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4 November, 2004

National self-image

Growing up in North East Wales in the 1970s and 80s, the very historical walled city of Chester was only about seven miles (12km) away: a regional centre of Roman Britannia subsequently featuring the internationally famous double-decker mediaeval streets, the Rows.  American tourists were a common and distinctive sight: large people with loud shirts and voices, dressed inappropriately for the climate and confidently bewildered by their surroundings.  A stereotype, of course, and outdated (Chester's not so picturesque nowadays, either, dominated by pub/clubs and generic chain stores, and begging was a problem in the 90s), yet the same stereotyping seems valid the other way round, too: in New York, the Brit tourists are the slobs.

Perhaps it's a fashion thing, with current UK trends favouring ill-fitting, slightly trashy clothes (when will fashion abandon hipsters with visible thongs, a concept flattering literally no-one?), whereas current New York daily wear is markedly more elegant. Perhaps there's an element of familiarity breeding contempt. Well-dressed Americans and other Europeans seem somewhat 'exotic' to me (an overstatement, but I'm tired, so it'll have to do) whereas football shirts and tracksuit bottoms convey a certain negative connotation. Whatever the reasons, the effect is to suggest Brits abroad have negligible pride in their (our?) appearence.

Okay, I knowingly dress down for work, since I cycle-commute in an erratic climate and don't have a public-facing role, so can remain in (relative) scruffs all day, and I don't always bother to change when heading back out to a cinema or pub. However, I never wear jeans or trainers (any sportswear at all, in a non-sporting context, in fact) and if I'm visiting somewhere on foot, particularly with the always-impeccable Helen, a 10-year-old bike jacket and combats (never jeans; I just don't wear them) just wouldn't suffice. Sorry to sound prissy, but one simply has to make some effort.

In a way, I can understand the reasoning that one should wear comfortable clothes which are bound to become a little disheveled and sweaty wandering around a large city or particularly during cattle-class air travel, and one might be reluctant to appear too affluent in potentially impoverished neighbourhoods, but there is a middle-ground. The concept of "no-one knows me, it doesn't matter" is poor reasoning, disrespectful of the host nation and inviting disrespect. It can also be counter-productive: on the overbooked return flight from New York, the slightly smarter couple received an upgrade to business class (and very nice it was, too), whereas other 'obvious Brit' couples/families didn't even get adjacent seats.

C'mon, folks - it's an embarrassment!

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