Thursday, March 24, 2016
Two things in particular have struck me on this visit.
1. We have an almost unparalleled university system. One I feel proud to have studied in, and one which encourages the nerdy, the geeky, the obsessive, and the introverted; those whose interests may have been their only friends through school and their adolescence. We welcome that obsesssiveness, if not demand it. This made the Americans I was recently touring universities in the Midlands with a little uncomfortable. They have students who they would consider on the "autistic spectrum" if they threw themselves wholeheartedly and unabashedly into one narrow field of study. It's almost unheard of in the USA until doctorate level, and yet we require this stringently of our 18 year olds. If being able to focus an entire university application and a series of up-to-twenty-minute interviews throughout a day waxing lyrical about one's interest in Roman coins or pre-Raphaelite paintings, toxicology or the films of Truffaut means that you're on the autistic spectrum, then I suppose most of Oxford and Cambridge's students must be damaged goods.
This kind of focus and drive is what creates the idea of great British eccentricity we are all so familiar with. And guess who loves the idea the most? You only have to watch how British academics are represented in American film to understand just how enamoured they are of the idea of this fiercely geeky, weird but ultimately brilliant intelligence : Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything? Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game? Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawny in Harry Potter?!
Where else could we have watched a lecture on entertainment in early modern times - entitled Stage, Stake and Scaffold, all about theatre, bear-baiting, and hangings in Elizabethan London?
2. People here are dead funny. There was a chipperness to people in the Midlands, despite the weather and the buildings (at times) being uniquely grey. Actually, I think this is pretty widespread. The British can laugh at themselves, and often do. We admit freely to needing to have a drink to function in large social situations. We know we can't dance, yet we have zero hesitation about yowling discordantly in large groups to karaoke hits. It initially takes more of us to strike up a conversation, but a couple of pints in our veins and we'll chat until the cows come home.
I'm back in Scotland again, having last been here in November. It's a glorious evening to arrive, with a sweet dusky pink sunset kissing the treetops. Every burn, brook and stretch of water glistens in the light, and there's a lot of water in Scotland. A friendly Glaswegian woman waiting for the loo on the train sizes me up in the queue and immediately starts chatting to me about her journey from Bournemouth. It's taken her 9 hours, but she tells me she would happily rather take the train than fly. "You can have your book, and your coffee, and your sandwich, and watch the world go by, and there's none of that..." - she motions brusquely to her feet, making a grimace - "take off your shoes, take off your belt, take out your water rubbish". (The Scots have a deserved reputation for being some of the friendliest and chattiest Britons).
And that is the British idea of pure pleasure, a hot drink, a sandwich, a good book and a journey.
I think that's the meaning of beauty in the details. Details - whether they be found in a subject you love, an eccentric leaning towards something that others might find odd, or or just knowing what little fripperies will make you happy. Generally speaking, we Brits don't need big and showy. A simple well-made cup of tea will draw contented sighs and a sense of inner peace.
It's the little things, isn't it?