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Enjoying the Comforts and Discomforts of England

England is one of my favorite countries. I grew up there, and still speak the language, more or less, and there are a few things about English life that make it special.

Driving is one of these. We just returned from a vacation there, and enjoyed the sensation of driving on the left or correct side of the road for a change. I say the “correct” side because this is a historical fact. In the olden days horsemen would ride on the left so they could grab their sword from their left side with their right hand, and be ready to engage hand to hand with a highwayman riding in the opposite direction. It’s not clear how this worked out if you or the highwayman was left handed, but obviously it worked most of the time because there are so few highwaymen left in England.

The other thing to remember about driving in England is to avoid London. Not only will you be stuck in traffic like a fly in amber, possibly for weeks, but it will cost you. Everyone who drives into central London must pay the congestion charge. This is a cunning scheme, introduced in 2003, whereby every vehicle entering the city is charged ten pounds or about sixteen dollars per day. Such a scheme in New York would cause a second American revolution, but it has been reluctantly accepted in Britain. The city has grown rich on the revenues from this tax, and congestion has steadily grown as well.

Out in the countryside there is also plenty of traffic, but it moves rather sedately on the narrow roads. This comes as a relief after France, where driving is a form of mortal combat. Away from the cities you can begin to appreciate what the French rather enviously call Le confort anglais or English comfort, an indefinable mix of welcoming pubs, soft furniture, hearty food, blazing fires, silly dogs, and childish entertainments.

A very grand Frenchman of the eighteenth century called Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de de La Brede et de Montesquieu, known to his friends as Monty, argued that climate created national character, a theory that still makes a lot of sense. Over the centuries the gloomy, wet climate has influenced the British national character in two ways. On the one hand, comfort has indeed become something of an obsession, certainly since Victorian times. On the other hand, the frequent lack of comfort has bred a sturdy willingness to put with anything.

The Queen is an excellent example. We visited one of her homes in the bleak and windy eastern counties of England, an estate called Sandringham. She wasn’t there to receive us, but a friendly courtier allowed us to pay a large sum of money to visit the house and grounds. It was raining hard, and those visitors who weren’t hiding in the teashop were bent double against the gale. The interior of the Queen’s house showed old-fashioned comfort in its least comfortable form: grand rooms, massive sofas and armchairs, and huge fireplaces, that mimic comfort without providing.it In such a place only a strong-minded monarch could survive the winter, or even the summer.

English comfort and English discomfort are two sides of the same coin, leading to a national character perfectly balanced between self-indulgence and stoical endurance. Like it or not, Montesquieu was right: meteorology is destiny.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.
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