Friday, September 03, 2010

The US and UK - two nations separated by an uncommon cultural experience

While the fact that the US and UK are two nations separated by a common language is widely quoted, the fact that there are many cultural experiences which are not shared is rarely mentioned. Going back a few hundred years, both nations share Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, and Magna Carta. However, it is the more recent experiences which diverge, even now with the Internet as the great leveler. To Americans, the stories of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, which contributed to the end of capital punishment in the UK (itself a great difference) are unknown. In the parallel universe which is Britain Joseph Swan (vs. Thomas Edison) invented the electric lightbulb (patented it a year before Edison and overturned Edison's US patents in US courts). In the UK, John Logie Baird invented TV, not Philo Farnsworth. Marie Stopes led the charge for birth control, not Margaret Sanger, Emily Pankhurst led the fight for women's suffrage. Children grew up watching Bill and Ben the flowerpot men and Blue Peter, and never knew who Beaver was, or anything about the Honeymooners. Britons drove Triumph cars, and Morris Minors, instead of Buicks and Ramblers. Amy Johnson was the woman who pioneered flying, not Amelia Earhart. They drank Corona, Vimto and Tizer instead of RC Cola and Shasta. They poured Heinz Salad Cream on salads, not Kraft salad dressings, drank Heinz soups, ate Mr. Kipling cakes, put Branston pickle on cheese sandwiches, laughed at Morecombe and Wise or Spike Milligan. They listened to the Shipping Forecast on the radio, and watched the Queens speech on TV. Americans watched the Superbowl for their shared experience, gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, and asked strangers who they thought would win the World Series. Americans grew up with the Sears catalog and shopped at Target, Walgreens, and A&P, while Britons bought their essentials at Marks & Spencers, Boots the Chemists, W. H. Smiths, and the Coop.
Perhaps the Internet will change much of this, but even now, only Britons can experience the BBC's iPlayer, while only Americans can buy a newspaper from a machine.

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