Is Patriotism on the Rampage?

Two of my previous posts have addressed the issue of British Patriotism.  The British do not self-promote, the British do not rejoice in their sovereign, the British carry with them a sense of shame.  These have been my words…or at least a summary of their sentiment.  These days I am not so confident this is true.  British Patriotism seems to be on the rampage lately.

Next week-end we will be celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee: sixty years on the throne.  If she survives three more she will equal Queen Victoria.  If she carries on four more she will be the longest reigning English monarch and the longest reigning Queen in history (if Wikipedia can be believed). In honour of this blessed event us working stiffs get any extra day off.  (Although I am rather bitter that these two days have been cleverly woven into the week-long half-term holiday that, as a teacher, I always get so it’s actually more like only having three days off instead of five but I digress.)  Everywhere I look there is evidence of enthusiasm for the Jubilee.

Public art decorating a Harrogate roundabout near The Crown Hotel (fittingly enough).

Harrogate’s world famous Betty’s Tea Shop has created special Diamond Jubilee Cookies in the shape of HRH’s beloved Corgis and chocolate Queen’s Horse Guard Bears.  By the way, you are reading those prices right: five bucks for a cookie, around sixty for the cake and forty for the chocolate bear.  This in itself might betray a rather tongue in cheek sense of respect for the occasion.  Surely crowns or sceptres or Her Majesty’s profile might be more appropriate.  But no.  Posh As Betty’s is giving us dogs and bears.

Elsewhere, the major grocery chains are practically shoving Jubilee products in our faces, forcing us to get excited about it.  I’m honestly not sure whether this is in response to consumer demand or a case of product placement trying to convince us that, bloody hell, we really are jolly thrilled for the old girl. Everywhere are displays of Union Jack picnic accessories, clothing, bunting, commemorative magazine editions and event-specific packaging on everything from tea bags (which I understand) to Cocoa Pops (which makes no sense).  Tellingly these displays do not seem to run out of supplies, implying that no one is actually buying any of it in any sense of the word. I admit I bought a box of Jubilee Cocoa Pops.  How could I not?

My daughter’s primary school, much to my husband’s disgust, is hosting a Jubilee Party.  Students may dress up as Queens or Princesses (which makes me really wish for the first time that I had a son) and sit down for a nice little tea party.  My own high school is, of course, far too adult and working class for that sort of thing.  In fact, no one seems remotely aware of the Jubilee.  Then again, some might not be aware we have a Queen.

On the other hand I was truly moved by BBC2’s virgin airing of the Jubilee Song entitled Sing.  It was created by the unlikely duo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow (of Take That fame for the Yankees…look him up).  The song features a choir of Army Wives and…wait for it: Prince Harry on the tambourine.  While that sounds like a particularly ridiculous joke, I thought the song was beautiful.

So I am left with a sense of confusion: is Britain generally and genuinely enthused about Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee or, like last year’s Royal Wedding, are we just bloody grateful for a four-day weekend which has some chance of providing good weather?



Don’t F*** with our Pies!

My fellow Iowan (or Iowegian depending on who you ask) and one time ex-pat Bill Bryson wrote many marvelous books about his observations on British culture.  In Notes from a Small Island he admits that many of Britain’s culinary contributions are less than savoury.  I use savoury in literal sense because Bryson expresses big love for British desserts, or puddings as they are called here, or sometimes “afters”.

“Don’t f*** with our puddings,” he writes in no uncertain terms.  Because the British have this culinary art form nailed!  The term “pudding” has two meanings here.  The word can mean any type of dessert, but it refers specifically to a kind of dessert made with a batter than closely resembles sponge cake, though it is steamed rather than baked.  The resulting steamed sponge is served with warm custard, which resembles vanilla pudding.  (I plan to write an entire post praising custard in the near future.  When I think of all the years I wasted eating vanilla pudding cold…what a fool I was.)

