Posts Tagged With: English pubs

Oh, to be in England…

England's green and pleasant land...

England’s green and pleasant land…

When you live abroad the past keeps coming back to haunt you. The old country – the place where you were born and grew up – is brushed with a sentimental tint. Sometimes you miss home so badly it hurts. When I lived in Brazil in the 1990s, I was so desperate to go back to England that I made a list of things I felt I couldn’t live without. Now I’m back living in Brazil, I wonder if they have the same magnetic pull they once had? Let me see…

"Two pints of your best bitter, please!"

“Two pints of your best bitter, please!”

Pubs: there is nothing quite like an English pub – that dark, bitter ale served by a freckled gawky barmaid, the quaint atmosphere, the smell of vinegar, the bonhomie, the English language being shouted and mumbled and, up in the corner, cricket on the telly.

Libraries: those quiet, cosy caves filled to the ceiling with books begging to be taken out for free, the shy grey assistants with their dowdy clothes and packed lunches, the sofa by the window where you can plonk down and drift into a delicious snooze.

Fish and Chips: the haddock, the cod, the batter, the salt and vinegar, the sticky-sweet mushy peas, the hot glass counter…But hang on, it’s not just fish and chips I miss, it’s British bangers and English cheeses, lamb chops, marmite, mint sauce and poppadoms…the list is endless.

Grub made in heaven: fish 'n' chips and mushy peas

Grub made in heaven: fish ‘n’ chips and mushy peas

Newspapers: English newspapers are utterly compelling and irresistible. Thoughtful journalism with a good measure of English irony is the perfect fodder for those like me who want to be enlightened but don’t always have time for a weighty tome. It would be so easy to waste one’s life trawling through them every day while London burns – or while the landlord tries to break the door down in a fruitless search for all that back rent you owe him.

Charity shops: Those Pandora’s boxes of broken toys, grubby clothes, thrice-read paperbacks and Phil Collins records litter the high streets of every town; the wealthier the area, the better quality of junk you find within. It would be no exaggeration to say that my cultural identity was formed by the dog-eared LPs and discarded books I discovered at Oxfam and Cancer Research.

You do come across some funny things in charity shops...

“Now that is a big one! I don’t think it’ll fit through my back door”.

Yes it hurts to remember all these things and makes me want to pack up and go home. But surely there must be a few things I don’t miss. Erm, well, yes…

The weather: Oh dear, what a shower! The weather in England is, well, diabolical mostly. As I write, the UK is enjoying a steaming heatwave, but it won’t last; come late September, the old grey army blanket will descend once again to cover the country for another eight months. Nice.

Angry young men prowl the streets of England looking for a hapless victim

Angry young men prowl the streets of England looking for a hapless victim

Yob culture: England suffers from an acute disease called anti-intellectualism. It begins in school where anyone who actually studies is instantly labelled a “swot” and bullied mercilessly. This “proud to be thick” attitude permeates the whole of society, but is most pernicious in the underclass, where young vandals form gangs with the sole purpose of kicking senseless anyone who crosses their path. Delightful.

Town centres: the town centres of England have had all their character bulldozed away to be replaced by soulless shopping centres and baffling traffic systems. It’s as if they have been specially designed by, and for, morons. Lovely.

Just another town centre in 'Greyland'

Just another town centre in ‘Greyland’

You see, England isn’t London. England is Swindon and Scunthorpe: dull and decaying provincial towns where the pubs are boarded up and the people walk around like zombies with cheese-and-onion breath. The British have become cultureless and cynical after years of cheap consumerism. Forget Shakespeare – think Coronation Street.

My adopted home – Porto Alegre – is no paradise, mind you. But I have my compensations. Sometimes I have to remind myself what they are. Let me see…

The people: Brazilians are easy to get to know. It’s a cliché, but the people here are warm and friendly and everything is done with a smile. Unless you get mugged, of course.

Sunshine: When the sun shines the smiles widen and everything seems more bearable. Humans were never meant to live in cold climates. In England bodies are funny white things that stay covered up until it gets dark and you are under a blanket. In Brazil they are bronzed sensuous things that strut about in the open without anyone giggling.

The sun is always shining in Brazil...well, nearly always

The sun is always shining in Brazil…well, nearly always

Respect: As an Englishman I am treated like royalty, a superior being, a prince among the hoi polloi. And in Brazil, learning is respected – everyone seems to be doing a course or studying for a qualification.

Buzz: At 5.30 on a wet Tuesday when the shops close England is as lifeless as a tramp’s vest. On Sundays the gloom stays all day. In Brazil when you go out and about you feel a buzz. It’s partly the sunshine and the happy disposition of the people. Brazilians are noisy and demonstrative and don’t want to go to bed, so everything stays open.

And yet, no matter how much my heart beats for Brazil, my soul lies somewhere at the bottom of a quarry in Yorkshire. So, should I stay in Brazil or boomerang back to England? If I was a millionaire I would split my time between the two, but for now I will have to remain a split personality.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 7 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

England? You’re having a laugh!



England has been called many names: land of hope and glory, sceptred isle, police state, bitch. None of these is accurate or true. How could it be? England isn’t concrete. Yes, England the place has solid things in it – tarmac, bricks, baked beans. But ‘England’ as a kind of collective, lived experience is a dream. It exists only in the imagination. England is your England, whatever you want to believe it is.

That’s not to say England is a myth. Rather, a swirling mass of myths: proverbs and prejudices which settle in the minds of the populace. But any deluded dreams of patriotism and national unity are enacted in the minds of fewer and fewer people in the 21st century. Most English people would struggle to define any feelings of pride they have about the homeland.

George Orwell, who wrote extensively about England and the English, spent five years as a military policeman in Burma. It was this distance and time-lapse that gave him a crucial bird’s eye view of Blighty and the peculiar habits of the English. Orwell described England as a sleep-walking nation of flower-loving gentlefolk, a large family with the wrong people in charge.

It’s true that England often resembles a giant village where the gossip spreads easily and the talk down the pub is the same wherever you go. Some foreigners still think the English are well-educated, civilized and polite. In England, they imagine, Shakespeare is read aloud at the dinner table under a wall-mounted picture of the Queen. They know nothing of school bullying, yobs, knife-gangs and people who are proud to be thick.

So, being English, as I am, is there anything to be proud of? Of course there is – our brilliant sense of humour. The quintessential English phrase is “Come off it, mate, who do you think you are?” The English just can’t take themselves seriously. English writing and conversation is suffused with irony, in-jokes and leg-pulling. No one is too high and mighty for a comic pot-shot.

England is a country of amateur comedians. While other nations were having revolutions or toppling the monarchy, the English were down the pub having a laugh.

Categories: Blighty | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

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