Xenophobe's® Guides: Deciphering British systems
It is considered polite to arrive a few minutes after the appointed time, although English transport will probably ensure that you do anyhow.
Xenophobe's® Guides: A book series that highlights the unique character and behaviour of different nations with insight and humour.
Tradition governs almost everything the English do. And when it comes to the systems by which the country is run, English traditions are at their most enduring.
It is a tradition that trains generally do not run on time unless the passenger is two minutes late. It is also a tradition that, although the price of railway travel is infinitely variable, concessionary rates are only available at times or days other than those on which one wishes to travel.
But with all its inadequacies, the English railway system is one facet of the English life that is imbued with more than its fair share of English sentiment. Anoraked train spotters, those archetypal eccentrics, still abound. Deep in the English psyche there is still a vague memory of a golden age of railway travel when E.Nesbit's Railway Children waved their petticoats at the train driver, thus averting disaster.
English urban buses travel in convoys so as to ensure that passengers wait as long as possible at the bus stops. Then, just before fighting breaks out among the waiting hordes, three or four buses sporting the same number will heave into view. It is always a feast or a famine.
Whatever transport you choose you will find that, in England, you are nearly always late. This is because, contrary to popular belief, the English are not punctual by nature. It is considered polite to arrive a few minutes after the appointed time. English transport will probably ensure that you do anyhow. It's all part of the system.
The open road
Cars are among the favourite status symbols of the English. Consequently there are far too many of them on English roads, as any driver will tell you.
Almost every English man and woman over the age of 17 either owns or has access to a car and uses it often. This leads to enormous traffic and parking problems in towns and to terminal motorway congestion. But the English are undeterred even if they often spend whole bank holidays in their cars in traffic jams.
Observant foreigners are quick to spot that the English, unlike other people in the world, drive on the left – a habit they often find hard to kick when driving abroad. Driving on the left is traditional and therefore, to the English, indisputably right.
By and large, the English are well-behaved on the roads. They use their horns sparingly and give way to each other at crossroads.
Punctilious in their observation of traffic signs, they will wait for ever at traffic-light-controlled pedestrian crossings even if there are no pedestrians in sight. If there are any, they screech to a halt and wait patiently for them to cross the road. This comes as a surprise to foreigners who are used to crossing themselves on the pavement before running like hares across the highway.
A good education
For English children whose parents can afford it, school often means a public (which really means private) school and frequently means boarding. The English approve of boarding schools. They believe that children develop better away from home. Although there are some mixed public schools, many are single-sex establishments, where pupils have the opportunity of experiencing some aspects of the monastic or prison existence at an early stage in their lives.
The alternative is the State system with its free public (which really means public) day schools. But whether state or private, the emphasis is still on 'a good education', for the feeling is that life and all its glories will thereafter be yours for the asking.
It all comes down to tradition, like so many things in the English way of life, and traditionally 'you get what you pay for'. The implication is clear. If you are not paying, you are not getting much.
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