To prepare for my trip to London next year, I have been exploring British culture. I always like to explore the culture of the European cities I plan to visit because I only actually live in the city for a week. In order to make the experience a bigger part of my life it is necessary to incorporate some aspects of the culture into the scope of my cultural awareness. This is a lot easier than it used to be because the Internet provides us with access to a wealth of information on the world. You can even buy almost anything produced in a country online. In other words, not only can you do the research to uncover obscure books and films, but you can also often obtain those obscure books and films.
First I should mention that I am limiting my exploration of British culture to England. I am aware that Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are part of the UK but I feel they deserve individual attention instead of being lumped in with England. England presents a bit of a challenge for the cultural explorer in the United States because you develop a false sense of familiarity with the country. It barely seems like a foreign country at all because English culture has always been a part of our cultural background. For example, I’ve read a lot of English literature and I can hardly think of Shakespeare or H.G. Wells as foreign writers from a foreign country. The word “foreign” hardly seems to apply to England because there is nothing foreign about it in the general sense of the word. Nevertheless, England is a foreign country. I have never been there and I am not entitled to live there (emigrating to the UK is a major hassle for Americans and vice versa). And although we are exposed to a great deal of English culture through our education, this has never been accompanied by the necessary background information required to understand it.
Just learning the geography of London has already vastly expanded my understanding of British culture. It is amazing how many place names are already familiar to me; Soho, Bloomsbury, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster, Kensington, Hyde Park, Victoria Station, etc but it was all a jumble until I started my research. The same thing happened when I studied the geography of New York City. Now I can watch movies and read books set in New York City with a better sense of the neighborhoods and locations. London is as influential as New York City and getting to know its geography will improve your understanding of literature and film. So far I have focused on the neighborhoods of Soho and Bloomsbury for in-depth study. Bloomsbury led me to read Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and the novels of E. M. Forster. I like the Forster novels because he writes about English tourists in Italy. I’ve only read Where Angels Fear to Tread so far. I also watched the film starring Helena Bonham Carter, the actress who seems to personify the British in the cinema.
Soho used to be a seedy neighborhood so it has proven to be a good source of more obscure novels and films. I’ve just read the novel Soho by Keith Waterhouse which really captures the spirit of neighborhood. This led me to discover the work of the artist Augustus John and then a real find in the person of Luisa Casati, a Belle Époque eccentric he painted. The Marquise Casati intrigued me so I bought a biography on her, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati by Scot D. Ryersson, Michael Orlando Yaccarino. Although Marquise Casati was an Italian she did spend the last years of her life in London. She also resided at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice (now the home of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection). In the course of reading her biography, I came across other interesting artists like Giovanni Boldini and Alastair who were unknown to me. This is the reward of cultural exploration! But it has distracted me from London and the British.
I have read the textbook on British culture, British Cultural Identities, by Mike Storry, Peter Childs. This textbook was pretty dry reading but it does list a lot of novels and films for further exploration. It does stress the multicultural nature of contemporary UK which includes the Commonwealth countries and the member nations of the UK; England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. London is a very multicultural city and I’ve come to realize that not everyone can be expected to know English. It is even possible for an American to be mistaken for an Englishman in the Bangladesh community! The recent riots in London also indicate how important it is to understand the ethnic mix of the city.
I still have piles of books to read on London and contemporary British culture. Unfortunately I probably won’t have time to read them all before my trip because I tend to gather more material than I can handle. But I have seen a fair number of British films now including such classics as Withnail and I which aren’t so well known in the United States.