An English Experience
It all started back in middle school, when I had the pleasure of watching Jeremy Brett’s superb rendition of Sherlock Holmes in a 1980s British television series by ITV Granada. While the classic suspense of Conan Doyle’s mysteries enticed me, it was the background of Victorian England itself that truly caught my eye.
From that point on, I embarked on what grew into a long-lasting love affair with all things British, focused at first around a variety of television programs and movies. I quickly came to discern broad similarities between that society and our own. As students at an American university, many of us participate in a ‘western’ cultural heritage founded in no small part by nineteenth-century Britain.
And yet, despite the linguistic familiarity, Victorian England remains a decidedly different world. The images are striking. Immaculately attired gentlemen sharing the gritty streets with packs of feral orphans. Country squires riding about, posture perfected, to call upon husband-sick young ladies. Dubious cockney criminals with a quicksilver command of their native tongue.
Of course, I later learned about the liberties show business routinely takes, and that the BBC, that most cherished of British institutions, may have inordinately defined my concept of London and English life. And so I resolved to study abroad in Britain to gain a sense of the modern reality behind my Victorian imaginings.
Somewhat to my surprise, I was not at all disappointed to find modern London quite different from the world of Sherlock Holmes. It was distinct, at least in my experience, from that rather overdone modern American image of London colored by Harry Potter and double-decker buses, the Beatles and the Queen. It was also not at all defined by the social tensions that flared into riot last summer, directly prior to my trip. The culture and demographics of poverty in Britain are vastly different from our own, and the London cultural trope “Keep Calm and Carry On”, derived from the Blitz during WWII, might go toward explaining the scarcity of bad vibes.
Though I risk wading into the well-trodden territory of travelers’ adages, I will say one must go there to truly experience what London is like. And likewise, I think, with the rest of England and the British Isles. While it is a developed nation that is in many ways more similar to the United States than destinations in, say, South America or East Asia, those very similarities lend Britain a singular importance in light of a long history of trans-Atlantic cultural exchange.
One interesting academic aspect of my experience in Britain was getting a sense of how two Anglophone nations developed over time from a common history in tantalizingly divergent directions. A fascinating example – which also played a large role in our program of study – is the British social hierarchy, in which family and geographical origin continue to play a prominent role in determining an individual’s position, in addition to and sometimes even despite one’s financial situation.
Every street of London, as one might expect, is steeped in history and literary lore, as plaques in the doorways of quirkily named pubs attest. Historical ironies abound, encouraging the visitor to imagine scenes of hopeless Dickensian squalor that once festered where the glassy temples of modern financiers now stand. The streets themselves help: they retain their old names, and in some places the streets follow along haphazard plans dating back to the Middle Ages.
Despite its endless attractions, the city itself does not define England, as many Londoners will still confirm. For many, the English countryside lies at the storied heart of this ancient people, and during my time among them, I had the privilege of making several forays into those rolling green valleys and hills.
From what I saw of the countryside – which I admit was not perhaps as immersive an experience as I had of the city – rural England is in fact just as picturesque as the most sentimental of postcards portrays. With my own humble camera and distinct lack of photographic acumen, I took photos of verdant hedgerowed fields and windswept moors that could easily decorate the confirmed aesthete’s desktop background. Cows, sheep, and thatched-roof houses all remain, in many ways untouched by suburban encroachment.
Studying in London taught me firsthand that a vibrant modern culture can coexist in a place brimming with a storied past. I feel a lot of people go to places like England looking for one or the other, and end up finding both. That was my experience, anyway.
Coming home for winter break and then onto another quarter in Chicago, I have come to realize the profound effect actually seeing London and wider Britain has had on me, both as a student and a person. I’m currently planning to write my history BA thesis on a topic in medieval Britain, and may even return this summer or the next to do more focused research.
Academic ambitions aside, traveling to London was simply a great time. Whether I was checking out pubs, riding the tube, visiting famous sites, shopping, or just walking around with friends, experiencing what our close cousin across the Atlantic has to offer is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Submitted by Philip Rojc, ’13