Steamed puddings have as many varieties as cake.  My personal favourite is Sticky Toffee, available in a perfected form at the Magpie Cafe in Whitby.  My husband is partial to    Jam Roly Poly with layers of jam rolled inside steamed sponge .  This is oddly difficult to find and I am far too intimidated to make it myself.  When my Mother goes to her Happy Place there is generally a Treacle Sponge there, available in a perfected form at my Mother-in-Law’s house for Sunday lunch.  There is also a savoury pudding called Steak and Kidney which has permanent residence in my husband’s Happy Place.  So much so that he has been known to find excuses to travel two hours north where the village of Warkworth, Northumberland hides the Topsy Turvy Cafe which has certainly perfected the Steak and Kidney Pudding in his opinion.  Bet he finds a way to detour there on our way to Scotland next week.  “Don’t f*** with our puddings” indeed!

But puddings are not the only sacrosanct food product in the UK.  This week has seen another beloved culinary friend placed in the spotlight of political theatre.  I speak of pies.

When the British talk about pies they are not referring to the fruit-filled, meringue-topped cream-studded items available in America–though of course Brits have those too.  Just as  everyone here understands that “potato” means “boiled potato”, “pie” means “meat pie”.  They closely resemble pot pies, only with less vegetable to dilute the shameless meat and gravy  love fest.  The catch-all term of pie also encompasses the pasty.  I have a love-hate relationship with pasties.  The love from all the years my mother made us eat them, the hate because I never liked them.  I knew I had truly married my mother in male form the first time I saw my husband’s eyes light up on a trip to Cornwall.  So many pasty shops.  I don’t think he stopped drooling for a fortnight.

Imagine his horror then upon reading a news article earlier this week about a proposed price increase to pies…indeed the horror went round the nation: “Don’t f*** with our pies!”

Unlike the US, the UK has no sales tax–at least not on the surface.  There is an additional price on some items buried in the advertised price label on products making quick math work unnecessary (GO TEAM BRITAIN!).  This took me several months to get used to when I first moved here.  The hidden tax does not exist on all products.  VAT or Value Added Tax  is placed on items classed as “non-essential” or “luxury”.  Alcohol, chocolate and cake for example are all covered by VAT, though biscuits (cookies) are not. Biscuits, apparently, are essential.  So are pies…until now.

The Government in its Age of Austerity wisdom has decided the time is ripe for a pasty tax.      Of course it’s not actually called a “pasty tax” or even a “pie tax”, what it is trying to do is classify this darling of the hot fast food world as a luxury item rather than a food staple.  The trouble is, the public have taken this in a very different way.  Pies and pasties seldom grace the tables of the posh and privileged.  They evolved from working class convenience: folk who worked the mines or the fields needed satisfying food they could consume with dirty hands.  When Tories get their hands dirty they do it metaphorically.  Thus, the political hot button of the “pie tax” comes down to class.

It has been quite entertaining watching the Conservative Tory Government, with its boys raised by nannies and educated at Eton, back track in the face of public outrage over taxing the nation’s beloved hot snack food.  Prime Minister David Cameron’s insistence that he once enjoyed a pasty at a Petrol Station in West Yorkshire was particularly amusing for a variety of reasons.  First of all because I am not convinced Cameron has ever eaten a working class pasty in his life, second because the Tories have been so burned by both the pasty tax and the petrol crisis so much this week and third of all because I am not sure Cameron can find West Yorkshire on a map as it’s far too North for his socio-politcal sat nav to locate.

I can’t wait until they decide to declare a biscuit tax.  Little old ladies up and down the country will be raising their wrinkled fists shouting: “Don’t f*** with our biscuits!”  Then the Tories will truly be screwed.

The Shame of Being English

My most recent trip to the cinema proved unexpectedly depressing.

The popcorn was disappointing, though it always is in Britain.  They do not seem to believe in freshly popped and insist on offering a Sweet as well as Salty variety.  The only reason popcorn should ever be sweet is if it has been coated in caramel/toffee!  Don’t get me wrong, I still buy a bag every time and eat it greedily but it always leaves me cold…largely because it is cold.  It should be an arrestable offense to serve popcorn cold.

The film was grim but I expected it to be.  The depressing part occurred before the film even started.  It came in the form of a humble advertisement.

