My friend here in Bliznatsi is an awesome bloke called Dave, as I mentioned earlier. The one with Bobby, the alabaster pit bull. Not only are those compliments absolutely truth-based, but again I have been reminded of how much fun it can be just shooting the shit with an Englishman. Not some pompous fake blue-blood stuff-shirt full of pretentious affectations (and there are plenty of those in England), but a regular guy with his feet planted on the ground. I could say as much for his older friend Brian, whose woman is a Bulgarian doctor. In England, it's called the "chat" — which means a way of talking which is uniquely English. Americans like to "josh" and "banter", but it just isn't the same. For example, in St. Augustine, Florida where I was holed up for many years, they had dissembled an authentic English pub in the UK, carried it board by the board over to Florida, reassembled it, stocked the shelves with English beer, and opened the doors for business. It certainly looked the part. But the customers were almost all Americans. It simply wasn't an English pub anymore. Not even close.
I lived in England during most of the 1970's, and that period remains one of the highlights of my life. Really, if I think about it, I have had three lives: The long prison term in America (but I jest of course!), my beer-swilling heyday in old England (not the present PC version), and my most productive and happiest years, which have been in Russia. If all goes according to plan, my last sundown will occur right here in Bliznatsi — an old man's death amid a night of baying coyotes. I couldn't think of a better exit.
But being with Dave has brought out the dregs of that England of the past I so much loved, and I find myself, without meaning to, starting to talk a bit like him. I mean, using the British "chat", which comes back to me just like a plate of fish and chips soaked in vinegar across the road from the "Ring-o-Bells"" where I used to down a couple of flagons of cider most evenings. That was a long time ago. Bjorn Borg was winning Wimbledon every summer back then, and brilliant, alcoholic George Best was still kicking a football in the English League.. Oldies-but-goodies, yet all those lost friends just float about in a time capsule. The ones who aren't already dead are old by now, and I probably wouldn't recognize most of them if I went back to Bath. But in the time capsule, they are just as they were back then.
Before leaving Moscow, I noticed that virtually all the metro lines (not just the Purple and Circle ones) now give out the names of each station (and those which connect) in English as well as Russian. The voices in these recordings speak in prim and proper English –no Cockneys or rubes from Somerset, no Liverpool Scouse or Yorkshire puds (who pronounce "pub"' as "poob", no Scottish, like the guys in the famous YouTube elevator skit ("Ëleven…Eleven….Eleven..!"), no Irish, and definitely no American. Only refined ENGLISH. I presume that it is because this is thought to be the best rendition of the lingo. (We think of ""BBC" English as being the real English deal and forget how vulgar the language can sound in the throat of a Kings Cross whore or a Geordie hod-carrier) Likewise, in terms of English language schools in Moscow, all the textbooks emanate from the UK and so Russian students are fed an exclusive diet of British grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and usage. Wealthy Russians send their children mostly to England to receive what is thought to be the best possible education. Some go to America, it is true. Yet there can be little doubt that, regardless of who might currently hold the status of World Empire (the USA), the bias in terms of elevated culture remains in favor (favour, British) of the English.
Perhaps this venerable status is well-deserved. I am American-born, and while I could say a few words in favor of the snappy nasal Manhattan/Brooklyn way of talking (think Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, etc, if I am not dating myself here)) and the whiskey-sippin' Southern drawl of American country singers– as well as those sexy lil" nymphs with honey in their smiles and dust in their voices that I remember from the Sunshine State (who worked at Pizza Hut and Dunkin Donuts and wore string bikinis on the beach) — generally speaking, the American accents are broad, flat, and insipid.
Why do I find American voices unpleasant? It is a peculiar fact that when many people on holiday happen to hear the sudden elocutions of their likewise vacationing countrymen, they automatically turn tail and speed off in the opposite direction as fast as their legs can carry them. My Russian wife is like that when she hears the approach of other Russians, and I am the same with Americans.With me, it isn't just the accent, it is the stupid things that Americans say. Looking at Notre Dame Cathedral, for instance, portly, dowdy Mrs. America is apt to bellow out to her plump Mr:, "Why, look at that church over there, Fred..Ïsn't it just soooooo CUTE?" Makes you want to cut their throats. When Middle America speaks (people from places like Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska) their wide, 'wholesome'' utterances sound like someone trying to recite the Declaration of Independence while munching on a spear of corn-on-the-cob. At worst, it sounds like a stack of dishes breaking. (What is really breaks is my heart.when I have to listen to it.) The hell of it is that these are often very nice people when they are back home in the fields of wheat and corn and barley, and the real problem is me and my old grudges against the USA.
But before I actually go so far as to defend American English, let me first propose a toast to the British in general and the English in particular… I will begin what I want to say in the following manner. There are two things I notice about the condition of present day native speakers on both sides of the Atlantic, the exception being the British Isles sometimes. CONVERSATION AS AN ART-FORM IS DEAD. I mean it, and it really pisses me off. We live increasingly in a sound-byte society where people desire only what they imagine to be the I-N–F-O-R-M–A–T-I-O-N, and don't give two monkey's wanks about the quality or eloquence of the delivery.
