Last night I was watching an episode of “Law & Order: UK” on BBC America, and was impressed by the extent to which the writers just expect you to keep up with the idiom, and the small differences between American and British culture and assumptions. For instance, there’s a scene in which detectives are fretting over the fact that they can’t easily retrace a suspect’s movements: He doesn’t carry a mobile, and probably doesn’t have an Oyster card. Then, a moment later, there’s a reference to CCTV.
The folks who do the show’s website are less respectful of the audience’s intelligence. The “British Terms Glossary” wastes time with “bloke” and “coppers” and “flat” and “guv.” Let’s face it, folks — if you don’t know what those mean, stick to re-runs of “Hee-Haw” (“Hey, Grandpa: What’s for supper?“) or the like. They also define “mobile,” but we know what that is too, don’t we?
The Oyster card is more subtle (and, you would think, a far more likely candidate for the online glossary than “Tube”). It’s the card you buy, and top up (do we say “top up”? I forget — but they say it a lot over there) as needed, to use the magnificent London system of public transportation. You swipe it to get through a turnstile on you way into a Tube station, and — here’s the pertinent part — you do the same to get out at your destination. Which means there exists an electronic record of your movements through the city. In the previous scene we had learned that the suspect had a fear of crowds that kept him away from the Tube. So, no Oyster card.
Of course, most people know what Closed Circuit TeleVision is. But it took me a day or so to consciously realized the implications of those signs I saw everywhere: “CCTV in operation.” (I actually had to think a minute to separate it in my mind from CATV, the old term for cable TV back in the days when it was the Community Antenna for small towns and rural communities, before it went all urban.)
What they meant, of course, is that you are under surveillance a huge proportion of the time. Yes, I know businesses here have CCTV, and footage from such cameras is often important in crime investigations. But it’s just nowhere near as ubiquitous as in London, and it doesn’t loom nearly as large in public consciousness. Watch TV news there, and it seems that every other word is CCTV, whether you’re talking the images of the crossbow robbers holding up a post office, or the images of murder victim Joanna Yeates (THE big story while we were there) picking up a couple of items at Tesco, or a routine crime at an off-licence. (Now there’s a term I had to look up — turns out “off-licence” doesn’t mean the shop is extralegal, that it lacks a license; it means it HAS a license to sell alcohol for OFF-premise consumption, as opposed to a pub. Generally, it’s what we’d call a convenience store.)
Of course, such consciousness of being watched — that those bright yellow signs — are a large part of the deterrent effect in themselves.
All of which is fine by me. As I always say, knock yourself out, Big Brother. I was conscious that some of my more libertarian friends back here in the States might have found it all creepy, but at no time in my sojourn in Airstrip One — I mean, England — did I feel the least bit put-upon or oppressed.
To me, it was part and parcel of being in a place that is very much like home, with freedom-loving people who respect the dignity of the individual, but where the politics is not plagued by the legions of radical-individualist paranoids who resist any effort at putting any sort of rational infrastructure in place. I loved the novelty of being in a place with such a dream public transit system, and where waiters and bartenders don’t mind not getting tips (or at most, don’t expect more than 10 percent) — after all, what are they worried about? They have health benefits they cannot lose. And I was very happy to pay the taxes that helped pay for it all. Some friends advised me that I could get a VAT refund on leaving the country, but there was no way I wanted that. I was happy to pay my share.
(And yes, sometimes it all goes overboard, which is why the coalition government is cutting back — AND raising taxes, remember, which they’re able to do because their conservative party doesn’t make a religion of irrational tax hatred. But on the whole, it was wonderful to be in a place where it’s assumed that one should have the Tube, and the buses (that’s “coaches” to you) and trains and parks and fantastic free museums (contributions suggested, but quite low and entirely voluntary) and a population of people who don’t fear being ruined by an unplanned sickness.
And which doesn’t mind being on Candid Camera, if it means you might catch a crossbow robber now and then.