A letter of Apology
Before I can begin my journey in helping you to discover, understand and embrace true Englishness, I felt I should apologise for some of the things that we are, frankly, absolutely rubbish at.
I don’t mean American Football, although I am sure you will assume that anyway. I mean the things that may disappoint you when you visit Blighty, for not being as you expected.
Sullen faces – It’s not that we’re not happy campers, we’re simply embarrassed about our imperfect dentistry. Whilst one might imagine that character actors in films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” are not at all representative of the UK population, you’d be wrong. Although many young people now have a dazzlingly white and even smile, anyone over 25 is probably still sporting a slightly off-white, slightly crooked smile (myself included) as a result of parents in the 1950’s – 1980’s mistakenly putting their faith in NHS dentistry. Modern parents (myself included again) do not let their children anywhere near NHS dentists, for fear of the same mistake occurring. This is not meant as a slur on the NHS; far from it. The good people in the NHS are too busy saving lives and making patients nice cups of tea to spend time mucking about making braces (retainers) for our children, that’s all.
Public transport – Most trains and buses (and the Tube, of course) are usually quite good, turn up more-or-less on time and are fairly comfortable and reasonably-priced. However, if you’ve ever been to Germany (or Austria), you’ll realise that by comparison our transport system is shabby. Theirs is faster, cleaner, greener, comfier and newer than ours. On the other hand, their ferocious punctuality has resulted in me missing a bus for the sake of 30 seconds and I like to think that in the UK, that bus would either have been running a minute late or the nice driver would have held the doors for me if I’d smiled at him. So apologies if our transport system lets you down, but on the other hand, there is something rather like a comfy pair of old brogues about it; it may be down at heel, but still my favourite.
Unpronounceable names – I’ve suffered many an American friend or colleague going on (quite rightly) about this one. I admit it, we do make things unnecessarily difficult sometimes and I do feel the need to apologise. It’s just that our names for things are so old that the pronunciation has changed over the centuries (or even millennia) and we haven’t updated the spelling to reflect that. So Warwick is pronounced “Worrick”, Leicester Square is “Lester Square”, Magdalen Bridge is “Maudlen Bridge” and Greenwich is “Grennitch” (although some friends who live there tell me that Greenwich-dwellers even call it “Grinnitch!). But please don’t be too harsh on us; I give you Arkansas and Poughkeepsie. Thank you.
Being too politically correct – As yet, we haven’t overdone this one too badly, but beware, for we are on the cusp. Reports of Manchester being renamed Personchester are entirely without basis in fact. But this week it was reported that Flintshire county council in North Wales have renamed an item on their lunch menu to avoid causing distress or embarrassment to their catering staff, who apparently had suffered a number of “immature comments”. The item in question is Spotted Dick, a centuries-old recipe of a steamed fruited sponge pudding loved by millions and devoured with a good dollop of custard by anyone in need of a little nostalgic comfort food. They have renamed it “Spotted Richard” to avoid the problem, although I would imagine that this move has provoked many more comments to the staff!
Coffee – Okay, let’s just get this one over with. We can’t make coffee and you can’t make tea. There. I’ve said it. So you have a choice when you visit; either get to know and love tea (ordinary English Breakfast tea with milk will do) or just make up your mind to drink the appalling coffee and get on with it. Now don’t try running to the nearest Starbucks (although there’s bound to be one within a hundred yards, wherever you are) because in the UK the coffee is just the same there, too. Maybe it’s the water, maybe we get sold the second-rate beans and you chaps get the good stuff, I don’t know, I just know that’s how it is. Awfully sorry.
Glasses of water – When you go out to eat in the US, you will probably be greeted, seated and presented with glasses of iced water whilst you peruse the menu. In the UK you will have to ask for water and, occasionally, a waiter will try to take advantage of you because you’re a tourist by serving you with Ty Nant (or similarly expensive mineral water) when that’s not really what you wanted.
So take control here. If you’d like mineral water (and Ty Nant is indeed very nice Welsh water), then ask for it. But if you simply want water, ask for a glass or a jug (pitcher) of ‘tap water with ice’ (in other words, water straight from the faucet with ice thrown in). Then at least you get (and pay for) what you ordered.
