London is the largest city in Europe
Cultural life of London
The characteristics of British arts and letters
Theatre and cinema
The fine arts
Museums of London
Parks of London
Two thousand years ago there was an Iron Age Celtic culture throughout
the British Isles. It seems that the Celts, who had been arriving from
Europe from the eighth century BC onwards, intermingled with the peoples
who were already there. We know that religious sites that had been built
long before the arrival of the Celts continued to be used in the Celtic
For people in Britain today, the chief significance of the prehistoric
period is its sense of mystery. This sense finds its focus most easily
in the astonishing monumental – architecture of this period, the remains
of which exist throughout the country. Wiltshire, in south-western
England, has two spectacular examples: Silbury Hill, the largest burial
mound in Europe, and Stonehenge. Such places have a special importance
for anyone interested in the cultural and religious practices of
prehistoric Britain. We know very little about these practices, but
there are some organizations today who base their beliefs on them.
London is the largest city in Europe
London dominates Britain. It is home for the headquarters of all
government departments. Parliament, the major legal institutions and the
monarch. It is the country’s business and banking centre and the centre
of its transport network. It contains the headquarters of the national
television networks and of all the national newspapers. It is about
seven times larger than any other city in the country. About a fifth of
the total population of the UK lives in the Greater London area.
The original walled city of London was quite small. It did not contain
Parliament or the royal court, since this would have interfered with the
autonomy of the merchants and traders who lived and worked there. It was
in Westminster, another ‘city’ outside London’s walls, that these
national institutions met. Today, both ‘cities’ are just two areas of
central London. The square mile is home to the country’s main financial
organizations, the territory of the stereotypical English ‘city gent’.
During the daytime, nearly a million people work there, but less than
8000 people actually live there.
Two other well-known areas of London are the West End and the East End.
The former is known for its many theatres, cinemas and expensive shops.
The latter is known as the poorer residential area of central London. It
is the home of the Cockney and in this century large numbers of
immigrants have settled there.
There are many other parts of central London which have their own
distinctive characters, and central London itself makes up only a very
small part of Greater London. In common with many other European cities,
the population in the central area has decreased in the second half of
the twentieth century. The majority of Londoners’ live in its suburbs,
millions of them travelling into the centre each day to work. These
suburbs cover a vast area of land.
Like many large cities, London is in some ways untypical of the rest of
the country in that it is so cosmopolitan. Although all of Britain’s
cities have some degree of cultural and racial variety, the variety is
by far the greatest in London. A survey carried out in the 1980’s found
that 37 different languages were spoken in the homes of just one
In recent years it has been claimed that London is in decline. It is
losing its place as one of the world s biggest financial centres and, in
comparison with many other western European cities, it looks rather
dirty and neglected. Nevertheless, its popularity as a tourist
destination is still growing. And it is not only tourists who like
visiting London – the readers of Business Traveller magazine often vote
it their favourite city in the world in which to do business. This
popularity is probably the result of its combination of apparently
infinite cultural variety and a long history which has left many visible
signs of its richness and drama.
Cultural life of London
One cannot learn or teach a language well without coming into contact
with the cultural content. It is common knowledge that every country has
its own national culture and heritage. So has Great Britain. This
English speaking country is famous for great painters and artists,
architects and composers, brilliant playwrights and poets, actors and
writers. Such names as Christopher Wren, William Shakespeare, Bernard
Shaw, Benjamin Britten, Turner and Gainsborough are well known all over
The centre of cultural life in Britain is London, of course. If you stay
in London for a few days, you will have no difficulty to find where to
spend an evening. You will find opera, comedy, drama, variety to your
taste. Some of the best known theatres in England are: the Royal Opera
House, Royal Shakespeare theatre, Old Vic and others.
