We all know how romantic Britain is, right? Ruined castles, foggy moors, illegal waste disposal. Yes, folks, we’ve got it all.
Back in–hang on. How long has this article been kicking around my coffee table? Back in December 2020–in fact, just in time for Christmas–a Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, got exercised about criminal networks working in waste disposal, and (what with being criminals and all) dumping and burning large amounts of the stuff they were supposed to dispose of in the approved (if not necessarily planet-friendly) way.
Some of it, he wrote, is hazardous.
How could that be allowed to happen?
He set out to demonstrate that the government has lost control of the licensing process so thoroughly that anyone can get licensed to dispose of waste. And they can use false information if they want, because it won’t be checked.
To demonstrate, he registered his long-dead goldfish as an upper-tier carrier, broker, and dealer in waste. The fish appeared on the form as Algernon Goldfish of 49 Fishtank Close, Ohlooka Castle, Derby.
A month later, Algernon had his license. Or to be entirely accurate, Monbiot had Algernon’s license. Algernon never opened his own mail, even when he was alive.
But let’s be even more than entirely accurate: Algernon may not have been male. To the casual human observer, male and female goldfish look nonbinary, which is to say, we can’t tell the difference. But the culture being what it is, most people will decide their fish is male.
I know. But a female goldfish applying for a license might have snagged some official’s attention the way a male goldfish wouldn’t, after which they might have asked Lord Google where Ohlooka Castle is, and the whole thing would’ve fallen apart. So it was important that Algernon stay putatively male.
As the cynical among us used to say in the–was it the seventies? Or as I think of it, last week? Yeah, it probably was. We said, “Make sexism work for you.”
It never did, really, but it sometimes kept us from throwing things.
What else makes Britain romantic?
Well, tea, of course. Or if it doesn’t make the place romantic, at least it makes up a huge part of people’s image of Britain. Which is a problem, because the British are buying less tea than they used to. And if they’re buying less, it follows as the night the day that they’re drinking less.
What’s going on?
The world’s ending, that’s what.
On top of which Britons are switching to coffee, herbal tea, iced tea, energy drinks, and for all I know cocaine.
Not everything on that list is available from your local supermarket, but with the exception of herbal tea all of it will wake you up.
According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is based on conversations with at least three people who still speak to me, the British consider coffee fancier than tea.
To be clear: I’m not talking about instant coffee here, and maybe not about the stuff I learned to drink in the U.S. as a young adult, at great cost to my taste buds and ability to sleep. I’m talking about the kind you buy at a coffee shop. The kind that comes from a machine the size of a Volkswagen. Or the kind people make at home using a non-recyclable pod that they slot into a machine the size of a small short-haired dog.
Semi-relevantly, people don’t talk about having coffee here, they talk about having a coffee, as in “I stopped in for a coffee.” I’ve lived outside the U.S. too long to remember what Americans would say, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. A cup of coffee? Probably. But I do remember that tea’s the fancier drink in the U.S.. Or at least the one that marks you as a bit of a weirdo.
To prove that tea isn’t the fancier drink in Britain, some whole category of people talk about builder’s tea, meaning the tea people who work in the building trades drink to fuel themselves through the damp and the wind and the hard work. I’m not sure how to describe that category of people who say call it builder’s tea, but I seem to have joined it. They didn’t do a background check before accepting me and I didn’t ask what I was signing up to.
If that isn’t proof enough of tea’s un-fancyness–and I can’t think why it would be–there’s this: 96% of the tea that Britons slug down is made with a teabag, not from the more up-market leaf teas.
How did they measure that 96%? By the cuppa, a non-standardized metric that can be found, in spite of the slow shift away from tea, in pretty much every household. The language has preserved a place for the question, “Would you like a cuppa?”
Or maybe that’s, “Do you want a cuppa?” I don’t really speak British. I speak something that’s vaguely related but it doesn’t allow me to write convincing dialogue.
All comments and corrections and explanations of British English are welcome. Also all marginally appropriate mockery.
What else can we learn about British culture?
Why, we can learn what people leave behind at hotels. The Travelodge chain reported on that very topic, because they understand its cultural importance. The past year’s finds include:
- A pair of feathered angel wings, six feet across
- A dog named Beyoncé
- A dress made out of postcards
- A horsebox, with the horse inside
- A drum kit
- A Jimmy Choo Cinderella shoe
- A suitcase full of Blackpool rock
Okay, a couple of those items need explanations. Blackpool rock doesn’t mean stones. Rock’s a stick-shaped hard candy with, in this case, the word Blackpool written all the way through the center. I can understand forgetting it. What I can’t understand is having a suitcase of it, but never mind, the human race is far stranger than any one mind can take in.