My reasons for finding this depressing will no doubt puzzle some of you—certainly the Americans will be baffled by my dark view of this seemingly harmless promotion of British holidays.  Countries do it all the time—particularly nations such as Britain which rely upon tourism.  We see it all the time: Come to California and, says Betty White, “You’ll see how we roll”.  So why should a charming foursome of British luvvies trying to convince their own to invest in regional tourism send me into a spiral of gloom?  Because it’s just so damned unnatural!  Brits don’t advertise!

The British people—specifically, particularly and especially the English—are incapable of self promotion.  Maybe it’s culture, maybe it’s genetics—who knows.  They do not publicise themselves.  Not as individuals and not as a collective.  They do not brag, they do not boast they do not big themselves up in any fashion.  How any of them ever get promotions, land a date or win elections is beyond me.  No wonder the tourist board hired talented actors—no normal English person could have kept a straight face whilst convincing the world how joyful it is to surf in Bridlington.

The English do not even celebrate their own holiday of national pride.  The Scottish feast for Burns Night every year and declare St Andrew’s Day a Bank Holiday (which means everyone gets the day off—rather like Memorial Day) every 30th November.  St Patrick’s Day a national holiday in Ireland.  The Welsh celebrate St David’s Day to a lesser extent on 1st March.  But St George’s Day on the 23rd of April?  Barely a whisper of red crossed flags mark the day of National English pride.  Those who do celebrate are often branded as racist or ridiculous.  The English tend to associate patriotism with football hooligans and posh talking toffs.  Imagine having no fireworks displays or flags waving in early July.

The English do not even identify themselves as English.  They refer to their nationality as British but never English—never, ever English.  Why?  One might assume they are ashamed of their Englishness.  Ashamed to be English?  Ashamed to be the ancestors of a people who once conquered half the planet, gave us Shakespeare, Darwin and the Beatles, built the Industrial Revolution, developed the most successful language in history and taught the world adding milk to their tea made it better?  Why on earth would anyone be ashamed to be a part of that?

The answer lies partially in the English character.  The sin of Pride is truly treated as a sin here.  The most popular and loved English celebrities are invariably humble ones like Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson who stammer and blush and mumble their undeserved gratitude for the small accolades which come their way for reasons they do not understand.  Self-effacing, self-mocking, self-deprecating—that is the English.  Self-aggrandising?  Not a chance!

A more thorough answer can be found in the current climate of culture.  Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland.  Scottish identity and pride is clear from the sounds of their voices, their shameless kilt wearing and their regular attempts to break from Britain and form a separate Parliament.  Welsh pride as well is on the rise in the form of a renewed interest in speaking, promoting and using the native Welsh language.  Both Scotland and Wales have a kind of defiant tribalism England lacks.

England at the start of the twenty-first century suffers from an identity crisis brought on from a dramatic change in national circumstance.  One hundred years ago Britain was still an Empire.  In the early part of the twentieth century this Empire dwindled little by little.  The sun sets all the time on the British Empire now…in fact most days it does not bother to even get out of bed.  Imagine a nation of people whose identity came from their cultural, political and economic supremacy for four hundred years lose it all in the space of a few generations.  That very absence of British supremacy—and by British in this case I really mean English—has bolstered the sense of self for Scotland and Wales.  Not so for England.

England does not know who she is.  She will not align herself fully with Europe because she does not quite feel European.  She is too far away culturally and geographically from the US to truly feel like she belongs there either.  Meanwhile people from around the world arrive at her doorstop and integrate themselves into her home causing more confusion.

England will find it difficult to avoid promoting herself this year.  In less than five months this same country plays host to the world as it comes to London for the 2012 Olympics.  Everywhere I went in London this past weekend I observed evidence of preparations.  When I speak to English friends and colleagues about The Olympics they reluctantly agree that “Yes, I suppose this will be a rather large event won’t it?”  Some of them hope to attend events.  Most of them hope to keep their heads down until the whole thing goes away.  No wonder the tourist board hired actors.

I find this all rather depressing.  I want England to stand up and up and take a good look in the mirror.  You are not the country you once were it is true.  But your bones are strong, your eyes are bright and your mouth is full of possibility.  The world admires you—why can’t you see what they do?



