THE first thing I saw as I got off the plane in London was a sign that read, “Do you want to complain?” It was like landing in Germany to “Do you want to engineer something with precision?”, the US to “Do you want to be annoyingly cheerful and tell me to ‘Have a nice day?’, made all the more irritating by the fact that you mean it?”, or Australia to “Do you want a beer and is your sister’s name Kylie?”
I asked my English friend Dan about the Brits’ reputation of complaining. “It’s not that we’re whingers,” he explained. “It’s just that we like talking and everything happens to be shit.”
I love the English. Their default setting of forming an orderly queue as soon any more than two people are assembled. Their sweetness. “Mind the gap.” Their passive racism: “Oh, Catherine, you Australians are so refreshing!” (Really? Then it must be true that 70 per cent of communication is non-verbal because your face just screamed “vulgar, coarse and tactless”.)
I love how desserts are all “puddings” and have names like Spotted Dick. And how adorable is their justification – or better still, denial – of the class system despite the existence of second-class stamps, the monarchy, hereditary titles, posh hotels that won’t serve you a drink in the bar unless you’re a guest with a room number, and the nationality of your nanny being a social marker?
I love the English response to every request as “sorry”, like they had forgotten to deal with my request, despite not possibly being able to pre-empt it. “Could you pass me my handbag?” “Oh, sorry.” “Could you tell me where the loo is?” “Terribly sorry. First on your right.” “Would you be so kind as to take off your pants, hold that chair above your head and do the hokey pokey?” “Frightfully sorry. Yes. Just a moment. How dreadfully rude of me.”
I wasn’t in Blighty for the weather. Or the food. I was there for the chat. I love how the English speak English. Words like “lodger”, “knackered” and “wankered”. Terms like “feeling poorly”, “she’s a right nutter” and “he’s a pompous git”. The fact children say “bottom” instead of “bum” in an attempt not to appear “common”, yet the pubs have names like The Badger’s Arse, The Vicar’s Cock and The Hairy Snatch.
Over a dessert of Gooseberry Fool with a bunch of people (two named Hector, and all of whom described their ageing parents as “barking”, “batty”, “bonkers” or “barmy”), a midwife spoke about labouring women. “They always want to know how it’s looking ‘down there’. I say, ‘It’s beautiful, like a gently blossoming rose, petals slowly unfurling.’ The truth is, it’s like looking down a dog’s throat.” Only an English person could come up with that.
The English are, undeniably, the funniest people on earth. How else can you explain such place names as Clench (Wiltshire), Twatt (Orkney), Dull (Perth & Kinross), Nasty (Hertfordshire) and Cuckoos Knob (North Yorkshire)?
But what a bunch of wusses. An announcement an Clapham station; “The temperature is expected to be high. Please take note of information on the platform posters and carry a bottle of water with you at all times. If you are feeling unwell please approach a member of staff.” It was 23 degrees. How much did I love non-chalantly, putting on a jumper, scarf and mittens and asking if there was anywhere I could buy soup.
Two complaints. Anything I wanted to buy was double the price plus a bit more than I estimated (then convert that into pounds) made even worse by the English customer service mantra “First world prices. Third world service”. And that the place was teaming with Australians. At one point I found myself thinking, “Crikey, there are a lot of English people here.”
I was trying to overhear the natives with their “stark raving mad” “fancy a pint” and “he’s a jumped up little plonker” but instead my ear drums were constantly pierced by screeches of, “Hey, Gaz! Check this out! What a pisser!”
Catching up with English mates I hadn’t seen for 14 years began with excited ejaculations of “You haven’t changed a bit”. Then the backpacking photos were dug out to reveal that indeed we had and are now clapped out and middle aged. So overwhelmed with how beautiful I looked in one photo I said, “I wished I’d known how good looking I was back then.” My mates then corrected me “That’s not you, Catherine, you’re the fat one at the back with the face like a slapped arse.” And I was. Lie back and think of England? Don’t mind if Ido.