As for the shoe, all I can tell you is that Jimmy Choo shoes are ridiculously expensive and that Cinderella’s known for losing a shoe, so pouring that kind of money into two of them seems like a bad investment. But what do I know? I wear running shoes.
But 2021 was a pandemic year. Let’s go back to 2019, before the pandemic got its claws into us, and see what people left:
- A five-foot unicorn made of flowers
- A gallon of water from Loch Ness
- Two alpacas
- The best man from a wedding party (and that was before the wedding)
- A dissertation (topic not specified)
- An urn with someone’s father’s ashes
- The deed to a shop
- An Aston Martin
- A cat
- A 75-inch color TV (just try finding a black and white one these days)
- A blood pressure monitor
- And in a come-down from 2021, a set of angel wings that are only four feet wide
Meanwhile in British politics
We could learn a few things here too if we try.
With the shine having gone off the prime minister, a few people in his government are appealing to the we-don’t-like foreigners strand of the culture to see if they can’t shine him back up again. Or at least shine themselves up in case his position suddenly goes vacant.
Appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new, but it went into bold-face type earlier this year, with the home secretary, Priti Patel, calling for asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats to be forced back to France, which France insisted would put their lives at risk.
Will not, Patel said.
Will so too, France said.
Don’t care, Patel may have whispered once the microphone was turned off.
Patel introduced a bill that, until public outrage forced her to modify it, looked like it would make a criminal out of anyone saving an asylum seeker’s life at sea.
All this activated Brexiteer Nigel Farage and some of the rightest wing of the media to accuse the Royal National Lifeboat Institution of being woke. Not woke as in having had too much fancy coffee but woke as in being someone they disagree with.
Anything can be turned into an insult if you say it in the right tone of voice.
Why was the RNLI having the evil finger pointd at it? Because it was dedicated to saving lives at sea. Anyone’s life. Lots of ink was spilled onto newsprint, and lots of vitriol was spilled onto the internet. One group of fishermen apparently tried to block a lifeboat, presumably when it wasn’t trying to save a fisherman’s life.
So how well did that work for the anti-woke, no-caffeine campaigners? The RNLI ended 2020 on track to raise the largest amount of money in its almost 200-year history. Online donations went up 50%.
And in economics
By 9 a.m. on January 7–the year’s fourth working day in Britain–the average head of the country’s biggest companies had made more money (if you figure it on an hourly basis, which they don’t but never mind) than the average British worker will make by the end of the year. Unless of course the spaceships land before the year ends and seriously reconfigure the economic system.
To put that a different way and for a different year, in 2020 FTSE 100 chief execs were paid an average of 86 times more than the average full-time British worker made. I wouldn’t say it adds to the romance of the country, but it does tell us a lot about the culture.
And in other countries…
The Dutch government has put out a warning about pendants that are supposed to protect people from frequencies 5G masts emit: The pendants are radioactive, the government says. And (in case this wasn’t obvious as soon as you hit the word radioactive), they’re dangerous.
In Canada, cats have put out a warning that Elon Musk’s satellite dishes are nice and warm when it snows. Not very warm, but warmer than snow, because they have a self-heating feature that’s supposed to melt the snow off them. It does do that. It also attracts cats.
This was reported by a customer who said his cats have a heated house of their own but they prefer the satellite dish, at least while the sun’s up.
The cats slow his reception way down, but hey, if kitty’s happy, everyone’s happy. Or so my cats tell me.
And finally, in the United States, an eight-year-old, Dillon Helbig, slipped a hand-drawn book onto a shelf in the children’s-book section of his local library.
“I wanted to put my book in the library center since I was five, and I always had a love for books and libraries,” he said. “I’ve been going to libraries a lot since I was a baby.”
The book is The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis, and it’s by “Dillon His Self.”
Library staff found the book and moved it to the graphic novel section, so it can be borrowed. When last heard of, it had a waiting list of 55. The library awarded Dillon the first Whoodini Award for best young novelist. The award was named after the library’s owl mascot and the category was created for Dillon. Who’s working on a sequel.
My thanks to Jane Whitledge for pushing me in the direction of that last story.