The wonderful weirdness that is Great Britain

MorrisAfter explaining Guy Fawkes night at length for the eleventy millionth time, I got to thinking about the other things which I took for granted growing up the UK. By the time I had 16 things on paper I figure it was time for a post. I mean, I’m both American and British now, but some of the things I took (take) as ‘normal’ seem downright bizarre these days. Bizarre, but still make me smile indulgently when they cross my mind.

1. We grew up fearing the TV license detector van

The UK is famous for only have three basic channels until about 16 years ago, and even now I think they’re up to about 5. Of course there is cable, but a large majority of the population stick with their 5. Well, they paid for them.

You see in the UK you pay to watch TV, even if you don’t have cable. Every year you pop along to your post office and spend $120 on a ‘TV license’. Yes, you need a license to watch TV… all 5 channels of it.This money goes to the BBC to fund programming instead of ad sales so while it sounds ridiculous, it does mean you get to watch TV without being bombarded with Ford Truck Month ads or the latest anti-depressant medication.

But how do they monitor your compliance if its not cable?

You guessed it – the TV license detector van.

Unmarked white vans were supposedly trafficking your area looking for those who weren’t ‘licensed’ to turn on their TV. (I am NOT kidding). How they detected your non compliance with their magic technology I have no idea (since most people still used aerials/ bunny ears up until 2007)… but man, the fear of being caught out makes most people renew year after year. And yes, they’re still doing it.

2. …and the annual MOT

Along with your annual trip for your TV license, every Brit has to get their vehicle ‘tested’ every year. Just like America right? Actually no. Not for us the emissions test and 2 hour wait for a new sticker.. oh no. In the UK you don’t get your sticker without an actual Motor Vehicle Test of road worthiness. As in… do all the parts work? Yes, if your tires are bald, your fan belt dicky or your exhaust a bit blowy you don’t get to pass, and no sticker for you.

Can you imagine????

And you get to pay for the MOT inspection, which if you fail, you get to retake (after fixing everything), and repay for UNTIL you pass. Rad…and suddenly that 2 hour wait at the DMV looking not such a hassle now is it?

3. Men dance in the streets wearing bells and streamers

Aw this one is a doozy. And I can’t think of an American equivalent to even start from.

Imagine a man all dressed in white, wearing knee high socks with bells strapped around his knees.  He’s also got gaters on his arms with more bells, and he’s also wearing a bowler type hat with flowers on the brim. Oh, and he’s carrying a tambourine resplendent with streamers and more bells, perhaps a handkerchief,

No, he’s not a Moonie. Its not Gay Pride week. He’s a Morris dancer.

An ancient folk dancing tradition from the 15th century, Morris Dancers are always men, typically perform in the town square or at a local fete/ fair, and basically dance around to a fiddle or a pipe. There’s lots of stepping, waving of handkerchiefs, banging of tambourines and shouting of ‘Hey’. Beards predominate. Morris dancing is actually a competitive sport in the UK and there’s different flavors based on the location from where the tradition evolved; some dance around swords, other dance around with sticks.. but they’re all dancin’. Solemnly skipping and hopping, stepping and waving shit. Its bizarre, its traditional and no-one bats an eye. It certainly isn’t consider effete (it takes some serious man balls to walk around with bells on your shoes) and in most rural or semi rural towns, there are displays in the middle of town throughout the summer.  Sure America has NASCAR and Ultimate fighting, but it doesn’t have Morris.

4. Healthcare is free but slow

Everyone has heard the good, bad and the ugly about the British healthcare system (NHS). Sure you might have to wait 3 months for an MRI or 6 weeks for an xray.. but its free. Gratis. For everyone. My mother just had a battery of high tech tests that would set your average American back $$$$ in just copays over a period of 8 weeks. Sure at your average American hospital they’d have been done in a week. But in the UK, all free. Her friend was just diagnosed with cancer and underwent extensive, cutting edge chemo, radiation and surgery. Free.

Now there is a down side. Drugs are not free. No siree. They cost $5.95.

All of them.

Need some generic Xanax? $5.95.

How about some brand label Coumdin or Lexapro $5.95

Your drugs for chemo? $5.95

Socialism sucks doesn’t it?

Now when Brits visit the US, they’re very impressed by the speed of the action, the high tech glossiness of our hospitals, and the pretty scrubs that everyone gets to wear. But mention that you have to pay for this joy every month? And co-pays for every doctor visit, ER visit or ambulance ride?  And a deductible? And your prescriptions might run you $50 or $75 per drug? Mouths drop. My mother questions whether this another one of ‘over exaggerations’.

The NHS is weird (how it keeps going is beyond my comprehension) and the service it provides isn’t optimal (they’ll save your life, but they’ll take their own damn time about it). But having just paid off a CAT scan from 2005 ($3,200 thank you)… well I know which I’d prefer.

5. Getting married is slooooow

Lets say you finally muster up the courage to ask, she says yes and you decide that you can’t wait to get married.. you want to do it ‘right now’. In the US, we automatically think ‘Vegas’.. but in the UK, for your marriage to be legal, you face a 12 hour flight or..well… a bit of a wait.

You see, in the UK you need to register your marriage before you do it. Like 2 weeks before. No exceptions. And you can only register once you can provide local residence (aka within your county) for at least 7 days. No problem if you’re British… kind of a bummer if you’re visiting or moved recently. So… sit yourself down buddy.. you’re in for a bit of a wait (better hope she doesn’t change her mind either, cos if you move the date, you have to register again, and wait another 2 weeks). Oh.. and once you’re registered, you have 16 days to get married or its void. Countdown started!!!!!!

Thinking about a romantic dawn ceremony or a evening candle light procession? So dreadfully sorry. You can’t get married outside of the hours of 8am and 6pm if its a religious ceremony. People have shit to do after all and we’re British… the pub is open.

Fancy a church wedding? Well cool your heels…In the UK, you need to have your wedding ‘banns’ read out during a church service to let everyone know you’re getting married.

No biggy? Let me finish… You must have your banns read out in church for three Sundays during the three months before the wedding. That’s at least another 3 weeks of waiting then…That 12 hour flight to Vegas is suddenly looking a lot closer isn’t it?

But don’t worry.. getting divorced is even harder!


So next time you’re thinking about how much your cable bill is, how much hassle that emissions test is or how the new  Affordable Healthcare Act is a such a bummer.. consider the weird and wonderful world that is Great Britain.

We’re not #1, we’re not even in the top 10, but we like it that way. Anything else is just showing off.

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