest, douchiest people go to be with others of their kind.  They range from really nice people who just want to have an active social life, to the most dreadful rich, privileged, fake, superficial people you can imagine.  I passed on being involved, because I have no desire for an active social life, and there were all kinds of meetings where people clapped for each other, and everyone had to follow rules about what they could and couldn’t do.  And that was at a nice sorority, not one of the ones that hazes you by making you take cocaine or anything involving penetration of anything into anything else or where you have to deal with this girl.  I’m sure there are nice greek chapters with nice people.  Somewhere.

The curriculum for US universities is very different from UK universities.  As I mentioned before, you don’t go in with a major.  If you do choose a major straight away, you can change it anytime.  The first 1-2 years of your university experience will be occupied with ‘General Ed requirements’ that everyone has to complete.  As an example, here is what Georgetown requires:

  • Two humanities and writing courses
  • Two history courses
  • Two math/science courses
  • Two social science courses
  • Foreign language through the intermediate level
  • Two theology courses
  • Two philosophy courses

The point of these is to ensure that everyone graduating from Georgetown has a solid basis in these fields, can talk intelligently about them, can do basic maths and can communicate reasonably well in English and in another language.  If you’re particularly skilled in any of these areas, or if you have taken AP tests and done very well, you can test out of taking the classes.  Once you’ve finished getting your general ed requirements out of the way, and you’ve picked a major, you take (mostly) classes in your major from then on. Some people also get a minor, which means that most of your optional classes were taken in a specific area.  Minors don’t really mean much for a job, but I guess they could help with grad school.

Classes meet far more often in the US than in the UK.  You typically have 3-4 hours of class per week for any given course you take.  I used to have my Italian classes for an hour every day.  Summer classes were twice as bad–I think I took 2 courses, but had class 4-5 hours per day, 4 days per week.  I also remember science classes are particularly awful because you get a 2 hour lecture 2-3 times per week AND a lab once a week that can be 4 or 5 hours long, but only counts as one ‘credit hour’.  That nonsense is part of why I happily switched to being an English major.  Also, my refusal to dissect anything may have played a part. Anyway, if you are from the UK and think you might want to go to uni. here, be aware that you will be spending a lot more time in class here, and you will have a lot more assignments.

Grades are cumulative in most courses.  That means each quiz, test, essay, and discussion from the whole semester will count toward your end grade.  And none of it is anonymous, so be nice to your professors if at all possible.  Also, generally, attendance is important.  Professors take attendance, and some classes lower your grade if you’ve missed a certain amount of days.

Grades are far easier to understand than the UK system.

  • 90% and above – A range
  • 80% and above – B range
  • 70% and above – C range
  • 60% and above – D range
  • the rest is all bad news.  F range.

GPA is calculated exactly as it is in high school.  For more info, see this Wiki page.

When you’re done with all your requirements, and you have all the credits you need to graduate, you…graduate. If you’ve done really well, you graduate with honors.  This is similar to the degree classification scale in the UK. If you got above a certain GPA (every school has a different measurement, but at my uni., it was above 3.80/4.00, then you get Summa Cum Laude.  This is roughly equivalent to a First.  The next highest (for me this was a 3.6/4.0) is Magna Cum Laude, roughly equivalent to a 2:1.  The last honors distinction is just Cum Laude, usually awarded for 3.4 or above.  Equivalent to 2:2, I think.  Anything under that is just a regular degree, no distinction.  Some schools don’t do the honors degrees at all, some (Yale, Harvard) do it by percentage, so the top 5% in the university class would get SCL.

So, graduation. There is a big ceremony in the football stadium or wherever, and everyone wears caps and gowns again.  If you’re from a fancy school they get Desmond Tutu or J.K. Rowling to come talk to you about starting your life. At least one of your relatives falls asleep during this speech.  Then you throw your cap up in the air and you’re done! On to terrifying debt and high unemployment, yay!

If the thought of that terrifies you, then graduate school is for you!  First stop should be standardized tests.  Take the LSAT, MCAT, GRE, or GMAT, depending on what you want to punish yourself with.  I took the GRE last year.  Remember to study vocabulary about 23 hours per day if you want to do well.

Master’s programs are generally 2 years here; no idea why.  They place less emphasis on research and you spend more time in class.  You have regular assignments and a dissertation/thesis at the end.  There is (usually) no funding for Master’s programs, so they tend to be quite costly.

PhD programs are incredibly competitive, partially because a lot of them are funded.  That’s right, they will pay your tuition and give you a living stipend (a paltry one, but still).  The funded programs are also the good programs, so everyone wants in.  Acceptance rates tend to hover around 5%.  In exchange for all this free school and living expenses, you pay in sweat and stress.  In addition to classes (again, there is more class time than a PhD program in the UK would provide), you are expected to be a teaching assistant or to teach your own class.  This depends on subject.  I think in the sciences you tend to lead seminars or labs, but I had my first year Italian course taught by a grad student.  A master’s student even, and she was the full professor of the course.  So it just depends. It’s a lot of work and you’re not paid for it; it’s expected because of your free education.  Also, somewhere in there, you have to write your dissertation.  Most people have a really hard time finishing in the 4 years that are paid for, and then they have to look for private funding opportunities to get time to work on the dissertation later.  Humanities PhD programs regularly have people who finish int heir 7, 8, or 9th years of study.  That’s almost a decade. No thanks.

