Ex­tract Bill Bryson takes a new look at his beloved adopted coun­try

The Cool Bri­tan­nia of yes­ter­year has mor­phed into a place Bill Bryson has dif­fi­culty recog­nis­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - This is an edited ex­tract from The Road to Lit­tle Drib­bling by Bill Bryson, pub­lished by Dou­ble­day on Tues­day ($32.95).

Ifirst came to Eng­land at the other end of my life, when I was still quite young, just 20. In those days, for a short but in­ten­sive pe­riod, a very high pro­por­tion of all in the world that was worth tak­ing note of came out of Bri­tain. The Bea­tles, James Bond, Mary Quant and miniskirts, Twiggy and Justin de Vil­leneuve, Richard Bur­ton and El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor’s love life, Princess Mar­garet’s love life, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, suit jack­ets with­out col­lars, tele­vi­sion se­ries like The Avengers and The Pris­oner, spy nov­els by John le Carre and Len Deighton, Marianne Faith­full and Dusty Spring­field, quirky movies star­ring David Hem­mings and Ter­ence Stamp that we didn’t quite get in Iowa, Harold Pin­ter plays that we didn’t get at all, Peter Cook and Dud­ley Moore, That Was the Week That Was, the Pro­fumo scan­dal — prac­ti­cally ev­ery­thing re­ally.

Ad­ver­tise­ments in mag­a­zines like The New Yorker and Esquire were full of Bri­tish prod­ucts in a way they never would be again — Gil­bey’s and Tan­queray gin, Harris tweeds, BOAC air­lin­ers, Aquas­cu­tum suits and Viyella shirts, Keens felted hats, Alan Paine sweaters, Daks trousers, MG and Austin Healey sports cars, a hun­dred va­ri­eties of Scotch whisky. It was clear that if you wanted qual­ity and suavity in your life, it was Bri­tish goods that were in large part go­ing to sup­ply it.

Not all of this made a great deal of sense even then, it must be said. A pop­u­lar cologne of the day was called Pub. I am not at all sure what res­o­nances that was sup­posed to evoke. I have been drink­ing in Eng­land for 40 years and I can’t say that I have ever en­coun­tered any­thing in a pub that I would want to rub on my face.

Be­cause of all the at­ten­tion we gave Bri­tain, I thought I knew a fair amount about the place, but I quickly dis­cov­ered upon ar­riv­ing that I was very wrong. I couldn’t even speak my own lan­guage there. In the first few days, I failed to dis­tin­guish be­tween col­lar and colour, khaki and car key, letters and let­tuce, bed and bared, karma and calmer.

Need­ing a hair­cut, I ven­tured into a uni­sex hair­dresser’s in Ox­ford, where the pro­pri­etress, a large and vaguely for­bid­ding woman, es­corted me to a chair, and there in­formed me crisply: “Your hair will be cut by a vet to­day.”

I was taken aback. “Like a per­son who treats sick an­i­mals?” I said, qui­etly hor­ri­fied. “No, her name is Yvette,” she replied and with the briefest of gazes into my face made it clear that I was the most ex­haust­ing idiot that she had en­coun­tered in some time.

In a pub I asked what kind of sand­wiches they had. “Ham and cheese,” the man said. “Oh, yes please,” I said. “Yes please what?” he said. “Yes please, ham and cheese,” I said, but with less con­fi­dence. “No, it’s ham or cheese,” he ex­plained. “You don’t do them both to­gether?” “No.” “Oh,” I said, sur­prised, then leaned to­wards him and in a low, con­fi­den­tial tone said: “Why not? Too flavour­ful?”

He stared at me. “I’ll have cheese then, please,” I said con­tritely.

When the sand­wich came, the cheese was ex­trav­a­gantly shred­ded — I had never seen a dairy prod­uct dis­tressed be­fore serv­ing — and ac­com­pa­nied by what I now know was Branston pickle, but what looked to me then like what you find when you stick your hand into a clogged sump.

I nib­bled it ten­ta­tively and was pleased to dis­cover it was de­li­cious. Grad­u­ally it dawned on me that I had found a coun­try that was wholly strange to me and yet some­how mar­vel­lous. It is a feel­ing that has never left me.

My time in Bri­tain de­scribes a kind of bell curve, start­ing at the bot­tom left-hand cor­ner in the “Knows Al­most Noth­ing at All” zone, and ris­ing in a grad­ual arc to “Pretty Thor­ough Ac­quain­tance­ship” at the top.

Hav­ing at­tained this sum­mit, I as­sumed that I would re­main there per­ma­nently, but re­cently I have be­gun to slide down the other side to­wards ig­no­rance and be­wil­der­ment again as in­creas­ingly I find my­self liv­ing in a coun­try that I don’t al­to­gether recog­nise. It is a place full of celebri­ties whose names I don’t know and tal­ents I can­not dis­cern, of acronyms (BFF, TMI, TOWIE) that have to be ex­plained to me, of peo­ple who seem to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of re­al­ity from the one I know.

