I’ve lived in Oxford for 10 and a half years now, in two instalments, and still love it.
I read a email yesterday from an American friend who did some ministry in London earlier this month. “We were immersed in British culture. We loved their sense of humor. If I added these six words to my vocabulary, I might pass as British: brilliant, lovely, fabulous, fantastic, cheerio, and really. As in, “that was a brilliant seminar, really lovely, just fantastic”.”
Well, I must say, in that case, people in London are certainly more positive than those in Oxford, where “not bad” passes for commendation. But yes, when the English succeed in getting themselves enthusiastic, they are really enthusiastic; things are indeed brilliant, lovely, fabulously fantastic.
I read a Lonely Planet guidebook on the flight over from the US to Britain in 1994. It remarked that contrary to the stereotype of buttoned-down reserve, the greatest pleasure of travelling England is the English themselves.
The English do indeed cultivate humour like as a sixth sense. Perhaps they need it to deal with the notorious British weather, and cold, old houses without central heating.
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And indeed, as the guidebook said, one of the best things about living here is the English themselves, their eccentricities, their passions, their funny hobbity ways, and, yes, their sense of humour, evenly distributed across every spectrum of society.
Roy and I had supper with an Oxford friend of mine in an posh old house in Surrey. In her house, nobody ever locked the loo. Well, Roy, like Alice, seeing a key turned it. And it stuck, stubbornly.
The only locksmith who picked up his phone on Sunday evening had to drive nearly 90 miles to get to us, in deep country. Jane and I passed him his slides beneath the bathroom door, giggling like schoolgirls, and being a true intellectual, indifferent to his surroundings, he sat there and continued his research, while Jane and I had a longer and lovelier catch-up than we had bargained for.
Two hours later the locksmith comes, gets Roy out, and says gleefully, “You must be relieved.”
Had he been choking on that pun all evening? “Working class English people are very witty,” explained Jane, who comes from well-known High Tory political family.
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In fact, most English people are. We often have people over for a meal—a form of fun and recreation both Roy and I enjoy. British people, at least in Oxford, pride themselves on speaking well and amusingly, and such evenings are always fun.
The only chink in the British sense of humour is that they totally fail to see how funny they appear to people from elsewhere, To Americans, in particular (who are like brash Romans, compared to the cute hobbity culture and mores of sections of English society) but also to the French, as I realized through hours of French conversation with tutors, and Germans…
I remember a surreal episode in the New Wine Conference when Carl Medearis, an engaging American speaker continually laughed at his hosts, in the sweetest manner. At how seriously they took their tea and biscuit breaks, and how restive they got when these were delayed by an overrun. At the charming place names, like Shepton Mallet, where the conference was held. This stream of quips was received by the audience in stony silence.
At the long-awaited tea and biscuit break, Roy tells the man next to us in the queue. “The only question is “Do Brits find Americans funnier, or do Americans find the English funnier?” ”
The man stared. “What’s funny about the English?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.