Good morning and happy Saturday! I hope that you drank in moderation last night, and if you didn’t, that your house mate/partner/unexpected guest has some painkillers for you.
As comedian Bill Bailey said in his show Part Troll, it’s very difficult to describe being British to someone who’s not from these blessed isles. He came up with a pretty accurate description, though:
“We have strong prevailing south westerly winds, um…52% of our days are overcast, so as a nation we’re infused with a wistful melancholy…but we remain a relentlessly chipper population, prone to mild eccentricity, binge drinking and casual violence.”
I love that quotation, but I think that there’s another way to describe Britain – or rather, what it’s like to be British – to someone from a foreign land. Predictably, I have chosen a method that allows me to provide you, dear reader, with a top ten list. Here are the ten worst nightmares of British people:
1) How was your trip?
Particularly in London, people walk with purpose, direction and whenever possible, the speed with which to overtake the tourists just in front. It is devastating, therefore, to massively stack it in the middle of a public place. Sod’s law dictates that this will happen when you are walking past a group of threatening-looking youths, wearing supposedly flattering high heels or in a tube station during rush hour.
2) Stand clear of the closing doors
Speaking of the tube, it’s a wonderful feeling when you manage to squeeze into a crowded carriage on your commute, and if you’re the last one in there’s an Indiana Jones, just-in-the-nick-of-time element to your euphoria. But this joy is short-lived if and when you discover that your errant coat/bag/scarf is the reason that the TFL guy on the platform keeps shouting “Stand CLEAR of the CLOSING DOORS, please!”
3) London is not your Oyster
Another London-based issue, and again this relates most strongly to the havoc of rush hour: being the person who queues up for ages to get to the ticket barrier, only to discover that your Oyster card simply does not want to play ball. You definitely topped it up this morning, so what’s its problem? “Seek assistance”, indeed. I will try, but I have to apologetically shuffle back through this crowd of cross commuters waiting to use the barrier first!
4) Turn around (every now and then I drop my drink)
Assuming that you manage to navigate your way through the streets and train networks, you might make your way to a pub to see some friends and enjoy a nice, cold drink. On a weekend night in particular, the inevitable queueing process at a bar is arduous (but it will not defeat you – you’re British after all, and you know how this works). So once you’ve finally got your drink in hand, the next task is simply to turn away from the bar, carry your drink through the crowd of soon-to-be-sozzled people and find your table. Easier said than done. One errant elbow from an inattentive stranger and your pint/wine glass/soda and lime can go hurtling onto the floor. Back of the queue.
5) Decaf soya latte with sugar free hazelnut syrup, thanks
The beverage-related nightmare doesn’t end there: as a nation we are globally renowned for our love of hot beverages, and it’s always alarming when you come across somebody who doesn’t drink tea or coffee. (Honestly, it gives me the heebie jeebies just typing those words.) Worse than that is to be a coffee or tea lover, but to be very particular about how you take your drink. We live in a world where syrups, soya milk and cinnamon topping (why?) are available in coffee shops all over the country, but if you’re at someone’s house and they offer you a hot drink, it’s excruciating to have to say “er…do you have any brown sugar?”, or make a similarly difficult request. I come up against this embarrassing situation quite often, because I’m allergic to dairy stuff and I don’t like black coffee. It’s not really my fault, but I’m English, ergo I am embarrassed by being honest about my preferences.
6) Well, gosh, I suppose, um…well, yes, actually, I do think you’re rather…I mean to say I think you’re very…no, silly me, forget I said anything
Being honest in general is not something that this country is good at. We love a good moan as much as the next nation (by the way that’s not a dig at France, who are technically the next nation), but when it comes to being open and frank we are petrified. I had coffee with a friend yesterday who advised me to be honest with someone about my feelings – Christ, can you imagine?! One shudders at the very thought. Getting a British person to be communicative on an emotional level is like teaching Keira Knightley how to act. It really should be done at some point, but heaven knows how difficult and painful it would be.
7) The sneezing spree
Speaking of painful, sneezing several times in a row (for NO APPARENT REASON) is horrendously embarrassing, and it provokes most people to adopt a furious, baffled “what on earth is wrong with my sinuses?!” expression, in order to demonstrate to their companions that this is a completely unintentional display of violent noise. The same applies to coughing fits, even if you’re ill and you’ve forewarned people of the fact.
8) Please leave a message after the person you’re calling has scrambled around in their bag, desperately trying to turn their phone off
Making any unintentional noise in public is excruciating to a British person. Last night I genuinely had a nightmare that this happened to me: I had forgotten to turn my phone off, and someone called me in the middle of a theatre performance. I go to the theatre most weeks and my memory for small tasks is terrible, so this event is a very real possibility, but only a British woman would wake up in terror at four in the morning because she subconsciously imagined her phone ringing during a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were playing Blanche and Stella, as I recall. Sterling performances.
9) Shall we dance?
You’re walking along. Someone is walking in the opposite direction. You’re on a collision course. Panic stations: you edge left, and they move to their right. You go the other way, and so do they. CRISIS. Instead of apologising and running across the road in blind terror, I think that we should all use the opportunity to have an impromptu boogie. The next time this happens, take the other person’s hands and launch into a spirited impersonation of the ballroom dancing scene in The King and I.
10) Always take the weather with you
Last but not least, that great and faithful ally of awkward conversations: the British weather. In this instance, it can create a nightmare scenario by simply changing halfway through the day. When a gloriously sunny morning fools you into thinking that an umbrella won’t be necessary and then a downpour strikes as you leave the office; when a brisk morning leads you to don a jumper, only to find that the day has become a record-breaking scorcher by lunchtime; when the weather forecasters scoff in the face of a possible snowstorm, and within an hour of you leaving home the world looks like a Christmas card. This is why many British people carry sun cream, an umbrella and gloves with them at all times. (I’m not joking. You should see my hand bag.) Better to be overloaded with stuff than to let the weather lull you into a false sense of security.
Have a stupendously wonderful day, everyone.