This collection of letters written by an American novelist to her family and friends whilst living in Hull, England, during 1999/2000, is, essentially, a very personal book. Having said that, it’s also a book for everyone interested in the cultures, habits and attitudes of both nations.
I came across it via Facebook; one of my connections is a friend of the author and had added a review. As a Hull lad I was intrigued. Born in the city, I left at age five, returned to the environs from seven to age sixteen and later worked there in a few different jobs.
Linda Swift’s account of her adventures and experiences in both the city and many of the best-known tourist spots in the UK is delivered with great humour. She displays a sort of reluctant tolerance of attitudes and customs she views as alien. There’s nothing judgmental, but she expresses some disappointment and surprise at the way things differ from her own country. This is a lovely illustration of the different priorities of the two nations. As an example, it’s clear US concern for energy saving is nowhere near that expressed by most Brits. And size is often an issue. But all Brits ‘know’ Americans must have everything ‘bigger’.
There are some amusing linguistic misunderstandings and even two years in the country haven’t stopped the author misnaming certain items: she refers to churches and minsters in some places as ‘cathedrals’, some towns are ‘villages’. There’s also some small evidence that her leg has been pulled by some English folk. It’s a habit we have as a way of getting the better of our ‘colonial’ cousins!
But it’s the warmth of her delivery, the humour and the candid approach that most attracts in this epistolary account of interaction with a new culture. Linda and her husband, Bob, are clearly comfortably-off and seem almost obsessed with buying things. Shops and products feature strongly in the narrative. Travel is also a constant element as the author individually, or with her husband, visits many tourist sites, regularly crosses the Atlantic as if it were the Channel, and generally buses and drives over much of the UK and parts of Europe. The schedule is quite wearying! But she faces all the many challenges with fortitude and good humour. There’s a charming surprise shown in her reactions to some of the more beneficial and quality aspects of British life.
This is a woman used to a certain lifestyle, provided by a husband in a high-powered job. Although she clearly made friends with English people of limited means, there’s never any crowing over or condemnation of their relatively limited lifestyles, which is a pleasant surprise in light of many Brits’ experience of touring Americans. (I’ll never forget the couple we met in Paris who were unbearably, and loudly, self-important and condemnatory of everything that failed to match their experience of their homeland.) But Linda is generous of spirit and gracious in her descriptions of a way of life that must at times have been baffling. She does this without falling into the trap of condescension or criticism, which makes the whole reading experience more enjoyable to a UK native.
For those Brits whose only experience of US life and attitudes stems from their trip to Florida, or relates to contact with American tourists here in UK, this is a book that shows the other side of the coin. And for those many Americans who’ve never left their extensive shores, this book will provide insights into the lives of those of us who dwell in the land from whence your mother tongue and much of your history arose. Enjoy it. I did!