10. December 2012–
Our guest columnist and "honorary German" Adam Fletcher hit a nerve recently with his observations on "how to be German". Here's what happens when he turns his attentions to his own Mother Country, jolly old England, home of carpeted bathrooms, queuing and food even worse than Germany's...
As I haven't lived in the UK for quite a few years, this was co-written with Paul Hawkins, a man who knows the English slightly more intimately than me, as he has only just moved to Berlin and is therefore still bumbling around it apologising for himself. We just used "I" throughout because we're lazy and it's easier, resulting in a blending of our anecdotes into a kind of lumpy, past-tense soup.
Since my last article, many of you took the liberty of emailing to inform me that while the Germans may occasionally put the irk in quirky, compared to the daft old English, they're actually super normal and functional. Englishmen in glass houses should not be throwing around such cultural clichés, and all that. Especially when I dared to criticise German cuisine, which was perhaps slightly naive considering I come from a land where it is still entirely acceptable to put the words "Egg and Chips" on a menu in a totally non-ironic manner.
However, now I'm going to try and explain why all of those initially adorable cultural idiosyncrasies actually make perfect, logical sense. Well, sort of.
#1 Eat fish and chips
I was in Japan once. They kept eating sushi, but I didn't mock them for it. Of course not. After all, it's an island. They're surrounded by water. Fish like water. They go out, drop nets, get fish. Cooking involves both work, heat and waiting – a bit of a faff – so they eat raw fish. Simple.
We’re also an island, which explains the fish. Except somehow we also got potatoes, which led the discover of crisps, which is probably the greatest discovery since penicillin. If we can't have actual crisps, we'll just fry the living hell out of everything, including a fish, until it crisps so much no-one knows the difference.
#2 Know what a chav is
I like it when zombie movies have a bit of a fable in them. Usually they hint that the zombie virus was somehow man-made; that in an endless push for progress, profits, or something else vaguely exploitative involving Big Evil Pharma Corp, we created the very thing that is now going to eat us all alive. Literally. The mindlessness of the zombie, indeed, acts as a powerful societal metaphor for blah, blah, blah, et cetera, apocalypse.
The real-world equivalent of the zombie in England, meanwhile, is the chav. They're basically what happens when society turns it back on the less fortunate. The modern day virus we created, which we can either deal with by engaging with and trying to understand it, or by buying bigger locks for our castles to create a safer place to sit around, and moan about them, while waiting for our brains to become food.
#3 Delight in English food
Speaking of food, we've always been brazen enough to simply steal the best cuisine from our colonies, then Disneyfying it with grease and sugar to suit the tastes of our bland, unrefined, English palette. Which is why the Chicken Tikka Masala was voted the nation's favourite dish a few years ago.
I think the main reason why we've never needed to try very hard, is that we've always been buffered from complete ridicule by our rainy hat, also known as Scotland. Every time we brought some kind of monstrosity like the English Breakfast to the table, they went, "we can beat that, may we present you... haggis". Our rebuttal was Black Pudding, then they responding by deep frying the Mars bar. The contest was called off, the race had reached the bottom.
#4 Carpet your bathroom
It's not an understatement to suggest the English will carpet pretty much anything to death. We're actually happy when it dies, since once it's stopped moving it's much easier to just carpet it some more. When it comes to carpeting, we do not ask ourselves merely the negative "why?" but the more inclusive "why not?"
Some people seem especially perplexed by bathroom carpeting, so let’s start there. While I'll admit, carpet and water are unlikely bedfellows, there is a logic. Since we aren't big on house shoes, having soft carpet underfoot whilst one sits on the throne really does make one feel like a king. See, I even used the third person there. That's how regal one gets when one visits a carpeted English loo. It's an almost out of body experience. Grab a book, get comfy.
Be warned, though, that carpet is considered increasingly old-fashioned now, even in England. This puzzling quirk has had its day. Mock us while you still can.
#5 Give people instant nicknames
While the dispensing of nicknames five minutes after meeting someone may seem to an England-newbie as a sudden over-familiarity, it's actually just practicality. It's a kind of club, in which the initiation test is being willing to permanently accept an embarrassing title some stranger made up for you on a whim.
Nicknames are a filtering device, essentially, reminding us who is important to us and who isn't. At university, I lived with an "English Ben" and an "Irish Ben". Easy enough. However, then a second English Ben arrived. Not only was he more English than English Ben, we had known English Ben for long enough now to realise what set him apart from Irish Ben and New English Ben was his charming and incredible uselessness. Lovingly, he was downgraded to "Rubbish Ben". Forever.
