Random musings of a composer in London
I have been struggling, since I became part of England’s green and pleasant land, to define what that je ne sais quoi is about this place that sets it apart from everywhere else. How is it that despite being a resident here for only ten years, I already feel so at home in and proud of this country that I will defend it as if it were my own birthplace. At first I thought the answer was that there are other places in Europe and elsewhere around the world that are duller, less successful or less engaging overall, therefore making England superior by comparison.
But the trouble with that explanation is that no matter what aspects of English life you focus on, you can also find plenty of other nations that are far more accomplished at them: More spectacular scenery; better sunshine; bigger houses; more picturesque villages and more emotive people. England didn’t invent Italian cuisine, we don’t excel at American luxury, our people didn’t give birth to epic German composers and we don’t conduct our lives with flamboyant French flair. The weather is somewhat uninspiring, we regularly lose at all of the sports which we invented, and our most famous creations are a style of breakfast, a bascule bridge and a small car.
And yet despite all this, I am still inexplicably drawn to this country, even though it doesn’t appear to do quite as well as anyone else at anything whatsoever. And I am not alone. People all over the world have attempted to artificially inject the “English feel” into everything from houses and country clubs to cars, literature and movies, even though it nearly always falls short of the real thing. For such a small island, our influence over modern culture is phenomenal.
So what is it then that England offers, which no other location in the world can lay claim to? Well, I think I may finally have come up with the answer:
England does Nice better than anyone else.
Now bear with me here, because that doesn’t sound like the type of gushing compliment fitting of a land so unique that the entire world has failed to replicate it. In fact if you ask most creative writers (especially English ones) they will probably tell you that the word Nice is banned from their vocabularies altogether. They associate it with plain, bland and hum-drum. “Nice” has become synonymous with “meh”.
But the thing about Nice is that in reality, despite it’s unfortunate overuse leading to writers spitting at it whilst brandishing a cross at arm’s length, it is actually the most concise way to describe our most comfortable state of being. Nice is a perfect cup of tea after a long day at work, it’s curling up in a warm bed on a frosty night, it’s a tumbler of amber scotch in front of a crackling fire under ancient oak beams, or a landscape of rolling green meadows stitched with stone walls and peppered with white sheep. When you meet the neighbors down the street with a cheery hello, or you finish the last piece of bacon on your plate in a good breakfast café, the only way to describe your unrivalled contentment in that exact moment, in a single syllable, is with the word “nice”.
As of yet, I have failed to discover anywhere else where the word Nice is more appropriate, more of the time, than in England. The weather is neither extremely hot nor extremely cold – it’s nice. The people are neither crazily flamboyant nor completely unappealing – they’re nice. The landscape is neither incredibly breathtaking nor completely featureless – it’s nice. The lack of annoying insects is nice, the plants we grow in our English country gardens are nice, our dry sense of humour is nice and a pint of best bitter is of course very nice indeed!
And the point is that although we may like to titillate our senses with the extremes of spectacular scenery, radiant sunshine or day-glow culture, this places us out of our normal comfort zone. When Brits head off on holiday, we might ooh and aah over the features of other lands, but when we get home afterwards and put the kettle on, we can’t deny how satisfying it is to sink into our normal sofas with a normal mug of tea and a normal newspaper.
Like a comfortable old sweater or a well-worn record, England excels most at that infinitely subtle art, not of being extreme, but of being extremely nice.