Cultural Discontinuity in Northern England

14:20 Sun 10 Aug 2008. Updated: 12:31 31 Mar 2009
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Over the weekend I was in York for the absolutely wonderful and joyous occasion of Helen and Mary’s civil partnership ceremony. I’d never been to York, or indeed the north of England, before. England is a place I haven’t been to much at all—one three-day weekend in London about a decade ago, plus lots of trips through Heathrow, and that’s more or less it. Being there this time brought a certain amount of cultural disorientation with it.

First, York is not a large city. A large town, sure, but not really a city. I wasn’t that fond of London, despite having had a good time there, but it was obviously a big city and had the city feel to it, and so it felt familiar in that sense.

York, however,, seemed initially like a town in Ireland. Same kind of weather, and I can understand what people say, and people dress in broadly similar fashion… but it’s not actually Ireland at all. I can’t even put my finger on many cultural differences, but they’re around, nd all of the irish contingent presnt reamrked upon the odd impression of “it almost seems like it should be the same but isn’t”.

Another factor is that England is of course the setting for so much English literature. Despite this, it didn’t feel like the same place at all. The England of fiction remains a fictional place for me, even as I wander around part of the real England. That isn’t the case for other places—Dublin and San Francisco and Berlin (and even Los Angeles) are all famous fictional settings, and I have no problem reconciling that with the real places. New York is a special case, a mythical and real place that’s almost a meta-city in fiction. London might have a similar property, but York, and Durham, seem entirely disconnected from their literary selves. Essentially, England has always been a fictional setting, and seems to remain so despite visiting it.

A number of comments over the weekend revolved around the consumerism of the English. That the Irish, at this point, would call out any other nation for overly consumerist tendencies seems a little hypocritical, but they might have a point. The class system in England feeds the consumerism, I think, and after all England has been a center of capitalism for hundreds of yeras, occupying a special place in capitalist history.

Nevertheless, I was a little nonplussed to see on the Leeds/Bradford airport monitors, for those flights without gate details the following imperative in place of those details: Relax and Shop.

One of the effects of the uncertainty in my cultural grounding while I was in York was that at times I would realize that, unless I thought about it for a moment, I was uncertain of which side of the road cars drove on. In Ireland that comes naturally, and the same is true in California, but over the weekend it seemed an open question despite my knowing perfectly well that they drive on the left.

Winner of the prize for best place name I encountered: Nun Monkton. Second place: Blubberhouses.

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