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100 Things About Me
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Russia Trip: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Best of 2002: Movies, Books, Music.
Best of 2003: Movies.
Best of 2004: Movies, Books.
Best of 2005: Theater, Books.
Best of 2006: Theater, Books, Television.


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Saturday, September 28, 2002

My voice is always giving me away. Ironically, after years of ribbing about my Northern accent (I remember returning to Britain after teaching English in Spain for a year to be asked by more than one person, "But didn't you warn them about your accent?" as if somehow having Mancunian vowel sounds prevented me from giving language lessons), the residual Englishness in my voice seems to mark me as a person of intelligence and refinement for many Americans. If only they knew.

I've spent very little of my adult life in the old country—I left when I was 21, and other than about 18 months in London, I've been far, far away for the last 20 years. Even when I wasn't that distant geographically—the two years I spent in Madrid, for example—I avoided the company of Brits. Perhaps that's why I prefer Madrid to Barcelona: It's harder to ignore the young Brits in Gaudítown.

I’m sure there’s a very simple psychological explanation, and I’m also sure it’s unlikely to be a kind one: deep-seated self-loathing, a desire to be “special,” garden-variety misanthropy. (And in my own defense, I didn’t just stay there hating it. I am now a proud U.S. citizen, and as everyone knows, converts are always more pious.) Anyway, despite my studied indifference to all things British, I spend a lot of my life thinking about England or trying to explain British institutions to my new compatriots, les Yanks.

The column that I write at Slate, “International Papers” is about the whole damned world, but for reasons of convenience and quality, it’s often dominated by the British press. And I’m often called upon to explain British institutions to colleagues and friends.

Last week, for example, I was asked to explain the English A-level scandal to someone. You’d think that would be a straightforward task, but it’s not just the minutiae of set books and examining boards that needs explaining, there’s also the matter of the English character. “Why aren’t they just happy if test scores improve?” he asked me. You have to admit, it’s a good question. Surely it’s good news?

I’m sure there’s a class element in the mainstream British reaction that higher scores mean the exams must’ve been dumbed down (yes, Brits are probably too obsessed with class, but Americans are tragically unconscious of it): Now that more working-class kids are staying at school until 18 and going on the college, the traditional university-attending class are convinced it’s sadly devalued. But generalizing from my own reaction, there’s also a gut feeling that in my day A-levels were bloody hard, so there’s no way the youth of today could so dramatically outperform my cohort. Therefore the standards must have dropped. (1979-style A-levels were too bloody hard for me; I mentally checked out for most of the sixth form, succumbing to a rare disease I self-diagnosed as “World in Action complex,” whereby even the most boring television show was way more fascinating than my homework. I also had a bad case of “I Didn’t Even Bother,” an absurd, inexplicable refusal to do even the most basic tasks—reading the set books, for example—so that whatever result I managed to scrape owed more to fortune than to intelligence. Wouldn’t want to show how well I could really do, just in case I didn’t display the brilliance I was all too convinced I possessed. I really would do it differently now; but even seven or eight years ago I lacked the discipline for the kind of study that’s truly rewarding.)

But I’m wandering. The challenge of explaining something as basic as the U.K. university entrance system to an American; the pain of finding so many errors borne of cultural misunderstanding in a Washington Post story, written by a good and reliable reporter, on the subject; and my recent discovery of some great English and Scottish Weblogs (especially my new favorite personal Web site, Troubled Diva) convinced me to have another bash at banging out a blog.

I’ve done it before—even before they were known as blogs. When they were online diaries I had one called “You Say Tomato,” but when I changed ISPs to get a cable modem it disappeared from the Onlinediaryosphere. Being a great lover of the Olympics, I also did a Weblog about the Sydney games, mostly offering thanks to Allah that I lived in Seattle and could watch the Canadian coverage rather than having to suffer through the shitty U.S. version. But it’s been a while, so it’s time for another McSite in the You Say Tomato franchise.