Very British problems

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”

Happy New Year? I certainly hope so! 2021 is here, and if you are reading this page, you have so far survived not only the once-in-several-lifetimes-experience of a global pandemic – I promise not to mention the two ‘C-words’ ever again, although we will bear the mental scars that ‘confinement’, ‘isolation’, ‘quarantine’, ‘curfew’ and ‘social distancing’ have left behind for some time to come – but may now face vaccinations, new strains and further chaos.

But let us forget all that for a moment – instead I will (un-)focus on another word that has dogged us ever since former Prime Minister David Cameron made the calamitous decision to allow the great British unwashed masses to decide – isn’t that what our elected representatives are there for? – upon the island nation’s European future, a condition which has sat uncomfortably in certain staunchly Anglo-Saxon quarters since the early 1970s: B-R-E-X-I-T.

There you are, I’ve said it out loud, the ‘B-word’. But ‘B’ also stands for ‘British’, a now increasingly fragmented concept, as individual geographic and cultural Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English identities strain at the leash of what has been a previously centuries-old political ‘union’.

Narrowing the topic down further, ‘Englishness’ is something very peculiar and hard to describe, a mix of character traits which sets the quintessential inhabitants of the land of Albion apart from their immediate and European neighbours, a state of being which has embraced – and embarrassed! – me from the moment I first crossed the storm-lashed Channel almost 50 years ago.

Painting a picture of this often-painful condition in order for ‘Continentals’ to gain a better understanding of the unique psyche, particularly when seen in contrast with other less refined stereotypes such as the mindless and often gratuitously violent football ‘fan’, is no easy task – but here goes.

Being repeatedly and continuously “sorry”, in whatever situation, appropriate or not, is a well-known phenomenon, but let us look at some other examples of behaviour while interacting with others, even at a distance, which make ‘properly’ brought up Englishmen and women so excruciatingly special.

When venturing forth into the ‘great’ outdoors, deeming it necessary to have a little jog over the zebra crossing, instead of walking, while waving apologetically at waiting cars is just one such case in point.

There are many others. The inability to turn around and walk the other direction without first taking out your mobile phone and frowning at it is another, while the predicament of having said “hello” to an acquaintance in the supermarket and then creeping around the aisles in an attempt not to bump into them again can be perceived as equally awkward.

Self-induced stress-levels are raised even further when overtaking a stranger on foot and then having to keep up a furious pace until ‘well clear’ as determined by hearing only – risking a glance over the shoulder might as well equate to being swallowed up by the very ground you are trying to cover.

And then there is the horror of being forced to spend time in the close proximity of others, otherwise known as commuting. Repeatedly pressing the door button on the train to reassure fellow passengers that you have the situation under control is just one example of several neuroses which suddenly spring up when using public transport.

I won’t even mention not being able to eat your crisps when someone sits next to you but try fathoming the inexplicable sense of relief that washes over you as your perfectly valid ticket is accepted by the inspector – matched by the discomfort experienced when someone you only vaguely know says “oh, I’m getting that train too”.

Seating is often at a premium, especially during rush hour, and “sorry, is anyone sitting here?” needs to be understood as ‘unless this is a person looking remarkably like a bag, I suggest you move it’.

On the other hand, starting to touch your own bag fully 15 minutes before reaching your station should be recognised as a signal ensuring that standing passengers are prepared for your not-so-imminent exit.

Once actually on the way to freedom, running out of ways to say “thanks” when a succession of doors are held for you, having already deployed “cheers”, “ta” and “nice one”, only exasperates the trauma. ‘Punishing’ people who don’t say “thank you” in return by muttering “you’re welcome” under your breath merely offers a degree of recompense for this conundrum.

The way home is paved with any number of further potentially embarrassing social landmines before the relative safety of one’s own four walls is reached.

Danger beckons as you look away so violently when someone in front of you in the cash machine queue enters their PIN code that you dislocate your neck. When finally your turn comes around, you cannot stop yourself from loudly tapping your fingers on the key pad, accompanied by an audible “tut-tut” or two, in order to assure the queue behind that you have correctly asked for the withdrawal and are thus innocent of causing the uncomfortable moment’s waiting for the money to actually appear.

Picking up something from your local grocers might involve waiting for permission to leave after having paid for something with the exact change. Multiple challenges then await, should a visit to the hairdressers have been planned for that afternoon – you find yourself compelled to sit there, trapped, and watch in quiet sorrow as your haircut turns out to be completely different to the one you asked for. Being unable to stand up and leave without first saying “right”, but without a word of complaint, quite possibly even over-tipping, are your subsequent actions.

Meeting someone on the way out of the salon, still flustered, not understanding what is said to you for the third time of asking, and then just laughing hoping for the best only serves to make matters worse.

The final ‘insult’, mishearing that person’s name for a second time, almost certainly leaves you with no other option but now having to avoid them forever; or even leaving it too late to correct that someone, or someone in their company, as regards to your own, meaning you must now live with your new name for the foreseeable future.

Getting away from it all is no easier, arrival in an exotic foreign country inevitably involving the nagging worry that you have accidentally packed 3-kilos of cocaine and a dead goat whilst self-consciously strolling through the ‘nothing-to-declare’ corridor at the airport.

A series of similar afflictions abroad is concluded by the ‘helpful’ comment of “anywhere here is fine” to the cabbie upon your return when the taxi is nowhere near your intended destination.

Once indoors and receiving guests, saying “you’ll have to excuse the mess” after having spent several hours tidying up ahead of the visit, or forcefully offering the last roast potato to everyone at the table when you really wanted it for yourself at the subsequent meal, give rise to plenty more ‘English’ problems.

Finally left blissfully alone, the psyche of the island dweller comes up with conflicting emotions of a different nature. Staring at your phone in silent horror until the unknown number stops ringing is only counterbalanced by the relief felt when someone doesn’t answer their phone within the socially-acceptable interval of three rings, allowing you to quickly hang up with the indescribable sense of having avoided another situation beyond your comfort zone.

However, insecurity then returns with all its might as you come across a recording of your own voice, prompting the decision that it’s probably best never to speak again anyway.

I could go on, but I think the above scenarios suffice to gain an insight into the contradictory yet endearing, sometimes bluff yet at the same time self-effacing English character.

Yes, the British exit has been completed and a ‘deal’ has been done – at the last possible moment – against all the odds, much like the long-lasting love-hate relationship between Portugal and the ‘land of hope and glory’, which has been steadfast since 1386, and will no doubt continue to be ‘special’ for a long time to come.

By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 20 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.