Sunday, 16 November 2008

Typically British.

We live in an age when the opinion poll is king. They help to choose our governments, give the press something to print on a slow news day and keep the whole nation informed about what nine out of ten cats prefer to find in their food bowls.

Opinion polls, if such an exercise carried out by a company going by the name of are to be believed, can also give the rest of the world some useful pointers as to the British character.

We are, according to the poll, fond of a cup of tea and TV soap operas; we’re generally polite but feel awkward about expressing our emotions in public, needless to say we enjoy nothing more than a good moan.

The poll also highlights our national talent for queuing; some wags have said that if the British ever conquer the world they will do so in order to teach everyone else how to form an orderly queue.

Queues in Britain must be the one thing that visitors marvel at more than anything else; they are impeccably orderly and totally spontaneous. This national gift for standing in line has even been mentioned recently in the pages of the rather austere cultural magazine Standpoint, with Jonathan Foreman commenting on the eminent good sense behind out habit of always standing on the right when riding an escalator so that people in a hurry can pass on the left.

Nobody taught us to do this, it just seems to be hardwired into our brains that it is the done thing, and long may that continue to be the case, so long as I can see people waiting patiently in line I will know that despite all predictions to the contrary our culture isn’t yet ready to crash into the rocks.

One aspect of the British character that seems to have eluded the diligent souls at onepoll, or the 5000 Britons they surveyed anyway, is the way we use the word ‘typical.’

In her book ‘Watching The English’, which is probably the standard work on the character traits of the largest nation in the UK, the anthropologist Kate Fox describes the use of ‘typical’ as a despairing exclamation as our national response to the frustrations thrown in our path by life.

It is both a symbol of our deeply pragmatic understanding that this isn’t and never will be a perfect world and a symptom of a resigned apathy that means we are more willing than most peoples to put up with dirty, overcrowded trains, stifling bureaucracy and inept governments.

One last thing the poll manages to catch with perfect clarity is our national obsession with the weather, as a spokesman for onepoll told the press this week, ‘You can’t go anywhere or do anything in Britain without someone talking about the weather. We’re almost proud of our rain.

Quite so, in no other nation could reading the weather forecast on television be a passport to minor celebrity. In fact in no other country would a poll than identified the inhabitants as a group of grumpy tea drinkers obsessed with the weather and standing in line be greeted as an amusing diversion rather than a damning indictment or a heinous insult.

Perhaps, as the spokesman for onepoll said ‘what this poll demonstrates really well is how proud we are to be British.’

Despite all the minor frustrations that go hand in hand with living on this damp island those are sentiments with which I cannot help but agree.

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