217 – The New England

Some of us do not look like this.

Britain! Land of bowler hats and afternoon tea;.of double-decker buses and red telephone boxes. Land of the underclass, the overclass, wombling free.

Wait. Wombling?

Oh, that’s right: You’re not from around here. You won’t know what a womble is; only a true Brit would know that.

And – sad as it might be – only a true Brit would know all that stuff about hats and telephone phone boxes is total horseshit.

You out of towners with your out of town ways – you don’t know the real Britain. Everything you know is a fairy tale.

I’ve been known to wax lyrical about Britain and her virtues in the past. I’ve been known to take the poetical route when talking about her fields, her villages and her peoples. I’ve been known to . . . season the truth somewhat, with salt and sugar cubes stolen from a lordly silver cruet.

I do so because I live down here in Britain’s sleeping foot: the West Country. Devon and Cornwall are backward compared with the more cosmopolitan metropolitan nerve centres of the country. There are other green and pleasant areas about Britain where locals do things differently and cityfolk scoff at them. We act defensively – you big city types are too busy drinking cappuccinos to understand our ways! – but the younger, more informed generations – some who’ve even set foot beyond the village limits and survived to tell the tale – are uncomfortable with the racism, the homophobia, the Christian values village people abide by.

I’m embellishing again (you’re making things up again, Campfire) but our small, insular villages really do feel small and insular. The Women’s Institute might not actually be full of barren old spinsters complaining about the Indians and the gays, but it’s difficult to tell that when visiting their cake stall at the local summer fete. For a lot of countryfolk, differently coloured skin and homosexuality are modern myths, the kind of things only seen on the television. Hell, when I was four and the Asian kid in class (who left school very soon after; it wasn’t the done thing to stay at my primary school if you weren’t white) tripped and gouged his knee, I honestly thought his blood might be green. I’ve no idea where I picked that up from – Star Trek? – but I’d picked it up somewhere. His skin was different, his eyes were different – I was downright disappointed when his blood turned out to be same colour as mine.

Importantly, these backward villagers only comprise a small percentage of the population. Follow motorways as you move inland and you’ll find cities as big and bustling, and as culturally diverse as you’d expect to find in the twenty-first century. There are so many faiths and ethnic backgrounds represented in them Tom the fey vicar from Sudbury-Upon-Twee wouldn’t dare drive through without the windows wound high, the car doors firmly locked.

(And isn’t that your response when confronted by crowds of people anywhere, regardless of creed or nationality?)

(Shut up, you.)

Britain is not the Britain you think it is. Unless you’re British. In which case it probably is.

We’re not without our idiosyncrasies. Some of us like Marmite, and you can buy Mr. Brain’s Faggots (in a rich West Country gravy) in most supermarkets. For the record, faggots are a sort of meatball or burger made from offal. And yes, we do eat offal, though it’s never been a primary dietary staple and despite rabble-rousing from celebrity chefs, has fallen even further in popularity over recent years.

But I’ve been to American supermarkets; I’ve seen just as much offal in your chiller cabinets as there is in ours – if not more. You might protest and say only old people eat gizzards and liver:  we’d do the same. Surely it takes a man steely of gaze and incontinent of pants to look his butcher in the eye and ask for a pound of your best faggots good sir, if you please.

Though no man – regardless of age – would be as overly formal or polite in this day and age. Despite what Hollywood tells you, we don’t live in the Dark Ages.

America has a very strange image of what it means to be British. I often wonder if anyone from over there has ever been over here, so disparate is Britain Real from Britain: Hollywood Edition.

I first realised they might have gotten things slightly wonky when watching Three Men and a Little Lady. I’d read a negative review that said the director’s idea of Britain was laughable, but the film itself seemed to think we were living in a feudal age, with serfs and aristocracy, where citizens lived either in grand palatial estates – castles, even – or grubbed in ditches for their lords and betters.

