Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “English culture”

Divisions of England, then and now

In 1966 I went to study in England, and spent two and a half years there. It took me about a year to get over the culture shock, and to appreciate different aspects of English culture — or rather English cultures, for there are several regional cultures.

Forty years later I visited England again, on holiday this time, and revisited some of the places I had known, and explored some new ones. I found that there were many changes, some expected, some unexpected. I’ve described that, and some of the changes I noticed here.

Then someone posted this graphic, which illustrated some of the changes I had noticed, and some that I hadn’t.

The most startling change to me is the one on chips.

Back in 1966 the area marked above as “gravy on chips” was definitely salt and vinegar.  I never, ever saw anyone have gravy on chips.

Whether bought from Sarah’s or Sweaty Betty’s, it was only ever salt and vinegar.

And in the area marked on the map as “salt and vinegar”, chips were unheard of. No matter where I went in London (and I went to most places on my London Transport free pass), there were no chips, only “French Fried Potatoes”. Chips were strictly north of the Trent.

The area marked “curry sauce on chips” was unknown territory for me, so I can’t comment on that.

So what happened? Did “French fried potatoes” go out with the bowler hats?

The bit about Greggs, I don’t understand much, but when we visited Cornwall in 2005, pasties were as scarce as chips in London in 1966. We asked at several places, and they sent us somewhere else, until we eventually foudn them at the 6th place we tried. And everyone in Bodmin spoke with Estuary accents.

The most astounding thing of all, however,  is the beer.

Before starting my studies in Durham I worked as a bus driver in London for 6 months. After a union meeting, which was held in a pub (the Telegraph on Brixton Hill), I was accosted by a conductor, who wanted to know about the big buses in Johannesburg that I had talked of at the meeting. Then I bought him a drink and he told me  he was the king of Streatham, and offered to take me on a tour of London and a trip to Brighton. He had been in many jobs before he became a conductor — street sweeper, rider on the wall of death, barrow boy. He had been in the cooler once for three months for scaling a motorbike. He bought me a drink. Then we went round the corner to another pub, his favourite hang-out, it appeared.

There we pooled our meagre resources and bought another drink. He scorned me for drinking cider, and said I should drink bitter. I said that draft bitter was usually flat. He said that didn’t matter, it was the taste that counts. The English like their beer warm and flat. I can think of nothing more insipid or puke-provoking. Then John starts waving and beckoning to his friend Reg, who is over at the other bar opposite. Reg, he tells me, is a tit-tat man. What the hell is a tit-tat man? Well, he’s the chap at the races who stands at one end and waggles his fingers and the bookies then know what every horse is doing. Reg is one of the best tit-tat men there is. Reg comes round and joins us. I like Reg. John introduces me as Steve, and Reg called me “Stephen”, so I called him “Reginald”, which provoked much giggling. Then he tried to guess my age, and said I was 32. Then changed it to 27 (I was actually 25). He said I’d never guess his age to within five years. So I said he was 57. No, he’s 56. He seemed rather amazed. He talked a little more. Then I said goodbye to John and Reg, and slipped away quietly, leaving them talking in a very lively way to someone else. The closing bell had rung, and I came home.

That was London, the area shown on the map as “craft ale”. Does bitter count as craft ale? There was bottled ale, but that was too fizzy. So English beer was either too flat or too fizzy. Nothing in between. Then I went north to Durham and discovered Newcastle Brown Ale. Now that was beer, the best in the world, I thought. Lion Ale, the beer Natal made famous, came a rather poor second, but still way better than bitter, or lager. And in Durham no one had ever heard of lager, except perhaps a few people who had gone to Germany on holiday.

So when did ale move south and lager move north? Was that yet another thing wrought by Margaret Thatcher?

 

 

 

 

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How posh or chav are you?

Hat-tip to Nourishing Obscurity.

33% Posh - How about you?
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If you’re American and reading this, “chav” is the nearest Brit equivalent to “redneck”. If you’re South African and reading this, the nearest equivalent might be “Pirates fan”, except that Pirates fasns have a certain degree of panache (and saying “panache” marks me as posh, geddit?), which is lacking in chavs.


30% Chav - How about you?


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This is England

I’ve just been watching a flim on TV, This is England.

It was made a couple of years ago, but was set in England in about 1982, during the Falklands War. It’s about a boy who is bullied at school and befriended by a gang of skinheads, and begins to hang out with them, and enjoys their friendship, but then an older former leader of the gang is released from prison, and a darker side emerges, as he is an English nationalist, and the gang splits as racism and xenophobia intrude.

I won’t say more about the plot in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, and don’t want to add plot spoilers.

But I was very conscious of it being an England I had missed entirely.

I visited England twice. Once in the mid-sixties, when I spent two and a half years there, mostly studying in Durham, but also driving buses in London, described, in part, in another blog post on Swinging London in retrospect. The second visit was about three years ago, much shorter, a three week holiday visiting old friends and relations.

After nearly 40 years there were many changes. One of the most noticable was that in the 1960s there had been an industrial working class. There were factory workers, coal miners and others. Forty years later most people seemed to be employed in service industries.

Nowadays the transition seems to be marked by the jokes on motoring programmes on TV — about the Japanese failure to make proper motorbikes that leaked oil, or proper cars that broke down.

But the film showed something I had missed, that marked the transition — the Thatcher years.

I’m sure that the film does not tell the full story of those years, and that there were lots of other things that happened. But during both my visits to Britain there was a Labour government, and it seemed a little bit more sunny and cheerful and optimistic.

I’d be interested in knowing if people who lived through the Thatcher years and saw the film think it is true to life.

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