Icons, symbols and institutions
There are certain icons and institutions which even the
British themselves consider as "British." This is just a selection of
those things which spring to mind whenever one hears the word "British."
The BULLDOG symbolises the very essence
of Britishness. He is solid, reliable, unshakeably loyal, very individual,
VERY nice when you get to know him - and kind of cute in his own
funny little way! He also bears a startling resemblance to Winston
Churchill, Britain's great wartime leader whose memory is still
held in great esteem by the majority of the British.
The Americans have Uncle Sam, we have JOHN BULL.
He is a fictional character, used to personify the British nation,
and is always depicted as an elderly gentleman, rather portly in
build, wearing full riding kit complete with breeches and boots,
and a Union Jack waistcoat. He was created by John Arbuthnot (1667-1735)
a Scottish author, scientist, and physician who wrote five satirical
pamphlets in 1712 on the politics of the day, using John Bull as
the typical Englishman. The character obviously struck a chord and
he has persisted ever since : the picture on the left comes from
a 1916 British Army recruiting poster.
A BRITISH LION is really a member of a Rugby
Football team (a very GOOD one, though) - the Lion is the emblem
of England. It is actually a "lion passant gardant"
- a walking lion, looking out at you full face, and was first used
by Rollo, Duke of Normandy (father of William the Conqueror, who
added the second lion.) The third was added by Henry II, and Henry
VIII added a crown to the lion. In heraldry, the lion stands for
"deathless courage" and the lion passant gardant for "resolution
and prudence" The Scots also have a lion as their heraldic emblem:
theirs is a red lion rampant (standing on its hind legs,
looking straight forward.)
BRITANNIA is the personification of British nationalism.
She is portrayed as a young woman in a neo-classical gown and helmet,
seated by the sea ("Britannia Rules the Waves.") She is holding
a trident in one hand and a shield, decorated with the Union flag,
in the other.
The Romans called their newly-conquered province, just across the
sea from Gaul, Britannia, and the coinage of the day featured the
image of a woman in armour. This image was not used on coins again
until the reign of King Charles II, and Britannia became a popular
figure in 1707 when Scotland, Wales and England were finally united
to form Great Britain. She was immortalised in 1740 when James Thompson
wrote the words of "Rule Britannia" and set it to music by Thomas
Arne. It was performed on the London stage where it immediately
captured the public imagination.
The song "Rule Britannia" is still sung every year
on the last night of the "Proms" - the Promenade Concerts held in
the Royal Albert Hall in London - when the whole audience joins
in a burst of nationalistic fervour and flag-waving, invariably
drowning out the soloist who is supposed to be doing the singing!
Britannia has continued to feature on British coins since her reintroduction,
mostly on copper (penny and halfpenny) coins but occasionally on
silver, and at present is to be seen on the 50p coin.
The BOWLER HAT conjures up an instant image
of Britishness. Originally designed in 1850 by Lock's the hatters
for William Coke II, later the Earl of Leicester, it was actually
MADE by the hat maker William Bowler. It was first called the "Coke"
but soon became known as a "Bowler," partly because of its maker
but also because of its bowl-like shape.
The bowler hat became the trademark of several well-known Englishmen
: Charlie Chaplin (born in London), Stan Laurel (from Ulverston)
and more recently John Steed, the archetypal Gentleman Spy of The
Avengers fame (left, played by Patrick McNee). Goldfinger's
sidekick Oddjob used a bowler hat to devastating effect, and you
will still see bowler hats being worn on the streets of London today
as they form part of the unofficial "uniform" of the city gent,
always accessorised with a rolled black umbrella.
CRICKET - and I don't mean the commercialised,
multicoloured specially-for-TV spectacle that masquerades under that
name but the REAL game. There is no "British" national team, the team
that competes with the other great cricketing nations of Australia,
South Africa, Pakistan, India and the West Indies is England. At a
more local level, cricket has county teams, works, club, village and
even school teams, and families play their own versions of the game
on playing fields and beaches every summer. Cricket is a leisurely
game: Test matches (internationals) take up to five days, and three
or two-day matches are usual at the higher levels of play. Even a
village cricket match may take all day, and on a fine, sunny Sunday,
village greens and cricket pitches around the country will see families
picnicking on the grass around the boundary whilst watching the match
The British BOBBY is one of our most cherished
icons, called after the founder of the modern police force, Sir
Robert Peel. The local policemen may also be known as the "Plod"
after the delightful policeman character Mr. Plod in Enid Blyton's
"Noddy" stories, or as a "copper," from his habit of "copping" (seeing
what they are up to and catching) wrongdoers.