When you’re done with grad school, you can look forward to even more debt, being a lot older, and probably fierce competition for a constantly shrinking number of academic jobs.  If you manage to get one, you will have to wait for someone to die before you get promoted.

These little snarky comments of mine aside, I do actually want to get a master’s degree, because what can I say, I love the learning.  And I’m a glutton for punishment and feel uncomfortable having money in my pocket or a job to go to.  Part of this post came about because I am considering both UK and US universities, and it helps me to compare and contrast in what way I want to go broke.  Both systems have serious flaws, but they also have upsides that make me look back on time at university as really rewarding and satisfying intellectually.  I’m sure I’ve got some of the details wrong here, or left something out, so if you have any questions, suggestions, or corrections, I’d love to hear them!

British vs American Education Systems

I was engaging in some friendly Internet banter on Gawker the other day and ended up (after being asked to do so) explaining the American education system to some Brits.  There is a lot of confusion on both sides, partially because the systems are really different.  I can’t say I think one is superior to the other, but they both have strengths and weaknesses.  Thought it might be helpful to provide a real breakdown of how they differ.  I can’t guarantee I’ll get everything right, but I think this should be mostly accurate. I’m going to deal with lower education first, and discuss universities later.  Otherwise this will be a very long post.

First, the British System

the_inbetweenersMost importantly, you’ll notice the uniforms.  Uniforms are, I think, a government mandate.  Blergh.  So glad I didn’t have to deal with that.  On the other hand, I think I wore a black Old Navy fleece pullover for about 6 months straight in high school, so maybe it wouldn’t have been so different.  Still, I got to choose the black fleece pullover.  An illusion of freedom is helpful for those under 18, who have no actual freedom under the law. I think there are a few schools in the UK without uniforms, but probably over 90% require uniforms.

The British system starts out similar to the US System.  You have the option to attend something called Nursery School, which is similar to our Preschool, until you’re 4.  After that, you go to Primary School from ~4/5 years old through ~11 years old.    The first year is called ‘reception’, similar to our kindergarten. After that, you start with year 1, then year 2, etc., etc., very similar to our 1st grade, 2nd grade.  Things don’t really become vastly different until you’re nearing adulthood.

When Brit kids are in year 6, they sit an exam called the Sats (in no way related to the US SATs), which helps determine what classes they can/should take going forward.  This is, I imagine, similar to our basic standardized tests in elementary/middle school, when it comes to format and material.  The big difference is that it makes a difference in what classes you can take going forward.  More of a placement test.

After year 6, if you don’t get your Hogwarts letter, you go to Secondary School.  Instead of having a Middle and High school as we do, you go to Secondary school from about 11/12 y.o. to 16 y.o., from year 7-year 11.  Somewhere in there you take another Sats test to help with future class placement.  But the first big deal stressful test you need to take in your young life is the O.W.L.s….no, that’s not right.  The GCSEs (stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education). I think you study the subjects for year 10 and 11 and then take the tests in year 11, but I could be wrong on that.  According to Wikipedia, the grading goes like this:

The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are: A* (pronounced ‘A-star’), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) is issued when students have not achieved the minimum standard to achieve a pass grade; the subject is then not included on their final certificate.

The GSCEs help you determine where you go next.  Government mandated education in the UK stops at 16, not 18 as it does here.  So if you want to be done with school and go work at your uncle’s garage, go for it.  If you want to go to University, you need to continue with school.  You have two options; you can go to ‘College’, or you can stay on at your Secondary School in something called ‘Sixth Form’. Both options prepare you to take your NEWTs A-levels.  From what I understand, being accepted to Sixth Form is more competitive and difficult than going to a College, and there don’t tend to be a lot of other students with you.  This video talks about the differences, and the guy mentions that out of his entire Secondary School, there were only 30 classmates in his Sixth Form.

Note to Americans–if you’re in the UK and you say College, people do not think you mean University.  They only call it University.

