What does it mean to be British? Does it mean anything? One author thinks it does, and makes his case for Britishness to Wizzit. Words by Paul Oswell. Illustration by Tim Marrs
IT'S UP THERE WITH THE MOST
British things I've ever done. I'm in a park in London, in front of a bandstand, sitting in a deckchair, drinking tea, talking to a man in a bowler hat. Actually, he's only wearing the hat because I made him wear it, but even so.
I'm here to ponder what it is to be British with someone who has devoted a fair amount of time to the subject. Author Iain Aitch has just published his book We're British, Innit?, An Irreverent A-Z of All Things British (published by Collins, ?9.99); from crumpets to queuing, Radio 4 to mushy peas.
It's a celebration, but a very British one - not too showy, pointedly sarcastic and splendidly eccentric. It explains all the things that visitors may find confusing, and is a perfect introduction to what is objectively quite a strange nation.
Wizzit: So what made you decide to write the book?
Iain Aitch: I've always been interested in exploring who we are as a nation, and I was looking at the UK Citizenship Test. It was just a government idea of who we are, not what really makes us British. I don't think knowing the dates of battles is a true test of Britishness!
W: How is your list different?
IA: I think it's the things that British people miss if they went to live abroad, the things you may not even think about. An impressive amount is alcohol-related. Whisky, the round system, binge-drinking. Look at gin and tonic; only the British would invent an alcoholic drink to help people take malaria medicine (tonic contains quinine).
W: It can't all be booze, though. What about our sporting traditions?
IA: Yes, we gave the world so many sports. rugby, for instance, was invented by someone cheating at football. Obviously we're obsessed by football - I'm not sure anywhere else has TV shows dedicated to people phoning in to complain about their teams. Oh, and there's the Boat Race, where 99% of the population only watch to see if one side is going to sink.
W: What were the criteria for inclusion? Just things that are a bit rubbish then?
IA: No, not at all. There are some good things: Winston Churchill, the Spitfire, Elizabeth I, our great countryside, the Mini. I'm not sure I would include Tennent's Extra (horrifically strong beer) in that list, though.
W: What do you think visitors to Britain find most mystifying about us?
IA: I think pub culture can be very confusing. I think a lot of visitors go in, sit down and wonder why they haven't been served after an hour.
Our food choices, too - the amount of fried food, for instance. We see it as a mark of safety - it's been cooked so well it can't be dangerous. Chip toppings - we only allow gravy, mushy peas, beans and curry sauce. Cheese is a crime. As is mayonnaise.
W: Do you think we are so distinct from the rest if Europe?
IA: Yes. I think the island race thing makes us very defensive about our culture. We've been invaded by everyone over the years, so you can see why we're a bit wary. But I also mock the idea of a pure British race as ridiculous, because we've had everyone living here and we've been out into the world so much.
W: Are we competitive with other Europeans?
IA: I think we see, say, the Germans as our natural enemies, but I think that's just because they are perhaps the most similar nation to us. The way we look, the food, the love of beer.I think we fear becoming them, but we almost already are.
W: Do you think people have a different view of the British before they come here?
IA: Yes, they think we all live like street urchins on cobbled London streets selling flowers and going to Shakespeare every night. Either that or they think we're all like Hugh Grant. I dispel this immediately by getting any visitors to go to a sporting event, where most people are swearing intently at complete strangers. It's a great insight. It's the British at rest.
IAIN AITCH'S VERY BRITISH PLACES TO VISIT IN LONDON:
THE LAMB PUB
94-98 Conduit Street, WC1N 3LZ, +44
(0)20 7405 0713
The pub is very much at the centre of British culture and this is a particularly fine example of a proper alehouse. This means that it serves real ales, which are best drunk "warm" at cellar temperature rather than that of an ice cream. The pub visit should also teach you about the tradition of rounds, wherein everyone in the group must buy a drink for everyone else, even if they are unconscious by the time it comes to their turn to pay.
THE IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ, +44 (0)20 7416 5000, www.iwm.org.uk
If history has taught us one thing then it is that we British are pretty good at war. Maybe it is because we were invaded so much in the past, but we are a fairly combative lot (especially if you spill our beer) and this wonderful museum explores this side of our nature, as well as war artists and even the anti-war movement. The main hall has a suspended Supermarine Spitfire, which is a great British invention.
