Five things I miss about the UK

It would be easy to conclude that I have little affection for the UK, and it’s true that, even if we weren’t moving to Australia, we probably still wouldn’t move back. But a few final trips home before we move to Canberra have helped me to see my home country in a marginally new light.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, in London.

It goes without saying that, when you live abroad, you miss having easy access to friends and family, but here are five less obvious things that I miss most about living in the UK.

There’s something about a British pub that, no matter how hard it may try, the rest of the world just can’t seem to replicate. Perhaps it’s something in the old English oak beams that form the fabric of so many of them, perhaps it’s the smell of roast beef, gravy and Yorkshire puddings which seep through their windows and down the street each Sunday.

Either way, as I sat and reminisced with my oldest friend in one on Saturday night, and then again as I tucked into a magnificent Sunday roast with a childhood friend in another the following lunchtime, I took a moment to look around and soak up the atmosphere of an institution that welcomes all and wondered when I’d next be back in one. “Last orders please,” as they say come closing time.

An English pub

An English country pub.

I think sporting passions are largely indoctrinated rather than accumulated, and so it was with me. My Dad played football at a fairly senior level and, from a very young age, I was introduced to the smell of liniment in the dressing room, the rich vocabulary of the fans on the terraces, and the sheer grinding disappointment of most football seasons. My home town team, Carshalton Athletic, has a quite stunning record of mediocrity, peppered with the occasional insolvency and other disasters – such as the fire that burnt down their clubhouse and eliminated their primary source of income for several years.

Still, having been to football matches in several countries now, I know that there is something unique about the experience of watching football in Britain, and watching rugby or Aussie rules football is likely to prove a poor substitute.

I need to be careful about this one, because I’ve been out of the UK for almost 10 years now. But, in general, when I do visit, I am still struck by the good manners of the place. There’s a standing joke that, in Britain, a whole shopping transaction can take place with the use of the word ‘thank you’, and it’s not far from the truth:

A cashier looks up at a customer and takes the item to be purchased from her: Thank you
The shopper hands it over: Thank you
The cashier rings it up on the till, puts it in a bag and hands it back: Thank you
The shopper takes it: Thank you
The shopper gives the cashier her credit card: Thank you
The cashier accepts it: Thank you
The cashier processes the transaction and returns the card: Thank you
The shopper takes it: Thank you
The cashier hands the shopper the receipt: Thank you
The shopper takes it: Thank you
The shopper leaves, and the process starts again with the next in line.

And, yes. Really. I’ve had experiences like that. But only in Britain.

Cultural shorthand
This could easily apply to any country, but there is a cultural shorthand that you can only hear and use when among the people you grew up with and who shared the same cultural influences as you – TV shows, catchphrases, lookalikes, famous quotes.

I once shared a walk home from the pub with a friend who held up traffic by doing a full blown impression of Bob Willis (the cricketer) bowling someone out, by running down the central reservation of a road and using the traffic bollards as the wicket. To me, very funny; to a Dane, impenetrable. Last week, I had a long discussion with a friend about whether being able to answer a Kajagoogoo question in a pop quiz should be a source of pride or shame. And then there’s my ring tone: when it strikes up, in Denmark, people say: “Oooh, rock and roll.” In Britain they say: “Wow, The Jam. Cool.”

I also love the linguistic codes: “I don’t mean to be rude but…” (I’m about to be really quite rude), “No offense, but…” (I’m about to be really quite rude), “With all due respect,” (I’m about to be really quite rude), “I beg your pardon?” (That really was quite rude), and “Say that again?” (I think you were very rude just then, but I’d like to confirm it).

It may sound strange that, in a country where I value politeness and centuries-old traditions, I could also feel nostalgic about insults. Perhaps it’s linked to the cultural shorthand, but I do find that nobody can insult you quite like a Brit.

Last year, I gave a speech at a friend’s 60th birthday party. The speech was that peculiar blend of affection, embarrassing stories and dissection of character traits that are a staple of, in particular, Best Man speeches at weddings. At the end, my 60 year old friend thanked me, acknowledging that I had “nailed him.” But separately, a Danish guest came up to me and told me it was the most insulting speech he’d ever heard and that it simply wouldn’t be acceptable to give such a speech at a Danish social occasion.

In the speech, I noted how, in the UK anyway, there seems to be a direct correlation between our affection for someone and our willingness to insult them. It seems we channel our fondness into insult creativity, which manifests itself through ribbing, nicknames, and even pranks. It is childish, but as I told my 60 year old friend, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mrs Doubtfire these days, it’s all well intentioned and usually accepted as such.

“Sod off,” I think, was his reply.

2 thoughts on “Five things I miss about the UK

  1. Great post. I’m now reassured that my 5 year old is just asserting his cultural identity and demonstrating his love for me through his endless name-calling. He especially likes regurgitating the insults he reads in his Roald Dahl and Tintin books. (‘Brumptious brute’ and ‘fancy-dress freebooter’ are current favourites). I think you’ll find that Australians are pretty adept at the art too.


    • Ha ha. I think you’re right. The Aussies probably can rustle up an insult to match the best of what the Brits have to offer. I’m looking forward to a bit of banter. What’s that saying: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything to compare with ‘fancy-dress freebooter’. I’ll try it on my pub quiz buddies the next time I’m out in Copenhagen and will let you know how it goes.

      Liked by 1 person

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