Sunday, May 15, 2005

How to be British - advice for foreigners

with Malachy Dunhill

A handy guide for visitors, especially authors who may have to visit the island of Britain to bring the light of literature back from across the Atlantic to where it has partially died out in "the ould sod." As well as sensible sexual hygiene practices, it is also a good idea to know a bit about the natives, their likes and dislikes. Don't be fooled by his inoffensive demeanour, Tommy is not a man you would want to have as an enemy.

Be Impassive

Try to get to know a little bit of our culture and you'll find things will go better on your trip. Tone down your voice by a few decibels when you infest our shores, and don't argue with hotel staff. Never wear check, plaid or plastic macs. Remember we Brits are jaded, blasé, and not in the least interested in petty annoyances, so don't become one. If the service in your hotel is bad, simply accept that you have no savoir faire, and made a bad choice. We have a saying here, which you would do well to memorise, and that is "Shite occurs."

Also Be Hysterical
Decide your habiliment of hilarity early and swathe yourself in it on all social occasions. Should your mien gravitate towards the pompous, you may choose something from the house of John Cleese.* As an opening gambit with a bit of fluff at a do, refer to an unrelated item in the manner of the Dead Parrot Sketch. Faced with a wilted lettuce leaf, a Briton from the school of Cleese will invariably declare, "This is an ex-legume, it is sadly etiolated, in short it is dead." You will not be out-of-place afterwards, when sufficient chardonnay has been quaffed, goosestepping around mein host's hallway and bellowing, "Don't mention the war."

For a more contemporary effect, you can be David Brent from The Office, the entire Fast Show - "Ooh suits you!" - or if you have the talent for mimicry that you think you have, big up for Ali G "in da house". If you are a real connoisseur of all things purely British, you will probably choose to affect a modest air of Alan Bennett. Choose your comedy well, laugh like a drain at your own jokes, and remember that to be British is to draw first prize in the tombola of talent.

Wear a Powdered Wig and Tights

Remember to call attorneys "barristers" when translating into the local patois. Britain, or more precisely the main bit of it known as England and Wales, is run by a coterie of these witch doctor-like figures, also known affectionately as "old boys." Easily recognised in their black robes, powdered wigs, tights and garters, they have something in common with Pantomime Dames, but I will save that subject for another article. A significant proportion of them these days are real women.

Barristers are a protected species held mainly in London, in a Royal Park called the Inns of Court, where their numbers are carefully managed. The process of becoming a barrister involves "eating a number of dinners" at the Inns. Whether that is a euphemism or a literal procedure, I dread to think. Some cursory acquaintance with legal precedent is expected as a matter of good form, but the chief attribute required is an olympian ability to make the implausible sound really quite likely. In their spare time, barristers also run the nominal government of Britain from the nearby Palaces of Westminster.**

Within the Inns of Court***, there are miles of ancient squares, buildings and alleys stretching from Temple near the Thames Embankment all the way to Grays Inn Road, a mile or so to the north. These cobbled lanes and squares are full of the ghosts of Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Dickens and I can't think of anyone else. --Oh yes, myriad newly poor litigants.

*Further studies in Hysteria: see "Spamalot".
**Known to all London taxi drivers as the Palace of Varieties.
***Inns of Court: Not many people know what a wonderful little world is here, which has been around for a very long time, and judging by the stone construction of the buildings and alleys, will be for a very long time yet. So here are some pictures by London-based photographer Onion Mbeke, to give you some idea of the place.

One of the delights is this fountain in Fountain Court near Temple. It is shaded by two ancient mulberry trees, now almost horizontal and both propped. You can see the prop holding up one of them in this picture.

Also on view is a marvellous open-air exhibition of hundreds of expensive German cars, as well as a few Range Rovers, Jaguars, Bentleys and the odd Aston Martin.

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