Now. what on earth can I mean, you may ask, when I refer to the conversation as a possible art-form? Well, let me put it this way: though getting old can be hard graft, nevertheless a certain comparative wisdom accrues from having one foot in the present and the other in the past (as I do). In the old days, people talked to each other at greater length because there was no big hurry to do anything else, and because technology had not put the sword to more traditional forms of social interaction. Go back even farther, to the time of men like Oscar Wilde, and you may begin to appreciate the great esteem in which a clever, witty, and eloquent speaker was held. Wilde was the toast of the best houses in England simply because he could entertain with his tongue. It was considered an end in itself. Nowadays, the elaborate construction of intricate speech is apt to be met with, "Hey, will you come to the f—–g point? We haven't got all day!""
Second premise:: MOST PEOPLE ARE TONE DEAF TO THE MUSIC OF LANGUAGE. They just want the sound-byte. Nuance, subtlety, evocation, allusion, metaphor — it's like throwing diamonds to monkeys. The worst offenders are the bureaucrats, politicians, and corporate culture geeks who indulge in inflated jargon and euphemism in order to obfuscate genuine communication. But I can also give a sterling example which at the time I found rather dismaying. One of my best friends, an extremely talented guy who speaks good English, decided that he wanted to learn to write essays in English. So we arranged a meeting and, as a starting point I selected a famous American essay by E.B. White called "Once More to the Lake." It was a father's account of taking his young son to the same New England summer resort area that his own father had taken him years earlier. The theme of the essay was (as I have alluded to regarding life here in Bliznatsi) was Time itself, and how, mystically, the fondly recalled setting appeared not to have changed one iota during the passage of years. In the five or so pages that followed, the present father transmuted into his own (possibly deceased) father, and his present son gradually assumed the form of the author himself as he was at the same age. This magically-imagined switching of identity in a hallowed place where Time did not exist was captured masterfully by White, but in slow, evocative, muted-majestic brush-strokes. At the end of all this, the author is suddenly stabbed (in the famous last line) by an overwhelming sense of his own mortality. It is a great essay but, as I said, it kind of meanders along, building the mood. So I gave it to Sasha to read and eagerly awaited his response. Which was…."Well, it was pretty good, but, I mean, he could have said all this in one page! I got the point, why did he keep on and on and on?!!". My thought was "Well, shit, I dunno. Why didn't Tolstoy limit War and Peace to fifty pages?" But then I understood that Sasha, brighter than me in many, many ways, just missed the whole idea. He was looking for INFORMATION, and once he had inculcated the info, he didn't see any point in continuing. I mean, why not rush off and get some more INFORMATION somewhere else. Why waste time??,
A sign of the times.
The Brits can be just as empty, just as glib, just as vacuous, and just as stupid as the Americans with regards to the commercialization of language. But, praise Jehovah, as a culture they retain the capacity for delving or rising to a different level. For example, with dramatization — that is, the artistic production of theatrical entertainment whether on television or on the stage — the Brits are, on the whole, vastly superior to the Americans. British comedy is more subtle and biting, and dramatic dialogue retains the ring of truth. An American sit-com is now mostly just the exchange of rat-a-tat-tat one-liners, and if the Yanks are trying to do a gig about ancient Rome, for example, they will have the actors spouting such malarkey as "Hail Caesar, they banquet is at thy behest!"instead of simply "Julius, dinner is ready" The Brits keep it real; the language is tighter, plainer, sharper, and ultimately more authentic.
The British Isles have traditionally been a place for story-tellers — raconteurs, as it were. In other words, it's not just to get you from A to B — rather, it is HOW the story or the joke is told. The only expat I still keep up with in Russia is an Irishman named Spencer. Arrayed in a suit and tie during working hours, adorned with trimmed beard and educated spectacles, he appears like the pedagogues of yore. The Venerable Bede. But, lest we not forget, he is IRISH, and once propped up against a row of pints of Guinness an emerald sparkle comes aglow in his eyes, and he turns into the wittiest, most well-spoken gentleman who ever landed in Russia. It is his heritage, and Spencer's cunning babbles reveal yet again that the magic is as much in the skill of the messenger as in the final revelation of the message. Too often the Americans just can't get it right. And the Americans always have to pound you over the head with the Moral of the Story. Even with the best American films, I always notice this need they have to make sure you get the point, that the Character-Builder at the Graveside doesn't escape you. Overkill. The British, in short, know how to say it and when to shut up. One Spencer Burke is worth a thousand blunderers from The Colonies.
Of course, I am generalizing at the expense of the plethora of great stuff that has come out of the USA, from Disney to Tarantino. But I speak of tendencies. Forgive me if I seem to bent against all things American. I must have contracted food-poisoning over there a while back, and the grumbling bowels that resulted have never fully healed.
It's just that my conversations with Dave (and the one morning I spent with Brian) have brought back the joys of repartee and the real pleasure of wit. It has been like drinking a pint (or five or six) of real English ale after having subsisted on a diet of American Budweiser for much too long. Many thanks, mates..And thank you, my dear Spencer.
However — surprise, surprise — in my next blog I will tell you why contemporary American English is actually better!!! Well, in certain respects…
===Eric Richard Le Roy===