You take your A-levels at 17 or 18 years old, and primarily they determine what Universities you can attend.  People generally take 3 or 4 A-levels (usually you study 2 per year, I think). I believe the closest equivalent we have in the US is AP tests.  They seem to offer A-levels in everything, though I don’t think each of these subjects is offered universally.  I feel sorry for anyone who, at 15, decides Accounting is the subject for them, but I am jealous that so many different languages are offered. Passing grades are A*, A, B, C, D and E.  Everyone stresses about their results, and I think these tests are the main qualification that universities look at before they consider you for admission. For Oxbridge, you need all As, at least.  That’s the minimum requirement.  For reference, if an American wants to apply to Oxbridge, they expect 3 AP tests with grades of 5, so they are fairly equivalent in the eyes of their Admissions Offices.  King’s College London, which is where I went (briefly), requires you to ‘pass 3 A-levels’, but if you look at their more prestigious programs (Law, Medicine), they require AAA or A*AA to be admitted.  An A* is like an A+; I think you have to get over 90% on the exam, but I’m a little unclear on that because a 90% on an American exam is usually an A- and an A+ is over ~98%.  A more average university, like the University of Surrey, requires 3 passes at A-level, but also looks at your GSCEs.  You need a C or better at Math and English, regardless of your A level scores.

A note about graduation–they don’t have one in the UK.  Because some students leave at 16, some at 17, the rest at 18, there is no one moment of ‘thank god that’s done’ as there is in the US.  They have something called a Leaving Day, I believe, but it’s not on the scale of a high school graduation.

Okay…so that’s most of what I know about the UK Education System.  If any of my UK readers would like to correct me, I’d love to know what I got wrong or left out.  Also, if any of you readers from the UK (or elsewhere) are confused about the US system, this bit’s for you!

graduationIt’s far simpler to explain. First and most important: very few schools have uniforms.

First, you can go to preschool or daycare when you’re very young.  Then, when you turn 4 or 5, you will go to Elementary school. This starts with kindergarten, and goes through 5th grade (in most places).  So you start at 5 years old and leave at 11, very similar to the UK.

Here’s where it starts to be different.  After Elementary school you go to Middle School.  This is from grades 6-8, so ages 12-14(ish).

After 8th grade, you move on to High School.  TV shows should give you a good indication of what it’s like. You go to High School from 9th-12th grade.  There are other words for your status during each year: In 9th grade you are a freshman, 10th grade you are a sophomore, 11th grade you are a junior, and 12th grade you are a senior.  No one really says ‘I’m in 9th grade’, they would say ‘I’m a freshman’. You study a variety of subjects, but everyone has to study things like Math, Science, History, English.  Usually people study a language, and most places require you to take gym.  The popular kids torture the less popular kids, but really everyone is incredibly miserable.

Pressure to prepare for college starts, in my experience, as a Sophomore.  You take some standardized tests to give you a hint of what your future hell will be like when you are taking them for real.  You can start taking AP classes, if they are offered at your school.  AP classes are similar to GSCE classes, I believe. You study a subject for (usually) a year, and then take a test at the end.  Grades for the tests are 1-5, with 5 as the highest.  3-5 are the passing grades.  You can take as many as you want, or take none.  They’re not required, but if you want to go to Harvard, they’re going to expect you to take whichever advanced classes your school offers.

In your Junior year, you take the SATs and/or ACTs for real.  These tests are measured differently, but they test very similar things.  A very good score on the SATs would be anything above 2000/2400.  A good score on the ACTs would be anything over 31 out of 36.  Again, if you want to go to an Ivy League school, you need to have nearly perfect test scores.

The thing to understand about American universities is that they look at you as a whole person.  There are your test scores (AP, SAT, ACT), but also your GPA (more on that in a minute), your extra-curricular activities like clubs or sports, and your personal statement.  Some do interviews, but it’s rarely a requirement.  Most schools have a huge amount of students apply, so they use things like GPA and test scores as a first step to weed out the least suitable candidate.  Then they start to look at the other materials. Just keep that in mind when I continue to describe all the shit you have to do to have a chance at a good university in the US.

So, GPA.  This is a confusing subject for everyone outside the UK, from my experience.  Your courses are graded with letter grades, but each letter grade has a corresponding numerical value out of 4.0 (usually).

  • A = 4.00
  • A- = 3.67
  • B+ = 3.33
  • B = 3.00
  • B- = 2.67

etc., etc for grades A, B, C, D (the passing grades).  We only have one failing grade, F.  For more info, this is a Wiki page that goes into specifics. I’m not going to attempt to explain grading on a curve to you in this blog.

So, your GPA is just your average.  If you have all Bs, you have a GPA of 3.00.  If you have 2 As, an A-, and a B+, your GPA would be 3.75   [(4.0+4.0+3.67+3.33)/4 classes=3.75].

I would say GPA is the number one thing universities look for.  An Ivy League school would probably not consider anyone with below a 3.5, unless they were a celebrity, Olympian, legacy, sports star, or had something else to offer the university. The majority of people accepted to an Ivy probably a 3.8 or above.  For your middling state schools, anything above a 3.0 is fine.

The good thing about a GPA is that it’s an average, and it covers all 4 years of high school.  For UK students who get nervous taking their A level tests, this must sound wonderful.  After all, if you bomb one test in the US, it’s not going to hurt you in the long run.  On the other hand, the GPA is a bit unforgiving.  If you have a bad year in your freshman or sophomore year, it’s really difficult to ever get your GPA back up to a respectable level.  To judge people for university based in part by their performance at 14 years old seems harsh.  So, there are pros and cons.

