Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Contradiction in Terms

While everyone knows that they drive on the opposite side of the road here in Blighty, this only scratches the surface of a host of other incongruities and contradictions pertaining to the English way of life.

For instance, just yesterday I made the startling discovery--upon opening our Thames Water bill and recoiling in disbelief--that not only does one pay for water here, but one must also pay for the removal of the water, to the tune of nearly $70. I guess this falls under Newton's Law, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", but still, this discovery brought an all-new low point to my growing list of egregious things that "should-be-free but aren't" here in England. Heretofore, the list was topped by the annual TV license ($500) and the galling fact that you're charged 10 cents for a book of matches from the news agent (free in NY and possibly the rest of the civilized world.)

While mulling over the new indignity of paying for "waste water" during my walk to class the other night at City University, I started realizing what a land of opposites England truly is. The U. is located in a dodgy section of East London accessed by the beautifically titled "Angel" tube stop (alternately, across town there's a tube stop called Icksworth and while I haven't been over there, I bet it's downright lovely).

Walking down the forlorn street leading up to school, I passed the picturesquely titled "Arlington Estates", "Sutton Place Dwellings" and "Glendorn Garden Estates". Anywhere else, it might sound like I'd entered an exclusive gated community lined with posh McMansions, but these apartment blocks were government-owned low-income housing, a.k.a. council flats, which often go by the name of "Housing Estates", a moniker which belies with their frequently grim appearance:

Another subject of curiosity is the English sense of temperature, if indeed there is such a thing as they seem to have no consistent internal thermometer. These are people that wear wool scarves when it's sixty degrees out, yet perversely go coatless in a tube top in mid-winter and crank the roof down on their convertibles the moment the mercury rises past 40. Two days or more above 65 is considered a heat wave and may result in hordes of British people fainting at outdoor events.

Other incongruities that I still haven't managed to get to the bottom of yet are:

1) Public schools are called "private" and private schools are called "public"

2) On your birthday, YOU pay for your own--and everyone else's--drinks and dinners

3) If a burglar breaks into your home, you don't have the right to harm him in order to protect yourself, your family or your possessions and many burglars have in fact successfully sued homeowners. A victim can even go to jail even if he hits back "too hard" when attacked.

4) Despite being an insanely private society when it comes to money, homes, jobs and almost any mundane detail about their lives, the British have no problem opening up to perfect strangers on other more 'colorful' topics...For instance last Friday night at a pub I was privy to having a young man, possibly in a misguided attempt at flirting, tell me and a friend about his colonic earlier that day.

5) Speaking of pubs, giving a tip in one can apparently be considered insulting to the recipient because this might imply that they are 'beneath' you (this comes from a great book "Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior", which I will be blogging about soon.)

Frankly, it's no wonder that the English bemoan their loss of national identity--who wouldn't be schizophrenic in a society plagued by this much confusion and contradiction?


Blogger greavsie said...

London and the South East is actually a very 'dry' place. Much of the water we get is from a small catchment area that has to serve an enormous number of people.

I suppose it won't help to know that much of the water in London has been 're-cycled' 6 times ;-)

I'm not sure what you'll make of Cockfosters either.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Brewer John said...

Actually, you DO pay for waste water in the states, it's usually rolled into the water bill you pay to your local municipality. Although, not that expensive...

12:08 AM  
Blogger The Reluctant Anglophile said...

Yes, I suppose compared to the North, you are right, and I love that it said on our recent offending water bill that "water supplies are running low due to less than usual rainfall" (or something to that effect)...even though that's probably true after this beautiful (rain-free) summer and fall, there is enough rain in this country to irrigate Australia--can't Thames Water save some of it up or pipe it in from the North?!

Did not know that the water in London has been recycled 6 times, though that may explain the taste...still, I continue to drink the tap water and a friend assures me I'll have cancer by the time I leave here.

I don't know quite what to make of Cockfosters but will have possibly have to check it out soon just to say I've been there.

10:53 AM  
Blogger The Reluctant Anglophile said...

I am 99.9% sure we never even paid for the water itself in NY, even after we bought our condo, unless it was lumped in with the condo assessment. And I have definitely never heard of paying for waste water removal--if you what you say is true, than I guess I can at least applaud the British for being honest and actually listing the charge on the bill instead of obscuring it under something else!

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

being a brit who lives in Atlanta now, I can honestly say I pay for water and sewage and always have while here in the states (Florida, California and Georgia).

But if I remember correctly we call what in the US is a private school, both a public school and a private school, and what is called a public school is just normal school ( having been to one we definatly didn't call it private)

4:43 PM  
Blogger The Reluctant Anglophile said...

That is weird about the water and sewage charges...then it must been something they either a) were kind enough to give us free in NY as perhaps it was too hard to sort out amongst individual apartment/condo units or b) (far more likely) they were charging us for it and it was innocuously lumped in under something else.

I am going to do some research into the school system here for my own edification...I know from my friends that have kids that it's very complicated to both understand and matriculate into.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Doug Grad said...