The characteristics of British arts and letters
If there is one characteristic of British work in the arts that seems to
stand out, it is its lack of identification with wider intellectual
trends. It is not usually ideologically committed, nor associated with
particular political movements. Playwrights and directors, for instance,
can be left-wing in their political outlook, but the plays which they
produce rarely convey a straightforward political message. The same is
largely true of British novelists and poets. Their writing is typically
naturalistic and is not connected with particular intellectual
movements. They tend to be individualistic, exploring emotions rather
than ideas, the personal rather than the political. Whatever the critics
say, it is quite common for British playwrights and novelists to claim
that they just record ‘what they see’ and that they do not consciously
intend any social or symbolic message. Similarly, British work in the
arts also tends to be individualistic within its own field. That is,
artists do not usually consider themselves to belong to this or that’
movement’. In any field of the arts, even those in which British artists
have strong international reputations, it is difficult to identify a
The style of the arts also tends to be conventional. The avant-garde
exists, of course, but, with the possible exception of painting and
sculpture, it is not through such work that British artists become
famous. In the 1980’s, Peter Brook was a highly successful theatre
director. But when he occasionally directed avant-garde productions, he
staged them in Paris!
In these features of the work of British artists, it is perhaps possible
to find an explanation for the apparent contradiction between, on the
one hand, the low level of public support for the arts and, on the other
hand, the high level of enthusiasm on the part of individuals. There
appears to be a general assumption in Britain that artistic creation is
a personal affair, not a social one, and that therefore the flowering of
artistic talent cannot be engineered. Either it happens, or it doesn’t.
It is not something for which society should feel responsible.
Theatre and cinema
The theatre has always been very strong in Britain. Its centre is, of
course, London, where successful plays can sometimes run without a break
for many years. But every large town in the country has its theatres.
Even small towns often have ‘repertory’ theatres, where different plays
are performed for short periods by the same group of professional
It seems that the conventional format of the theatrical play gives the
undemonstrative British people a safe opportunity to look behind the
mask of accepted social behaviour. The country’s most successful and
respected playwrights are usually those who explore the darker side of
the personality and of personal relationships.
British theatre has such a fine acting tradition that Hollywood is
forever raiding its talent for people to star in films. British
television does the same thing. Moreover, Broadway, when looking for its
next blockbuster musical, pays close attention to London productions. In
short, British theatre is much admired. As a consequence, it is
something that British actors are proud of. Many of the most well-known
television actors, though they might make most of their money in this
latter medium, continue to see themselves as first and foremost theatre
In contrast, the cinema in Britain is often regarded as not quite part
of ‘the arts’ at all – it is simply entertainment. Partly for this
reason, Britain is unique among the large European countries in giving
almost no financial help to its film industry. Therefore, although
cinema-going is a regular habit for a much larger number of people than
is theatre-going, British film directors often have to go to Hollywood
because the resources they need are not available in Britain. As a
result, comparatively few films of quality are made in the country. This
is not because expertise in film making does not exist. It does.
American productions often use studios and technical facilities in
Britain. Moreover, some of the films which Britain does manage to make
become highly respected around the world. But even these films often
make a financial loss.
There are many cinemas and cinema clubs in London. Some cinemas show
lots of comedies and long epic films. Other cinemas show a large number
of continental films or films for young people.
If you want to know which films are on, there are many publications to
help you. Any daily newspaper will have a short list of films and shows.
One of the newspapers which is on sale in the middle of the day, gives
you the best list of films and the time they begin.
Some cinemas show films in the afternoon, early evening and late
evening. Others have continuous programmes from about two o’clock in the
Classical music in Britain is a minority interest. Few classical
musicians, whether British or foreign, become well known to the general
public. When they do, it is usually because of circumstances which have
nothing to do with their music. For example, the Italian tenor Pavarotti
became famous in the country when an aria sung by him was used by the
BBC to introduce its 1990 football World Cup coverage. Despite this low
profile, thousands of British people are dedicated musicians and many
public libraries have a well-stocked music section. Several British
orchestras, soloists, singers, choirs, opera companies and ballet
companies, and also certain annual musical events, have international
In the 1960’s, British artists had a great influence on the development
of music in the modern, or ‘pop’ idiom. The Beatles and other British
groups were responsible for several innovations which were then adopted
by popular musicians in the USA and the rest of the world. These
included the writing of words and music by the performers themselves,
and more active audience participation. The words of their songs also
helped to liberate the pop idiom from its former limitation to the
topics of love and teenage affection. Other British artists in groups
such as Pink Floyd and Cream played a major part in making the musical
structure of pop music similarly more sophisticated.