Generally, people take the SAT and/or ACT once more in their Senior year in an attempt to get a better score.  People apply to college (university) in the fall of their Senior years and usually hear back in the spring. You get in and you celebrate, or you don’t and you cry.

Two big events end the high school experience for most students.  Prom and Graduation.  These have been covered in countless shows and movies, so I doubt I need to explain them.  A prom is just a formal dance, the biggest one of your young life.  Graduation is the formal celebration of your being finished with school.  Since the leaving age in the US is 18, this is a big deal.  Celebrating together the end of this collective experience.  You have a ceremony and a boring speech, you wear robes, you get a fake diploma, your family takes lots of pictures.  Usually you have a party afterward. If you’re wealthy or lucky, your family buys you a car and/or a laptop.  If you are me, your family buys you a dictionary.  You are an adult and can now do what you want (in theory).

Next time, university!

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistI’m having terrible luck with books lately.  The last four or five I’ve read were (at best) ‘meh’.  I’ve also read a few lately written by historians-turned-novelists.  I thought perhaps I might do better with someone who has an English degree.

I was wrong.  Despite earning a ‘first’ (British equivalent of Summa Cum Laude) in English Lit at Oxford, Barnes does not make a better novelist than the historians I’ve read of late.  In fact, this book was quite a bit worse.

I don’t like writing about books I dislike, or disliking books in the first place. I feel very ungenerous for being harsh on writers and their work, especially in a medium where they can see my bald criticisms (and several of them have).  I would vastly prefer to only find great books and be able to swoon and flail over them in private, and pontificate over them on this blog. But that is not my fate. And I feel like it’s better to put my thoughts out there and keep other people from wasting their time on books that aren’t worth the effort it takes to read them. So forgive my harshness, but this was not a good book. Not at all.

I picked it up because the cover very clearly says ’19th century England’, from the dark hat and cloak to the gas-lit facade of the Houses of Parliament.  That’s my place and my time period, so I was in.  I wasn’t really drawn in by the jacket copy, focusing on a conjurer/illusionist/magician figure (I dislike magic), or by the title. Somnambulist means sleepwalker, in case you didn’t know.  But the setting is enough for me when it comes to books–a policy I may have to change when I think about the last few books I’ve read.

The story is about a magician, Edward Moon, who also is relatively famous for his skills as a part-time detective, a Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin type character. His sidekick, both in his magical show and in his mystery-solving adventures is the Somnambulist, a mute giant with superhuman strength and an apparent immunity to being stabbed with multiple swords. The Somnamulist reminded me of the mythical Golem of Jewish Folklore.

Other characters include an albino who works for a government agency called the Directorate, his Tiny Tim-esque son on crutches, a bearded prostitute with a deformed third arm emerging from the middle of her chest, two aged men dressed as English schoolboys who happen to be supernatural assassins, fake ‘Chinamen’, the Human Fly, the sewn together and reanimated body of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and an all-powerful cult bent on destroying London. Oh, yes, and a Benjamin-Button character who travels through his life backwards, getting younger by the day. But he’s also living through time backwards and lives for thousands of years, eventually ‘founding’ London in pre-Roman times.

The sad thing is that in that description, I didn’t even include all of the different assassins or crackpots running through this story. I left out the Mongoose, Reverand Tan, the all-knowing Archivist, Moon’s ex-partner and now-nemesis Barabbas, the list goes on.  This book is a mess of absolutely unbelievable crap. And none of it is ever well explained.  Essentially, the plot revolves around Moon trying to solve a murder, and being led slowly into this large conspiracy to destroy London and start a new society in its place.  This is all based on a theory Coleridge actually had, called pantisocracy.  He and some mates were going to leave England and start an agrarian utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in middle-Pennsylvania.  They gave up the idea after only a few months, but Barnes has resurrected it for this novel.

In an attempt to summarize this story, I realize that I don’t truly understand it.  Part of the problem was that I had a hard time reading the book–it was not captivating, not exciting. I had to struggle to finish a few pages at a time.

Another problem is the story makes no sense, the narrator is totally unreliable and admits to telling lies in the story, and no one bothers to explain anything that’s going on.  The plot was a complete clusterfuck. I have no idea how this shit got published. I don’t say that often, but I mean it.

My other problems with the book revolved around character.  Moon is described as a great detective, but we never see any evidence.  Unlike the Holmes stories, where we see snippets of his abilities in deduction, Moon is just described as a great detective by others.There is talk of past cases, successful and not so much, but in this mystery he is shockingly passive.   He waits for others to tell him what is going on, give him clues and point him in the right direction. And they do, time and time again.  He even has a man on his side who has traveled from the future and knows how the story goes–and yet Moon bumbles from one place to another until he wanders into a trap and is nearly killed.  His one proactive moment is putting ads in the papers for someone who might have information he needs, but the gentleman who answers the ad is sent directly from Moon’s enemies.  It’s all a trap, and he has no capacity for seeing that.  He is an incredibly disappointing detective.  And a disappointing character all around, with very little depth or back story.

