John Walsh: 'Born and bred a Brit – but apparently I know nothing about Britishness'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

This is quite a surprise. I have lived in England all my life, I was spawned, reared, educated, housed and enfranchised here and have, over 50-odd years, picked up a fair bit of information about how the place works. I know that English teatime is 4.30pm (unless you're in The North), that Post Offices shut inconveniently at noon on Saturdays, that the No 3 bus goes right through the centre of London from Crystal Palace to Regent Street. I know that if you spill the beer of any gentleman with a bald head and tattoos in a south London pub, you should buy him another one instantly or prepare to die. I know the correct form of salutation among groovy young people outside a bar is "All right, Dave?" [or nomenclatural variant]. I know that the chap who plays David Archer in The Archers is the 12th Earl of Portland and supplied the voice that says "Mind the Gap" on the Piccadilly Line.

For God's sake, I could hardly be more English, had it not been for the fact that I was born to two Irish parents. But I've surely imbibed enough English-osity, to be a perfect specimen of English citizen. And then I did the test online and discovered I know apparently sod-all about it.

The test is taken from a book written by a shadowy bunch called the Home Office "Life in the UK" Advisory Group and entitled Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship. It's required reading for new arrivals or anyone hoping to qualify for citizenship: a quarter of a million visitors a year have to take a 24-question test based on the book. Of course the online version doesn't ask exactly the same questions as the ones which immigrants will be asked; they're like a test run to establish whether you can answer anything at all ...

The first question asks whether it's true or false that the largest immigrant groups into the UK in the 1980s were West Indians, Irish, Asians and Pakistanis. I decided, on balance, that it's probably True (perhaps I was haunted by memories of White City riots in the 1950s, and Brixton in the 1970s) but I was quite wrong. The largest immigrant groups were Americans, Australians, South Africans and Kiwis. A small sub-text seemed to rear its head at this point, saying I'd obviously got preconceptions about foreigners, and was probably a closet racist. I then had to guess the number of MPs' constituencies there are in Parliament (how would a new arrival know?) and say what things a British job application had to include (a CV? A signed photo? A wad of £20s? A carefully veiled threat about knowing where someone lives?).

By the time I got to Question 6 – "Ulster Scots is a dialect which is spoken in Northern Ireland – True or False?" I'd begun wonder what in God's name all this had to do with making Lev or Seamus or Ahmed into a properly integrated citizen with a real sense of belonging to a foreign society. When the Home Office test asked: "In which year were married women allowed to divorce their husbands: 1837, 1857, 1875 or 1882?" I wondered who, except for scholars of Victorian social history, could answer it. Would any other nation make a foreign visitor's status as a citizen dependent on his knowing the minutiae of family law a century ago?

Soon, I was buried under questions regarding the Welfare State: which members of the public get prescriptions free? Do parents of state school pupils have to buy their school uniforms? How long must the unemployed wait before they can get onto the New Deal scheme? What percentage of the British population say they're Muslims?

I was mostly stumped. The Home Office's notion of citizenship seemed to involve knowing about state benefits, population figures and obscure details from British history rather than knowing about your fellow man and how you might get on together. I scored 12 out of 24, a shameful 50 per cent, and Failed.

I hang my head in mortification. But it seems to me slightly more crucial to social integration that new citizens should know how inexplicably devoted British people are to Marmite, Ann Widdecombe, risqué puns on breakfast radio, the Shipping Forecast and Jeremy Clarkson, than they should be able to say which dialect is spoken around the Giant's Causeway.