Salad – In a minute I’m going to stop having a go at British food and beverages, but I feel I should point out that the salads you take for granted in the good old US of A are not standard in the UK (or indeed, France). You will find great salads, but only in places that are so proud of them, they give them a descriptive name. If a menu offers you “ham salad”, don’t touch it. It will consist of two slices of (processed) ham, one sliced tomato that has been in the fridge for two days too long, chopped still-wet iceberg lettuce and possibly a couple of slices of cucumber so thin you could read a newspaper through it.
On the other hand, if you are in a gastro-pub and choose something with a decently descriptive name, such as the “Hand-carved Wiltshire Ham Ploughman’s”, you’re likely to be presented with two generous slabs of mouth-watering traditional Wiltshire ham, at least four kinds of leaves in an imaginative salad with some fresh-baked crusty bread and butter.
There ARE plenty of good eateries in the UK. Just look for the ones who are proud of what they do. If in doubt, ask them a straightforward question (“excuse me, is there any rocket in the salad?”) and if they can’t answer you, don’t eat there.
Chavs – In the US, you call them trailer trash. In the UK the demographic is slightly different and it’s often not possible to categorise someone based upon their dwelling. However, Chavs are easily spotted wherever they may be; they’re the ones wearing a Burberry baseball cap with jeans that are too loose and hanging down so low you can see their underpants (guys) or too tight and too low cut allowing eight pounds of excess tummy fat to pillow out (girls) in what we in Britain have come to call the “muffin top”. They have been drinking and are talking loudly to each other using more swear words than Gordon Ramsay. They have the latest cell phones, designer clothes (although they will be from a discount store) and will consume more alcohol in an evening than I do in a month, yet they will tell you they “aint got no money” and “aint got no job, eeva”. Although in reality they wouldn’t like having a job, as they may have to get up in the morning and use a brain cell or two.
I apologise for the Chavs. We don’t like them either, but they won’t go away. Sorry.
Gordon Brown – Well someone has to apologise for him. When George “Dubya” was president of the USA, Americans used to apologise to me all the time and add, “I didn’t vote for him, y’know”. I thought it was a shame that anyone felt it necessary to apologise for their President, but now I know exactly how they felt! And not only did I not vote for Gordon Brown, but in fact, NONE of us did! He sneaked in after Tony Blair left (although I didn’t vote for him either) and has sat on his backside at number 10 ever since without calling an election! Bloomin’ cheek.
Being Modern – I realise that a lot of Americans want us to be all tweed jackets and “this way, Guvnor”, in the same way that English people want Americans to be all apple-pie and pigtails and gingham curtains at the kitchen window.
The truth of the matter is that we have watched “Little House on the Prairie” too much and you have watched “Mary Poppins” and it’s given us both unrealistic expectations, I’m afraid.
So what can you expect from modern Britain (apart from wireless broadband everywhere you go)?
Well, you will find great cell-phone coverage and internet cafes, much more modern comfortable accommodation, more catering for vegetarians and those on restricted diets and a huge amount of confidence, style and pride in being British (left over from the Cool Britannia revolution of the 1990’s).
In our city centres and little towns alike you’ll find that over the last decade or so we have emerged from the “okay is good enough” culture that blanketed us for so long and you’ll find eateries, pubs, cafes and shops with real style and attitude. Although finding good staff can be difficult, there are a lot of talented entrepreneurs who work hard to create imaginative businesses that truly stand out and will attract you to them, whether they’re a farm that’s opened a great organic shop and restaurant, a gift shop that specialises in quirky 1950’s-style design, a café that bursts with enthusiasm for fresh, seasonal British produce or a museum that captures not just your interest, but your emotions and your heart, too.
So you may not experience the nostalgia trip you were looking for; no men in bowler hats, no old lady selling bread to “feed the birds, tuppence a bag”, but the modern Britain is still very British indeed!
And if it’s truly old-fashioned Britain you hanker after, get out of London and as far away as you can. Just remember that old-fashioned can look a bit…well, shabby when you actually get it.
I’m sure there’s lots more I should be apologising for, however that’s all I can think of right now. If I’ve missed something, I’m sorry and I hope you’ll let me know about it.
But although we’re rubbish at some things, we really are quite brilliant at other things…and I’ll tell you about those another time.