For four out of the past five years I've been loving it from afar, from various parts of the EU, teaching foreign kids and business people about our funny language and our even funnier ways. I've been one of those really irritating long-distance lovers, who enthuse, starry-eyed about the object of their affection to anyone who'll listen (and the best thing about being a teacher is the captive audience). I even spent hard-earned cash on British cheese, beer and fruitcake for my students to prove to them that whatever overpriced cardboard they ate and despaired of on their one trip to London is not the sum total of our culinary offerings. I found it a little frustrating that, unlike that of other countries, our produce is not widely promoted abroad*, to the extent that many Europeans think we all live off 'ham and eggs' and perfectly square pieces of dry 'toast' bread.
The thing that frustrated me much, much more than that though was the attitude of the British media - my main link to what was going on back home. Holy smoke, the place fell to pieces the second I left. And - allegedly - thousands of Brits were leaving their beloved home country, being forced out by the changes they had seen to "their" "culture" and the mismanagement they were no longer prepared to put up with. Which was news to me, as I thought I'd left to try my hand at being an immigrant. We live and learn.
It amazes me that people who claim to be patriotic Brits - both in the media and in real life - also tend to be the people who complain about it the most. For all their yammering at how our culture is being destroyed, our institutions undermined, and how we need to stand up for ourselves and MAKE BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN, there's rarely a mention of what might make Britain 'great' in the first place**. And until those elements are defined, no way am I going to advocate curbing the rights of anyone living here in order to 'defend' the British 'way of life'.
To kick things off, here's a list of some things I think we do well and which it would be a shame to lose:
- Food. Specifically our massive range of fantastic desserts, biscuits and cakes which aren't too sweet or made of 90% cream. Also sandwiches with deep, well thought-out fillings (most of the ones I got in Germany were 1 slice meat, 1 slice cheese, 1 gherkin). No-one else does pies quite like we do, and I have never encountered a better variety of sausage. More importantly, we're happy to take elements of other countries' cuisines and make them our own.
- Free entry to museums and galleries. This means that nearby residents can just wander in for ten minutes, whenever they're in the area, and soak up some of that culture that's allegedly disappearing. Same goes for our excellent, integrated system of free libraries, which is certainly not a universal concept. Our tourist attractions too are generally well-run with excellent facilities and genuinely informative exhibitions, even if the gift shops are getting a bit silly.
- Music. That largely silent phase we went through while geniuses abroad were composing their operas and symphonies? We were just saving ourselves for the second half on the 20th century. Ok, so I grew up to be a bigger than average Brit-pop junkie, but really there's something for everyone there.
Of course, these aren't innocent achievements****. I would be the first to point out that Britain's culture is the result of a lot of suffering, most of it inflicted on the populations of other countries, which we didn't give a monkey's for at the time. But that doesn't mean I'd be happy to see that culture disappear. I believe in political correctness (more on that in a later post) but I wouldn't advocate changing something in the present to appease the past. That's just illogical.
What I find far more illogical though, is the two very contradictory views that many people are able to hold simultaneously; that Britain was once 'great', and that our achievements abroad were a good thing, but also that the country is 'broken' and that the evidence of those international links which remains in Britain (our immigrant communities and mixed marriages, our general willingness to acknowledge the contributions made by other cultures to our own) is something to be attacked and stamped out. The two sides simply don't add up.
We could, perhaps, attempt a 'return' to a culture which is devoid of all foreign influences but most people would agree that living off beans and turnips, with fewer attractions to visit and very little music to enjoy on our 'made in Britain' gramophones, wouldn't be all that 'great' after all.
*Incidentally, after writing this I'm going to bake an apple crumble for a Frenchman. In this area at least, I'm prepared to practice what I preach.
**Sure I know it's a geography term. You know I know that. We're cool.
***Imagine my shock at German restaurants serving them still wrapped in foil and smothered in sour cream. Seriously tricky to eat.
****A severe understatement , I know, but not something I want to get into here.