Britishness – it’s not just about The Beatles, Byron and bawdy jokes
When asked to define what Britishness is, the artist Tracey Emin described it as “looking out of a bus window, seeing sexy, stylish people laughing.” Deborah Moggach, the author of These Foolish Things, which was recently made into the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Judi Dench, about a group of British OAPs who retire to Bangalore, thinks it’s more about “newspapers, Marmite, pubs and the BBC” because “that is what people miss when they go abroad”. In his 1941 essay England, Your England, George Orwell summed up the English (a sub-division of the national character) as “Inveterate gamblers, [who] drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.”
The home secretary, Theresa May, has other ideas. According to a report in The Sunday Times, she plans to scrap Labour’s handbook for immigrants, called Life in the UK, which includes practical advice – like how to get home contents insurance and the merits of the Human Rights Act – and replacing it with a guide to “the essentials of Britishness”, which will include knowing the first verse of the national anthem, the biography of The Beatles and poetry from Byron, Blake and Browning.
Whether you agree with Emin’s “Cool Britannia” view of a stylish, cohesive Britain, or, like Orwell, you see each nation within the UK as having its own special idiosyncrasies, you might be forgiven for thinking May’s view of Britishness is more like a history lesson than a modern guide, and of limited use for someone trying to get by in modern Britain. What use can reciting Lord Byron’s “I would I were a careless child” be when you’re trying to talk your way out of a parking ticket? You might evoke a sudden spasm of sympathy drawn from the carefree memories of the ticket inspector’s halcyon childhood, but it seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
Likewise, a thorough knowledge of The Beatles’ back catalogue won’t help you to chat up your work colleague who’s really into progrock, and knowing that “God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen” is the first line of the national anthem won’t make you any new friends. Unless you’re at a pub quiz.
Something far more valuable would be a guide to those things that we say when we mean something totally different. It’s always struck me as typically British to say “sorry” when someone steps on your toe, or jostles you into someone’s armpit on the tube, when what you really mean is: “I’d like to alert you to the fact you are causing me pain and discomfort, but I don’t want to kick up a fuss, I’m British, don’t you know.” So here’s my alternative guide to Britishness:
We say: “I’m terribly sorry, I obviously didn’t make that clear…”
We mean: “I am being totally clear, it is you that is the moron.”
We say: “Do you mind…?”
We mean: “I am going to do this whether you care or not.”
We say: “Would you like a coffee before you head off?”
We mean: “I’m knackered, you’ve outstayed your welcome and I’d like you to leave so I can have some me-time watching Newsnight before bed.”
And if you can decode that then you can really count yourself as a British citizen.Tagged in: britain, Britishness, definition, england, immigration, Orwell, policy, Queen, theresa may, tracey emin
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