I should have put this book down when I read the first paragraph:

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. 

This is the most truthful and realistic part of the novel. I had an intense and immediate dislike of the book and the author as soon as I read this.  I dislike narrative ‘tricks’ for the sake of trickery, and this one seemed to also be apologizing for sub-par writing which did not engender confidence in me as a reader.  Barnes continues with the narrative tricks with confusing lies by the narrator, and with the final reveal of the narrator’s identity.  I don’t want narrative tricks; I want an actual story.  There are a few books where these tricks work–because you’ve believed a story to a certain point, and you are thrown completely from the narrative saddle by a revelation halfway.  The example for me is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I both adore and hate. I absolutely detest that book for how horrible it made me feel, like a friend had walked beside me for a while, then turned around and stabbed me in the gut.  That is a narrative trick that works. It left me weeping for a good hour. These narrative tricks that Barnes employs are just annoying, a nuisance.

I’m afraid to say I don’t think anything was redeeming about this book.  None of the characters were particularly likeable or whole.  A lot of them seemed like rip-offs of other characters–Moon was meant to be like Holmes, The Prefects seemed to be Croup and Vandemar light, there was also Tiny Tim, the Golem, and Benjamin Button.  An original, or fully fleshed-out character would have been nice.

The plot was nonsensical and unsatisfying. The writing wasn’t engaging, nor was it stylistically pleasant.  I think the phrase ‘ersatz Chinaman’ was used at least 4 times. The narrator was annoying at best.  It was a really terrible book. Normally, when I don’t like a book very much I try to say ‘if you really like X time period, or X genre then this might be worth reading’. I cannot think of a single type of person who would enjoy this book. It’s not satisfying as a mystery, it’s not satisfying as a part of the time period, it’s useless if you value complicated characters or beautiful prose.  I guess if you enjoy being jerked around by a narrator and like to leave a book with less comprehension of the plot than during the first few pages, then this one’s for you!

Movie review: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of ArabiaUsually, I am not the type of person very interested in ‘epic’ films.  I like classic movies, but they tend to be the sort of film that is very intimate in scale (Twelve Angry Men, Rear Window). The big epics that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s (The Ten Commandments, Spartacus) have never particularly interested me. Maybe this is partially because the action usually revolves around war or religion, two topics I prefer to ignore in life.

I decided to watch Lawrence of Arabia, despite it being set in war, because its a very interesting look at the British in a different context than you usually see.  A British officer who embraces a different culture and sees them (especially a culture that would have been called uncivilized at the time) as equals, and understands their interests.  A look at WWI not from the trenches in France, but from the periphery of the Middle East.  A look at the history of a region still obviously in conflict.  I saw T.E. Lawrence’s portrait when I visited Oxford, and I was fascinated by the legend.

This is definitely an epic film, with multiple battle scenes, a huge cast, and tons of footage shot in amazing and exotic places.  I find that the more ‘epic’ characteristics were irksome to me, but the film had enough human interaction to sate my need for character-driven action.  I think that it actually reminded me a lot of Bridge Over the River Kwai. It dealt with a foreign culture and its relations to the British, and the lunacy that war can create in any man.

So, who was T.E. Lawrence?  A British officer, educated but insolent, stationed in Cairo during World War I. That much is verified by historical accounts. The film takes license with other areas of the history, so I won’t presume to know much about T.E. Lawrence, the man. The character, however, is a very interesting man.  Very interesting and very human.  He’s showy, arrogant, but also very smart and very capable.  I’d wager he’s a great chess player.

Lawrence is given an assignment to meet with a Prince Faisal, a leader of some of the nomadic tribes in Arabia.  He impresses the prince by seeing the conflict and the decisions from the perspective of the Arabs as an independent nation, not just from the perspective of the British as needing their support.  He doesn’t just pay perfunctory respect to the prince, but actually respects and comprehends his difficult position.  The British are offering to supply arms and training to fight the Turks, against which the Arabs are getting completely slaughtered. How do you fight planes with a horse and a sword?  But, in exchange for the weapons and training, the Arabs would become more or less a garrison under the British Army’s control, and cease to be an independent state.

A little note for the sake of political correctness–I realize that Arab is not a term I should be using to describe all of the people in the movie, who were not in any way united, and were from diverse tribes and cultures.  On the other hand, the movie refers to them that way partially because Lawrence’s biggest challenge and biggest hope is to achieve a unified nation that can defend and regulate itself outside of British control.  So, I’m using the term to reflect that and, honestly, to make my life simpler in writing this.  No offense intended.