Our policemen are not routinely armed and there is considerable
public support for it remaining that way; the British have a natural
aversion to the everyday use of guns, and still yearn for the days
when the local Bobby could dispense summary justice to misbehaving
juveniles with a swift clout as soon as he caught them.
TEA is most definitely Britain's national
drink, and it is difficult to get a decent cuppa anywhere else in
the world! Tea drinking is not just a means of refreshment, it is
also a social ritual and any hostess (or host) will put the kettle
on immediately after greeting visitors. To make a proper cup of tea,
you need a china or earthenware teapot; fill the kettle with freshly-drawn
water and bring it to the boil. WARM THE POT by pouring in some of
the boiling water, swishing it around then emptying it again. Purists
will insist on loose tea but good quality teabags are acceptable -
the traditional "one for each person and one for the pot" will produce
rather a strong brew! I prefer mine a bit less violent - about 3 spoons
(or bags) between four. Bring the water back to boil and pour it onto
the tea immediately. Leave the tea to brew/mash/stand - it depends
on where you live - for about five minutes. Gently give it a stir
and leave for another minute for the tea leaves to settle again, then
pour it out - but put the milk in the cup first! If you use loose
tea, you might want to use a tea-strainer ( a sort of mini-sieve designed
for just that purpose.) Add sugar to taste, and drink and enjoy!
There is a delightful website all about tea drinking called R.S.V.P.
- it's well worth a visit (but don't forget to come back here!)
A FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST (usually abbreviated to simply "Full
English") is an excellent way to start the day, if you have time
to cook one (or someone to cook it for you!) and time to sit down
and eat it! A REAL Full English consists of several courses and
in country houses used to be set out as a hot buffet for guests
to help themselves as and when they got up. Nowadays the only time
most people eat a FULL English breakfast is on Sundays and on holiday
when they can spend a more leisurely morning - such a meal needs
time to "go down" and digest. Either kippers or porridge will start
the meal - kippers are smoked herring, and will be served poached
or grilled, with brown bread and butter; porridge (oatmeal) can
be eaten with brown sugar and cream or milk (although Scotsmen will
tell you that only salt is correct.) After this "starter" comes
the main course : bacon, eggs (fried or scrambled), sausages, black
pudding if you're in the north, grilled or fried tomatoes, maybe
kidneys and possibly a slice or two of fried bread. In the past,
kedgeree (a sort of risotto with rice, smoked fish and hard-boiled
eggs, a relic of the British Raj) would also have been offered,
but this is unusual nowadays. Regional variations occur - in south
Wales you are likely to be offered Laver Bread, a concoction of
oatmeal and seaweed which tastes better than it sounds. Finally,
if you have any room left, toast and marmalade will finish off the
meal, all washed down with copious quantities of tea.
ENGLISH PUBS pop up in all sorts of places, but if they're
not in England - they're not English pubs! There is an alarming
trend towards "modernisation" and "theme pubs" but there is also
a growing backlash against chrome-and-formica and loud music. You
can find good pubs in both town and country, although city pubs
have by and large succumbed to the need to attract a younger clientele.
A good pub will have "atmosphere" - a cheerful and friendly landlord
(or landlady), helpful and chatty bar staff - if they are also decorative
then that is a bonus - and "locals" willing to gossip with any visitor.
There is a popular fallacy that we drink our beer warm : this is
decidedly not so : a good beer (that is, made from malted barley
and flavoured with real hops, not chemical stuff) is served at cellar
(storage) temperature - which given the climate, is decidedly NOT
warm! Continental lagers are served chilled, but then no true Englishman
would consider lager as real beer.
The ROBIN is everyone's favourite bird : when a national
newspaper conducted a poll to decide Britain's national bird (we
didn't have one before) millions voted, and the robin won by a landslide.
It is not the same species as the American Robin (which is closely
related to our blackbird) but shares the same distinctive red breast.
Indeed, the American Robin was probably given its name by the first
settlers because of its similar colouring.
The robin is immediately recognisable - no other British bird has
the same red breast, which is present in both sexes, and it is the
one bird everyone can identify even if they can name no other bird!
Robins are so familiar because they are so tame : this seems a characteristic
of British robins, which elsewhere in their range are shy woodland
birds. Here, they will approach people closely and will go so far
as to perch on a gardener's spade in order to be first to the worms
being turned up. It's as if they KNOW that everyone loves them!
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