A beginner’s guide to the British, from tattoos to hoity-toityness

Our new manual explains an island nation steeped in history and furiously proud of itself

It is arguable that the British would not have survived recent hardships without Ricky Gervais, Prince Philip and Emu. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/ Bloomberg

It is arguable that the British would not have survived recent hardships without Ricky Gervais, Prince Philip and Emu. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/ Bloomberg


Britain is an interesting and varied country. Despite the fact that the British are shy near water, and look awkward in sandals, they form an island nation that is steeped in history and furiously proud of itself (with little justification). But Britain is in a period of tremendous change.

For instance, Britain still has a Scotland but will likely lose it in the coming years, when Scotland decides it is big enough to fend for itself and flees for Europe.

This is likely to make other reluctant Brits, such as the Welsh, the Cornwallingers, the Channel people and viewers in Northern Ireland, want to scuttle off as well. It is possible that, by 2040, the United Kingdom will be entirely within the M25, the motorway that encircles London, and that itself may be largely made from barbed wire and guns.

So, until then, here are some key events and characteristics to help you understand the British.

The B-word

As you may now have forgotten – through total apathy or sheer panic at recent events – Britain has left the European Union, a 28-nation peace project and trading bloc that most British people had not really thought about until our parents and uncles decided that it must be destroyed. They achieved their aim via something called a “Brexit”, which they had first encountered in the comments section below a video by the former BBC disc jockey and calypso amateur Mike Read.

Some say the Brexit is only a small risk to British wellbeing, along the lines of one of The Beatles recording a solo project, and it being fine, all said, and nobody getting hurt. But that is in all likelihood a false equivalence.

Indeed, Britain branching out on her own may reveal itself to be more akin to someone with a name like Skod-Master-9 who was a minor member of the 400-strong So Solid Crew releasing a jazz-fusion long-player on Mini-Disc exclusively to subscribers to the Angling Times, before humbly having to accept a job at Kwik Fit.

Time will, of course, tell – if there is still such a thing as time after the Emergency. We simply have no way of knowing.

Still, there is little to be gained from being down-mouthed or bloody-throated about “The B-Word” any longer, not least because nobody will care once their bins are on fire and British society has been replaced with There Not Being Anything Any More.

Who are the British?

The British are a resourceful and imaginative people. They like to imagine they are rather more successful than they are in truth. This is a phenomenon known as “aspiration” and was introduced after the last Emergency (the Hitler one).

Much of this aspiration takes the form of the acquiring of status, particularly “orf-the-shelf” middle-classness. This used to be achieved by well-established networks of notable families breeding and striving for educational excellence, but it is now defined largely by television size and a fondness for wasabi peanuts.

In days gone by the British fell firmly into three camps. They were either chirpily working class, haughtily middle class or horse-botheringly upper middle class (which is what upper-class people call themselves in a rather half-hearted attempt to appear neither hoity nor toity).

Crucially, across the class spectrum everyone agreed that we British had no taste for anything at all, not being French. But then, at some point, this all changed.

The invention of taste

Somewhere along the way, it became possible to buy art at Homebase and to listen to The Lighthouse Family on an iPod. A third shape of pasta (fashioned to be akin to small helter skelters) arrived in supermarkets. Wine ceased to be used as a cleaning product for front steps or something to be poured on babies’ eyes during a churching. Where once there were baps, suddenly there were bagels, pitta and focaccia – a kind of Italian sponge that smells of shoes.

Barbour jackets suddenly became popular with the lower orders. The tradition of having a car engine on the front lawn for Dad to marvel at in a cardigan was replaced by paving the garden over and parking a whole car there for each member of the household – even the girls.

The British people discovered and misused new exotic diversions like mange tout, (often paired inexplicably with underdeveloped corn spears), Laura Ashley (and her father and rival Mike Ashley), Zumba, the Greek islands, supermarket sushi, coffee, coffee tables and even coffee-table books about coffee (and about coffee tables).

Within the last decade it has become common to encounter a person wearing a North Face coat, who breakfasts not on kippers but on acai smoothies; is heavily tattooed; spends a good deal of time shaping their hair; and has a degree in gin – anywhere from Weybridge to Falkirk.

Oh dear

Everybody suddenly passing as middle class, whether they were or not, has had a curious effect on the British national character.

Being thought fancy seemed to suit everybody initially, because previously the working class was held in disdain by the middle class, and the upper class was held in disdain by the middle class – thus everyone appearing to be middle class put the whole nation on what it thought was an even keel. Sadly too many people were now standing on that keel, and the entire thing sank.

It is interesting to note, at this point in our dwindling global status, that popular and fortunate middle-class people like Lily Allen and the cheesemonger from Blur, who are known to “cos-play” as members of the working class, somehow still own farms.

Good for a lark?

The British set great store by their sense of humour. They regard it as among their chief attributes. The ability to laugh in the face of adversity has carried them through many a trouble. It is arguable that they would not have survived such hardships as the horsemeat crisis, Woolworths closing or Sam Smith performing a Bond theme without the rib-splitting repartee of Ricky Gervais, Prince Philip and Emu.

But their propensity towards seeing the funny side has left the British thinking that anything can be laughed off, and that there is no real danger. The Emergency will in due course show that not to be so.

Some things about the British have not changed. They do not like to talk about money, unless it is to complain about somewhere called Rip-Off Britain, which is an imaginary island where everyone is a potential spiv, ready to rinse the unsuspecting Brit of their savings. It does not exist but is a useful way of characterising how expensive sausages are on ferries.

But a good deal about the British has changed. They are no longer creatures of the stiff upper lip; they do not run on pluck. They are now, instead, a nation of people just sitting there watching screens and saying things whilst wearing “jogging bottoms”.

In times gone by, a family Sunday would find father tinkering with an MG under the carport, while mother dug up rhubarb from the garden for that day’s crumble. Now both parents are likely to be watching separate Insta stories while the children are watching someone who regards herself as a social influencer on TikTok but who may very well be just someone from Tesco who rattles her artificial fingernails on a microphone and calls it ASMR.

But beware: the British mood can turn on a twopenny. People who like to have drunken fights in the street one day will then cry at televised singing auditions the next day.

This is an edited extract from Instructions for the British People During the Emergency by Jason Hazeley and Nico Tatarowicz,  published by Quercus, £8.99

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