Carrying on.  Lawrence suggests that the Arabs try to take control of the city of Aqaba from the Turks, and use this as a point from which to defend themselves without falling under British rule.  Consider how amazing this idea is coming from a product of a culture that had literally spent the last 150 years trying to turn the entire map red.  The culture that said ‘The sun never sets on the English Empire’.  It’s an amazingly incongruous idea from a Brit of that era.  But nonetheless.

Lawrence sets across the desert to try to accomplish his goal.  I won’t recount the entire rest of the plot, but here are a few general themes.  As Lawrence sees it, the main problem the Arabs have is infighting–the different tribes kill each other over rivalries, over access to water, over eye-for-an-eye justice systems.  While they fight one another, it is far simpler for them to be ruled by someone else, or to be defeated by the Turks.  Lawrence seeks to unite them in the fight.  In order to do so, he has a few strategies–he (knowingly or naively) becomes a symbol of power and courage, and attracts what are essentially disciples in his war, he offers the spoils of war in the form of the pillaging of supplies (from horses and food to fine clocks and guns), and he does whatever he can to avoid the flare-ups of tribal hostilities.  A pivotal scene is when a man from tribe A kills the man from tribe B.  Under law, the murderer must be killed. But if someone from tribe B kills the man, then that man must be killed. Etc.  Lawrence has no choice.  He kills the man. Justice is served and no further deaths need occur.  But that is the form of justice he must embrace in order to achieve his ends. Eventually, the Arabs and Lawrence do gain control of several key cities (but not without incredible loss and bloodshed of a gut-wrenching variety) and they set up their own government instead of allowing British rule.  But it cannot last, no matter how desperately Lawrence hopes for compromise and peace and something resembling democracy/a parliamentary republic.  It’s a failure in the end, and the British swoop in to gain control over the area.

What this process, this fruitless journey does to Lawrence is very depressing.  He is fairly likeable at the beginning, perhaps because he is a non-conformist who dares challenge authority even while surrounded by feckless bureaucrats with no sense of responsibility for what they are doing in that region. Once he begins to ‘go native’, adopting cultural mores of the Arabs (the wearing of robes) and abandoning those of the British (shaving daily), he becomes almost saint-like.  This is personified by his flowing white robes, shining in the desert sun.  His image begins to tarnish when his guerrilla warfare becomes more dirty and brutal (validating the British sense of fair play). He begins to have blood soaked into his robes. First, by a bullet that grazes his arm.  Then by the blood of others in his brutal assaults on the Turks.  When he is caught in Turkey and whipped repeatedly, blood soaks through his robes for days afterward.  After this incident, even when he returns to his British army uniform, the blood soaks through.  Like Lady Macbeth, it won’t wash clean.  This is a fairly obvious allegory for how his soul is becoming tainted and dirty from his actions. The blood soaking through his uniform is clearly saying that even when he goes home to England, he won’t be able to brush off the blood on his hands.  By the end of the film, when he has bribed and cajoled thousands to their deaths and to participate in the deaths of others, he’s useless to the Brits and the Arabs, and is more damaged than can be described.

So is the message of the movie that this is an uncivilized area of the world unable to govern itself?  I hope not.  Considering what this journey does to Lawrence, I think it means that anyone from outside the culture, no matter how much they know about it or feel they can understand or adopt it, they cannot control or change it. Change, if it should come, must come from within.  It has to be in the minds of the people themselves, and not something which they are steered toward by an outsider.  I think that’s a good message.

People that don’t like Shakespeare might point to the difficulty they have understanding it, but no one can deny that reading/watching Shakespeare can provide endless different interpretations of the same play.  I’m not a fan of the epic movie, and this movie wasn’t really an exception in that arena.  On the other hand, it has given me a lot to think about, and in that way, I think it was a really excellent film.  Very thought-provoking.

A note, though.  IT’S FUCKING LONG.  It’s nearly FOUR hours long.  And bleak.  Just a warning, if you’re thinking about watching it.  Make sure you don’t have anything else to do that day.

There are a million other things I could say about this movie. The locations they chose are amazing and give you an incredible sense of the scale of these massive deserts, and what sort of culture might be able to endure such a harsh climate.  The acting is superb–Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, Alec Guinness as Faisel, Omar Sharif as Sheriff Ali. Some of the best acting I think I’ve ever seen.  I could also talk for an extended period about the utter nonsense of having Alec Guinness play the King of Syria/Iraq. In brown face.  It doesn’t sit well with a modern sensibility.  Not quite as terrible as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, but pretty bad.  I’ll spare you my ruminations, however. The bottom line: despite its faults, it’s a movie worth seeing.

My Top 5 British Everything! part one

My monetary situation continues to not be conducive to buying new movies or books.  That means it’s time for another list–a long one this time! Part one will cover Books, Movies, and my favorite places in the British Isles.

My Top 5 British Everything*

*not comprehensive.

First off, books! This is very hard for me, obviously, as a quick inventory of my bookshelf will prove that about 60% of all the books I own are British.  To pick only 5 is like picking one meal to eat every night for the rest of your life.  But, nevertheless, here are my favorites!

