Welcome to our fifth and long overdue instalment in our "about Britain" series. For the uninitiated, Britain can appear to be a pretty odd place. We have odd habits, odd food, odd weather, odd taps and an even odder sense of humour. It's nothing that a good bout of cultural training can't sort out, but I'm going to run a series of posts about what makes the Brits so wonderfully weird - or weirdly wonderful - which may help anybody relocating to understand what the heck we are all about.
1. How are you?
Now there's a question that every Brit asks at least a thousand times in his or her lifetime - more often then they've had hot dinners, in any case. It comes in many guises but they essentially mean the same thing, for example:
- You OK?
- How was your weekend?
- Did you have a nice holiday?
Asked how you are, one might be tempted to reply with, "Well, I'm moderately impoverished, but I've got SKY TV and my wife loves me; well she says she loves me but she doesn't half nag. I've just had to fork out for a new lawnmower, so I'll have to quit smoking for a month or so until it's paid off. But as long as you've got your health, eh? Having said that, my sciatica has been playing up again."
You may wonder why your enquirer has a look of complete horror or apathy on their face and smiles awkwardly in silence when you finish that particular chapter of War and Peace. You see, in Britain, it is terribly polite to be terribly polite, and there is nothing more so than enquiring about somebody else's well-being. The actual fact of the matter is that if the enquirer is so polite as to ask about your well-being, you are expected to be equally as considerate and not burden them with your own troubles, even if that does mean being a little disingenuous.
So, this is how it should be played out:
How are you, Boris?
Super, thank you, Angela. What about your good self?
Glad to hear it. Splendid, thank you. Unbearable weather, though.
Yes, dreadful business. The strawberries at Wimbledon were completely unpalatable this year.
2. Why does everything end in 99p?
For some (i.e. moi), nothing is more infuriatingly pointless than good old fashioned cash. Especially those coins that weigh heavy in your pocket - the ones of practically no value whatsoever. I can just about live with the pound coin but any lower denomination is practically worthless in the UK.
I am trying to recall the last time I went into a shop (or online) and spent less than a pound and I have to say I am struggling. Indeed, are there actually any items that you can buy for less than a pound in the UK? I suppose there might be a few - the Lidl and Asda flyers promise me all the carrots I can eat for something like 49p. No, we don't have jaundice, we just eat a lot of carrots.
I remember the days when a Mars Bar cost 9p. It costs in the region of 69p now, so it goes to show that the same coins I was using 30 years ago are worth considerably less. But we still have the 20p, the 10p, the 5p and the utterly, utterly, utterly pointless 1p coin still in circulation. Why exactly do we need a 1p coin?!
Now, the marketing department's cunning plan would be foiled without it. They'd have to price their goods at £2.00 rather than at £1.99 - imagine the horror and kickback from the general public at having to spend an extra penny.
I'm happy to pay £14.99 for this tie, but at £15 I think they're taking the biscuit, Margaret.
A similar approach is adopted by estate agents. Although the monetary value is higher, the principle is the same. Why advertise a property at £350,000 when you can advertise it at £349,950, thus fooling your obviously impaired customers into thinking they are getting an absolute bargain?
I am sorry to say that you will have to get used to this nonsense in the UK and if you prefer to use cash over card or visit shops that only take cash, make sure you have sturdy pockets as you will accumulate pointless and inconvenient fragments of metal faster than a Blackpool slot machine.
3. Lunch, dinner, tea and supper
Now, this is confusing, even for Brits, where nobody really knows what meal they are talking about and as a consequence don't know when it is taking place or what to serve or expect to be served. For instance, my meals go like this:
- Lunch - a relatively light meal at some point between 1200 and 1400.
- Dinner - a substantial main meal at some point between 1700 and 2000.
The only tea I take is the hot drink. Anything eaten in-between lunch and dinner is a snack, even if it involves half a loaf of bread and a whole jar of peanut butter - 't'is a mere snack. Supper, well, I don't call it supper as I'm not posh enough for that, but that would be any after-dinner snack, such as carrots, celery sticks, olives, but more honestly a family-size bag of salt and vinegar crisps.
Now, contrast this with my mother's meals:
- Dinner - a relatively light or indeed a substantial meal at some point between 1200 and 1400.
- Tea - a relatively light meal or indeed a substantial meal at some point between 1600 and 1800.
I told you it was confusing. In the example above, if you have a substantial meal for dinner, it is usual to take a lighter meal for tea, and vice versa, though this is not written in stone. Sometimes, one may even skip a light tea and go straight to the supper if the lunch is particularly substantial. I would like to make it absolutely clear that I have never done this.