Since the 1960’s, popular music in Britain has been an enormous and
profitable industry. The Beatles were awarded the honour of MBE for
their services to British exports. Within Britain the total sales of the
various kinds of musical recording are more than 200 million every year
– and the vast majority of them are of popular music. Many worldwide
trends have come out of Britain and British ‘pop’ artists have been
active in attempting to cross the boundaries between popular music, folk
music and classical music.
And some more about music. London is a very musical capital. Every
evening you can see or hear opera, or classical music, ballet or rock
music. The Royal Opera House is famous all over the world for its
productions and singers, but seat prices are very high. There are three
concert halls near the National Theatre. In the summer, there are
sometimes one or two free open-air rock concerts in Hyde Park. An
audience of a quarter of a million people is a usual thing. Every
summer, from July to September, concerts are held in the Royal Albert
Hall, and you can buy tickets at all prices. Serious music-lovers stand
in the arena or in the top gallery, but you do not to stand because
there are plenty of seats.
The largest provincial centres also have orchestras which give regular
concerts. All these orchestras sometimes visit other places to give
Although the British are comparatively uninterested in formal education,
and although they watch a lot of television, they are nonetheless
Many people in the literary world say that British literature at the end
of the twentieth century has lost its way. The last British author to
win the Nobel Prize for literature was William Golding, in 1983. Many
others disagree with this opinion. But what is not in doubt is that a
lot of the exciting new literature written in English and published in
Britain in recent years has been written by people from outside Britain.
The Booker Prize is the most important prize in Britain for a work of
fiction. Starting with Salman Rushdie in 1981, nine of its next fourteen
winners were writers from former British colonies such as Canada, India,
Ireland and Nigeria.
Although many of the best ‘serious’ British writers manage to be popular
as well as profound, the vast majority of the books that are read in
Britain could not be classified as ‘serious’ literature. Britain is the
home of what might be called ‘middlebrow’ literature. For example, the
distinctly British genre of detective fiction is regarded as
entertainment rather than literature – but it is entertainment for
intelligent readers. There are many British authors, mostly female, who
write novels which are sometimes classified as ‘romances’ but which are
actually deeper and more serious than that term often implies. They are
neither popular ‘blockbusters’ nor the sort of books which are reviewed
in the serious literary press. And yet they continue to be read, year
after year after year, by hundreds of thousands of people.
In 1993 more than half of the hundred most-borrowed books from Britain’s
public libraries were romantic novels. Many were of the middlebrow type.
The rest were more simplistic stories about romance. The British
publisher which sells more books than any other is Mills & Boon, whose
books are exclusively of this type.
It is more than 200 years since poetry stopped being the normal mode of
literary self-expression. And yet, poetry at the end of the twentieth
century is surprisingly, and increasingly, popular in Britain. Books of
poetry sell in comparatively large numbers. Their sales are not nearly
as large as sales of novels, but they are large enough for a few small
publishers to survive entirely on publishing poetry. Many poets are
asked to do readings of their work on radio and at arts festivals. Many
of these poets are not academics and their writing is accessible to
non-specialists. Perhaps the ‘pop’ idiom and the easy availability of
sound recording have made more people comfortable with spoken verse then
they were fifty years ago.
The fine arts
If you are fond of painting you can visit either the National Gallery or
the Tate Gallery.
The National Gallery is remarkable because all the great schools of
painting represent here: Italian, Dutch, Spanish, French etc. The
Gallery was founded in 1824 and many famous pictures of old masters were
brought to London for everybody to see and for the painters to get their
inspiration from. The truly British art of painting flourished. It
contains the greatest collection of pictures in Britain by brilliant
British painters such as Hogarth, Constable, Turner, Gainsborough,
Reynolds and others.