WHITE HART LANE
748 High Road, Tottenham, N17 0AP, www.tottenhamhotspur.com
To properly see the British at rest you need to watch them at a sporting event. You can choose from football, rugby or cricket (all of which we gave to the world), but I favour football at White Hart Lane, an atmospheric football stadium that is the home of Tottenham Hotspur. You can witness the banter between fans, shout profanities at the match officials and pick up many words that no phrase book will teach you.
A GREASY SPOON,
Anywhere in London
The capital is now famous for its Michelin-starred restaurants and its huge variety of cuisines from across the world, but if you want a truly British dining experience then shun the Angus Steakhouses or the Gordon Ramsey eateries and instead just stop anywhere that offers all day breakfasts and is full of builders, traffic wardens or market traders. You will be able to get proper British tea, strong enough to stand your spoon up in, and a variety of artery clogging foodstuffs.
HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT
Westminster, SW1A 0AA
As well as housing the world famous Big Ben (which is the name of the bell and not the clock tower), Westminster is home to the House of Commons and House of Lords, where you can watch laws being made, secretaries being pinched on the bottom and politicians sleeping their way through debates. The buildings are open to overseas visitors and UK residents alike but check opening dates in advance.
400 Oxford Street, W1A 1AB, +44 (0)113 369 8040, www.selfridges.com
Most visitors to London head for Harrods department store, but Selfridges is a far better place to shop, not least because it seems to have a bar on almost every floor. We Brits are known for our drinking, so combining it with shopping makes perfect sense. If you like shopping for books and drinking you can also try the Waterstone's store on Piccadilly.
Z Iainem Aitchem, autorem książki "Czy? nie jesteśmy Brytyjczykami?", rozmawiamy o tym, co to znaczy bya Brytyjczykiem.
Dlaczego napisa3eś te książke?
Interesuje mnie, kim jesteśmy jako naród.
Jaka jest lista rzeczy, które świadcz1 -wed3ug ciebie - o naszej brytyjskości?
Myśle, ?e s1 to ma3e rzeczy, o których nigdy nie myślimy, a za którymi tesknilibyśmy bed1c za granic1. Wiele rzeczy zwi1zanych jest z alkoholem. Weźmy taki gin z tonikiem - tylko Brytyjczycy mogli wymyślea drink alkoholowy, który u3atwia za?ywanie lekarstwa na malarie (tonik zawiera chinine).
A co, jeśli chodzi o nasze sportowe tradycje?
Daliśmy światu wiele dyscyplin... na przyk3ad rugby zosta3o wymyślone przez kogoś, kto oszukiwa3 w grze w futbol. Oczywiście, mamy obesesje na punkcie futbolu. S1 te? wyścigi 3odzi, które 99 procent populacji ogl1da tylko po to, ?eby zobaczya, czy któraś ze stron nie zaliczy wywrotki.
Dostrzegasz tylko te negatywne strony?
Ale? sk1d, s1 te? dobre rzeczy: Winston Churchill, Spitfire, El?bieta I, wiejskie krajobrazy, Mini.
A co innych w nas najbardziej zdumiewa?
Myśle, ?e kultura pubowa oraz nasza kuchnia, z du?1 ilości1 sma?onych potraw. Uwa?amy, ?e je?eli coś jest dobrze ugotowane, nie jest dla nas niebezpieczne.
Jesteśmy inni od reszty Europy?
Tak. Poniewa? jesteśmy wyspiarzami, bronimy swojej kultury. Przez to, ?e wciąż ktoś na nas napada3, jesteśmy nieufni.
Wspó3zawodniczymy z innymi Europej-czykami?
Postrzegamy Niemców jako naszych naturalnych wrogów, mo?e dlatego, ?e s1 do nas podobni. Wygl1d, jedzenie, mi3ośa do piwa...
Uwa?asz, ?e ludzie inaczej nas postrzegaj1, zanim tutaj przyjadąż
Wszyscy myśl1, ?e co wieczór chodzimy na Szekspira i wygl1damy jak Hugh Grant. Dlatego zawsze zabieram ludzi na mecze, gdzie wszyscy przeklinaj1. To najlepszy wgl1d w nasz1 kulture.