1.The Harry Potter Series

Of course this is number one.  And, don’t gripe about this being 7 books, not one.  This list is only my top five, and it would be pretty boring if all five were HP books, as they most assuredly would be.  The bottom line is these are my desert island books, the only books I would truly need to be fulfilled for the rest of my life, if, god forbid, it came to that sort of choice.  These books absolutely and tangibly changed my life–cured my depression, inspired me to go back and finish my degree, inspired me to read again, to write again, to enjoy and love my time on earth.  When I am sad or weary, I pull out these books and, like some sort of black market European antidepressants, they make things better. Not only do I own the original 7 novels in their American versions, but also several foreign editions as well.  I picked up the British (children’s) copy of Deathly Hallows, plus an Italian Prisoner of Azkaban (which it took me 3 months to read), a Greek Half-Blood Prince, a Croatian Chamber of Secrets, and even a copy of Philosopher’s Stone that has been translated into Latin!

These books are largely responsible for my love of British culture, and you could draw a pretty direct line from my first experience reading HP books to me creating this blog.  They are the end all be all of my reading life.

2. Pride and Prejudice

See my earlier entry for why this is such a lovely book.  I can’t say it had the same impact on me as Harry Potter, but I just finished a reread last week and even after so many times reading it and watching the miniseries, I still find new and lovely bits that are delightful.

.

.

3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy’

The first time I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it was sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe. I laughed so hard and so loud that I made an idiot of myself. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the story, Arthur Dent is whisked off Earth minutes before its irrevocable destruction by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who reveals himself to be an alien.  But this isn’t science fiction; it never takes itself particularly seriously. What it is, in my opinion, is just funny and silly and wonderfully imaginative. The wordplay alone is enough to furnish me with great quotes for the rest of my life.  Here’s just a few to choose from:

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

And my favorite (not technically from the series, but wonderful anyway):

I like deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

There is something very British (in my American mind at least) about this love of and playfulness with words and phrases.  Compare it, for a second, to something by Hemingway, whose prose has never even bordered on playful (at least, in my experience).  If you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide,you should.

4.Hamlet

I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare in my life. I think I’ve taken 3 or 4 Shakespeare courses in college, plus the plays I read in high school.  I’ve read all of his sonnets and most of his other poems.  Of his 37 plays, I have read 20, so far.  I think Hamlet may have been the first one I read, back in middle school.  It has always been my favorite.  Some people think that Hamlet is indecisive and incapable of action. I just don’t see it.  He’s overcome with grief, with anger, with a questioning of the purpose of life and of revenge.  He feels trapped by circumstances and he talks his way through his feelings.  And he talks so beautifully.  I think it is, by far, the most poetic of Shakespeare’s works, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever been depressed or suffered tragedy can read his famous soliloquy without finding echoing questions and statements in their own hearts. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, and encourage everyone to read it.  If you don’t think you can stand reading the play, please do not go get the Mel Gibson DVD.  At least invest the time in the Kenneth Branagh version, or at the very least the new David Tennant.

5. North and South

Please do not confuse this with that civil war miniseries with Patrick Swayze.  Though Elizabeth Gaskell is not that well known in America, she is considered just as popular as Jane Austen in England.  This is the story of a family who is forced to uproot from their life in the South (i.e. London and the counties surrounding it, which were agricultural, were old money, and were considered the most civilized) to the industrialized North (full of factories, the working class, unions, and pollution).  This dichotomy is a huge factor in England, even today someone with a Northern accent can be (unfairly) assumed to be less civilized than his/her Southern counterpart.  The book has the same plot as an Austen novel, and does have a truly scrumptious male love interest, but all of that is against an entirely different background. Gaskell weaves in poverty, unions, strikes, factory conditions, changing social norms, religious disparities, etc. etc. etc.  It’s a great way to get to know some of the background of the time, but to still get a fulfilling love story.  I also highly recommend the miniseries with Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton.

Honorable Mention: Jane Eyre

now, on to Movies.
Please keep in mind that I am not a cinema expert and haven’t seen a lot of what are considered the British ‘classics’. These are mostly mainstream films that were also very successful in the US.

1. A Hard Day’s Night

My love for the Beatles from an early age meant that, at the age of 9 or 10, I dragged my father to the video store every weekend to rent the same two movies: this one, and Help!.  Help! doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as this one, but A Hard Day’s Night is a brilliant film. It captures the madness of the Beatles’ schedules and touring demands, the ridiculousness of press junkets, and the cheeky humor of the Fab Four.  It features great music, cute British boys, and lots of genuinely funny bits.

.

2. Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz

I am listing these two together because, recently, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg revealed that they will be making a third in what they are calling the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. Shaun of the Dead can be described as a romantic comedy with zombies, while Hot Fuzz is a buddy cop action comedy.  But not action comedy as in Rush Hour; it’s more funny than it is action. Also, it’s not terrible, so that’s another key difference.  These movies are both hilarious, have cemented my eternal love for Simon Pegg, and spoof other genres so well that they manage to be both great parodies and great examples of the genres they are spoofing.

