Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Simply British

I was planning to write a piece today about being proud of British beer. Indeed, I have twice deleted entire posts because I thought the tone didn't do justice to how I feel about my home, and the beer that comes from those islands on the western edge of Europe. I don't do nationalism, I don't do jingoism, and for me, the SIBA video posted on Pete Brown's blog yesterday is neither of those things. As I said in the comments to that post, it was "a bloody magnficent video".

There are many good things about Britain and being British, not just our beer and breweries. Our sense of fair play, our sense of humour, our love of the simple pleasures in life - and really, what could be simpler, or better, than a pint of best, porter or mild in a comfortable pub?

I am convinced that one of the most insightful books on the British character is Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island. Though the context is slightly different, I think this section could well describe British beer as much as anything else:

"And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why so many of their treats - tea cakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsbury- are so cautiously flavorful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.

"Oh, I shouldn't really," they say.

"Oh, go on," you prod encouragingly

"Well, just a small one then," they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright. You may well say "Oh, I shouldn't really" if someone tells you to take a deep breath.

I used to be puzzled by the curious attitude of the British to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies - "Mustn't grumble," "It makes a change," "You could do worse," "It's not much, but it's cheap and cheerful," "Well, it was quite nice" - but gradually I came around to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier."

Thinking about Monday's post, perhaps I will soak some fruit in stout and make rock cakes at the weekend.


  1. I so want to visit this wonderful place now :-) Cheers!

  2. As it happens, rich fruit cake (a slice of Dundee, say) and a dark barley wine go together quite nicely …

  3. There are many good things about Britain and being British
    Ah yeah. But you wouldn't want to actually live there, eh? ;)

  4. Actually, going back to Britain is very much an option at some point. But no harm in getting out into the wider world before settling down.


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