The Tate Gallery has a rich collection of British painting of all
periods too. It was set up by Henry Tate, a sugar manufacturer in 1897.
Henry Tate was a very rich man and collected paintings. Today one can
also see pictures of foreign painters of the 19th and 20th centuries
impressionists and post-impressionists in particular. There are About
three hundred oils and nineteen thousand water colours and drawings.
There are a lot of paintings by the 16th century English artists there.
You can also see many works by the English painter William Turner. Most
of his paintings are connected with the sea theme.
In the Tate Gallery one can see works by modern painters, Pablo Picasso
among them. There are many interesting sculptures there. The collection
is rather big. Henry Moore’s works can be seen in this gallery. He was a
famous British sculpture. The paintings of this gallery impress everyone
who visits it.
Painting and sculpture are not as widely popular as music is in Britain.
There is a general feeling that you have to be a specialist to
appreciate them, especially if they are contemporary. Small private art
galleries, where people might look at paintings with a view to buying
them, are rare. Nevertheless, London is one of the main centres of the
international collector’s world. The two major auction houses of
Sotheby’s and Christie’s are ‘world-famous.
Until the i 98os, the country’s major museums and galleries charged
nothing for admission. Most of them now do so, although sometimes
payment is voluntary. This has caused a lot of complaint that a great
tradition of free education has been lost.
Museums of London
Madame Tissues is a museum of wax figures. Outstanding politicians,
sportsmen, actors, military men are represented there. There is the
so-called Chamber of horrors in the museum. Criminals and scenes of
murders are exhibited there. They produce a frightening impression. The
museum attracts hundreds of visitors daily.
At the Science Museum one can see the first locomotive, rocket, the
latest models of aeroplanes and what not.
The Museum of British transport will tell you the story of public
transport in Britain.
If you have keen on sculpture, architecture and ancient things, you can
visit one of the most interesting and largest museums of London and the
whole world. It is the British museum. To begin with, it is famous for
its library. It has a copy of every book than is printed in the English
language. Therefore there are more than eight million books there. The
British museum library has a big collection of old and new manuscripts
which they keep in glass cases. You can also find the first English
books printed by Caxton. Caxton was the first English printer. He
printed his first book in 1477. In the reading hall of the British
museum library many famous people read and worked. V. Lenin and K. Marx
included the latter studied most of the material for his book «The
The British museum is famous not only for its library. It has also a
priceless collection of sculptures ceramics, coins engraving and
oriental art. It houses unit collection of Italian drawings. The British
museum is the most important place of archaeological study in the World
with unique prehistoric collections. It takes one a day or so to do the
whole museum. One can’t help admiring the British museum collections.
They are worth seeing.
Parks of London
London has many parks and gardens. The best known are Hyde Park,
Regent’s Park and St. James’s Park. They are all within easy reach of
the centre of London.
Hyde Park is a royal park since 1536. It was once part of the forest
where Henry VIII hunted wild animals. Hyde Park now has 146 hectares of
parkland, and people are allowed to walk or sit and lie on the grass.
The Serpentine is a lake in the middle of the park. In summer you can
swim in the Serpentine or go out in a boat. It is a custom for some
people to swim in it on Christmas Day. Hyde Park is famous for its
Speaker’s Corner, where people go when they want to tell other people
about their political opinions.
Regent’s Park is in the north-west of London. It is the home of the
London Zoo. There are more than six thousand animals and birds in the
Zoo. One can reach the Zoo by boat that goes along the Regent’s canal.
In summer one can visit an open-air theatre and enjoy a play by
Shakespeare. There are also children’s playgrounds and tennis courts.
St. James’s Park is the oldest and the smallest of the royal parks. It
is near Buckingham Palace. There is a lake in St. James’s Park which is
famous for its water-birds. The pelicans were originally given to
Charles n by a Russian ambassador. Hundreds of people who work in the
offices nearby come to this park to rest and eat their lunch.
