Every day’s a school day

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Now look lively!  Sit up and pay attention, as I may be setting a short test at the end of class today…

I went to look around a prospective school for my daughter on Saturday.  A Mexican friend asked me (via Skype) if it was a public or private school and when I replied that in the UK public school IS private school all I got back from her was “??!?!!?”.

So how can ‘public’ school be an expensive fee-paying school?  Well, as with most of my answers on this blog, it all goes back a long way in history.  A long, long way; the Middle Ages, in fact (the first written reference to a public school was in 1364).  Back then, peasants weren’t educated at all and the landed gentry educated their sons (and occasionally their daughters) at home, usually with a resident clergyman.

So the first schools as we know them today were called ‘public’ schools to denote that they were open to public admission, not behind closed doors in a private house.  In the early days, most public schools were run by monasteries.  A few boys were admitted on scholarships paid for by charities and the rest were the sons of middle or upper class gentlemen who could not afford private tutors at home, but could afford to pay the monastery to educate their sons.   Probably the most famous public school in Britain is Eton College (founded in 1440), where Princes William and Harry received their schooling (as did “House” actor Hugh Laurie and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes).  And Eton still offers a few scholarships to the brightest and most deserving pupils.

Free schooling for all was not available until the Victorian era (19th Century) and even then it was only for children aged between five and ten years.  By that time, the term ‘public school’ was well established as meaning a fee-paying school.  So non-fee-paying schools attended by most children are called “State” schools.

And, for those of you wondering, the school system is different here, too.  My little one will start with a foundation year (optional, mornings only) aged three, reception class at four and ‘proper’ school lessons in Year One from five years of age (exams follow, with GCSE’s at age 16 in Year 11 and A-levels at age 18 before going on to University).

We loved the school we visited.  And it turns out the uniform is a wee kilt in what looks suspiciously like our family tartan!  The same wee kilt that we had unknowingly dressed our daughter in for the visit…spooky!



Filed under Britishness, history, translation

Geddit? (plus Red Dwarf DVD giveaway!)

RedDwarfThe British sense of humour is world-renowned for being, well…different.  You only have to be familiar with Monty Python or The Office to realise that slapstick is not our National style.  And whereas we buy a lot of our dramas and documentaries from the US (some would say ‘most’), we still seem to prefer home-grown laughs to imported ones.

You’d think that would make British humour hard to export, but apparently not.  The Office has gone global (with the original generally more popular than the remakes) and Monty Python is quoted wherever you go (who knows, maybe they even sing the Spam song on the space station, too).

Red Dwarf is a tricky one to describe if you’ve never seen it.  If I said it was set on a spaceship, you might think it’s a Sci-fi series, but most of the humour is really about the people.  Although technically, there is only one person; Lister, a lowly Liverpudlian technician who survived in stasis for three million years after the rest of the crew were killed.  Thankfully, though he also has for company Holly (the ship’s sometimes-chirpy, sometimes depressed, slightly senile computer), Rimmer (a hologram of his hated former neurotic, pedantic boss), Kryten (the mechanoid butler) and Cat (who although he looks human actually evolved over the 3 million years from Lister’s cat).  There you go – I haven’t even described their adventures yet and you’re already either thinking “that’s ridiculous.  I’d rather watch a re-re-re-re-re-run of Friends” or “that’s ridiculous!  I need to see that!”.

And, if you’re one of the latter camp, maybe you can!  Because although Red Dwarf has been off air since 1999, some utter genius has commissioned a three-part special where the Red Dwarf team head back to Earth; and I have three of the DVD’s to give away!

Here’s a sneak preview…containing the non-human ship’s crew attempting a conversation in a Northern dialect (plus a reference to chip butties).

All you need to do to win is leave a comment here and next Saturday, 31st October, I’ll pick three names at random.

Good luck; and happy watching..


Filed under British humour, Britishness, translation

Should I confess to my husband?

