Wacky ways to spot a true Brit


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The Independent Online

What are the values that define a plucky Brit? For those hoping to pass the 45-minute citizenship test (with a 75 per cent pass mark), Life in the United Kingdom is required reading. Thank goodness I was born in west London, not Pakistan or Nigeria, because a quick perusal of the latest edition confirms I would not make the grade. Being British seems very complicated. The first big hurdle is unpicking the logic behind the wacky range of facts included in this Home Office publication. What convoluted civil service mind drew up the list of contents for starters? They range from Monty Python to St Trinian's, Fountains Abbey to Captain Cook, Torvill and Dean to Yorkshire pudding, Santa Claus to the Last Night of the Proms. This buffet of random factoids seems designed to confuse potential citizens.

Is there any other country that requires knowledge of a pair of stand-up comedians (Morecambe and Wise) as proof you are worthy of a passport? New statistics show that a modern Briton is likely to be fluent in Polish, now our second language, in which case barszcz ought to be included along with fish and chips. At the same time as one Home Office department publishes a guide for would-be citizens, another is busy dreaming up an advertising campaign to deter settlers from Romania and Bulgaria. A minister thinks the campaign is necessary to "correct the impression that the streets here are paved with gold". If Romanians and Bulgarians bothered to read Life in the United Kingdom, they might think we spend our time waving flags, dressing like Sherlock Holmes, reading Harry Potter and gorging on beef.

The citizenship exam is derided by David Cameron's former tutor Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, and Hilary Mantel, who says is the product of "strange warped minds" that reminds her of apartheid.

How can Britain be sold as desirable and quirky to one group, while being promoted as unattractive and unwelcoming to another? Can't Bulgarians and Romanians emulate the best of our traditions, including our famous stiff upper lip? Never mind humour or haggis, Brits don't like going to the doctor and talking about illnesses. Our cancer survival rates lag behind other countries since many tumours are discovered so late they are fatal – one trait we would do well to shed.

When David Cameron made his speech about holding an in/out EU referendum recently, Der Spiegel wrote us a little love letter, saying our quirkiness and punk attitudes would be missed. The Germans like us so much their schoolchildren now learn English by singing along to a jolly song about Weston-super-Mare. Traditions die hard: Rowan Atkinson has triumphantly returned to the London stage in Quartermaine's Terms, written in 1981 by Simon Gray, set in a Cambridge language school where the typically reserved staff plan lessons on British life while demonstrating all our little social tics to perfection. So who personifies the real Brit? The cast of the Olympics panto or the staff in Simon Gray's period piece? It's not just potential citizens who are confused.

Tall poppies

Last week, Hilary Mantel hit the jackpot when the second part of her Tudor trilogy, Bring up the Bodies, won the 2012 Costa Book of the Year Award, beating winners in five different categories, from poetry to biography. Bodies has sold 240,000 copies in hardback, way ahead of its competition in the Costas, but does popularity necessarily equal literary merit and accolades? I'm still methodically ploughing through Thomas Cromwell's middle years, but the love affair we had in volume one is on the wane with his increasing girth and Anne Boleyn's endless whingeing. I've got a sneaky feeling this is one of those books (like Lynne Truss's bestseller on grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves) that we middle-class snobs buy, display prominently, but few make it to the bitter end. In Australia, "tall poppy syndrome" refers to the national pastime of trashing successful people, cutting them down to size as if they imagine they're a bit better than the rest of us. Mantel, like Clare Balding, is a national treasure previously exempt from cynical carping, but is the tide beginning to turn, Aussie-style?

Joan Smith is the first brave critic to put her head above the parapet and speak heresy. Last week, she penned a column in our sister paper entitled "Mantel's success is a mystery". Fighting talk! Joan describes Cromwell as "a crashing snob", in other words, a bit of a bore to snuggle up to in those precious hours before sleep. I'm not sure what all these literary awards mean, either. Are they any better than the film world's parade of Baftas, Oscars and Golden Globes? Can one book really be better than any other published in the past 12 months? As for Clare Balding – in the news as she's the presenter on a new sports channel – she is wonderful, but I'd really like a day off, please.

Royal Oyster

I wish I'd known that Charles and Camilla were paying my neighbourhood a regal visit last week. They popped into Clerkenwell and made the brave decision to take the Tube from Farringdon to King's Cross – just one stop. Photographed for posterity, Charles looked as if he'd been asked to scale the north face of the Eiger, a stiff upper lip, a brave grimace, with some discreet assistance when it came to scanning his special Oyster card. Sadly, he seems incapable of doing anything we plebs do and looking relaxed, but I would have been happy to educate him in essential Tube etiquette, such as making no eye contact. Transport for London could have made the heir to the throne feel more at home by introducing a spot of high culture, perhaps an underground recital organised by Shaun Buswell. A composer and musician from Swindon, who works in customer services, Shaun recruited a 70-piece symphony orchestra while travelling on the Underground until 12 December last year, introducing himself to anyone who was carrying a musical instrument. The 12.12.12 orchestra has just given a well-received concert at the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, in aid of children's charities. Shaun deserves a grant from the Arts Council and the chance to play at Clarence House.

Ambridge alert

Those country folk in Ambridge have been in turmoil for months. Under the new "serious" regime adopted to make it more "relevant", storylines are grittier, an unsatisfactory gruel of poverty, middle-aged affairs and teenage angst. In a single episode recently, Pip was screaming at Ruth, Lilian was sobbing in a hotel room in between bonking Paul and lying to increasingly suspicious Matt, and David was shouting at Lynda Snell about her passion for badgers. Since Nigel (played by Graham Seed) fell to his death two years ago, listeners have been deserting the soap. Will BBC bosses admit their new brutalism isn't working?