I am con­stantly at a loss in this new world. Re­cently I closed my door on a caller be­cause I couldn’t think what else to do with him. He was a me­ter reader. At first I was pleased to see him. We haven’t had a me­ter reader at our house since Ed­ward Heath was prime min­is­ter, so I let him in gladly and even fetched a step lad­der so that he could climb up and get a clear read­ing. It was only when he de­parted and re­turned a minute later that I be­gan to re­gret our deep­en­ing re­la­tion­ship.

“Sorry, I also need to read the me­ter in the men’s room,” he told me. “I beg your par­don?” “It says here there is a sec­ond me­ter in the men’s room.”

“Well, we don’t have a men’s room be­cause this is a house, you see.” “It says here it’s a school.” “Well, it’s not. It’s a house. You were just in it. Did you see room­fuls of young peo­ple?” He thought hard for a minute. “Do you mind if I have a look around?” “I beg your par­don?” “Just a lit­tle look. Won’t take five min­utes.” “You think you’re go­ing to find a men’s room that we have some­how over­looked?” “You never know!” he said brightly. “I’m shut­ting the door now be­cause I don’t know what else to do,” I said and shut the door. I could hear him mak­ing mild bleat­ings through the wood. “Be­sides I have an im­por­tant ap­point­ment,” I called back through the wood. And it was true. I did have an im­por­tant ap­point­ment. I was about to go to Eastleigh to take a Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship test.

The irony of this was not lost on me. Just as I was be­com­ing thor­oughly re­mys­ti­fied by life in mod­ern Bri­tain, I was be­ing sum­moned to demon­strate that I un­der­stood the place.

For a long time, there were two ways to be­come a Bri­tish citizen. The first, the trick­ier but


para­dox­i­cally much the more com­mon method, was to find your way into a Bri­tish womb and wait for nine months. The other way was to fill out some forms and swear an oath. Since 2005, how­ever, peo­ple in the sec­ond cat­e­gory have ad­di­tion­ally had to demon­strate pro­fi­ciency in English and pass a knowl­edge test.

I was ex­cused the lan­guage test be­cause English is my na­tive tongue, but no one is ex­cused the knowl­edge test, and it’s tough. No mat­ter how well you think you know Bri­tain, you don’t know the things you need to know to pass the Life in Bri­tain Knowl­edge Test. You need to know, for in­stance, who Sake Dean Ma­homet was. (He was the man who in­tro­duced sham­poo to Bri­tain. Hon­estly.) You need to know by what other name the 1944 Ed­u­ca­tion Act is known. (The But­ler Act.) You need to know when life peer­ages were cre­ated (1958) and in what year the max­i­mum length of a work­ing day for women and chil­dren was re­duced to 10 hours (1847). You have to be able to iden­tify Jen­son But­ton. (No point ask­ing why.) You can be de­nied cit­i­zen­ship if you don’t know the num­ber of mem­ber states in the Com­mon­wealth, who Bri­tain’s en­e­mies in the Crimean War were, the per­cent­ages of peo­ple who de­scribe them­selves as Sikh, Mus­lim, Hindu or Chris­tian, and the ac­tual name of the Big Ben tower. (It’s the El­iz­a­beth Tower.) This is one tough test.

To pre­pare, I or­dered the full set of study guides, con­sist­ing of a shiny pa­per­back called Life in the United King­dom: A Guide for New

Res­i­dents and two aux­il­iary vol­umes: an Of­fi­cial Study Guide, which tells you how to use the first book (es­sen­tially, start at page one and move through the fol­low­ing pages one at a time, in or­der), and a vol­ume of Of­fi­cial Prac­tice Ques­tions and An­swers, con­tain­ing sev­en­teen prac­tice tests. Nat­u­rally, I did a cou­ple of these be­fore read­ing a word of the study guides and was hor­ri­fied at how poorly I did.

The study guide is an in­ter­est­ing book, nicely mod­est, a lit­tle vac­u­ous at times, but with its heart in the right place. Bri­tain, you learn, is a coun­try that cher­ishes fair play, is rather good at art and literature, val­ues good man­ners, and has of­ten shown it­self to be com­mend­ably in­ven­tive, es­pe­cially around things that run on steam. The peo­ple are a gen­er­ally de­cent lot who gar­den, go for walks in the coun­try, eat roast beef and York­shire pud­ding on Sun­days (un­less they are Scot­tish, in which case they may go for hag­gis). They hol­i­day at the sea­side, obey the Green Cross Code, queue pa­tiently, vote sen­si­bly, re­spect the po­lice, ven­er­ate the monarch, and prac­tise mod­er­a­tion in all things. Oc­ca­sion­ally they go to a public house to drink two units or fewer of good English ale and to have a game of pool or skit­tles. (You some­times feel that the peo­ple who wrote the guide­book should get out more.)

