Meet the British

This week BBC4 aired a piece of sublime programming that was simple and in equal parts hilarious and disturbing. I caught up with ‘Meet the British’ on iplayer tonight & my flatmate was so intrigued by the cries of laughter and shouts of “awe-awe-some” [for some reason my current favourite superlative which I’m using way too much] that she knocked on my door to find out what I was watching.

The show was an hour of Foreign Office (or its predecessor, the Colonial Office – which should give you a hint as to the direction we’re going in here) public information films, advertising Britain and the British during the 1950s, 60s & 7os. Never shown in the UK, these were distributed around the world, particularly to African colonies and the USA, in order to attract visitors.
You could say they’re a bit like those films shone on planes just before landing that tell you the best things about your destination. (Or, in the case of Brunei, remind you several times that importing drugs is punishable by DEATH.)
Honestly, these films are utter classics. They go a long way to explaining the view of Brits held by other nationalites. They’re by degrees patronising, informative and bizarre…
I’ve learnt that in the 1970s the restaurant at the RSC’s home in Stratford upon Avon regarded boil in the bag food as haute cuisine & microwaves the best thing for food since sliced bread. That explains the international negative attitude towards British food! Then there’s the information that wurlitzers are a perfectly normal (and commonplace) form of entertainment – I never realised! And the introduction of disposable cups, plates, table cloths etc to free the time of the downtroddon housewife – available in various colours to allow for creative settings – how on earth did that not catch on?
Anyway, knowing that some loyal readers aren’t in Britain and therefore can’t watch the programme, I’ve done you a favour. (Ian, this mainly means you because I know how much you’re going to love this.) I’ve had a trawl on youtube for the films and managed to find my favourite: Journey on a London Bus (1950).
This film will equip you, the visitor to the UK, with everything you need to know about our local buses. You are assured that buses “run regularly and to carefully prepared time-tables and are always punctual, people never have long to wait”. [Was not the case when I was waiting, in the rain, for a night bus home last night.] And helpfully informed that: “Not only do buses bring people into London, they also carry passengers out…on return journeys they bring passengers back.” Reassuring. Two ‘African students’ (pronounced “Efrican” in the same way that at that time Kenya was “Keenya”) prove that one can indeed travel from London, into the countryside and back again. It’s fascinating stuff.

If that gives you a taste for random archive films, check out the BFI youtube channel for more gems. I’m particularly loving some of their transport ones, but that’s because I’m a geek. Then there’s the delightfully informative ‘Growing Girls’ (1951) which I recommend to all women as an eye-opener to growing up in the 50s. Contains some classic advice too, like “do avoid getting your feet wet” and “it’s as well to put off your swim” – apparantly getting a ‘chill’ was something to be avoided at all costs as a “growing gal”.

Getting my £2’s worth…

There’s this strange phenomenon within the British train network that sometimes First Class train tickets can be almost the same price (or cheaper) than standard tickets when you book online.

It doesn’t happen to me very often, but on Thursday whilst booking tickets for a trip to Nottingham the next day, I got one – just £2 more than the standard rate.
The challenge is to make it worth it. Train companies are cunning, they don’t always tell you what you get for moving up a class, which leaves you sidling up to the buffet car to claim your free beverage but wondering if the biscuits come free too.
Travelling on East Midland from London there was no such dilemma. A menu clearly outlined what you’d get, dependent upon the time of day you travelled. Then people came round with baskets. In such circumstances it’s wise to say yes to everything offered.
Therefore, I got:
Evening Standard
Tea (on multiple ocassions)
White Wine
Has to be said, the wine was a winner. What else do you need on an early Friday evening train? (Actually, I can tell you: wifi and a plug socket wouldn’t have gone amiss. My battery only lasted for one and half Gilmore Girls episodes!)
By my calculations – given the inflated costs of all train refreshments – I probably acquired over £6 of goods. Think that’s pretty good going.
Such a shame I’ve got to travel home standard class this afternoon!

