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Talk of Freedom, Talk of Ale

Thursday, 17th May, 2001

'We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.'

- GK Chesterton, 'The Secret People'

Well, it was a close thing today, folks. I woke up with nothing in my head but the purring of a friendly kitten; and ten minutes later the nothing had deepened.

I've never had writer's block before because if anything like it has even remotely approached then I've just headed off to do something else. Way to avoid a situation...

Is this what it's really like? I feel a vast comfortable blankness that seems quite happy about being blank. I just want to go back to bed and spend an extra hour or three in slumber. Give me a distraction, something to waste ten minutes on. Ten minutes' worth feels strange, but what must it be like for an hour, a day, a year? For a professional writer, it must be soul-destroying.

Stubborn soul me, I look elsewhere for an idea. Nothing internal; let's try the external. Easy.

Luckily a bunch of varied things seem to be pointing at a single destination: the difference between the English people and their American counterparts. My mind still doesn't want to work but my will will force it to deal with a subject that it knows is fascinating. Dear Lord, let this brief flirtation with blankness be never repeated. Amen.

The stereotypes are blatant, but they stem from understandable sources.

To most here in England, the American people are best described by the wartime phrase, 'oversexed, overpaid and over here'. They fly over and instantly assume the place is run for their benefit. Brash. Loud. Obnoxious.

In many ways this is true, but it's true in a particular way. I've travelled enough through the varied countries that make up the United States and the glimpses I have had of how the system works have explained to me just where this stereotype comes from.

You see, America is run as a service industry where the customer is always right. There is no society in the world more consumer-oriented than the USA. If you want something, you ask for it; if you are not happy with what you have been given, you make someone aware of the fact; if bad enough, you want your money back. This seems to apply to everything, from ordering a pizza to electing a president.

It doesn't work that way over here. In England you don't ask, rather settle for what is obviously available; if you are not happy, you suffer in silence; if bad enough, you write a letter to your local paper complaining about it. But heaven forbid you should actually open your mouth!

I remember my first trip to the States. A few days in and we were settled in a pleasant country hotel in rural North Carolina. The place wasn't the best hotel in the world, but it offered everything that we required and it offered it all with style. I was quietly impressed. In the morning we found a flaw: hot water was entirely not available.

Being English, I exhausted all possibilities and went back to bed. If there was no hot water now, then there might be in another hour's time. But no, my American partner insisted that I rang the front desk and complain. So, reluctantly I rang the front desk and politely informed the staff that we had no hot water; to be politely informed in return that the whole building was out and alternative shower arrangements would be made available to us in an empty room somewhere else. 'Thank you', said I, and hung up the phone.

My partner was aghast. This wasn't how things got done. Maybe she had a little English blood in her, holding her back from doing what Americans would normally do: ring up, complain, refuse to get off the phone until a plumber turned up to the room to fix the problem right now, and if that didn't happen demand a refund and a move to another building where the water ran hot. If this wasn't all forthcoming, then we'll see you in court, buster.

This is why much of American tv and American life in general is taken up by court action. Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown and all the rest deal with real life issues and have the legal authority to resolve them as they see fit. They are heavily watched programmes. What surprises an Englishman the most is that most of the disputes are over such petty things.

The most extreme example I remember was of a woman whose tent had become ripped. Next door's child had come round to play and accidentally put her leg through the top of the tent in the back yard. The argument over who would pay the sixty bucks worth of damages took them all the way to a nationally syndicated tv court show. In England it would have been shrugged off, just another annoyance to eat into next month's paycheck.

So why are Americans like this? Why don't they have the restraint that the English do?

Because the system doesn't mind, that's why. The system actually expects it and works in such a way as to make it viable. If you are brought a dirty fork in an American restaurant, the waitress will quite happily replace it for you. After all, it shouldn't have been dirty in the first place. Ask in England for the same dirty fork to be replaced and the waitress will wonder why you're so damn picky. Not all of this is due to the fact that American waitresses live on tips, and good tips only come from happy customers; much of it is due to the fact that Americans expect to get good service and they expect to give good service in return.

Look at the way American elections are run. There is party politics, of course, but there is a surprising concentration on the people involved. There are Republican idealists, just as there are Democrat idealists, and these people will vote for their own party regardless of who is standing; but most of the country will vote for the person whose personality and ideals most suit theirs. In England it's a faceless race between blue and red.

Americans also expect results from their elected officials. No results and we'll damn well unelect you, bozo. Who put you where you are today, huh? Me, that's who. Me and all the other people like me who scratched their X on a ballotsheet. Play me up and I'll move that X. In England we gaze with uninterested contempt at our own liars and cheats and whinge. When the next election comes round, John will vote Conservative because he always has and Mary will vote Labour because her dad voted Labour. Someone will get elected again and we'll gaze and whinge some more.

I was in the States in the year 2000 when fuel prices hit two bucks a gallon. The country was in an uproar. Not acceptable! So the government investigated; individual states temporary dropped the state tax portion of the cost; and we ended up paying around $1.30 in most places we travelled. In England we pay six bucks a gallon and whinge quietly.

I've tried both approaches. Traditionally, I follow the English route, as my race has always done, but the more I spend surrounded by the vast consumerist experiment that is the United States, the more I speak up and the more I require the service that I pay for.

In twenty years time, I can see myself flying back to the old country to spend a little time in my homeland, and the people will see me as American. Brash. Loud. Obnoxious. I'll still have an English heart; nothing and nobody can kill that stubborn pride. But my voice will be heard. I'll no longer be one of the Secret People who let the world happen around them.

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