Daily Life in the UK as an American

Daily life in the US and the UK has its similarities and its differences. Almost any American who lives in the UK can put together their own list based on their perspectives and past experiences.  Everyone gets homesick from time and time and it is easy sometimes to get caught up and dwell too much on the familiar and under-appreciate the differences.

Bill Bryson is an American author who lived in the UK for over twenty years. At the point in time when he decided to return to the US, he took one final trip around the country and wrote a travel book called ‘Notes from a Small Island’ providing humorous insight into daily life in the UK. Twenty years later and having returned to live in the UK, Bill took a new journey around Britain to detail what had changed. Bill’s musings are summarised in ‘The Road to Little Dribbling.’ It is a book that doesn’t back away from highlighting in jest all of the perceived positive and negative changes and yet finds comfort in the country that has clearly won his heart.

 The book starts with Bill becoming a UK citizen. Some may relate to the following excerpt which details his humorous experience in taking the Life in Britain Knowledge test.

‘For a long time, there were two ways to become a British citizen. The first, the trickier but paradoxically much the more common method, was to find your way into a British womb and wait for nine months. The other way was to fill out some forms and swear an oath. Since 2005, however, people in the second category have additionally had to demonstrate proficiency in English and pass a knowledge test.

I was excused the language test because English is my native tongue, but no one is excused the knowledge test, and it’s tough. No matter how well you think you know Britain, you don’t know the things you need to know to pass the Life in Britain Knowledge Test.

You need to know, for instance, who Sake Dean Mahomet was. (He was the man who introduced shampoo to Britain. Honestly.)  You need to know by what other name the 1944 Education Act is known. (The Butler Act.) You need to know when life peerages were created (1958) and in what year the maximum length of a working day for women and children was reduced to ten hours (1847). You have to be able to identify Jenson Button. (No point asking why.) You can be denied citizenship if you don’t know the number of member states in the Commonwealth, who Britain’s enemies in the Crimean War were, the percentages of people who describe themselves as Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Christian, and the actual name of the Big Ben tower. (It’s the Elizabeth Tower.) You even have to know a few things that aren’t in fact true. If, for instance, you are asked, ‘What are the two most distant points on the British mainland?’ you have to say, ‘Land’s End and John o’Groats’ even though they are not. This is one tough test.

To prepare, I ordered the full set of study guides, consisting of a shiny paperback called Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents and two auxiliary volumes: an Official Study Guide, which tells you how to use the first book (essentially, start at page one and move through the following pages one at a time, in order), and a volume of Official Practice Questions and Answers, containing seventeen practice tests. Naturally, I did a couple of these before reading a word of the study guides and was horrified at how poorly I did. (When you are asked ‘What are Welsh MPs called?’ the answer is not ‘Gareth and Dafydd mostly.’)

The study guide is an interesting book, nicely modest, a little vacuous at times, but with its heart in the right place. Britain, you learn, is a country that cherishes fair play, is rather good at art and literature, values good manners, and has often shown itself to be commendably inventive, especially around things that run on steam. The people are a generally decent lot who garden, go for walks in the country, eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays (unless they are Scottish, in which case they may go for haggis). They holiday at the seaside, obey the Green Cross Code, queue patiently, vote sensibly, respect the police, venerate the monarch, and practise moderation in all things. Occasionally they go to a public house to drink two units or fewer of good English ale and to have a game of pool or skittles. (You sometimes feel that the people who wrote the guidebook should get out more.)

At times the book is so careful about being inoffensive that it doesn’t actually say anything at all, as in this discussion, given here in full, of the contemporary music scene: ‘There are many different venues and musical events that take place across the UK.’ Thank you for that rich insight. (And I don’t like to be a smart alec, but venues don’t take place. They just are.) Sometimes the book is simply wrong, as when it declares that Land’s End and John o’Groats are maximally remote, and sometimes it is dubious and wrong. It cites the actor Anthony Hopkins as the kind of person Britons can be proud of without apparently pausing to reflect that Anthony Hopkins is now an American citizen living in California. It also misspells his first name. It calls the literary area of Westminster Abbey ‘Poet’s Corner’, perhaps in the belief that they only keep one poet at a time there. Generally, I try not to be over fussy about these things, but if it is a requirement that people who take the test should have a full command of English, then perhaps it would be an idea to make certain that those responsible for the test demonstrate a similar proficiency.

