Winks' Britain
An American's View Of Britain In The Early 1970s
I was recently given a book entitled An American Guide To Britain, written by Robin W. Winks in the early 1970s. The first part of the book is an introduction to the British way of life for the American visitor, to put him at ease 'when faced with the strange habits of a foreign country'. You don't have to dip far into the book before realising that Robin Winks, a self confessed anglophile, has a remarkable eye for British foibles, and his astute observations are enlightening, funny, and a poignant reminder of life in Britain the early 1970s.

When staying in a country hotel, the American reader is advised…'at all times one is quiet -really quiet. No loud noises or conversation at the breakfast or dinning table…when entering it is expected you will return to the same table previously occupied… say a discrete, 'good morning' to the carpet or chandelier and otherwise keep your voice down. The British are using these moments to order their thoughts. At breakfast, taking your newspaper to the table helps provide a means of getting through those silences which Americans find embarrassing… Above all, remember that meals are served at prescribed hours. If you arrive for lunch at 2.30, and lunch 'went off' at 2.00, you will not get served'.


Robin Winks was a Professor of History at Yale University,
and prize winning travel writer.br />
Between 1969-71 he served as a cultural attaché  to the American Embassy in London. 
Robin Winks lived in Britain for two years, working at the American Embassy in London. He enjoyed driving, and admired the picturesque countryside, which he explored extensively. Drawing from experience he explains to the American tourist…'The British love to drive…and provide a landscape which is exceptionally lovely from the road. Roads in Britain, while narrow are well marked and safe, and outside of the major cities at least, no more crowded than at home'… He further comments on driving at night …'in a large city, such as London, most cars will drive with their parking lights on at night, and without headlamps, even when dimmed. This seems a little mysterious, even romantic at first, as though all those cars are hurrying to a secret rendezvous and did not wish to attract attention to themselves…the British do not like noise, and they use the horn infrequently… they give way at roundabouts to all traffic from the right, and they keep the traffic flow moving, even in London, so that traffic-jams like those experienced daily by New Yorkers seldom occur.'
Travelling by rail… 'Rail travel in Britain is particularly pleasant. Although the British complain incessantly of the service given them by their nationalised railroad, they have little to complain about… in over a hundred journeys, only twice was I more than ten minutes late… you are not required to speak to other people, and may observe a discrete silence, and content yourself with contemplating the passing countryside…If you value your sanity, and perhaps your life, avoid at all costs so-called 'football specials'.
The American Guide To Britain describes the British Underground as being the best in the world. Winks writes, 'I have ridden them in dozens of cities. Some (Montreal) are cleaner, and some (Hamburg) are faster, and some (Lisbon) are cheaper. But none are so much fun, so efficiently organised, or well marked. Usually you will descent by escalator. Keep to the right… study the suggestive and even happily indecent advertisements for lingerie that abound in the Underground'.
When it comes to using the phone…British etiquette on the telephone is courteous but terse, and is sometimes taken by Americans as rude. Ring a shop to ask whether they have product X and if the answer is 'No' they will say so and immediately hang up… In private homes you may see a small box or cup near the telephone. This is meant for your quiet deposit of the cost of the call, leave 10p when in doubt.
Robin Winks gives clear guidance to the American tourist on how to make themselves understood… 'The British may call you a Yankee even though you may be from Georgia. Don't be offended and don't waste your breath explaining it. In turn, don't call the English Limeys. Or the Scots Scotch. The waitress may call you 'luv' or 'ducks' or 'dear. She is not propositioning you, and not even being friendly. Do not reply in kind'.
On food and drink, the American Guide To Britain explains to its readers… 'Food in Britain was bad in the 1950s, but since then a stream of foreigners have come into the country to give it the most cosmopolitan air of any in Europe… It is still true that a really good British meal- of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and crisp Brussels sprouts, for example is very difficult to find. The British overcook their vegetables, they are improving in their grasp of the green salad but still have a long way to go… The British are people of integrity. This also means they are inflexible. I once attempted to get a waitress to bring me an order of 'hamburger and egg with the egg left off, and she refused, since the menu did not list hamburger. The idea that I would pay the full price for half the dish shocked her so deeply; she never found our table again… British beer comes in both bottles and draught: the latter is more fun. The British consider our beer to be far too light and aerated: conversely, theirs strikes many Americans as too heavy, bitter, strong, and warm. The main species are Mild, Bitter, Stout, Lager, Brown Ale, and Pale Ale. The breweries make special brews and usually own the pubs, so that you'll find John Courage or Double Diamond abound.
The Guide is loaded general warnings. For example, Winks explains that the British work on military time, which means five minutes early... 'Trains scheduled to leave at 8.03 leave about 30 seconds before that'…When invited to dinner… 'If the invitation read 7.00 for 7.30, this means come at 7.00 if you want a drink, and that you'll be seated for 7.30, at which point do not expect to be given a drink to catch-up'. The Author further warns the American reader… 'The British consider 65deg. (18 deg C) an excellent indoor temperature… wear a sweater'.
An American Guide To Britain, which came my way by chance, opened a marvellous window through which we can look and laugh at ourselves. Anybody who lived through those times will recognise the British idiosyncrasies he lays bare. As to what extent we have changed over the subsequent 35 years? Well, that's up to the reader to decide. Robin Winks died in Connecticut in 2003.

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