Lovely London and what it says about us

I could be accused of having an overly romantic view of London, England and Britain. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching Monty Python and Doctor Who, then read all of Bill Bryson’s celebrations of British humility, humor, manners and culture. And my favorite media organizations are the BBC and The Economist, both clear-minded takes on the world as a whole.

It’s not that I fail to see Britain’s faults. It’s a country that respects and even reveres intellectualism, but immigration discussion and even football can bring out some less enlightened points of view. It’s not cheap, though basic supply-and-demand would insist that it couldn’t be. Some newspapers are sensationalist tabloids, and soccer fans have long known to dismiss any rumors that pop up in the media as pure conjecture, if not outright fantasy.

And I have to remind myself that the superb mass transit and pedestrian-friendly streets I love in London are also present in New York and Boston. (National rail, on the other hand, is light years ahead in the UK, and a Londoner who visits Washington must be baffled by the infrequent Metro services.)

Historically, Britain has been ruled by a succession of bloodthirsty monarchs and condescending imperialists. But somehow, it has progressed as a bastion of progress — in science, in literature, in industry and nearly every creative pursuit.

And today, it has a sense of humor about its place in the world. Can you imagine Americans embracing something like the Horrible Histories book series, which goes into gory details about all manner of wrongdoing? The author(s) would have to go into hiding by the time Fox News got a hold of it.

That sense of humor pops up in strange places. The orange juice we Americans would call “pulp free” is presented in the UK as “no bits.” A frequent Underground ad for a cancer-fighting race starts out “Oi, cancer!” and then berates the disease as “less popular than the people whose headphones go bmmt-phhht bmmt-phhht and the muppet who won’t give up his seat to a pregnant lady.” The U.S. equivalent would undoubtedly be something melodramatic or outright depressing.

Sure, political disagreements are there — Scotland has a big vote this year on whether to split from the UK. But I don’t sense the outright hatred of “liberals” through the country. I also didn’t see any bumper stickers of any kind in London — perhaps because many cars were corporate, perhaps because British folks don’t feel the need to express their individualism, perhaps because screaming anti-Conservative or anti-Labour messages at those stuck behind you in traffic just doesn’t seem proper.

And so the overriding feeling I get from a trip to London is that there are people in this world who truly believe in a greater good. People can be free to be individuals, but they’re cognizant of the social contract that binds us together. Perhaps that’s the lesson of going through a couple of devastating wars, or perhaps it’s a greater appreciation of public services from transportation to sanitation. Whatever the case, it gives me a much-needed dose of optimism that I hope will carry me through … sigh … another U.S. election cycle.

Some of the photos below carry through the themes I’ve talked about above. Some don’t. Enjoy.

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