Posts Tagged With: English humour

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands…

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen it?

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen t-shirts…is it?

In Brazil I’m known as a ‘Brit’, but I don’t know what the term means. I have a British passport, and yet I’m as English as a wet Sunday in Wakefield. If I was Welsh, Irish or Scottish, there is no way I would refer to myself as ‘British’. I would be proud of my nationality and make sure everybody knew I was not to be lumped together with the dreaded English! But, like it or not, I am not from any of those other, satellite countries, I am from England’s green and pleasant land.

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

So, if I defiantly refer to myself as English, what do I mean by that? What is special about me? How is an English person identifiable? At the risk of unearthing a Pandora’s Box of stereotypes, I would like to suggest that the English do have certain characteristics that set them apart. This week I gave a talk about ‘Englishness’ to a group of Brazilian undergraduates, so I had to make an effort to find something tangible about the English that I could explain to them.

So, here is a list of characteristics and quirks I jotted down on the back of a buff envelope on the bus last Tuesday:

'What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word - musn't let my servants see this'

‘What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word – mustn’t let Aunt Dolly see this’

Sense of Humour: anathema to the English sensibility are people who take themselves seriously. That’s because we have an acutely-developed sense of irony and human folly. Showing off is sneered at mercilessly: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Self-deprecation is the English charm. That and satire, parody and general mischief-making. You should never be able to tell when an Englishman is being serious.

Writing: this is where irony pervades, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to newspaper columnists and song lyrics. Through irony, the English reader, sitting on the Clapham omnibus, is able to smile at the intended victim and at herself. Irony is the distance we need from other people and their ridiculous behaviour; but it also mirrors our own pretentions and weaknesses.

Politics, the church, what they teach you at's all bull, says John

English institutions are a joke, says John

Music: ‘quiet desperation is the English way’ sang Pink Floyd (nicked from Thoreau, I’ll have you know), but my touchstone for English rock is John Lennon’s A Day in the Life, a gloriously random, satirical swipe at English institutions which could have been spoken by a Shakespearean fool. Why are the English good at pop and rock? Because the good ones see through the bull. Take another look at the anarchic God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. A fascist regime?

Acting: former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Peter Hall, famously quipped that the English were a nation of philistines who happened to be good at the arts. Mention the words ‘theatre’ or ‘opera’ down the pub and seconds later you will be nursing your pint alone and red-faced. But the English are born actors because they need masks to hide behind. England is a stage and everybody is having you on – that way the messy, emotional baggage can stay safely in the locker.

Get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

How to get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

Sport: forget football and rugby, the true English sport is cricket. All those school beatings and repressed sexuality come surging out on the village green where sado-masochism rules: the bowler wants to maim the batsman, and the batsman has to be deranged to face a 100 mile-an-hour missile whooshing towards his unmentionables. Besides, only the English could devise a game that lasts until the middle of next week.

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Hobbies: of course the English have hobbies – what else are we going to do cooped up in the house for 9 months? Train set builders, matchstick guitar makers, beer brewers, you name it. Most of us collect and hoard stuff to pore over through those long dark nights, filling little libraries with jumble-sale LPs and Narnia books.

DIY: an Englishman is a chimpanzee with a screwdriver. Pay somebody to fix my dripping tap? – you must be joking! Rewiring, plumbing, laying floors – us blokes are too proud to let you think we can’t sort it ourselves. The result? Most English ‘homes’ are jerry-built death traps.

Politics: conservative with a small ‘c’ it’s true, though the English despise authority and have a rebellious spirit: inside every timid gill-sipper is an angry young man barking to get out. Oddly, the most popular institution in England is a pure socialist invention: the NHS.

'Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles' (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

‘Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles’ (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

Religion: the Anglican church, with all those robes and closet Catholics, is for wusses – the true English religion has always been hard-nosed nonconformism. With their wilful work-ethic, tasteless food, matronly black looks and a horror of the human body, the Puritans have spread guilt and shame far and wide in the ‘Sceptred Isle’. Many were those poor creatures who topped themselves rather than face the vicar’s wrath once their grubby copy of Fanny Hill had been discovered under the mattress.

This is where the list runs out, folks, though I cannot end this portrait without mentioning the secret that dare not speak its name: the English are obsessively tight-fisted and can spot a ‘rip-off’ a mile away. When an English person walks into a supermarket they make a beeline for the ‘Special Offers‘, even if it means eating a dinner of mini pork pies mixed with chicken korma and week-old sherry trifle.