Re-Anglicising a lost American

My friend Ian’s in town at the moment, back in London for the first time in nearly 4 years. In the mean time he’s spent 3 years in Mozambique with the Peace Corps and now he’s on his way home to Connecticut. (Via South Africa, Berlin and London.)

He’s always considered himself something of an Anglophile thanks to two years living in our good country (and his strong dislike of many of the things his own nation does), so over the next 4 days he’s trying to refresh it a bit. I’m doing my best to help, trying to remember important cultural events (tv shows, films etc) from the last 4 years that he should be aware of.

So far, I’ve established that he needs to watch various things, including:
Mrs Henderson Presents (the Anglophile needs to know all Dame Judi’s work)
A boxset of Absolutely Fabulous (this is more of a refresher than an introduction)
Gavin & Stacey (though I’m worried this might need a lot of explaining!)
Hot Fuzz and other British cinematic classics.

And what about QI, Mock the Week, 4 years’ worth of Have I Got News for You? Not to mention the political explanations that would be needed to understand them.

Is there anything I’m missing? But then, it’s 4 days which I don’t think should be spent entirely in front of the TV. And what in London would you most want to do if you only had a short time here?

Questions, dilemmas and more questions…

In defence of the custard cream – updated

This post is totally inspired by the sermon I heard last week at church, but it’s actually not God-related in the slightest (except that if we’re being theological about it, God is in everything, but we’re not…). It’s taken so long to get it written, because being the methodical researcher that I am, I wanted to check what I remembered against the talk once it was available online. However, for some reason it’s not gone online, so I can’t. As it’s now been a week I’m liable to forget what I wanted to say if I wait much longer, so here goes.

In 2007, the humble custard cream was voted Britain’s favourite biscuit. Last week’s talk was making the point that this illustrated just how fond of moderation the British are. The speaker said the following:

“The custard cream is the most mediocre of all foodstuffs…it has a very bland filling, whose flavour is almost impossible to describe and it’s held between two biscuits of equally tasteless character which nonetheless manage to usurp the blandness of the filling by being less interestingly creamy and more uninterestingly biscuity than the filling itself. The custard cream is so unoffensive that I thoroughly despise it.”

I was a little upset by this, as I’m rather fond of custard creams myself and don’t really want to think of myself as being mediocre! On the way home from church, I sought reassurance from a friend that this wasn’t the case, and yet was told that in their opinion the biscuit was truly indicative of mediocrity.

I’d hoped that the fact that I preferred dunking my custard creams into Early Grey (no milk) as opposed to ordinary tea would elevate me above mediocrity, but apparantly this isn’t the case. Incidentally, this friend also claimed that there should be no justification for buying ‘generic’ custard creams, which puzzled me as I can’t recall there being a particular ‘brand’ custard cream. In fact, over the last week I’ve checked in both Asda & Tesco and couldn’t find anything other than supermarket own brand.

Anyway, I’d like to reclaim the custard cream from its mediocre label. Surely if it provides any level of enjoyment it can’t really be considered mediocre?

And, just in case you’re interested in how on earth this topic found a place in a sermon, it went something along the line of this:

By persuing mediocrity we are denying ourselves what we truly deserve & what God actually wants for us. There is something much greater out there for us, so we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity. We also shouldn’t be looking for mediocre things in our relationship with God – if we ask for great things, there’s a chance we might get them. I guess essentially the argument would be: “why choose a custard cream when you could have a Green & Blacks dipped plain chocolate ginger biscuit instead?”.

If this is the kind of logic that you’re interested in & you’re in the London area, why not check this out – there’s probably custard creams on offer too.

Update 6/10: As sod’s law would dictate, the talk in question was uploaded this morning. I’ve therefore verified the precise custard cream quote (it was much better than I’d remembered). You can listen to the talk yourself here, just click on the 7.30pm service on September 28th.