Everyone has heard US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers talking about the ‘Special Relationship’ that exists between the two countries, but have you ever stopped to wonder who said it first? I did just that this morning while avoiding cleaning the bathroom.
It was Winston Churchill back in 1944, after the United States had been forced to enter the fray in World War II, following Japan and Germany declaring war on the US and the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. He expressed the belief that unless a special relationship between the UK and the US existed, he could foresee further destructive wars coming to pass.
Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the various conflicts in which this alliance has since become involved, it has to be said that the combined forces of this special relationship are a formidable foe.
Of course, the links between the two countries go back much further than the last century. The first settlers to land in Virginia, as America was then called, were English. The founding fathers appealed and finally demanded independence from the crown of England and won. This led to the celebration of the day known as ‘Independence Day’ in the US and ultimately to the terrifying but totally satisfying movie in 1996 starring Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, of whom I am a fan. But I digress…essentially, they were still English. They spoke the English language, they had English customs and they claimed the land for themselves when the indigenous people had previously enjoyed full rein. That sounds pretty English to me.
What fascinates me, however, is not the ways in which we are the same, but the way that customs have developed in the US in the intervening 200-ish years, which are so completely different to here in the UK. I will cite examples, as that is what you so obviously want 🙂
In the UK, high school football games are not exciting. There, I said it. The whole school does not turn out to watch the school team play. I went all the way through senior school, as we called it here at that time, without even being aware if we had a school football team, never mind knowing when their matches were. There are no cheerleaders, no grandstands with seats in, no hot dog concessions, no tearful, proud parents.
In the UK, generally we do not have proms. Some schools have begun to have proms in recent years, due, no doubt to the proliferation of proms on American TV shows, which we consume happily and regularly. But we don’t generally go in for that stuff. We don’t have prom Kings or Queens and the idea of lauding the most popular or attractive person within a school year would be… unpalatable to most Englishers.
We don’t have High School Yearbooks. This means that when someone is murdered in the UK, we don’t have those old photographs to look back at and can’t find the person ‘Most likely to become a mass murderer’. (This always happens in American movies, so I’m assuming it proves equally useful in real life). We have instead annual school photographs, which is an individual portrait, snapped in front of a (usually) orange 70s themed curtain by a photographer who doesn’t care if you have one eye shut and a bit of dribble on your chin. You are then instructed to take the sample home to your parents who are expected to buy a copy for friends and relatives, who are in turn, then forced to display the hideous image within their home for a period of time. It would be considered usual for your parents to have one large copy for your own home – to ensure maximum shame – and smaller versions for aunties and uncles and even smaller versions to be sent out to people who don’t see you often and think you always look half-witted.
We don’t celebrate Halloween. Well, that is actually untrue. We didn’t celebrate Halloween when I was a child. These days you aren’t safe in your own home unless you have a bag of Cadbury’s treat size chocolate bars to appease the groups of children arriving at your door with a mask on to say ‘Trick or Treat’. This change is also due to American cinema where groups of happy and immaculately costumed people roam the streets for money and consumables. Of course, in some movies, those groups of people get savaged by an axe wielding maniac, and that’s as it should be.
We don’t think pie is that special. Here in the UK, pies are associated mainly with people in the North of the country and the chanting phrase ‘Who ate all the pies?’. This is often followed by the less enchanting phrase ‘You fat bastard, you fat bastard’. In the US, a pie is a wonderful, huge and comforting thing often filled with apple or pumpkin and consumed during celebratory family dinners, such as Thanksgiving (see above for reference). In the UK, a pie is something you can choose to have with chips instead of fish from the chippie, or something Mr Fray Bentos produces in a can to revolting effect. Again, that is not the whole truth, I make pie. I make a delicious strawberry and rhubarb pie and I’m going to make another this weekend. Mmm. But it’s not special. Of course, way back in time, pies were merely a means of porting your lunch around. Hard baked shells with filling inside were cracked open so that the lunchee could eat the filling and the crust was usually inedible. Well, we’ve all had ones that come out of the oven that way!
If I invited all members of my family around to sit around the table and eat a special meal I’d cooked and then presented them with pie, they’d probably look at me askance. The same goes for any recipe that begins with ‘take one tin of condensed mushroom soup’. This is not real cooking American people! Cease and desist with your soupy recipes.
In the UK, we do not eat out regularly. I once had an American house guest who suggested we go out for breakfast. I said ‘Why? I have all the ingredients here to make you a lovely breakfast – bacon, eggs, home made bread etc.’ But he insisted it would be ‘fun’. It was not fun, it was a 2 hour trek around rural Warwickshire searching for somewhere that did breakfast on a Sunday, we didn’t find anywhere and I was quite annoyed by the time I insisted we give up and come home so I could begin to cook breakfast. This isn’t to say that we don’t have places that serve breakfast here, just that they aren’t commonplace and eating out for miscellaneous meals isn’t either, except if you are a stockbroker in London, and then you have to eat out because you don’t want to mess up your immaculate loft apartment kitchen with actual food.
When I visited the US, I found that eating out was easy, cheap and fun. Here it is not so much. In the US of A, you can eat for a week on what they serve you in one Denny’s meal. In the UK, you pay through the nose for a stylishly placed prawn with its head still on, on a base of lettuce and avacado with a vanilla pepper foam.
So, here eating out is a treat, usually, and in the US, it’s a way of life.
Another major difference that I find fascinating is (if the movies are to be believed) a person in the US can exist if they have one normal job. By this I mean that someone can work in a shop, or a diner and earn enough money to live on their own and pay their bills (and eat out, of course). In the UK, that’s almost impossible. You kind of have to couple-up here, or you can’t afford to pay rent or a mortgage and have to stay living with your parents. The UK is very expensive and the weather is generally not great. Not that I’m complaining, there is no feeling in the world like having a nice cold pint of lager in a pub full of pie eaters on a Friday night when it is throwing it down with rain outside.
See, that there is another huge cultural difference – pubs. In the UK, pubs are often great. There are different kinds of pubs and clubs but the nightlife culture is raucous, music-filled and drunken or you get ‘local pubs’ which are quieter and have a pool table and people all know each other.
In the US, bars seem more transient and less… beery. I went to one or two and aside from being asked for ID everywhere, which initially I thought was flattering but soon became irritating, it just didn’t have that atmosphere of potential fun. It was kind of orderly and sober. In the UK, the floor and the bar are often sticky, the landlord often sullen, the regulars lining the bar like so many flies, glowering at intruders. Ahhh, I do love this country sometimes.
Of course, I won’t even get started on the language. Let it be said that American English is not the same as English English, colour became color and that’s all there is to it.
I do hope that it doesn’t sound like I’m grumping about the differences between the two ‘great nations’. I’m sincerely not. I love the differences, partially because they show that what my ex mother-in-law said to me before I went to America was true (although she isn’t keen on the US and it’s fair inhabitants) “Don’t be fooled by the fact that they look like us and they speak our language, they are as foreign as anyone else.”
It’s simply a case of a fairly new country establishing its own culture and traditions, it’s just so fascinating because we’ve been able to track most if it happening.