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The Good, The Bad & The Questionable: The UK

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 12, 2008

No dog’s body

So as I’ve alluded to several times over the last few weeks on this blog (just be thankful I didn’t keep a running diary or some shit, yeah?), I have been in England recently for about a week and a half on vacation with my family. Historically I haven’t been much for travel, since my interests were so horrifically limited and places that I couldn’t relate to Oscar-winners or 80s one-hit wonders held little interest for me. So the UK was an ideal travel destination for me–somewhere I could engage in familiar-ish customs with the comfort of the English language behind me, but with subtle differences enough to make it a new and rewarding experience. Plus, it helped me get back in touch with my long-dormant inner Anglophile, the days when I thought Q and NME were somehow more trustworthy than Spin and Rolling Stone and when I’d watch 24 Hour Party People seven or eight times in a month.

Unsurprisingly, as a similar-but-not-too-similar analogue to US culture, the UK proved to have its advantages, its disadvantages, and lots of shit that was just confusing. Here’s how I broke it down over the course of my week and a half:

The Good:

  • Uncensored Late Night T.V. I don’t mean Cinemax-type stuff, though I saw a tiny bit of that (not enough, especially considering that when I was France as a teenager they showed hardcore porn in the middle of the day). But it was nice to be able to watch movies on just about any channel without having to worry about whether they’d be bleeped, silenced or dubbed–I don’t think I ever saw anything that wasn’t presented full-on. Limited commercial interruption, too–all channels had commercials, but the movie ones only had like two breaks a year, which was a mad good deal.
  • Huge Towels. Huge. They were more like beach blankets than your average bathroom towels, even. I felt like I could walk down to breakfast in one of those things if I wanted.
  • Back Bacon. It’s like Ham Bacon, basically–strips with the salty, smoky taste of bacon but with the texture and substantiativity of ham. They serve it at most breakfasts, and it’s perfect for me, since I always thought bacon was kind of overrated as a breakfast food, especially the crispiness, which often made me feel like I was just eating bacon-flavored chips. I can’t reccomend this shit highly enough, although I have no idea where you’d find it in the States. if anyone has an idea…
  • Ridiculously Fast Tube Stations. I don’t think we waited more than two and a half minutes for a train the entire time we were there. In New York I practically assume an automatic ten-minute wait.
  • High Tea. I always thought that the British tea custom just meant that they drank lots of boring, tepid tea all the time for no real reason. I had no idea it could imply gourmet shit like this–delicate, crustless sandwiches (mozzarella! smoked salmon! egg salad!), savory scones with clotted cream (like butter, but without a guilty aftertaste), and pastries that aren’t a waste of time and calories. Even the tea kind of tasted good, and I hate tea almost as much as I hated the last half-hour of Hancock.
  • Music Video Stations. The Hits, the British TV channel that actually still shows videos all the time, did top 50 countdowns EVERY FUCKING DAY of various different qualifications. One of them, the Top 50 Ibiza anthems, was like video Godhead–a veritable treasure trove of quality dance hits whose videos you’d never see in a million hours of VH1 Classic in the US. It was a perpetual strugle not to stay in the hotel rooms all night.
  • No Katy Perry. Yet.
  • Witty Tour Guides. I guess there’s just a higher standard tour guides keep to in this country, because we didn’t have a one that wasn’t personable, dry, informative, funny, and (maybe) supermodel-level attractive. They were like stand-up comedians, except without the smugness and with much more practiced and honed routines. I would’ve gone on a guided tour of British linoleum warehouses if I found one.
  • Trusting Security. The attitude of most ticket-takers and security dudes was like “Yeah, sure, go ahead, we got you.” After 22 years of American regulations (and four years of NYU procedures), this was more than a little mind-blowing.
  • Britishisms. My brother and I were terrified that such extended exposure would nullify the endless potential for humor to be found in British accents and phrasing, but luckily our worries were entirely unfounded, and I’m happy to say that I still giggled every time someone said “inna-veh-tive” instead of “innovative.” Best moment by far: when my mom nearly got hit by a car speeding around the corner, and the driver hollered “STUPID BLOODY WOMAN!!!” at her.


  • Lousy Toilets. Nearly all the urinals were water-free, and far too often public toilets just had troths for dudes to piss in. Plus, the hotel toilets usually required two flushes, and a lot of train station bathrooms were pay services. Once you start charging a man to piss, it’s only about two steps until official dystopia.
  • Sports. I bought a Liverpool jersey (mostly for the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” slogan) so I might have to start following soccer (oh, I’m sorry, football) more closely now, but God help me if I ever see Tennis, Golf, Rugby, Soccer and Darts as acceptable substitutes for the American Big Three. And there is definitely no sort of ESPN or Sportscenter equivalent over there (and yes, that is a bad thing).
  • Cumberland Sausages. Taking the opposite approach as the back bacon, sausages in the UK are generally a lot mealier and softer than sausage in the states. It’s kind of cool at first, but after a while it just starts to feel a little too British, for whatever reason.
  • Caseless Used CD Racks. The used CD racks are filled with sheets telling you what used CDs are available, which saves room I suppose but really makes browsing a challenge. I could never get through more than half a row without getting frustrated or bored.
  • Warm Beverages. This threw me more than anything, but apparently in the UK, getting beverages to be refridgerator-cold was rarely a priority. Which isn’t to say the drinks were served warm, exactly, but they were barely ever as cold as we wanted, and when my brother asked for ice a couple times he got looked at like he was totally crazy. I mean, yeah, it’s already pretty cold over there, but it’s not that fucking cold that drinks shouldn’t still be as refreshing as possible. Very disconcerting.
  • Short Ceilings. Obviously I’m a mite taller than most, but still, I found a disturbingly high number of times in this country that I felt like I was working on the 7 1/2th floor. I can’t count how many times I hit my head somewhere on the tube.
  • Ugly Tourists. Admittedly the Utz clan wasn’t helping out too much on this one, but I couldn’t get over how unattractive the country was on the whole. At first I thought it was just an ugly nation of people, but I eventually realized that this was especially true in the high tourism-concentrated areas, and maybe a little less so around legit UK campuses and the like. In any event, Girls Aloud is sadly unrepresentative of the looks of the British population at large.
  • No Tequila at Most Bars. I had to drink vodka. Vodka, I tells ya!
  • Nickelback’s “Photograph” is Still a Hit. Makes me really think twice about traveling to Japan within the next three years or so.

The Questionable:

  • “Picture Book” vs. “People Take Pictures of Each Other“. This was the one cultural difference I really couldn’t make up my mind on qualitatively. As we all know, in the US, camera ads are soundtracked by The Kinks’ “Picture Book,” but in the UK, they use a different Kinks song from Village Green about photography, “People Take Pictures of Each Other.” Hard to decide which works better, and frankly It’s sort of amazing that the Kinks had two songs from the same album that both work so perfectly in digital camera commercials.

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