3. Snatch

 

This movie is just…unique.  Or, it’s unique if you haven’t seen Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels. But seriously, Guy Ritchie made this movie and it was like nothing I had ever seen before.  Vinnie Jones is amazing, Jason Statham is in his first big role (at least in the US), and Brad Pitt plays an absolutely incomprehensible gypsy/boxer.  It’s a stylish, interesting, funny film.  It also provides one with endless quotes. This movie contains both my least favorite moment in perhaps any movie (Brick Top–aka the foulest man on earth–talking about feeding corpses to his pigs) and one of my favorites (Tyrone backs into a van and claims it was at a funny angle. Vinny says It’s behind you Tyrone. Whenever you reverse, things come from behind you.).

4. Atonement

Couldn’t be more different from Snatch.  For all my bitching about Keira Knightley and Joe Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice, they do a spectacular job with this movie.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it might be better than the book, and I loved the book.  The book didn’t have James McAvoy though, and the movie has an absolutely amazing score that actually works to help translate it from book to screen.  A word of warning, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it will absolutely fuck you up. I was sobbing for days.  Ian McEwan’s fiction always does that to me, but this is a prime example.  It’s either going to make you depressed or make you very angry, or both. But it’s exceptionally good.

5. Bridget Jones’ Diary

How could I not love this movie? It’s based on Pride & Prejudice, has the real Mr. Darcy playing a man named Mr. Darcy, and features an imperfect heroine who Darcy loves anyway.

I do occasionally have a problem with the fact that Bridget is a bit of an idiot, and compared to Lizzy Bennet she’s a complete moron.  But she does have a sort of wonderful, vivacious, goofy energy that is a good contrast to stuffy, conservative, Mark Darcy.

Honorable Mentions: Notting Hill, Love Actually

Now, on to my favorite Places to visit during a trip to the UK.  Let me preface this by saying I have, by no means, seen the majority of the UK.  These are just the 5 favorite places I visited during my time there.

1. South Bank of London

I spent a lot of time on the South Bank during my time in London, though I didn’t live anywhere near it.  I did go to the theatre there almost every week, and it is among the most beautiful of all the places I spent time in Europe. As the name implies, it’s on the South Bank of the Thames, and features tons of big attractions within about a block or two of the water.  There’s the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the London Eye, the London Aquarium, the Waterloo station, the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, and City Hall (popularly known as Darth Vader’s helmet because of its shape).  It’s a beautiful, vibrant, interesting, artistic part of town.  It should also be avoided during tourist season, but if you go when it’s not packed, it can be absolutely beautiful. A few blocks east are the Globe theatre, the Tate Modern, and the Millennium Bridge.

2. Prince’s Street Gardens and the Castle of Edinburgh

I went to Edinburgh and was blown away by how beautiful this part of town was.  The castle sits at the top of a huge cliff and the gardens sit at its base.  The history of the place goes back thousands of years, you can see the entire town from the top of the cliff, and everywhere you go in the area, you have at least some chance of running into J.K. Rowling.

3. Oxford

Talk about history, beauty, the whole thing.  You can walk around this city in about an hour, but it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  I’m still considering going to Oxford for grad school, because can you imagine having this place for your home? Wandering around the same halls and rooms as so many of the important figures in political and literary history (26 prime ministers, 12 saints, kings, queens, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde…just to name a few. I could go on).  Plus Rowan Atkinson.  I think I could spend the rest of my life inside the Radcliffe Camera (reading room).

4. Bath

A place famous with Roman settlers for its healing waters, home to Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Rupert Giles, and set in a really beautiful part of a really beautiful country.  It’s a small town, but I found it really charming and lovely to walk in.  There are tons of Regency-era museums and houses open for viewing, plus the Jane Austen house, the original Roman baths, and a kickass chocolate shop across from the Cathedral.

5. Hampstead and ‘the Heath’


I lived approximately 1 mile from Hampstead, and ran on the heath most mornings during my time in London. As such, I have a lot of affection for the place.  Plus, it was home to John Keats, my favorite poet ever.  Hampstead is a small village to the northwest of London, rather trendy with celebs and the rich and famous. It’s got nice restaurants, and is surrounded by beautiful neighborhoods on one side and the ‘Heath’ (park) on the other.  The Heath itself has two basic parts, from my recollection, an open park, and a wooded section.  From the top of the hills you can see downtown London landmarks like the BT tower and the ‘Gherkin’ building (so named because it resembles a pickle).  It’s similar, in my eyes, to Central Park, because it is a place that tons of people go when the weather is good and they sit in the grass and just enjoy life.  What’s not to love?

That’s all for this list.  Next time, I’ll tackle my favorite British TV, British music, and my favorite tidbits from British history.