Bearing all this in mind, you can surely forgive me for not being patriotic. But when the Three Lions sing the national anthem on the football field the hairs on the back of my neck refuse to stay down. The strangest thing is I always feel proud to see 3 or 4 black players in the England team. Why?

Being English doesn't mean being white

Being English doesn’t mean being white

I think it must be that I want the world to recognise that England has always been a country of invasion and immigration, from the Jutes and Guilherme the Conqueror to the Windrush Caribbeans and the parents of Amir Khan. England was never a land of quaint villages and polite white nobodies; all such images are, by definition, imaginary. In my experience, most English people have a dynamic, but healthy, love/hate relationship with the place. The London-based Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote a poem called Inglan is a Bitch. I think I know what he means.



Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Football, Music, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“As the actress said to the bishop…” (or ‘comedy for foreigners’)

We English just can't resist another double-entendre...

We English just can’t resist another double-entendre…

The late Miles Kington – inventor of the comic hybrid language Franglais – once wrote a list of expressions that all foreigners should learn if they really wanted to master the English idiom. Forget grammar and all that, non-natives will never be able to follow the chat down the pub unless they pick up some homespun phrases like “it’s as broad as it’s long” or “pull the other one”.

This is because ‘Little England’ is a clique which tolerates foreigners but defines itself by its own, culture-bound vernacular. When one bloke standing at the bar motions towards an attractive woman and then says to his mate, “I’m ready for a bit of rumpy pumpy tonight but knowing my

Carry on carrying on - it's the only decent English thing to do...

Carry on carrying on – it’s the only decent English thing to do…

luck she bats for the other side”, any foreigner within earshot will be utterly bamboozled. That’s because language is not only a means of communication, it’s also a way of showing your membership to an exclusive club. If you haven’t grown up in the culture you just won’t get all those in-jokes.

A lot of the these comic exchanges are made up of slang, double-entendres and other assorted idioms.  “As the actress said to the bishop” is something you say after inadvertently making a harmless comment which has a sexual connotation. For example, “I only like big ones”. But if you’re a non-native speaker, don’t “get your knickers in a twist”, as I’m about to enlighten you on a few more of those private jokes and oddball phrases. I can’t remember Miles Kington’s examples, so I’ve prepared a few of my own.

Going back to the pub, instead of asking your drinking buddy if he would like a drink, you should say “what’s your poison?”, and then, when you want a drink in return, say “It’s your shout!”. While you’re in the pub you may develop an interest in persons of the opposite sex (or same sex, as the

"I'm just going to see a man about a dog." What man? What dog?

“I’m just going to see a man about a dog.” What man? What dog?

case may be). Such people should be described as “totty” or “crumpet”. If you feel a strong attraction to someone you can say you “fancy the pants off” her or him. And if you went to the pub with the deliberate intention of looking for sexual partners you are “out on the pull”. When the pub closes and you’ve had too much to drink, you will be “Brahms and Liszt” (Cockney rhyming slang for “pissed”) or “three sheets to to the wind”.

Some phrases are guaranteed to make an English person chuckle. “Brass monkey weather” is one (meaning freezing cold). You can also announce your departure by saying you are “going to see a man about a dog”. And you should start to describe mad people by saying “he hasn’t got all his chairs at home”, or “she is 3 sandwiches short of a picnic”, or “he has lost the plot”. If you accidentally break wind in public, you can always excuse yourself and raise a smile by saying, “More tea, vicar?”. And if you swear in public you should remember to say “Pardon my French!”.

Not Sweet Fanny Adams, but another British icon, 50s bon viveur Fanny Cradock...

Not Sweet Fanny Adams, but another British icon..the terror in the kitchen, Fanny Cradock

When you suspect that someone is trying to deceive you (or “having you on”), you can tell them to “pull the other one – it’s got bells on”, or if you want to be more abrupt you can use an old Yorkshire favourite, “Don’t come it with me!”. But don’t make the mistake of asking who “Sweet Fanny Adams” is, because she doesn’t exist: it’s used to mean nothing, zilch, and can be shortened to “Sweet FA”.

Many of these expressions are funny because their meaning is vague and often depends on the context; we use them ironically most of the time just to play the game, be part of the gang. So the next time you find yourself in an English village pub and a stranger says something incomprehensible, try your hand by responding with, “Well, it’s as broad as it’s long”. If that doesn’t work switch to “A nod’s as good as a wink…”. If the stranger finishes off the phrase with “…to a blind horse!”, then you will know that you’ve been accepted into the hallowed private club. But be careful: too much codswallop might give you the screaming abdabs!

Categories: Blighty, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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