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My husband is a handsome, generous, loving chap.  And I love him dearly.  But I am keeping a secret from him and I wonder; should I spill the beans, or keep schtum?  Surely a wife should never keep secrets from her husband.  And yet, what if I am doing it to protect him?  Does that make it okay?

Here’s my dilemma; perhaps you can help?

My husband is a Scotsman and although he grew up in England he’s proud of his roots.  He dons his Scotland shirt for all rugby matches, suddenly pronounces his “t’s” with much vigour after a pint or two and smiles indulgently when I tell friends that, just like a stick of rock, he has “made in Inverness” written all the way through him.

But if there’s any one issue that gets him going, anything that stirs his ancient ire, it’s the subject of…porridge.  Please do not suggest to him that Ready Brek is like porridge.  Pleeeeeease do not suggest that it should be made with oatmeal or, even worse, have (oh good heaven) sugar or honey added!  That would be more than he can bear.  If it’s not Real Porridge, it’s just not porridge to my Monty.

He is extremely proud of his porridge-making skills (secret recipe, but it’s basically large oats, milk, water and salt with a little cream to adorn it) and treasures his spurtle, given to him by his mother.  And I have to hand it to him, he makes a truly mean (awesome) bowl of porridge.

So why do I need your help?  Well, yesterday was the World Porridge Making Championships in Carrbridge, Inverness-shire.  And, according to BBC news,  it was won by an American.  Now my Monty likes Americans and America very much indeed.  But can he cope with the knowledge that the best porridge-maker in the world and holder of the coveted “Golden Spurtle” is one Matthew Cox from Milwaukie?  I’m really not sure.  Could an American cope if Mrs Ada Lovelace of Egham in Surrey won the World’s Best Meatloaf award in Barstow, California?

P.S.  For all of you who saw the picture at the top and thought this was a post about him “getting his oats”, <snigger>, I am so sorry; you have been misled.  This is a genuine porridge poll.  Have you not seen one before?



Filed under Britishness, English cookery

Fanny pack or bum bag?


Now I thought that bum bags (fanny packs) had gone out with the Ark, but lately I’ve seen all manner of reference to them by perturbed Americans who have come to realise that in Britian, ‘fanny pack’ is not something to be said in public (and if said in polite company may cause an elderly aunt to faint quite away).

Relax, dearest cousins.  If you wish to wear one whilst in Blighty, just call it a bag.  “Where’s the camera, dear?”  “It’s here,  dear, in my bag”.  There!  Problem solved.  Right, now we can all relax.

But the subject of stowage is fraught with translation problems, so here’s a guide in case things get a tad confusing:

Handbag – that’s your purse.  Whether clutch, Kelly or shoulder-strap, teensy-weensy or big enough for the kitchen sink,  it’s a ‘handbag’.  (see The Importance of Being Ernest – “a HANDBAG??”).

Manbag – a new term for modern types, that’s his handbag.  But never EVER called a handbag.  EVER.  Usually a ‘monosac’, ‘record bag’ (younger chap) or a European style small zip-bag with wrist strap (older, usually retired chap).

Purse – that’s a ladies wallet, usually with a coin compartment.

Wallet – A man’s wallet, usually with no coin compartment; hence my daughter making a fortune out of picking up coins which have fallen from her father’s trouser pocket and banking them in her ‘spotty dog’ moneybox.

Placky bag – A thin plastic (usually grocery store) bag (may also be called a ‘plaggy bag’ in some regions).  Many shops now don’t give out bags for free in the name of saving the environment, so we all carry a ‘placky bag’ in our handbags for our purchases.  Complete posers will ensure it’s a ‘Mulberry’ bag and I freely admit to once stuffing in an ‘LK Bennett’ bag, but really, Tesco’s bags should be good enough for anyone.  Are we being green or trying to preen?  Hmmm?

Luggage – Baggage, but not the emotional kind.  Usually more, well, suitcasey.

Car boot – trunk.  Although, should you arrive at your hotel and ask the porter (bellboy) to retrieve your luggage from the trunk, fear not; he will perfectly understand and will not be looking for your pet elephant.

