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Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Tea and infamy

Britain rivals the US in violent crime. But the fact we have criminals at all seems to alarm some Americans.

Had he been watching CBS news a couple of nights ago, Tony Blair might have felt his mocked efforts to re-brand Britain as modern and diverse were not a total failure.

If only they hadn't got the spin so dreadfully wrong. Rather than focus on thrusting young artists and flamboyant chefs, the respected US broadcaster turned the spotlight on crime.

The report would probably have passed unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic but for the assertion that, in many ways, Britain is a more violent society than America.
Helena Bonham Carter
English rose and a Merchant Ivory favourite: Helena Bonham Carter

For a government pledged to cutting crime, it was a major embarrassment. Home Office minister Charles Clarke rubbished the report as "absolute nonsense" and blamed incompatible crime figures.

Yet from the tone of the report, the findings must have come as a double whammy to many Americans, who would have been shocked to hear the UK suffers much crime at all.

Reporting from London, veteran CBS journalist Tom Fenton referred to perceptions of Britain as a "green and pleasant land" and a "civilised country free from crime and ugliness".

Nave? At least one other American journalist in London believes his country has a remarkably rose-tinted view of Britain.

The British are so easy to please. They like their pleasures small ... scones, crumpets, rockcakes ...

Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island

"Most Americans who would be inclined to come to Britain for tourism would do so with the preconception that old fashioned courtesies still survive," says Michael Goldfarb, senior correspondent with Boston radio station WBUR.

"We see these Merchant Ivory films, and the Wimbledon coverage is always skewed towards how polite everyone is to each other.

"Most Americans have no idea that London is a modern and multi-ethnic city with all the attendant problems that that implies."

Mr Goldfarb has first-hand experience of modern life in London - his Stoke Newington home was burgled four times in the early 1990s.

Even Britons' reputation for fair play and being "good sports" has a more malicious side, he says.
Lawrence Dallaglio and Jonah Lomu
Gentlemanly conduct? England and New Zealand on the rugby field

"There is a very rough side to the English bloke. If you stop and think about the game of rugby it is the most brutal game. If a society is essentially genteel their upper classes are not going to invent a game that violent."

To an extent, Americans' misconceptions are down to the tourism industry. To those from the New World, heritage is Britain's stock in trade.

For example, one of the US's biggest tour operators, Liberty Travel, sells Great Britain as "a country known for its civility and pomp".

"Old World charm is the order of the day in quaint villages, on hilltops ruled by gray castles and in London, where the royals make their home at Buckingham Palace," says the operator's on-line brochure.

However, it does go on to mention London's "multitude of cultural offerings".
Scots Guards parade at Trooping of the Colour
Postcard Britain: What the tourists see

Tom Reid, London correspondent for the Washington Post, freely admits his initial image of England owed a great deal to "olde world" charm.

"I thought of Britain as a 19th Century country. I imagined big, old gothic churches, castles and palaces. I found it to be so modern and hi-tech."

Although Mr Reid is reluctant to generalise about the feelings of his 270 million countrymen, he says Britain's colonial past has earned it plenty of enemies.

"There are 44 million Americans of Irish descent and they have been raised to hate Britain. They learn about the British as brutal colonisers who stole a country and deprived its people of their religion."

Mr Goldfarb says misconceptions travel both ways across the Atlantic. Plenty of Britons view the United States as a hostile and crime-ravaged country because of films by the likes of Martin Scorsese and John Woo.

"There's only one truth here," he says. "Don't believe what you see in the movies."

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08 May 00 | Americas
US crime rate falls again
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