As for supper, the only person I have ever met who served an official supper was my paternal grandmother. Her meals went like this, every single day:
- Dinner - a substantial meal, usually a roast meat with roast potatoes and two veg, at 1200 on the dot.
- Tea - a light meal consisting of ham sandwiches and salad, at 1600 on the dot.
- Supper - a veritable cake, biscuit, chocolate and crisp extravaganza, at 1900 on the dot. Just before we, as kids, went to bed.
I haven't mentioned breakfast. For the avoidance of doubt, breakfast is always breakfast. Unless you take it between 1000 and 1200, when it might be called brunch...
I did tell you twice already it was confusing.
4. We appear to like ice cream
I'm not aware of any other country in the world that has the glorious benefit of a van that drives around residential areas selling ice creams and ice lollies. But then again, I haven't bothered to research it, so I am completely ignorant as to whether this phenomenon exists outside of the UK or not. Nevertheless, it does strike me as an odd thing for us to have, hence its appearance here.
So there we have it; during afternoons and weekends the air is filled with the distorted sound of the over-driven chime of the ice cream man's tune, which could be anything from to Pop Goes the Weasel to Match of the Day. Their wares include a selection of garishly coloured ice lollies guaranteed to stain your kids' clothes and the famous Mr Whippy soft, white ice cream, which is so light it may possibly contain more air than cream, and the highly popular "99", an ice-cream filled wafer cone with a chocolate flake stuffed in the top. It's called a 99 because it used to cost 99p (note, not 100p...). It probably costs £1.79 now, which is a lot to pay for inhaling the thick diesel fumes of a 50 year old ice cream van whilst you wait for your 99.
But is it really the icy treats we are after? In the 80s, there were turf wars between rival ice cream vendors desperate to protect their patches. Nobody was selling ice cream on anyone else's patch. That's because they were selling drugs, not ice cream. What a great cover, the innocent ice cream van. It all started in the East End of Glasgow but ended tragically when it all got very out of hand. Read about it here.
5. Avoiding queues at the checkout
Traditionally, you would go to the shop, select your items, take them to the till, put them on the conveyor-belt and the cashier would scan the items before you popped them into your bag or trolley.
In yet another silly, money-saving (grabbing) venture by the supermarkets, they have introduced the amazing concept of "self-scanning". Self-scanning has been cleverly marketed as a way for the shopper to bust the queues and go about your daily affairs in a much more efficient way. In reality, it amounts to nothing more than a cunning way to further line the pockets of the supermarkets' shareholders by making the shopping experience as frustrating as it could possibly be.
Imagine trying to change a baby's nappy in an aeroplane toilet whilst somebody is talking utter nonsense in your ear, repeatedly telling you the nappy is in the wrong place and to call for assistance. It's a bit like that, as the checkout spaces are indescribably small and the checkouts themselves simply do not work.
If you bring your own bags (as we do in the UK as larger shops charge 5p per bag now - it's hardly breaking the bank but we still insist in using our "bag for life" to save the unnecessary expense), you have to touch the screen to tell the checkout robot you are using your own bag. When you duly place your bag into the bagging area, as instructed, you are surprisingly told that there is an unexpected item in the bagging area. And so the fun begins and you have to call over the self-scanning checkout supervisor.
You scan a bag of cotton wool and place it into bagging area. "Please place your item in the bagging area," states the robot. So in frustration, you press two or three on-screen buttons maybe a little harder than you ought and this really upsets the robot and all scanning must stop until you call over the self-scanning checkout supervisor to remedy the problem.
You scan a bottle of wine. "Please wait for assistance." Ah, of course, the clever little robot doesn't know you are old enough to purchase alcohol (you must be 18 years or over but if you are lucky enough to look younger than 25 you will be asked for ID), so you have to wait for the self-scanning checkout supervisor to come over and verify your age. You wait patiently as the self-scanning checkout supervisor is helping a fellow shopper who shares your frustration and has repeatedly head-butted the touch screen in blind rage and has now spoiled his pain au chocolat with his own blood.
Using self-scan is enough to make you want to insert pineapples into the man who conceived them. I say "man", as I truly believe that a woman would never have introduced anything so idiotic to consumers. If you have evidence to the contrary, I'd be happy to know more.
I visited my local shop (a national supermarket chain) a few weeks back, and there were no normal tills open, so I was forced to use the self-scan. I was so cross that I tweeted the shop when I got home and the response was that I could have asked them to open a normal checkout.
So it seems that the customer is expected to be the checkout operator and the floor manager.
That's progress, folks.
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