Thursday, 7 June 2012

Always Been British?

With it being the Jubilee and the Olympics, the country seems awash with symbols of "Britishness". Take particular note of the Union flag that's been appearing everywhere (and yes, flag not Jack. It's not on a ship). So what better time than to take some of those quintessentially British things: cups of tea; stiff upper lips; being rude to Frenchmen, and consider, just how "British" are they?

Nice Cup of Tea

A nice cup of tea and a sit down, eeh, there's nowt like it. Whether your tea is black, white, green, red or heavily sugared, there's no doubt: we are a nation of tea drinkers. But tea is not native to Britain (alas, it may be the best of tea, and the best of places, but Yorkshire Tea is not grown in Yorkshire). How did this tiny island become the world's largest consumer* of tea?

Though China tea was introduced slightly earlier, tea really took off when Charles II married Catherine of Bragnaza, who was Portuguese. Portugal at this time had extensive trade links with Asia, and so had been importing tea for some time. When Catherine arrived, she was shocked that tea was not readily available to her. In fact, she had a pretty rough sea crossing, and probably landed completely gasping for a cup. The popularity of tea and the tea party swept the upper classes.

As the British Empire expanded, tea became easier to import, but it wasn't until 1884 that it became cheap enough for all classes to afford it. Braudel, a French historian I hold in quite high regard asked: "is it true to say that the new drink replaced gin in England?".

From then on, we were hooked: it was cheap, cheerful, cured mild colds and made us all feel a damn sight better.

In the second world war, tea was one of the last things to be rationed. I was even told once that there was a plan at the Home Office for how to cope with a tea shortage, should Britain's tea supplies be cut by her enemies. I cannot find anything to back up this story right now, so I commend it to you as a charming urban myth, and instead offer you this poem:

Cup of tea, cup of tea you are just the thing for me
No milk, no sugar, it's just great fancy herbal ones I hate
(No chamomile I say for me, no parsley in my cup of tea)
No mint, not thyme, no red red rose, just give me normal by the hose
So keep your ration book in hand and we'll drink tea across the land
And an extra cup for Granny too, and all our dashing lads in blue. 


*Statistically speaking, this is actually true. Per capita, consumption is about 2.5kg each year.

The Stiff Upper Lip

Head up, eyes front, keep smilin' and never say die. The British stiff upper lip is famous, but where did it come from?

Keeping a stiff upper lip means remaining stoic in the face of adversity, and if possible showing no emotion at all. It's such a pervasive expression that it's hard to know what you might do with a stiff upper lip, if not keep it. In 1963, PG Wodehouse published "Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves", and it's hard to imagine something more British than that.

However, the first printed reference is from 1815, in an American publication called The Massachusetts Spy, and it doesn't refer to an Englishman. Instead, the (American) speaker merely relates: "I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods."


Being Rude to the French

I suppose this depends upon your definition of "rude", but if we include "invading their country and taking their things", it actually goes back longer than "England" and "France". Prior to the Roman invasion there was certainly trade between the Britano-Celts and the Gauls, and where there's trade, there's opportunity for offence.

Since the Normans took control of England (and never actually left), we've been at war with France a lot of times. At one time, people in Calais spoke English as a first language, rather than French. This is less impressive once you consider that English is basically French but barbarianized.

Our most famous war with the French must either be the Hundred Years war, which actually lasted 116 years, or the Napoleonic Wars, as popularised by Sean Bean. Both have their fair share of French-bashing, but both had other countries involved, and both are characterised by a fair amount of British incompetence. Swings and roundabouts, really.

On the other hand: how awesome is Sharpe? That's gotta be worth something. 

Note: obviously this blog is mostly in jest. I am not suggesting that all British people drink tea, hate emotions or enjoy being rude to the French.

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