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Sunday, May 25, 2003

Some might say that the autumn of 2000 was not a good time to return to England after 22 years in the United States.

Some might say that the autumn of 2000 was not a good time to return to England after 22 years in the United States. The Hatfield rail disaster, the Dome fiasco, the wettest winter since records were kept, followed by foot and mouth disease and race-based riots in Oldham, to mention just a few afflictions, have not been very welcoming. And the supercilious and superficial commentary by some British media pundits about American leaders and society can be very galling to those who have come to love the United States. But then headlines rarely reflect the normality and inspiring nature of a country's life, whether here or there.

In the last six months we have travelled several thousand miles in England, Scotland and Wales, by car and by train, and if there is one overriding impression it is how unspoiled much of the countryside still is. To some, thatched cottages, historic pubs, ancient churches and cathedrals may be perhaps a British Tourist Authority cliché but it is nevertheless an attractive and reassuring image. It is rather a contrast to Oregon where we have lived for many years where anything from the early 1900s is old. We may have moved into a bungalow in Westward Ho! that was built in 1999 but both my brothers-in-law live in houses built well before the US was founded. There are many changes. It is a shock to hear the weather reports being given courtesy of the Barbados Tourist Authority or to be told by a senior cabinet minister that tikka marsala is now Britain's national dish. The departed Tory leader William Hague may have gone a bit over the top when he talked about the danger of Britain becoming a foreign land. But the changes which some people are slow to accept are by and large for the better. One columnist in The Times in June, Mary Ann Sieghart, said that the biggest social change over the past ten or fifteen years has been "our increasing tolerance of people who are gay, or a different color, or who have children without being married." Another writer, Richard Morrison, believes that the Church of England is being increasingly marginalized in a society that seems to get more secular day be day. "For the Church of England in the twenty first century," he says, "England is an alien land-- even a hostile land."

One of the biggest changes I have observed is in the area of language. In fact, one expert in the field, Professor David Crystal, told me that the difference in the way people talk is "the biggest process of change in the last 300 years" and is, he says, an index of social change. What we used to know many years ago as BBC English, or as it is known by students of the subject, RP, or "Received Pronunciation," is less and less spoken and is felt by most people surveyed to be "too posh, offputting, distant, establishment." Business firms sensitive to their image are relocating their telemarketing offices to parts of the country whose spoken word coveys warmth and customer friendliness--top of the list being Edinburgh followed by Leeds or Bradford. Least attractive, apparently, is Birmingham and the accents of inner cities. Because of mobility most people now have a mixed accent, "estuary English", as it is called, modified by their regional accent.

Casual, courteous and efficient are three words that come to me as I look at our first experiences. They surprise many I talk with. The old stuffy formality is gone in dress and discourse. Ties are worn as infrequently as in Oregon. Locals are much more likely now, like Americans, to strike up conversations with strangers in trains or buses. With exceptions, the service in shops and restaurants, or on the telephone--much of it spurred by American competition and example--is polite and helpful. It took us one day to get a new telephone to be installed. The advent of computers makes so much of ordering, buying, accounting simple and straightforward. The postcode system is such that if you give it to a shop assistant with your name they immediately come up with your home address - minus the street number. The disruptions and delays on trains are still too frequent but I have been impressed with the way staff respond to problems or keep you informed on developments and are proud of their companies. The cynic might say that the rail staff get so good at apologizing because they have to do it so often! Some of our sports teams are actually winning matches--even if they are managed by foreigners! I am still a great fan of the National Health Service--not having been given a bill for a number of visits to the doctor over the last months -- even if I have to wait some months to see a surgeon about a non-emergency procedure.

Our two most used reference books since returning, both more than 800 pages, are Simon Jenkins' England's Thousand Best Churches and the Royal Horticultural Society's A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. It is not difficult for overseas commentators to find depressing things to write about. Thomas Kielinger in Die Welt wrote of Britain's "almost Russian capacity for suffering and the ability to retain a sense of humor." His piece, cataloguing all that he felt was wrong with Britain, provoked considerable discussion on TV. Humor, and perspective, certainly help. It is good to have the election behind us. I enjoyed Matt's cartoon in the Daily Telegraph: "If you don't abstain on June 7th your apathy will go unheard" and Pugh's in The Times of a young man wearing boxing gloves being interviewed by a Careers officer: "Ah, you must be the boy who wants to go into politics." We are, indeed, very glad to be home--and hope you will not be deterred from coming over by adverse press accounts.