If you're going to Great Britain as part of a UK holiday then you might be wondering what to expect from the British people. How different are they from their American counterparts?
In the 1958 film A Night To Remember – about the sinking of the Titanic – we see tux-clad card players dealing hands of bridge as the ship goes down, the band playing Abide With Me as water laps along the deck, and toffs dressed in their Sunday best ‘prepared to go down as gentlemen’. How very, very British.
For a deeper understanding of peculiar British sensibilities as you travel around, Eccentric Britain by Benedict le Vay is invaluable. In the same series are Eccentric London, Eccentric Edinburgh and Eccentric Oxford.
Calmness in the face of adversity, a laconic sense of humour, a sense of decency and fair play, and mastery of understatement (just look at the title of that film) are all fundamental facets of the British character – at least, as seen by the British themselves. Ask the French, for example, and you might get a rather different list of attributes that includes stand-offishness, anti-intellectualism, public drunkenness and being crap at cooking.
But in as much as there exists such a thing as ‘British identity’, it’s a relatively recent creation, and one that was forged in adversity – in the empire-building of the 19th century, and in the two world wars of the 20th. This idealised British character – the plucky, stiff-upper-lipped, source-of-the-Nile-discovering, Everest-conquering, all-round hero and decent chap (or chapess) – is celebrated in countless films released in the decade or two following WWII, from Brief Encounter to 633 Squadron.
From the 1960s on, it has also been mercilessly satirised in hundreds of films and TV shows, from the classic Carry On… comedies (Brits in colonial India calmly taking afternoon tea as a battle rages around them), to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (reduced to a limbless torso but still exhorting his opponent to come back and fight like a man). You might think that much of this mythical Britishness is a thing of the past, but a lot of it lives on. The British Character by ‘Pont’ (one of Punch magazine’s finest cartoonists) was first published in the late 1930s, but pretty much all the national idiosyncrasies that are gently mocked in this collection of cartoons are still recognisable today, including the importance of forming an orderly queue, an unflinching belief in the miraculous cure-all properties of a nice cup of tea, and a love of animals that borders on the clinically insane.
For an amusing insight into what it means to be a Brit, search www.amazon.com for The British Character by Pont, or check out the cartoons online at www.punchcartoons.com.
But today, just as the prime minister is promoting the idea of ‘citizenship ceremonies’ for new immigrants and ‘celebrations of Britishness’ for the rest of the nation, British identity seems to be disintegrating. Scotland and Wales have always had a strong sense of themselves, nurturing their differences in the face of centuries of English cultural dominance. Since the creation of separate parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff in the late 1990s, this process has accelerated, forcing the English to rediscover their own national identity. For them, English and British have meant pretty much the same thing for as long as they can remember. Today, there is more celebration of individual Scots, English and Welsh identity than there is of a British one – even the supposedly all-encompassing ‘Team GB’ brand used in the 2008 Olympics caused a controversy because it left out Northern Ireland.