On Friday, I spent the morning cooking a full English to a TV crew from a French channel (more on that soon!) and it got me thinking about Englishness and things… What is “English”?
Listening to the radio while cooking later in the day, I caught a young student who was wondering about “What constitutes English culture” and he clearly did not know… He even claimed “English” culture did not exist anymore. As a French woman living in London, I feel there is a strong national identity surrounding me. But how would I define it? So I wondered… and pondered…
…And listed a few things that are Truly English :
A full fry-up early morning in a greasy-spoon caf’
Bunting and cream teas, especially served at a village fete – or a Royal Wedding!
Tolerance and sympathy (preferably given with a cup of tea again)
The Monty Python
The red pillar box above
The class system – And being proud of it, whether you’re working class or upper stock
Public schools (that are anything BUT public)
Contradictions in terms (see above)
Feeling free to add new words to the vocabulary – and not being hung for these neologisms
A kind of stubborn bravery against adversity (as in the Blitz, The IRA Terror years…)
Absurd and charming eccentrics…
I was in John Lewis earlier this week (very English, that) and encountered a man who was putting up with tremendous care and patience little standing labels on multicoloured boxes.
-Could you please, Sir, tell me where I can find bedding and things? I ask.
-Sorry Madam: I am a customer! Says he with a short self-excusing giggle and he still progresses with straightening the small wobbly labels, in his steadfastly manner.
“Very English, I though: A polite refusal of service.”
He could just as well have been a true OCD afflicted customer, of course. Who knows?!..
So back to what constitutes proper “Englishness”… In her funny and well observed book “Watching the English”, Kate Fox tries to give a pretty complete answer in 400 or so pages! My radio caller could have done well to read her but I myself have the answer in three little letters:
“Tea-making, writes Ms Fox, is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all of the time), they make tea. It’s a universal rule: when in doubt, put the kettle on.”
Trying to explain the components of the full English breakfast to the TV crew yesterday, I felt I never quite got to convey properly the delicate nuances and the paramount importance of tea-making in the English culture. Tea is what fortifies and bonds the nation, before you even mention the Queen. Republicans and anti-monarchists – if they exist- would agree with that: Tea is the essence of Englishness. Being of equal importance to a Chelsea supporter, a financier or a builder, it is the drink that suits every possible social occasion and every possible setting. It is “le mot juste” whenever a word is needed and even more apt when none are required. In “The silence of Colonel Bramble”, André Maurois, describes the return from the Front of two new recruits clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress and the Colonel first and only order is to “fix those boys a good cup of tea”!
The English like their tea either the colour and taste of cement with plenty of milk and sugar or a light golden brew with neither. It is the drink of choice with a full English breakfast or with an afternoon tea – two meals the English have mastered to perfection.
These are my own two favorite mealtimes, which is lucky because I live here!
On Sundays, my British husband proudly cooks up the traditional spread best loved by the children: fried eggs, black pudding, Cumberland sausages, baked beans, roasted mushrooms, eggy bread and bacon rashers… The list is endless and frequently changing depending on our imagination or degree of hunger.
But whatever is prepared is always served with plenty of strong tea and lots of warm … baguette- this is certainly my influence, I confess. All in a spirit of “Entente Cordiale”, bien sur.
So where do you get the best fry-up in London? Obviously, in a “greasy spoon caf’, of which only a few remain around Spitalfields or Bermondsey markets essentially… I have one current favourite and this is where I took my French TV crew to sample a full fry-up: A quaint little number in Hammersmith, Plum cafe on Crisp rd, one of the best places to sample the best meal in Britain with the day’s newspaper.
PS: The pillar-box picture is from a sweet little blog called “Little devil’s adventures”, with thanks.