And so, after a month’s hard study, the day of my test arrived. My instructions were to present myself at the appointed hour at a place called Wessex House in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the nearest testing centre to my home. Eastleigh is a satellite of Southampton and appears to have been bombed heavily during the Second World War, though perhaps not quite heavily enough. It is an interestingly unmemorable place – not numbingly ugly but not attractive either; not wretchedly poor but not prosperous; not completely dead in the centre, but clearly not thriving. The bus station was just an outer wall of Sainsbury’s with a glass marquee over it, evidently to give pigeons a dry place to s**t.

Like many British towns, Eastleigh has closed its factories and workshops, and instead is directing all its economic energies into the making and drinking of coffee. There were essentially two types of shop in the town: empty shops and coffee shops. Some of the empty shops, according to signs in their windows, were in the process  of  being  converted  into  coffee  shops,  and  many  of the coffee shops, judging by their level of custom, looked as if they weren’t far off becoming empty shops again. I am no economist, but I am guessing that that’s what is known as a virtuous circle. One or two more adventurous entrepreneurs had opened pound stores or betting shops, and a few charities had taken over other abandoned premises, but on the whole Eastleigh seemed to be a place where you could either have a cup of coffee or sit and watch pigeons defecate. I had a cup of coffee, for the sake of the economy, watched a pigeon defecate across the way, then presented myself at Wessex House for my test.

Five of us were present for testing on this particular morning. We were shown to a roomful of desks, each with a computer screen and a mouse sitting on a plain mat, and seated so that we couldn’t see anyone else’s screen. Once settled, we were given a practice test of four questions to make sure we were comfortably in command of our mouse and mousepad. Because it was a practice test, the questions were encouragingly easy, along the lines of:

Manchester United is: (a) a political party (b) a dance band (c) an English football team

It took about fifteen seconds for four of us to answer the practice questions, but one lady – pleasant, middle-aged, slightly plumpish – took considerably longer. Twice the supervisor came to see if she was all right. I passed the time discreetly looking in my desk drawers – they were unlocked but empty – and seeing if there was any way to have fun moving a cursor around a blank screen. There isn’t.

At length the woman announced that she had finished and the supervisor came to check her work. He bent to her screen and in a tone of quiet amazement said: ‘You’ve missed them all.’

She beamed uncertainly, not sure if this was an achievement.

‘Do you want to try them again?’ the supervisor asked help- fully. ‘You’re entitled to try again.’

The woman gave every appearance of having no clear idea of what was going on, but gamely elected to press on, and so the test began.

The first question was: ‘You’ve seen Eastleigh. Are you sure you want to stay in Britain?’ Actually, I don’t recall what the first question was or any of those that followed. We weren’t allowed to bring anything to the desk, so I couldn’t take notes or tap my teeth thoughtfully with a pencil. The test consisted of twenty- four multiple-choice questions and took only about three minutes. You either know the answers or you don’t. I presented myself at the supervisor’s desk upon completion, and we waited together while the computer checked my answers, a process that took about as long as the test itself, and at last he told me with a smile that I had passed, but he couldn’t tell me exactly how I did. The computer only indicated pass or fail.

‘I’ll just print out your result,’ he said. This took another small age. I was hoping for a smart parchment-like certificate, like you get when you climb Sydney Harbour Bridge or do a cookery course with Waitrose, but it was just a faintly printed letter confirming that I was certified as intellectually fit for life in modern Britain.

Beaming like the lady earlier (who appeared to be hunting around for a keyboard when last I glimpsed her), I left the building feeling pleased, even a little exhilarated. The sun was shining. Across the way at the bus station, two men in bomber jackets were having a morning aperitif from matching cans of lager. A pigeon picked at a cigarette butt and squeezed out a little s**t. Life in modern Britain, it seemed to me, was pretty good.’

For anyone who has an appreciation for living in the UK and a fondness of the US, both of Bill’s books are definitely worth a read.

For more wealth planning tips and tidbits from MASECO read our 39 Steps to Smart Living in the UK.

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