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
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
YOU NEED TO KNOW, FOR INSTANCE, WHO SAKE DEAN MAHOMET WAS
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.