Almost everybody in Britain dreams of living in a detached house; ‘that
is, a house which is a separate building. The saying, ‘An Englishman’s
home is his castle’ is well-known. It illustrates the desire for privacy
and the importance attached to ownership which seem to be at the heart
of the British attitude to housing.
A large, detached house not only ensures privacy. It is also a status
symbol. At the extreme end of the scale there is the aristocratic
‘stately home’ set in acres of garden. Of course, such a house is an
unrealistic dream for most people. But even a small detached house,
surrounded by garden, gives the required suggestion of rural life which
is dear to the hearts of many British people. Most people would be happy
to live in a cottage, and if this is a thatched cottage, reminiscent of
a pre-industrial age, so much the better.
Most people try to avoid living in blocks of flats. Flats, they feel,
provide the least amount of privacy. With a few exceptions, mostly in
certain locations in central London, flats are the cheapest kind of
home. The people who live in them are those who cannot afford to live
The dislike of living in flats is very strong. In the millions of poorer
people lived in old, cold, uncomfortable nineteenth century houses,
often with only an outside toilet and no bathroom. During the next
twenty years many of them were given smart new ‘high rise’ blocks of
flats to live in which, with central heating and bathrooms, were much
more comfortable and were surrounded by grassy open spaces. But people
hated their new homes. They said they felt cut off from the world all
those floors up. They missed the neigh-burliness. They couldn’t keep a
watchful eye on their children playing down there in those lovely green
spaces. The new high-rise blocks quickly deteriorated. The lifts broke
down. The lights in the corridors didn’t work. Windows got broken and
were not repaired. There was graffiti all over the walls.
In theory, there is no objective reason why these high-rise blocks could
not have been a success. In other countries millions of people live
reasonably happily in flats. But in Britain they were a failure because
they do not suit British attitudes. The failure has been generally
recognized for several years now. No more high-rises are being built. At
the present time, only 4% of the population live in one. Only 20% of the
country’s households live in flats of any kind.
Public transport services in urban areas, as elsewhere in Europe, suffer
from the fact that there is so much private traffic on the roads that
they are not as cheap, as frequent or as fast as they otherwise could
be. They also stop running inconveniently early at night. Efforts have
been made to speed up journey times by reserving certain lanes for
buses, but so far there has been no widespread attempt to give priority
to public transport vehicles at traffic lights.
An interesting modern development is that trams, which disappeared from
the country’s towns during the 1950’s and 1960’s, are now making a
comeback. Research has shown that people seem to have more confidence in
the reliability of a service which runs on tracks, and are therefore
readier to use a tram than they would be to use an ordinary bus.
Britain is one of the few countries in Europe where double-decker buses
are a common sight. Although single-deckers have also been in use since
the 1960’s, London still has more than 3,000 double-deckers in
operation. In their original form they were ‘hop-on, hop-off’ buses.
That is, there were no doors, just an opening at the back to the
outside. There was a conductor who walked around collecting fares while
the bus was moving. However, most buses these days, including
double-deckers, have separate doors for getting on and off and no
The famous London Underground, known as ‘the tube’, is feeling the
effects of its age. It is now one of the dirtiest and least efficient of
all such systems in European cities. However, it is still heavily used
because it provides excellent connections with the main line train
stations and with the suburbs surrounding the city.
Another symbol of London is the distinctive black taxi.
According to the traditional stereotype, the owner-drivers of London
taxis, known as cabbies, are friendly Cockneys who never stop talking.
While it may not be true that they are all like this, they all have to
demonstrate, in a difficult examination, detailed familiarity with
London’s streets and buildings before they are given their licence.
Normally, these traditional taxis cannot be hired by phone. You simply
have to find one on the street. But there are also many taxi companies
who get most of their business over the phone. Their taxis are known as
‘minicabs’. They tend to have a reputation, not always justified, for
unreliability as well as for charging unsuspecting tourists outrageous
prices. However, taxis and minicabs are expensive and most British
people rarely use them, except, perhaps, when going home late at night
after public transport has stopped running, especially if they have been
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