Other real examples include "Short Story" (“because if you ask him the time, it’s half an hour before you get it”), "Slow Day", (“in his head, he’s chasing a butterfly in a field”), and the three lone, unfortunate women that work in my father’s predominantly male, macho workplace: "Teresa the Geezer", "Gilli-man", and "Rachel-bloke".
#6 Be ignorant
I'm sorry we still think Pluto is a planet, that philosophy is the study of people called Phil, and that all we know about your country is whether it's generally hot or cold. It's really not our fault. It's our school system. Perhaps I'm slightly jaded by being an attendee of the 32nd worst high school in the UK based on last year’s GCSE results.
In my school, Reading was a place near London, Maths was calculating how many days until we would be old enough to sign on, and Science was the study of how things caught fire. For a full year we had no English teacher after the last one had a nervous breakdown. Instead, we'd get whatever teacher was free. If it was the sports teacher, we'd watch Michael Jordan videos. If it was the drama teacher, we'd just play a game involving blindfolds and discussing our feelings. It was a place where it was redundant to ask "will this be on the exam?"
Our failing school system basically ensures that no matter what village of the world we end up in, there's a very good chance we'll be its idiot.
The Englishman's natural predisposition for queuing also seems to baffle. But surely, every culture queues? How could you not? What possible other system could there be? Stacking? Some kind of lumbering triangle-shaped madness?
No. Having met funny Germans, friendly Russians, and wise Americans, I was ready to dismiss the Englishman’s "love of queuing" until I stumbled across a quote of George Mikes: “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”
Then I noticed it. When we go to an empty bus stop, for example, we don’t lean on it, or sit on it, or climb it, or circle it in a happy dance, or begin a picnic, or spin around at the back slowly like a weird kebab – all of which we could do, if we wanted – no, we go to the front, near the sign, and face outwards, ready.
We form an orderly queue. Of one.
#8 Be patriotic
I remember our school History lessons as:
- Stuff before the war – we spent about an hour on this.
- The World Wars – we spent about 14 years on this. It would have been faster to have actually lived through them.
Stuff after the World Wars – we know it involves a wall and Cuba or something, but we don't normally get to it as we run out of time focusing on the World Wars, which we won, of course, through great personal sacrifice, indeed, for which we should all be very proud, forever.
The other source of our long-expired patriotism is us having created the most successful empire of all time. Us. A tiny island. A geographic after-thought, for those who aimed at mainland Europe and missed. It's like finding a four-year-old child and asking them to build a functioning satellite out of sticky tape, a biscuit, and love. Then lo and behold, the little bugger pulls it off, orbits the damn thing, and everyone’s like, “well, I say, bloody marvellous... Rule Britannia!”
So, yeah, occasionally we go on holiday wearing things with our flag on them. Sorry.
#9 Don't be too earnest or over-excited
Neither is sincerity.
Or feelings, which are creepy.
You must, therefore, always downplay what it is that you do, in the assumption that everyone else will play down what it is they do, and the equilibrium of our new, modern, totally classless society will be maintained on the English leaderboard of understatedness.
Regardless of how much it might be true, Mr Writer, you may not say: “I’m writing a really important novel. It’s an epic spanning three generations, which ties together the evolution of language and the intertwined fate of national identity in a world where we are defined by the limits of our communication.”
No, thank you.
A more appropriate declaration would be, “I’m trying to write a, sort of, book, I think, but I don’t know if it’ll be any good. Probably not. It’s about, I don’t know, like, history.”
#10 Like football
Because of our inability to discuss serious topics, we need a lot of conversational fluff with which we can pad out the awkward silences of social interactions. Luckily, we have the weather. But after a few hours of trading information that can also be gained by owning a window, the fizz tends to dissipate on even that topic.
Which is why we are eternally thankful to the person who invented football. What’s interesting about football is just how much happiness we will gladly invest in something upon which we have no control. If you’ll allow me a generous simplification, if I told you the outcome of someone else flipping a coin was so important to me that being wrong would result in a bad mood lasting the rest of the weekend, you’d say I was an idiot. I’d say, I’m just a lifelong fan of Tails.
For related posts, check out:
Fish and chips – flickr user gene hunt
Chav – flickr user Neil T
English breakfast – neil conway
Carpeted bathroom – flickr user rick
Bowler hat – flickr user striatic
Name badge – flickr user Katemonkey
Grafitti – flickr user practicalowl
Queueing – flickr user Gaglias
Flag – flickr user xpgomes
Cheerleading – flickr user skaines
Football – flickr user johnbotmitchell