It’s hardly the only unrealistic depiction of Britain on the big screen. I have a theory that researchers for the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins blew their flight money on whores and ended up inventing some fairy tale version of Britain at the last minute. Ever since then, nobody’s ever bothered to check and see if Disney’s Britain matches up to the real place; instead, every director who wants to set a film here just watches the previous generation’s movie depictions and bases their films on that. Like an incestuous royal line (did you see what I did there? Maybe later on I’ll throw in some gags about bad teeth) each decade’s depictions of Britain has become more twisted and outlandish.

We don’t help ourselves. The British movie industry balances on two legs: period costume dramas and feel good movies about Asian families. This is because we only have two movie companies still willing to work over here, and one of those is run by British Asians. I mean, I’m exaggerating here, but without Gurinder Chadha, the economy of our entertainment industry would probably collapse.

While her films are often reasonably accurate depictions of modern Britain, being aimed at such a narrow target audience means they don’t exactly have international crossover appeal – who in the United States wants to watch a film with words like ‘bhaji’ or ‘snogging’ in the title?

They’re still vastly preferable than all those dreamy sagas of stiff people in corsets. There are certain unwritten laws in Hollywood – ‘make one film for the studio then one for yourself’ is one of them. Over here every actor is required by law to perform in at least one period costume drama every three years, or else they’ll have a tooth forcibly removed by one of the Queen’s Beefeaters. Have you ever wondered why Keira Knightley’s jaw looks the way it does? Now you know.

Funnily enough, one of the most accurate depictions of Little Britain comes in the midst of one of the most fantastical: the leafy suburbs in which Harry Potter was raised (and abused) look suspiciously like actual suburbs. His family might be caricatures – his uncle might wear bank manager’s Sunday best and his cousin wears the kind of public school get-up that would see his head kicked in by ‘proper’ British school kids – but the suburbs, for all intents and purposes, look like a place modern British people might actually live. Which is a first for Hollywood.

I’m not humourless; my stiff upper lip isn’t twitching in indignation but I’m a bit fed up with these wildly inaccurate portraits of Britain. We’re a self-deprecating people (some would say we have to be) but it’s got to the point where we can’t even tell if you’re making fun of us, because your impressions of us are so bizarre. At some point in the past decade Hollywood found a phrase book of our most popular swears, and now all it takes to ‘be British’ is to say “BOLLOCKS” or “WANKER” in an accent even Dick van Dyke would be ashamed of. If we were Africa, you’d be blacking up, putting bones through your noses and yelling “BOOGA BOOGA” over a cannibal’s cauldron.

The most galling thing – the most galling thing – is that while you’re taking the piss out of us, you’re giving Sarah Ferguson cash. You know how you always say the French are weird for liking Jerry Lewis so much? It’s like that, but with ginger deadweight instead of Jerry Lewis. What do you see in her? I mean, you can keep her – in fact we insist you do –  but what do you see in her? Can you answer me; can you even explain it yourselves? Is it the gossip – which must surely have dried up by now, given her brief access to the royal family? Is it the yo-yo dieting? Is it that she’s an economic black hole forever on the edge of imploding in an expanding event horizon of bankruptcy? Is it because she looks like what you’d imagine ‘a wild Scotchman’ to look like? Is it because she was going to have her own chat show in which she’d came across as sad, dim approximation of Oprah Winfrey as constructed from a root vegetable with bits of orange wool glued to it? You were going to give her a chat show! Don’t blame Britain for your folly.

Anyway, whatever mutant tea-and-crumpets nightmare you envision Britain to be, it almost certainly is not. The sitcoms you watch on PBS are decades out of touch. The movies you make of us are fevered phantasma dreamt up by someone who once watched an episode of The Prisoner. We do not pip-pip; we do not ‘cor blimey’. I don’t even like tea – it’s just leaves with a bit of hot water on them.

You can like us – and should. We can be lovely without being quaint. We can be funny without being Hyacinth Bucket. Contrary to what you think, our food’s pretty good.

I urge you: Change your minds. Accept no saccharine skewed Hollywood substitutes. Like Britain for what it is, not what it was or might have been.

Please, love Britain. It’s great

After all that you’re probably expecting a final paragraph in which I do a Monty Python funny walk, get on a penny-farthing and say ‘cheerio’ or something. Well I’m not. Fuck you.

How’s that for a taste of real Britain?

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