Trunk – A large chest.  No!!!  Not THAT kind of large chest!  Shame on you.

Old bag – A Chav’s wife or mother.

Granny bag – A wheeled shopping bag, usually with a steel frame and made from colourful checked (plaid) fabric, this evil weapon of mass destruction can mow down a dozen innocent shoppers in seconds when wielded by a mean, bargain hunting granny in a crowded market-place.

Trug – A very shallow, flat-bottomed basket made from flat strips of woven wood for collecting freshly cut flowers or vegetables from one’s garden.  Its shape is similar to an old American grape basket, with a generous handle to carry the basket over the crook of one’s arm.

There!  So hopefully on your next visit to Blighty you’ll be faux-pas free, know your trunk from your trunk, your wallet from your wallet and your purse from your handbag (although many Brits don’t even know their arse from their elbow).


Filed under Britishness, English Language, translation

Hidden gem: Oxford Covered Market

Oxford Covered Market

It’s tempting when you visit Oxford, to dash around collecting colleges and ‘dreaming spires’, finding where the Harry Potter films were made and buying an Oxford English dictionary.

These are all admirable things to do and when my daughter is old enough we’ll do exactly that.  But for now, I can’t be bothered.  My problem is that I live fifteen minutes away by train, so I just pop in when I feel like it.  But actually, some of the things I do when I’m there would really give any visitor a feel for the City and the people today, rather than just the history.

Oxford Covered Market springs to mind.  I took my daughter there this very morning (she enjoyed her first ever train ride) and we had a great time.  The overheard snippets of conversations and accents are beautiful.  People were so friendly and happily entered into conversation.  But in this lovely hall of quintessential Englishness,  I heard only one non-English voice, which means not many tourists are finding the market (although the high street was swarming and I heard loads of foreign accents there).

Inside this beautiful 225-year-old market are about 60 stalls (although they’re more like proper shops, really); traditional butchers who joint their meat in front of your eyes and will prepare things especially to your instructions, if you wish (and yes of course they had traditional British sausages!).  The seafood stall proudly displayed dressed crab and oysters atop their mountains of ice as well as just about every kind of fish you could name.  The cheese stall offered loads of varieties I’ve never even heard of before (and I’m a real cheese fan).  As it’s October, the novelty cake stall was brim-full of cakes shaped like pumpkins, witches on switches, big hairy spider-cakes (and a birthday cake in the shape of a jacket potato for a guy called “Spud”!).  The hat stall was sporting beautiful chic narrow-brim winter felt hats with velvet trim in black (or I quite liked the pea-green with deep purple velvet) and the dairy bar called “moo moo” was just opening its shutters for business.

And bang-slap in the middle is something that affirms you are definitely in Blighty; a bright red pillar box (mail box).

So if you’re in Oxford with twenty minutes or more to spare, don’t head for either of the two malls; they’re just like everywhere else.  Head instead for the covered market and you’ll be able to have a coffee, lunch or afternoon tea, or buy gifts, jewellery, boots, shoes, clothes, food, even novelty cakes!  What more could anyone want?

Well actually, my daughter didn’t want anything at the market.  She kept shouting “TRAIN!  TRAIN!” in a very excited way until we re-traced our steps and boarded our train carriage for the journey home.  I’ve never seen bigger smiles.


Filed under Places to visit

Oh, fork.


I’ve had several weird experiences eating in the States.  Don’t get me wrong, the food is generally great (and certainly more consistent than in the UK), no it’s not the food.  And it’s certainly not the service, because that’s probably the best in the world.  It’s…the staring.

It happened at a golf-club in Sonoma.  And again at a restaurant overlooking Pittsburgh.  And, actually, countless other times too.  There I am, eating my dinner and the place goes kind of quiet and I realise there are myriad eyes following my cutlery.

The truth is, we eat differently and it’s our fault (good Lord, can I not write a single flippin’ post without apologising on behalf of my country?).

The usual American way is to use the knife in the right hand for cutting food and then transfer the fork to the right hand for eating it.  The European way is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand throughout the meal.  So how did that happen, then?

