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There are times when being a Brit looking at America is like pressing your face against the dining room window, watching an astonishing feast going on inside. We’re pretty good at lots of things – sarcasm, reading, tweed etc – but there are some things that will forever expose British culture to be a pale, fey wallflower in a forever descending cloud of book dust, next to, I dunno, the Fonz.
Here are five examples:
A little stick in the corner of your mouth
Two questions: why does this work and how did it start? At some point, some cowboy (or movie star playing a cowboy), decided that their facial furniture needed a little feng shui, a fresh injection of positive energy from, well, what can we find? A cigarillo, like Clint Eastwood? Maybe, but you don’t want to develop a cowboy cough. What else? Well there’s all this corn, and it grows pretty high. What if you put an long-stalked ear of corn in your mouth, and sort of, walk about with it? What if you occasionally take it out and wave it around, to visually punctuate your conversation? That’d be pretty cool, right? And what if, years later, you replace that corn stalk with, with, OH! A toothpick! Yeah, that would be amazingly cool. So cool, in fact, that small boys in restaurants do it to this day without even really knowing why. And so do their dads.
It’s not health food. It’s not haute cuisine, but this is the single meal that spells America to the rest of the world. Now we can bat the argument about global capitalism and McDonalds back and forth for a while if you like, but let’s at least admit one thing. You can’t make people all over the world choose to buy and eat a meal if it’s gross. And there is nothing remotely gross about a burger (with cheese! Heck, I even like the pickle!), a side order of fries (and in this context, they definitely are fries, even in chip-loving Britain), and a cola or a shake. A flipping SHAKE though! Fruit and ice-cream and milk, in a drink! Sometimes with malt (I don’t know what malt does to a shake, but you guys seem to like it), sometimes with peanut butter (again I say, IN A DRINK!!), and always sucked up through a straw that is only just wide enough to handle the load. Whether gourmet or fast food, the burger/fries/shake combo is an amazing gift to have given the world.
Another oral fixation. Chewing gum, especially if you can’t keep your lips together, is the ultimate expression of loucheness, of people who aren’t really 100% concentrating on what they’re doing. It might have taken on a healthy slant in recent years, claim to be active in the reduction of tooth decay and sometimes (if you buy the right gum) it’ll even clear your sinuses out, but none of that matters next to the visual of a slack-jawed and dead-eyed store clerk, giving it the full bovine cudface while totting up your bill. They have an impervious wall of GO AWAY around them at all times, and of course, that’s always cool.
Also, gum and chocolate were two of the things the Brits most coveted from the American troops stationed in the UK during the war. We’ve tasted your chocolate now, and you can keep it, but there’s something about gum that never lost that slightly illicit appeal.
20th Century Music
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve some game in this field, but the simple fact of the matter is that, pretty much from 1900 until 1999, American music hit a fertile streak that would shame one of those tabloid octo-moms: blues, jazz, swing, bebop, country, bluegrass, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, the Brill building mob, folk (US division), garage rock, psychedelia, funk, Americana, disco, punk rock, hip hop, electro, techno, grunge… every single one a chapter heading in the story of music, and every single one still unbelievably cool.
Motorbikes Without Helmets
A personal anecdote: I nearly died in a motorbike accident. A guy pulled a sudden U-turn in front of me without looking and I went over the bonnet and off down the road. The good news is I was miraculously unharmed, apart from a badly smashed left leg. It could have been better, but it could have been far worse.
In the UK it is mandatory for all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, and mine was fairly well scuffed, with deep gouges and scrapes all over it. It sent a fairly stark message that perhaps my head would not have handled this kind of treatment all that well.
Now, I’ve seen road movies, I’ve seen Hell’s Angels and those Hollywood motorbike gangs, Steve Jones and Duff McKagen and Billy Idol and that lot. I know a lot of American states have no mandatory helmet legislation for all bikers, and I’m sure this does cause some fairly horrific problems from time to time.
But here’s the thing, I would LOVE to ride a bike with no helmet. Riding a bike with no helmet is an unbelievably cool thing to do. If you could do it and still not die, that would be the best thing ever.
Fraser McAlpine is British, this explains a lot.
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic