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Britishness test

May 2, 2011

A friend of mine is from the USA and has recently gone through the myriad processes and payments required to get her hands on a UK passport. We were chatting in the park about how most of us Brits probably wouldn’t be able to pass the test ourselves when I got thinking about what being British (or is it English?) means.

The things I associate with Britain, I’m sure, are not unique to here, but I wonder if they’re somehow more ingrained, more dense, more intensely ‘ours’. I’m yet to visit another country that has ‘got’ pubs quite like we have. Public spaces that can feel extremely private, decorated often like an eccentric relative’s sitting room, where you pay to drink obscene quantities of intoxicating liquid. Inside you could find any or all of these things: resident dogs or cats, portraits of Margaret Thatcher, resident old men, sticky carpets, bar stools, surly locals,  fruit machines, obscure wooden games, darts, fireplaces, horse irons, pork scratchings, out-of-date charity collecting boxes, pickled eggs, peanuts hung on a picture of a bikinied lady, bowling alleys. I love the idea of pubs. I love the practice of pubs. I love pubs.

I’m pretty sure that this second one isn’t exclusive to the UK either, I just associate it very strongly with a rural English upbringing. When you live in a village that closed all day on Sunday and halfdays on Wednesday and Saturday, you get your kicks where you can. I was one of those children who always left something behind after birthday parties/school/swimming. In fact, I’m one of those adults that does that too. I once bought three of the same black zip-up tops from H&M over about 18 months when I continuously lost it in various locations around London. The cycle was broken only when H&M discontinued the top.

There’s little that’s good about losing things (virginity/weight/memories of traumatic events excepted) but when you lose things in England then there’s a strong chance that soon after becoming separated, some kindly passer-by will find it and impale it on the nearest fence post for subsequent collection. In winter, the fingers of single frosty gloves point from railings, children’s socks or toys balance tentatively on random items of pavement furniture. I once lost a woolly hat when walking through the countryside. Several weeks later, walking the same route, we found the hat hanging from a branch over the path on which I must have lost it.

I don’t know what it is about this that I find so endearing – I think it’s encouraging that a person can be bothered to do something, albeit small, that’s as altruistic and optimistic as picking up an item from the ground, locating a visible but safe place to dangle it, ripe for collection by its owner. It’s also reassuring for someone like me who couldn’t only get lost in a paper bag, but would lose the paper bag too.

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