Ford column: Cultural education starts on page 3

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 1, 2009

Breasts are no big deal in England.
I discovered this on our first day here in Rickmansworth, a small town 17 miles from London. Visiting my aunt and uncle and their family for the holidays, the kids and I walked to a typical English bakery for lunch.
We entered the tiny shop to find a display case overflowing with delectable pastries and breads. A platter of “American cupcakes” was prominently displayed, as exotic to British kids as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
A steep, wooden staircase led to a quaint second floor. The tables and chairs were so close together, I couldn’t help but notice when the elderly lady next to me opened her newspaper.
Page 3 featured a topless woman. I directed the kids’ attention to a window on the other side of the room.
I learned that there’s always a topless woman on page 3 of the Sun, the best-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom. (The Daily Telegraph distinguishes itself from the Sun with the claim, “Britain’s best-selling quality daily.”)
Breasts on playing cards, cigarette lighters and magazines greet us at nearly every gas station counter. Brits still must go inside to pay for their petrol, rather than swiping a card at the pump.
In general, Brits seem less uptight about many things. The attitude is refreshing, although I still didn’t want my kids eyeballing the page 3 girl.
Some Brits have a less tolerant view of children than nudity, however. The people we’ve encountered on the narrow sidewalks have little patience for our brood, and we quickly learned that pedestrians are just another obstacle for vehicles racing along crowded streets.
While all the pubs we’ve frequented welcome dogs, several ban children.
London’s subway system has been a fast and easy way to travel. Before boarding the tube, I repeat the mantra for our two-week visit, “Don’t be an obnoxious American.” The kids have obliged, mostly.
We toured London not by double-decker bus but by Duck Boat, an amphibious World War II craft upfitted for modern use. Painted yellow and manned by quacking tour guides, the Duck Boat chugged past Parliament and Westminster Abbey, then drove right into the Thames for a leisurely if white-knuckled ride on the river.
We spent Christmas Eve at a pantomime, a British holiday tradition. Called “panto,” these hilarious farces are based on children’s tales and feature singing, slapstick, cross-dressing and plenty of double entendre, some of which was lost on us.
In “Aladdin,” a character called the Widow Twankey, played by a man, spent much of the production lifting her skirts to reveal colorful bloomers, at which point we had to yell “big pants!”
We booed the despicable villain, warned the characters of danger lurking behind them and caught “sweets” thrown from the stage. We tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid the spray from a huge squirt gun during an extraordinarily silly version of the “12 Days of Christmas,” which featured two rounded, plastic figgy puddings topped with cherries.
The Widow Twankey knew just what to do with those. But I still don’t think she’ll make it as a page 3 girl.
Emily Ford covers the N.C. Research Campus.