Back from my vacation in California. I’ve traveled numerous times to the US over the past twenty years and yet, even though I should expect it, I am still struck on my return each time by the spikey, increasingly bloody-mindedness which courses through everyday life in Britain. The transactions in shops done in complete, surly silence. The suppressed aggression between total strangers. The lack of even the most basic of civic acknowledgements. For a long time, Americans held to a view of the British as maybe stuffy but always courteous. That has, I think, finally gone. They still admire our older thespians (or Sir Hopkins and Dame Dench as they endearingly refer to them), but something tells them that it is Ricky Gervais who now represents true British culture.
So many qualities which once defined us are now to be found in the US. We have, if you like, switched. Wanton rudeness, hostility and loudness are now the currency of London, not New York, whose inhabitants strike you as positively benign, modest and helpful by comparison. Our new behaviour is not, however borne of a sense of brash competitiveness, but from anger and resentment.
My experience of America has I think been wide enough not to be rose-tinted. During my time spent there (which included a five year stint in LA) I think I never witnessed the kind of everyday anti-social behaviour which we have become used to here – the kind of actions which fall well under the radar of criminality but which manage to utterly alienate and disturb. LA for example might well be one of America’s most murderous cities; but ordinary everday civil life is infinitely safer, less stuffed with the kind of incidents which we have become used to and tolerate.
I’d say this is because they still know who they are. And, despite being the land of supposedly rampant, capitalist individualism, there is a far greater sense of civic spirit, of voluntary collectivsim. As that archetypal English eccentric and ex-pat Quentin Crisp once said: in America, the system is cruel but the people are benign, in Britain the system is benign, but the people…
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