The North-South Divide

On a good day the socio-political (I love that word) divide between North and South in Britain is fairly benign.  The South looks up in disdain, the North looks down with a smirk.  However, politics can sometimes ruin this mutual dis-admiration society.  Westminster is located in London.  London is a long way geographically, politically, socially, culturally, and economically.   If the current government has its way, that economic divide will soon be even greater.  

Proposals such as this one are why Scottish Parliament regularly raises the idea of breaking away from Britain and forming an autonomous government.  London looks after London.  I wonder if we should follow Winterfell’s example and declare a King of the North?

In Defense of the National Health Service

It’s funny how political history repeats itself.  Actually it’s not funny at all.  It’s damned depressing when the repeating political debate is socialised medicine—the argument which keeps circling eternally around Washington DC’s roundabouts; going round and round and never moving forward.

To make matters worse, US media fuels the anti-nationalised Health Care argument using the UK Health Care system as an example of the failure of socialised medicine.  I was particularly entertained by an American newspaper which said that if Stephen Hawking had been British the Health System would have given him up for a lost cause.  I sincerely hope the obvious stupidity of that statement got someone sacked.  Mr Hawking was born and raised in the UK and is a proud supporter of the National Health Service.  I have heard worse horror stories too about death lists and emergency care waiting lists and denial of necessary treatment. And always the accusatory fingers point across the pond to say: “See, they tried it and look what they have.”

And what do we have?  We have the National Health Service (NHS) which guarantees free medical treatment for all.  We have socialised medicine that works.  We have access to care and treatment that is not dependent on your insurance package.  Got anything like that, America?  No.  You don’t.

I might just find it all distantly maddening if not for the fact that London has many roundabouts too.  The political traffic circles outside Parliament now feature the same sort of congestion problems: debates about Health Care Reform.  Apparently the UK has been reading too much of its own press in US media, and now British politicians threaten what I believe to be one this country’s greatest social achievements: the NHS.

I do not claim to be an expert on Obama’s plan and frankly reading the current White Paper circulating through Parliament gives me a headache, but I do know the NHS works. No matter what, you are covered. For Free.  No matter who, you are covered. For Free.  You have health care. You can get sick, you can get injured, you can give birth and you are covered. For Free.  Your children are covered…every child.  You do not have to rely on the medical package offered by your job.   It’s free.

I have lived in US unable to afford health care. In fact, once I moved to the UK it was the first time I had been covered since I could no longer be claimed by my parent’s medical insurance.  Yes, I did get emergency care when I broke my leg in Nebraska, but it cost me dearly, and if I had not had monetary help from my parents I would have been in dire financial difficulty.

I have given birth twice in the UK, both ended in emergency C-Sections with nearly week-long hospital stays.  During my time in an NHS hospital I received regular care.  I was visited by a breast feeding counsellor and a physiotherapist.  I paid nothing.  After the hospital released me, a midwife visited me every day for two weeks to check on our progress.  I paid nothing.  (If you think that is disgusting, wait until you hear how much PAID Maternity Leave we get in the UK.)  And I am not even a citizen (though I am a resident with Indefinite Leave to Remain, so back off immigration).

My friend Sara was not even a resident when she needed emergency medical treatment on a tourist visa.  She had an over-night stay in hospital and medication free of charge.  They even sent a record of treatment to her doctor in Illinois.

I know how much my friends and family have struggled with medical bills of all varieties. I think it is scandalous that such a prosperous country allows any citizen to suffer medically or financially.  Even more shocking is the possibility that a country which has already established a working system would ever consider going back.  Health care should be a guaranteed right for everyone!

So please, if people in the US attempt to use the NHS as an example of why America should reject socialised medicine—quote this article to them. Tell them the NHS works. It is not perfect, no government run system is.  But it works when you need it for anyone who does need it for free.  Bear this in mind when you hear slanders thrown by the ignorant or by those with their own political agenda.

If you live in the UK, I beg you not to allow the current government to strip away this remarkable institution.  Fix it yes, axe it—no!  I am better off, my family is better off and the NHS is very high on my list of reasons why I will never ever move back to the US again.

Stayed tuned for affidavits from an NHS Consultant Doctor and a UK political leader…because I am not about to let this issue drop any time soon.