Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Why is humour or haggis a real test of being British?

Morecambe and Wise
Morecambe and Wise

What are the values that define a plucky Brit? For those hoping to pass the 45-minute citizenship test (with a 75%), Life in the United Kingdom is required reading.

Thank goodness I was born in west London, not Pakistan or Nigeria, because a quick perusal of the latest edition confirms I would not make the grade. Being British seems very complicated.

The first big hurdle is unpicking the logic behind the wacky range of facts included in this Home Office publication.

What convoluted civil service mind drew up the list of contents for starters?

They range from Monty Python to St Trinian's, Fountains Abbey to Captain Cook, Torvill and Dean to Yorkshire pudding, Santa Claus to the Last Night of the Proms. This buffet of random factoids seems designed to confuse potential citizens.

Is there any other country that requires knowledge of a pair of stand-up comedians (Morecambe and Wise) as proof you are worthy of a passport? New statistics show that a modern Briton is likely to be fluent in Polish, now our second language, in which case barszcz ought to be included along with fish and chips.

At the same time as one Home Office department publishes a guide for would-be citizens, another is busy dreaming up an advertising campaign to deter settlers from Romania and Bulgaria.

A minister thinks the campaign is necessary to "correct the impression that the streets in the UK are paved with gold". If Romanians and Bulgarians bothered to read Life in the United Kingdom, they might think we spend our time waving flags, dressing like Sherlock Holmes, reading Harry Potter and gorging on beef.

The citizenship exam is derided by David Cameron's former tutor Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, and Hilary Mantel, who says it is the product of "strange warped minds" that reminds her of apartheid.

How can Britain be sold as desirable and quirky to one group, while being promoted as unattractive and unwelcoming to another?

Can't Bulgarians and Romanians emulate the best of our traditions, including our famous stiff upper lip?

Never mind humour or haggis, Brits don't like going to the doctor and talking about illnesses. Our cancer survival rates lag behind other countries since many tumours are discovered so late they are fatal – one trait we would do well to shed.

When David Cameron made his speech about holding an in/out EU referendum recently, Der Spiegel wrote us a little love letter, saying our quirkiness and punk attitudes would be missed.

The Germans like us so much their schoolchildren now learn English by singing along to a jolly song about Weston-super-Mare.

Traditions die hard: Rowan Atkinson has triumphantly returned to the London stage in Quartermaine's Terms written in 1981 by Simon Gray, set in a Cambridge language school where the typically reserved staff plan lessons on British life while demonstrating all our little social tics to perfection.

So who personifies the real Brit? The cast of the Olympics panto or the staff in Simon Gray's period piece?

It's not just potential citizens who are confused.

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