Education / Schools, Food, In-House Counsel, Travel / Vacation, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Inside Straight: A Native’s View Of London

I’ve been living in London for almost three months now, so it’s time to declare myself a native. What do natives know about the City?

First: Dryer technology is apparently too tricky for this country. Listen, chaps: A dryer is supposed to dry your clothes.

These folks don’t get it. They’ve invented a washer/dryer thingy: You put your clothes in the machine, press some buttons, and the machine washes your clothes. Without moving your clothes, you then push some more buttons, and the machine spins and makes some noise. At the end of the so-called “dry cycle,” you remove your clothes from the washer/dryer thingy and hang your clothes in the living room to dry.

The United Kingdom is one of eight countries in the world that has successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, but these boys can’t crack dryer technology? What’s up with that?

Hey, maybe that’s an answer! Nuke the friggin’ clothes! They might come out a tad radioactive, but at least they’d be dry, and they wouldn’t be hanging in my living room. Or maybe you could import some dryers from the United States: We’ve got a bunch that work, and we could use the export business.

But dryers are the least of it . . . .

The Brits have incorporated a spectacularly bad idea into their traffic lights. In the United States, you sit at a red light. The light turns green, and you notice the change and then pull into the intersection. There’s naturally a slight delay between when the light turns green and when you start to move, because you must first notice that the light has changed and then step on the accelerator.

The Brits have cleverly decided to eliminate that slight delay. They think it’s good for drivers to anticipate the coming green light and pull into the intersection the instant the green appears. So — I kid you not — traffic signals here go from (1) red to (2) red and yellow both at the same time to (3) green. This lets drivers anticipate the coming green light, so there’s not a nanosecond of delay after the green before cars enter the intersection. You’ve naturally always got some clowns running yellow lights before they turn red; here, they’ve affirmatively chosen to enable clowns on the other side of the intersection to run the red/yellow before the light turns green.

Maybe they wear wet clothes to soak up more blood after the accidents.

But enough about technology; what about food?

I’m a pretty adventurous eater. I have, for example, recently tried haggis. “As the 2001 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique (affiliate link) puts it, ‘Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour.'” That Larouse Gastronomique is so much more tactful than I am: “Not immediately appealing” is an almost perfect euphemism. Haggis doesn’t taste too bad, but there’s just no way anyone would eat the stuff if they knew what it was made from.

As the next step in my adventurous eating, I went to a restaurant and ordered some aubergine. I figured maybe that was some other variety of haggis. But the waiter must have misunderstood: He brought me eggplant. Same deal when I ordered courgette, which I figured might be some kind of stew: The waiter brought me zucchini.

The most dangerous words, of course, are not those (like aubergine and courgette) that you don’t recognize. The dangerous words are the ones that you think you do recognize, but you’re mistaken, so you mentally assign the wrong meaning to the words. For example, in the United States, the “first” floor of a building is the first floor; it’s the floor at street level. In the United Kingdom, that puppy is called the “ground” floor; the “first” floor sits one above it. I’d be outraged if I signed an exorbitantly expensive lease for retail space on the first floor of a building and only later learned that my property wasn’t even at street level.

Or how about “public” schools? In the U.S., those are the free schools that are paid for by the government. In the U.K., “public” schools refers to the private schools!? “State” schools are the free schools paid for by the government, and “public” schools are the schools that members of the public can attend if they’re willing to pay for tuition, room, and board.

To my eye, it’s way too dangerous to have English words that mean different things to different English-speaking people; that could cause real confusion. So here’s my solution: We’ll resolve this by letting our leaders arm wrestle. We’ll set Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth at a table. They’ll arm wrestle over each word: “first,” “public,” and maybe even “aubergine/eggplant” and “courgette/zucchini,” too. If the Prez wins, everyone will use the American formulations; if Her Majesty wins, we’ll use the Brits’ words. (Note to New Yorkers only: Don’t worry, guys! I’m giving us a 51-year-old man, and I’m giving them an 86-year-old woman. I don’t think those Brits will notice that I’ve rigged the game, and it’ll be eggplant forever!)

Now that I’m a native Londoner, I’m thinking about legal issues, too. I just may return to them in my next column.

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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