Royalty, bad; English culture, good
Sunday, April 24, 2011
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Since I rarely follow celebrity events, I had not been planning to watch the event of the year: the royal wedding of Price William and Kate Middleton.

But then I started to think about how many agreeable things have originated with the English people. A short list of ten thoroughly enjoyable English things:

  1. 1. English gardens: The English are the best gardeners in the world, period. A staggeringly large percent of them are obsessed by gardens: making their own, reading and writing about them, visiting them (England, smaller than the state of Iowa, has about 800 gardens that are open for public visits, compared to less than 500 in the entire US – and less than ten in our own state). And their gardens are magnificent: perennial borders, formal hedges, naturalistic park-like vistas, eccentric topiary shapes, cottage gardens filled with roses. Sissinghurst, Hidcote, Great Dixter. Our nation would be more beautiful if we followed Britain's example.

    2. Afternoon tea: One of the most delightful traditions of the English is their pleasant late afternoon habit of a cup of tea accompanied by little sandwiches (perhaps cucumber or smoked salmon on thinly-sliced bread) or scones with strawberry jam and cream.

  2. 3. English mysteries: Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton; the English wrote the finest classic mysteries.

  3. 4. Jeeves and Bertie Wooster: If you haven't yet read P.G. Wodehouse's breathtakingly funny adventures of a scatterbrained upper class idler and his masterful valet, you are truly missing out. And the 1990s television series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie did a good job of capturing the 1930s period flavor of the stories (many were filmed in famous country houses – see below).

  4. 5. Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!: For period dramas and mysteries, no one does it better than the long-running PBS series. Poirot and Miss Marple are staples, but this year's Downton Abbey was excellent.

  5. 6. Oxbridge: The collective term for Oxford and Cambridge, the 800-year-old universities epitomize what most people believe academic life should be: Learned and slightly eccentric gown-wearing professors discussing the great ideas while strolling through ancient courtyards.

  6. 7. Civilisation: The BBC's 1969 landmark television series, written and narrated by art historian Kenneth Clark, is worth watching several times for its knowledgeable overview of Western art, architecture and philosophy, as well as for Clark's dry humor and unabashed preference for the classics.

  7. 8. English country houses: Despite their symbolism of Britain's class system, most English people retain a fondness for the historic country residences of the wealthy. As a modest rural dweller myself, I particularly admire the smaller country houses of the gentry (as opposed to the grand piles of the nobility) and hope to visit a few of them one day. 

  8. 9. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis….

  9. 10. Harry Potter: Although I had seen the films, it wasn't until last year when my children were old enough that I finally read the bestselling series about a boy at wizardry school. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these stories about British prep school life with a highly imaginative twist.


These have all enriched American culture (just as, say, English culture has been enriched by foreign foods).

Now, let it not be said that I am a fawning Anglophile. My deep love of freedom unmistakably marks me an American. I would never live in England, with its socialist taxation, tyrannical gun laws, cameras on every corner and snobbish class-system remnants. And frankly, the idea of royalty is repellant to advocates of meritocracy.

Yet the entire English culture cannot be dismissed over these shortcomings. We share a beneficial cultural kinship with them, demonstrated by the partial list of wonderful things they have shared with us.

So perhaps, after all, I will join the estimated one-third of humanity who will watch the royal wedding live, so as to share this significant event with our cultural brethren across the water.