Some­times the book is sim­ply wrong, some­times it is du­bi­ous and wrong. It cites the ac­tor An­thony Hop­kins as the kind of per­son Bri­tons can be proud of with­out ap­par­ently paus­ing to re­flect that An­thony Hop­kins is now an Amer­i­can citizen liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. It also mis­spells his first name. It calls the literary area of Westminster Abbey “Poet’s Cor­ner”, per­haps in the belief that they only keep one poet at a time there. Gen­er­ally, I try not to be over­fussy about these things, but if it is a re­quire­ment that peo­ple who take the test should have a full com­mand of English, then per­haps it would be an idea to make cer­tain that those re­spon­si­ble for the test demon­strate a sim­i­lar pro­fi­ciency. And so, af­ter a month’s hard study, the day of my test ar­rived. My in­struc­tions were to present my­self at the ap­pointed hour at a place called Wes­sex House in Eastleigh, Hamp­shire, the near­est test­ing cen­tre to my home. Eastleigh is a satel­lite of Southamp­ton and ap­pears to have been bombed heav­ily dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, though per­haps not quite heav­ily enough. It is an in­ter­est­ingly un­mem­o­rable place — not numb­ingly ugly but not at­trac­tive ei­ther; not wretch­edly poor but not pros­per­ous; not com­pletely dead in the cen­tre, but clearly not thriv­ing. The bus sta­tion was just an outer wall of Sains­bury’s with a glass mar­quee over it, ev­i­dently to give pi­geons a dry place to shit.

Like many Bri­tish towns, Eastleigh has closed its fac­to­ries and work­shops, and in­stead is di­rect­ing all its eco­nomic en­er­gies into the mak­ing and drink­ing of cof­fee. There were es­sen­tially two types of shop in the town: empty shops and cof­fee shops. Some of the empty shops, ac­cord­ing to signs in their win­dows, were in the process of be­ing con­verted into cof­fee shops, and many of the cof­fee shops, judg­ing by their level of cus­tom, looked as if they weren’t far off be­com­ing empty shops again. I am no economist, but I am guess­ing that that’s what is known as a vir­tu­ous cir­cle. One or two more ad­ven­tur­ous en­trepreneurs had opened pound stores or bet­ting shops, and a few char­i­ties had taken over other aban­doned premises, but on the whole Eastleigh seemed to be a place where you could ei­ther have a cup of cof­fee or sit and watch pi­geons defe­cate. I had a cup of cof­fee, for the sake of the econ­omy, watched a pi­geon defe­cate across the way, then pre­sented my­self at Wes­sex House for my test.

Five of us were present for test­ing on this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing. We were shown to a room­ful of desks, each with a com­puter screen and a mouse sit­ting on a plain mat, and seated so that we couldn’t see any­one else’s screens. Once set­tled, we were given a prac­tice test of four ques- tions to make sure we were com­fort­ably in com­mand of our mouse and mousepad. Be­cause it was a prac­tice test, the ques­tions were en­cour­ag­ingly easy, along the lines of: Manch­ester United is: (a) a po­lit­i­cal party (b) a dance band (c) an English football team It took about 15 sec­onds for four of us to an­swer the prac­tice ques­tions, but one lady — pleas­ant, mid­dle-aged, slightly plump­ish, I am guess­ing from one of those Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries where they eat a lot of sticky sweets — took con­sid­er­ably longer. Twice the su­per­vi­sor came to see if she was all right. At length the woman an­nounced that she had fin­ished and the su­per­vi­sor came to check her work. He bent to her screen and in a tone of quiet amaze­ment said: “You’ve missed them all.”

She beamed un­cer­tainly, not sure if this was an achieve­ment.

“Do you want to try them again?” the su­per­vi­sor asked. “You’re en­ti­tled to try again.” The woman gave ev­ery ap­pear­ance of hav­ing no clear idea of what was go­ing on, but gamely elected to press on, and so the test be­gan.

The first ques­tion was: “You’ve seen Eastleigh. Are you sure you want to stay in Bri­tain?” Ac­tu­ally, I don’t re­call what the first ques­tion was or any of those that fol­lowed. We weren’t al­lowed to bring any­thing to the desk, so I couldn’t take notes or tap my teeth thought­fully with a pen­cil. The test con­sisted of 24 mul­ti­ple­choice ques­tions and took only about three min­utes. You ei­ther know the an­swers or you don’t. I pre­sented my­self at the su­per­vi­sor’s desk upon com­ple­tion, and we waited to­gether while the com­puter checked my an­swers, a process that took about as long as the test it­self, and at last he told me with a smile that I had passed, but he couldn’t tell me ex­actly how I did. The com­puter only in­di­cated pass or fail.

“I’ll just print out your re­sult,” he said. This took another small age. I was hop­ing for a smart parch­ment-like cer­tifi­cate, like you get when you climb Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge or do a cook­ery course with Waitrose, but it was just a faintly printed let­ter con­firm­ing that I was cer­ti­fied as in­tel­lec­tu­ally fit for life in mod­ern Bri­tain.

I left the build­ing feel­ing pleased, even a lit­tle ex­hil­a­rated. The sun was shin­ing. Across the way at the bus sta­tion, two men in bomber jack­ets were hav­ing a morn­ing aper­i­tif from match­ing cans of lager. A pi­geon picked at a cig­a­rette butt and squeezed out a lit­tle shit. Life in mod­ern Bri­tain, it seemed to me, was pretty good.

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