Wish we were here

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The Independent Culture
NOW BEGINS the season of lists and bellowed ruefulness as, back from their holidays, the English unpack their souvenirs and wonder what the hell to do with them. Not old-fashioned souvenirs, of course; nobody buys old-fashioned souvenirs any more: pig-iron models of the Eiffel Tower with a thermometer up the side (whole generations of people were bemused to find that the real thing didn't have a thermometer); stuffed donkeys in sombreros; plastic strings of onions made in Fukushima; cuckoo clocks, Big Bens, Mannekins Pis, Chianti-bottle lamps ... the entire reliquary of foreign travel when it was still a sacrament which left an indelible mark upon soul as well as sideboard; when going across the Channel was booked six months in advance (leading to innumerable car crashes as harassed families dashed for the pre-ordained ferry), when Daddy had a special briefcase for the Travel Documents, when we didn't have much truck with foreigners and their nasty mucked-about food.

Now, we are casual. We mosey along to Dover or the Chunnel, knowing that there'll be another one in half an hour. We have finally realised that Abroad has batteries, aspirins, fizzy pop and soap, that we can drink the water, that, more or less wherever you go in the world, the food is actually made of food, rather than mutants, carapaces, condemned things and spit. The world has grown safer and smaller, and there is little point in bringing back souvenirs like like pilgrims' cockleshells because we have risked little in going, everyone else has been too, and, anyway, our souls are unchanged.

Instead, we bring back lifestyles (or savoir-vivre, if we have been to France). From Italy, we return laden with a slightly brittle exuberance, a taste for late bedtimes and an inclination to have arm-waving but fundamentally loving and good-humoured rows. From Spain, we bring back dignity, graceful bearing, and a fearless approach to nasty swimmy things with shrivelled tentacles and too many heads. From Greece, we return with resolutions to respect the simpler things of life, and dreams of living happily on olives, feta and pitta bread, washed down with retsina and liberally sprinkled with bouzouki music. And from Belgium we bring back a great gratitude that, although we are English, at least we are not Belgian.

But it doesn't stick. Like bargain Benares brassware, our glossy veneer of savoir-vivre starts peeling off halfway home, and two weeks back from holiday, it has vanished entirely, leaving the English pig-iron rudely exposed. Holidaymakers returned from America do worst, due to the huge gulf between American Americanism and the English version; like those sad "cowboys" who hang out in places like Watford and Solihull, the difference of scale and attitude make the contrast too severe to be borne. We can come home and call the M5 a "freeway", and listen to vile American pop music, and pretend the Mondeo is a big old Studebaker and the porky lorry drivers are manly truckers with intricate love-lives, and the dream will remain alive, albeit in articulo mortis, until we pull into a McDonald's and get, as well as the graunchy foodburger, the grumbling, sullen, flat- eyed whine of the servitor, the thin, moaning English people called Warren grinding on adenoidally, the masticating underclass slumped in its New Labour despair, the admonitory signs, the sodium lamps, the terrible, terrible outskirts and the endless, endless rain.

It won't work, any of it. Our only hope is to reinvent our own culture, a savoir-vivre which is incontrovertibly English, and now is the time to start. We are a cold, grumpy, autumnal people, and should re-acquire our ancient cold, grumpy, autumnal culture. From now on, we will not give a stuff for foreigners and suchlike. We won't be wasting money on lobster, nor will we know our way round shellfish. A poached egg on toast will do us just fine. We will smell of mothballs and our old overcoat will see us out. Our bedrooms will be cold, but our hot-water bottle will see us right. We will keep our change in a little purse and not waste time hankering after what we can't afford. Our womenfolk will be plain but good-hearted, our men will wear Brylcreem and a nice warm vest, and there'll be none of that mucking about thank you very much. We'll push the boat out as and when, but not make a habit of it. As for foreigners, if they want to come here they can watch their manners, but none of their nonsense or they'll get what's coming to them. Believe me. It'll be a relief all round, and next year we can go to Skegness. It's so bracing, and no nasty Frogs to contend with, either.

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