I don’t miss much about the UK. My 4 years there were mostly a strain and I call that period of my life ‘My Great Depression’. I was glad to see the back of London. Now that I live in a place with a better climate, I realize the extent to which the damp, grey British weather and the aloofness of Londoners influenced my moods. My state of mind mirrored the weather. On cloudy damp days, I tended to be down in the dumps but on sunnier summer days, I was chipper with a spring in my step.
I wish I had been more resistant to the power of my environment on my psyche but you honestly can’t help it. The flatness creeps up on you like in that classic frog-in-hot-water analogy and, before you know it, a dull misery has twisted itself around you. You can’t shake it off because it is only when you leave London that you realize what is causing this blankness in the first place.
Imagine waking up and, most mornings, looking out the window and seeing a cheerless, iron-dull sky that is the colour of an old bruise. I regularly walked to and from the station in cold, steam-bath type rain. The comedian Doug Stanhope commented on the 2011 riots and was amazed that buildings burned so well in such a damp, mossy place. He said he struggles to keep a cigarette alight for long in the UK.
I’m getting side-tracked with the negatives. I actually wanted to talk about something good about the UK, something I miss about it.
One of the main things I miss about England is English. These days, I am immersed in French and it is endlessly difficult to tune my brain into this delicate, sing-song language. I appreciate the days when I could arrange something as straightforward as a car service without breaking out into a sweat. In February, I was in the UK for two days for work and I felt I was back in my hood because I could speak English freely to shop assistants, taxi drivers and waiters. Funnily enough most of these people were Romanian, Indian, Pakistani or Polish but at least they understood me.
Many people in England speak English badly which is surprising considering it is the home of the language. Most people express their feelings using various derivatives of the eff word. If someone is not part of the effing ‘innit’, ‘allo allo’ brigade, then they can be long-winded, verbose and a bit high falutin, particularly in emails. Being succinct and crisp is a skill. Winston Churchill once said, ‘I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one’.
When I lived in London, there were certain London-isms that are not technically good English but have been absorbed into the day to day lingo. During my 2 day stay in the UK in February, I heard them all repeatedly:
1. I couldn’t be arsed
If you live in London, you hear this all the time. People say, ‘I was exhausted this morning. I couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed.’ I used this expression often so I would say things such as, ‘I couldn’t be arsed to trek to Tesco in that traffic’ or ‘I couldn’t be arsed to attend that boring meeting’. Then someone told me that people are actually saying that they couldn’t be ASKED, not that they couldn’t be ARSED. I didn’t know that. All of a sudden, I stopped using that expression, maybe because subconsciously saying ‘arse’ was much more satisfying than saying ‘ask’.
2. Are you alright?
When born and bred English people ask you how you are, they may say ‘Are you alright?’ Whenever someone said that to me, I jumped on the defensive, wondering if I looked washed out or harassed or had dark rings under my eyes. I thought it was a euphemism for saying ‘You look like shit. Are you ok?’
Actually ‘are you alright’ is a way of saying ‘how are you?’ and they would be taken aback if you said anything other than the perfunctory ‘fine thanks’.
This word is hugely popular. People have replaced the word ‘very’ with ‘hugely’. Someone may say, ‘Thanks for your email. It was hugely encouraging’. I even saw it used in the Daily Mail and I found it hugely irritating but then again, that newspaper is hardly the bastion of literary journalism.
4. I hope this email finds you well.
This expression grates my inner carrot. In a work performance appraisal, I was once criticized for being too direct in emails and ‘not respecting the British culture’. I asked for suggestions on ways to change and was told I should fluff up my correspondence more and lead in with ‘I hope this email finds you well’. I used to sift through endless emails and it was quicker if they were direct but polite. If I want to chat about someone’s health, I will ring them. No one else seems to froth at the mouth over this vacuous expression. So maybe it’s just me.
As you know, I enjoy writing. I love reading too. During this period of learning French, I have a new appreciation for languages and communication and I have become more interested in the subtleties and nuances of my mother tongue. I have new sympathy for the voiceless in the world, for those who feel powerless to make themselves heard. I now appreciate that one of the greatest privileges in life is to express yourself and to communicate in a way that makes yourself understood.