A work colleague of mine is helping his friend study for the British citizenship test. I was having a look at the questions and was baffled by how few of them I knew. For example – ‘What is the name of the admiral who died in a sea battle in 1805 and has a monument in Trafalgar Square?’ Erm – is that relevant?
And it got me thinking about what it means to be British, or rather, what I would define at Britishness. So here are the things I think you really need to know to prove you grew up in Britain:
Firstly, you need to have really strong preferences on how you like your chips. You need to know if you like salt and vinegar, if you’re a curry sauce person or a gravy person, and you need to have a vociferous argument with your significant other about it every single time you visit a chip shop – ‘So much vinegar it’s disintegrating the paper! That’s disgusting!’ You must also consistently reference a place you got chips when you were younger where they were much better than wherever you are now.
Salute at magpies. There's a song you can learn as well, but the saluting is important.
Have a very specific, limited education on certain things. For example, you must know how many wives Henry VIII had and in what order they were divorced, beheaded and died. You should know one Shakespeare play in great detail, to the point where you can recite whole paragraphs, but no others. You should be able to identify an oxbow lake, but not, say, be able to point out India on a map.
Don’t smoke – nobody smokes. Smoking is frowned upon, and if someone blows smoke in your face in the street you’re allowed to tut. But you can SOCIALLY smoke, obviously, which means when you’ve had more than three drinks and are outside a pub or in the garden at somebody’s house party. When smoking, you must talk about how you don’t normally smoke, and mutter ‘filthy habit’ under your breath.
Don’t speak on public transport, even if you are so packed in that you’re in someone’s armpit or so close to their face that you could kiss them. Sometimes, somebody on the train or bus will be doing something a bit mental – singing the Lord’s prayer loudly, taking a banana repeatedly in and out of a bin, barking like a dog. Hold your peace. But be assured, if the madman approaches you – or anyone else, in particular an old lady – three large men in their forties, all with tattooed arms and an air that suggests they’ve been in prison, will step forward menacingly and say ‘HEY.’ And that will be the end of it.
Talk endlessly about the weather. If it’s cold, complain. If it’s hot, complain. Once on a perfectly normal day my Mum looked up at the sky, tutted, and said ‘It’s such a nothingy day today.’ You can always rely on the weather for conversation.
If you see someone littering, don’t say anything. You don’t need to. A harried looking mum will approach the litterer – usually a terrifying youth called Dwayne in baggy jeans who is very possibly carrying a gun – and will say something like ‘Look! There’s a bin right there! Right there, look!’ Everybody in the vicinity will hold their breath, but Dwayne will pretty much always just pick up the offending crisp packet and shuffle to the bin, muttering ‘Bitch,’ barely audibly.
Eat 99s in the summer. Complain that they no longer cost 99p, even though they have never cost 99p in your living memory. Other things you must complain about the price of include Freddos and Space Raider crisps (even though you would never eat these things, even if they were given to you for free), petrol (‘£50 to fill a Vauxhall Corsa!’) and admission to theme parks. You must never go to a theme park without 2 for 1 vouchers your Mum has collected for you from doing Tesco ‘big shops.’
You need to know all the words to Common People, the opening verse of Don’t Stop Believing, and the dance to the Macarena. You need to know how to do said dance in a half-hearted, embarrassed fashion, and slink off halfway through when it gets a bit tiring and boring and like suddenly you’re all at an aerobics class in the middle of a club. You need to know that at every single wedding, school disco or reunion you ever go to, the song ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’ will be played somewhere near the end and an unlikely couple will snog to it. Enjoy fancy dress, but pretend you don't, and always do it a bit reluctantly.
You must have an old school friend with a weird nickname – something like The Cheese or Bluey. The name is based on a story that most people can’t remember and wasn’t really funny anyway, like, he ate a bit of blue paint by mistake once or something. Bluey, whose name is almost always Richard, went to university and likes to be called Rich now. You see him at his wedding – he’s marrying a girl called Lucy with glasses and she disapproves of you. He isn’t as fun as he used to be. He clearly doesn’t like you calling him Bluey anymore, but every year, reliable as clockwork, you must write it on his Facebook wall – ‘Happy birthday, Blue! Don’t eat all the paint!’
If someone says ‘Nice to see you,’ reply ‘To see you nice!’ Get your news from the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, but never, ever admit to it. Wear tights with everything. Drink cider in pub gardens the second the sun comes out and mulled wine by pub fires from late October onwards.
Cultivate a strong and recalcitrant opinion on the following: the best Bond. The best Beatle. How to take your tea. How to best scramble eggs. Which Spice Girl you would’ve been or liked to marry. Whether or not you can have Yorkshire puddings with all roast dinners, or just beef. If you’re Tesco or Sainsbury’s (don’t be a Waitrose or an Asda). Burger King or McDonald’s (this can become quite specific – you can say you prefer ‘Burger King burgers but McDonald’s chips,’ as if you might actually drive between the two to select your gourmet meal of choice). Eastenders or Coronation Street. Cats or dogs (for some reason no, you can’t like both).
You need to call your Mum a lot and eat roast dinners on Sundays and slag off the Prime Minister but quite like the Queen. You should be kind but stern, stiff upper lipped but with a soft heart. And you must always, always be happiest in the pub with a pint. Who wouldn’t want to be British, when you put it like that?