When you live in forrin, i.e. somewhere that is not the British Isles, and somebody inevitably notices that you are British when you open your mouth (and no, Americans, not because of our teeth, that obnoxious trope was already old in the 1970s… find something less vapid to mock us for, please, thanks), they will have an idea about you instantly. We all do it, about every nationality we have even the vaguest idea about, but the British, like the French, the Americans, the Italians, bring a whole swathe of stereotypes to mind in people all across the globe (for obvious nasty nasty colonialist and then cultural reasons).
Here, in Portugal, some will spread their bets and say “oh, you’re British?” but most will go straight for “oh, you’re English!” and if you can’t counter with “no, I’m Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish actually”, you’re done for and tarnished with all the famous traits of the English, good and bad, until you can prove otherwise. It is unlikely you will have time to do this if you’re in the back of an Uber… although I try.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to say that you are Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish, the foreigner has less information to go on, and may even feel an instantaneous and slight empathy with you for being one of the oppressed (by the English). However, you are still British, so you are still a little bit coloniallistish. There is one thing going for you, though, you are not English.
What do people think we are? The following is a list of all the things I have been informed of, about us over the years:
Formal, arrogant, cold, repressed, clever, educated, civilised to a fault, class-obsessed, have no interest in food and certainly can’t cook, drunk all the time, boring, brilliant, colonialist, uncaring, not empathetic, unsexy, sickly, funny, sarcastic. All true, all false.
The English ARE awful. We are. No really, we are. Especially when abroad. We behave badly, we look down or askance at everything that we don’t like, but hold onto and obsess about and appropriate the things we like or approve of.
We are irritating, but it’s not entirely our fault.
It took me a year or two of living in forrin, sitting at home, alone with two tiny babies and an awful lot of time free in my head to think about things, and one day, it struck me.
We English are awful because we have a feeling. Not a thought, because as soon as you think about it, it is obviously ridiculous, but a feeling. The feeling is that we are THE DEFAULT of everything.
We are often accused of having a superiority complex, but I don’t think that’s what it is. Obviously, yes, there are some right twonks who go round the world genuinely feeling that their Englishness actually makes them better, but they are twonks, they wear red trousers and panama hats and we must just ignore them… in everything, until they go away.
It’s not a general superiority complex, because we often feel embarrassed or inferior about ourselves too.
We are the default of everything, because everything we do and see in forrin is compared to our versions, because we have a feeling that we started everything.
Why? Because a few centuries of history, our culture, our education and pretty much everything in our day to day has told us this.
I never felt British or English until I left, until I set foot in forrin and stayed for a while. I was being the full English. I looked at everything as if it was weird, silly, sweet, wrong, mad. Not just in Portugal, but everywhere. In every country I’ve ever visited, it was all a bit odd and not quite… English.
I realised that, deep down in my idiot brain, I felt, not thought, that the Portuguese are the Portuguese version of us. The Americans are the American version of us (which to a teensy teensy extent, is true, if you go back about 400 years). The French are the French kind, the Greeks are the Greek kind, etc., etc., etc. The Portuguese build houses like they do, because they are doing it our way but for hot weather, the Americans eat so much junk because they added a shit load of sugar and salt and mayonnaise to our bland food, the French do everything to prove that they are better than us, and that if we didn’t exist, the French wouldn’t try so hard.
I know, it sounds idiotic.
I can’t speak for the last 20 years in Britain, because I wasn’t there, but in the 30 years between being born in England and leaving it, everything pointed towards us being the default, or the origin, of everything human.
If you didn’t pay too much attention, we invented everything. We invented science (we didn’t), we invented cars (we didn’t), we invented flying (we didn’t), we invented telephones (we didn’t) we invented electric light (we didn’t), we invented golf (we didn’t), we invented trains (we did that one), and discovered pretty much everything else (we didn’t).
History in school was almost all about us. We did (and won) the wars, we did the industrial revolution and if it weren’t for us, the world would still be making garments for the mega rich by candle light, and living by our wits and turnips. All the stuff the Americans did that was good, was by extension, done by us, because we caused America, things like getting to the moon. When they did bad things, it was because they had lost their way, like a child, in the 18th century when they left the fold and revolted. The history of monarchies almost always centred on our own, and it is still amazing to people that our royal family is recently descended from the same bunch of aristos all over Europe.
Still we believe that ours is THE royal family, that we do monarchy properly (even republicans) and the others are minor cousins who had the misfortune to be married off or born to the wrong branch.
This feeling is aided in huge part by the fact that the English language has steadily taken over from all other languages as the world’s lingua franca, especially in the last century. In Portugal, English wasn’t the second language taught in schools, it was French. Now, every toddler has at least some English words in its vocabulary. Most events on an international scale have English as the first language. The fact that William bloomin’ Shakespeare was English hasn’t helped, even though most English people today would struggle to understand what on earth he was on about without having it explained, ad nauseam, in school. Anything in a foreign language was, until very recently, translated or dubbed into English. Only the very highfalutin would be able to read Cervantes in the original 16th C Spanish and Camões, who’s he? The very idea that Hergé, or Goscinny and Uderzo were being exciting or funny in French was hard to believe. What incredible luck that Idéfix happened to be a dog, so we thought the joke was ours.
Places in the world that had nothing to do with us got English or anglicised names, because we couldn’t pronounce them. The Magellan Strait, discovered by some fella called Ferdinand Magellan. Who the hell was Magellan? Fernão de Magalhães, you mean. FER-NOWNG de MAGA-LYAINGS… its not that hard.
I mostly blame the Victorians, because they were hellbent on changing the world and had an extraordinary gift for looking down on pretty much everything. Except fossils. They liked fossils.
When I explain this theory (for it is only a theory, and unprovable at that) to English people who have never lived in forrin, they think I have lost my mind. When I explain this to English people who have, they also think I have lost my mind, but sometimes I see a tiny spark of recognition.
This is a poster I made in 2004 for British-spotters, when the football thing was in Portugal, and Portugal received an influx of tourists as a kind of prequel to today.
All this to say, when someone English is acting like a twat in forrin, try to forgive them just a little bit, they know not exactly what they do.