Well as I said, it’s the Brits’ fault.  We actually kept forks a secret from you!  Anyway, let’s start at the very beginning for, as Julie Andrews once sang, “that’s a very good place to start”.

When the world was young and Henry VIII was busy with all that marrying, divorcing and beheading stuff, we all used to eat with a spoon and dagger.  You’d press down firmly on the meat with the spoon, slice a piece off and then spike it on the end of the dagger to eat it.  Afterwards, you’d transfer the spoon to the right hand to scoop up the gravy and remaining bits and bobs.  It’s worth noting that eating your peas politely was never a problem in this particular culinary setting, as we were all veg-dodgers at the time and peas didn’t become at all fashionable until around 1700.  Anyway, I digress..

Then (around 1600) those clever and sophisticated Italians made forks really fashionable and the French went wild for them.  They reached Britain about the same time The Mayflower was leaving, but British men regarded forks as being foppish and effeminate and refused to use them for decades (although they were declared a pretty present for a bride).  Eventually, they caught on in Britain too, and, having no further need to spike meat, as the fork was now used for that, we rounded off the ends of our knives to become the dinner knives we know and use today.

The problem was, the naughty cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield (who shipped cutlery to the States in the early days, before you made your own) ‘forgot’ to tell our good cousins across the pond about forks.  The first thing most Americans knew was that Sheffield was sending rubbish knives; they were no good for stabbing meat anymore!  So, they cut the meat with the knife but then ate it with the spoon.  About forty years later we finally started sending forks to the US (but they took a good long while to get out to the less populated areas), by which time the method of eating was pretty much ingrained and no-one saw any reason to change, as their current method was perfectly good.  Forks eventually got substituted for spoons because they were more efficient, but other than that the method of eating has stayed the same.

The net result of which is that I seem to bring any restaurant (in a non-tourist area) to a standstill by eating the European way!

Or maybe I just had gravy on my chin?  Yep – it was probably the gravy.  Oh well, I’ve expounded on the whole ‘fork’ theory now, so might as well leave this post up, eh?

Right, got to go and see if I can find anything to write about that doesn’t involve apologising for my ancestors!


Filed under English Quirks, Englishness, history



Okay.  There seems to be some confusion about pants and to be perfectly honest, I’m not surprised.

In England, pants are underwear.  Otherwise known as knickers, briefs, grundies, or (if large), Bridget Jones’s.  They can also be known by type (eg G-string, boxer, Y-front etc).

Dear reader, one can imagine the trans-Atlantic shockwaves caused by the overheard statement “I wore my new red pants to Emma’s party last night with my red satin Jimmy Choos”.  It’s enough to get the office blogger quite (needlessly) overexcited.

But what the confused American in question asked me (after the Brits involved had all calmed down a bit, stopped giggling and wiped away their tears) was, “What did I say that was so wrong?”.  And the answer, my lovely cousin-from-across-the-Pond, is that YOU are RIGHT and WE are WRONG.  Oh yes.  Because we use the term pants as a shortened version of ‘underpants’.  And I think we are all in agreement as to what underpants are.  However, we Brits are lazy and careless with our mother tongue, so ‘pants’ they have become.

Now it doesn’t take a college professor with a degree in logic to work out that if underpants are the undergarment, then pants must be the garment worn on top, yes?  Yes.  So you can relax now and I shall even give you licence to feel just a tad smug if you want to (I would if I were in the same boat, I assure you).

However, just be aware that when in Britain, you may wish to refer to your ‘trousers’, as approaching someone and commenting “I love your pants!” may not get you quite the reaction you were anticipating.

And, chaps, please remember that if you find a belt on your trousers uncomfortable, whatever you do, do NOT go into a store and ask for suspenders!  Because that’s a garter-belt.  And you want braces.

Do you know what?  I’ve just penned this post, re-read it and I don’t know whether to publish it.  It’s pants!

Ah, yes.  Pants also means rubbish.  Useless.  Not good.


Filed under Britishness, English Language