You are right--New York City apartments were never metered for water. Until recently, that is. Since water here is so plentiful, what with the Catskill reservoirs upstate, clean water was always taken for granted. But the ever-efficient Mayor Bloomberg has made water-metering part of his overall remaking of New York to be like the rest of the world--you pay for what you get, and you get what you pay for. So whereas a building's water bill (based on mathematical estimates) would have been just a hidden part of your rent, or monthly maintenance in a co-op or condo, landlords (and co-op and condo associations) now get a water bill based on real use--which is then re-calculated and hidden into your rent or maintenance fee. Individual homeowners (private houses, brownstones, etc.) get an actual water bill. And there have always been hidden residential sewer charges--all just conveniently rolled into one neat package. As a third generation, I prefer not knowing, rather than going around installing flow restrictors in my showerheads and low-flush toilets. I mean, it's like giving up the family sedan for an econobox--who wants to think of how much water their using when relaxing under a hot spray or "indisposed in the reading room?"

3:06 PM  
Blogger The Reluctant Anglophile said...

Hey Doug,
Thanks for shedding light on that because I thought I was going crazy. It sounds like everyone else in the states pays for water and sewage removal and yet I knew I had never seen such a bill in the past 8 years--of course we weren't lucky enough to own our brownstone :-)

It's interesting but I think I too, would prefer having it lumped in somewhere else. Now, it's just one more bill to dread and think about every time we flush the toilet (already coming on the heels of turning off our hot water tank for most of the day.)

Anyway, it looks like you guys have got Bloomberg for another four years so better get used to it!

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The birthday thing, I think you've been had because that's never been the case with anyone I know :D

And the public school being private, stems from way back when they as public institutions were private because they weren't religous based schools unlike state run schools of the day

1:58 AM  
Anonymous FB said...

The UK TV license costs £126.50. On the date of your post, the interbank rate was 1 British Pound = 1.76580 US Dollar. The cost of a TV license is therefore $223, not the $500 you posted. Please try to be more accurate for your readers.

Do you think it's good value for money? Do you think the quality of TV is better or worse than the US? Do you think this funding of a "state" TV station improves the quality of the other stations? Do you think the quality of UK TV would decline if this license fee did not exist?


4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You do pay dearly for water and sewage monthly in the US.
As for the TV licence- all my American friends here would gladly pay the UK TV licence (on top of the outragous cable fees they are already paying for crap) just to get access to the BBC online. TV licence is not $500 by the way- probably about half that, and being annual not monthly its a bargain.

5:06 PM  
Blogger The Reluctant Anglophile said...

Hi FB,
Yes, you're right about the $500, which was in fact a math error on my part, (yet another reason I don't play darts, gamble or do anything else involving the addition of numbers) because I had doubled the rate in my head once and then while writing inadvertently doubled it again. My post from Sept. 9 correctly identifies the cost as around $250, so it's not like I'm over here trying to purposely pull the wool over people's eyes--blame it all on my third grade maths teacher Mr. Schmidt. This is a hobby for me, not a science project.

Anyway, as to your questions about the quality of TV here vs. there, I am not the best judge of that since I probably watch a sum total of 8 hours a month in either place. That said, the offerings seem equally abysmal in both places from cursory channel-surfing. Yes, the BBC is fabulous and I am at this very moment enjoying their production of Bleak House, however I don't think it's right that one is levied a mandatory tax to pay for it. It should either be free and funded via other sources, or if we're going to go the capitalist route, then those who elect to have it should be charged as they are with the cable and satellite channels. And no, I don't think the amazing quality of the BBC raises the bar for any of the other channels...the airwaves are littered with shows like Booze Britain, Pop Idols, Real Life Wife Swap, East Enders and their ilk, just like they are in the U.S. where the public channels are free.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous FB said...

Hi PA,

I would direct you towards looking at the reasons for the establishment of Channel 4 to give yourself a good example of how the BBC has improved the private sector’s TV. This is perhaps the most shining example but there are others too.

Also, the license fee really is not a tax, though I would agree that any time the government takes your money it feels like one! You need to investigate how the BBC was set up to guarantee its independence from government and, as evidence of this, perhaps look at its history of not being particularly supportive of the government of the day. It is not a tax but a licence fee that is required if you have a TV.
Having experienced both, I find PBS a pale but worthy effort. It is perhaps 1% of the BBC. For 70c/day, it is much better value than HBO or a Starbucks coffee. Having said that, there are plenty of problems with the BBC, not least its ever growing size. But I would happily pay my 70c to get it over here and I think you would find many others who experienced it, not just expats, would also do the same. Has perhaps your many years of mind-numbing US TV actually meant that you have failed to appreciate the same medium but with a very different content over there? I think that giving it a little more selective time might not only change you mind but would also give you a better idea of the culture of the place in which you live.


9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as far as I remember from my high-school geography class, the idea of water-meters is to try to reduce water consumption= more ecologically sound. Anything is worth a try?

9:55 PM  

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