Monday, 6 April 2015

So Very UnBritish

This is the story of the least British thing I have ever done. It happened a little over a decade ago and only now has the trauma faded to the point that I am willing to acknowledge the event ever occurred, let alone share it publicly. All events described below are true to the best of my recollection. The stereotypes may be less factual.

In order for you to appreciate the gravity of the momentous occasion, you first need to know what is a British thing and why deviating is so horrendous. We Brits are a fortunate race in that we have a range of stereotypes and thus a variety of pigeonholes into which we endeavour to squeeze ourselves. Three of the best known are:

  • The Brit Abroad - a drunken, slothful group who tend to travel in packs. They have a two week period during which they commit to a "summer holiday" endeavour: to whit, simultaneously destroying their liver function, developing carcinomas of the skin and sometimes lung, and offering access to their genitalia to anyone who expresses an interest.
  • The Elite Brit - an overbred, excitable creature with an inclination to whinny. Typically wealthy, this group have been educated to the extent that they exude a permanent air of vague helplessness and no indication that they consider survival to require any effort.
  • The post-war repressed Brit - characterised by understatement, stoicism and intelligence, this group is typically found to be getting on with things. In the face of every disaster short of the custard cream crumbling into their tea, this group will soldier on, uncomplaining. Confronted with anti-social behaviour of any order this Brit will tut mildly and, in extreme scenarios, look significantly at the perpetrator of said crime. Hollywood villains are drawn from this type because the boiling rage felt by one of these Brits when offered a "biscuit selection" made up only of shortbread with their tea can never be understood by an outsider, and the transition from a quiet tut or profuse apology to a hammer of fury laying waste to the world around comes as a slight surprise to those uninitiated in the true depths of the British psyche. For a comprehensive guide to this Brit you can do worse than refer to the manual produced by @SoVeryBritish and accordingly I henceforth dub this group the "So Very British".

I myself have been a Brit abroad1, I can even pass as a member of the Elite Brits (to all except those born and bred into it) but I am indisputably So Very British at my core.

I do not complain when I am bumped into, I apologise for being in the way. I join queues without knowing their purpose. I am constitutionally incapable of striking up a conversation with a stranger on public transport. If there is some overwhelming external pressure which necessitates some discourse, it is strictly confined to the weather. If we enter a dire situation where meteorological observations have been exhausted and neither party appears to be leaving the vehicle any time soon, there is the option of passing mild complaint about work or some other neutral subject. Should the conversation ever pass into the field of family or any particular information about that one individual you have the option to continue in the full knowledge that next time you meet them you must continue this conversation, or change your commute to avoid them.2

One who is So Very British is non-confrontational. We get on with things. We're all in the same boat and while yes, it is disappointing that the meal you purchased isn't properly cooked, to send it back would be very rude and would seriously inconvenience the chef. Food poisoning will only last a few hours after all.3 Similarly, an item of clothing that is the wrong size can only be returned in that two week period after Christmas. If necessary, you hoard your mistaken purchases and claim they were all gifts. The person on checkout will be very understanding.

Public displays of emotion are to be avoided. Embracing, hand holding and mild indications of partnership are fine, but passion? No, the So Very British do not publicly acknowledge that sex is a pastime, much less one they might indulge in. Similarly we do not fight in public, cry in public or do anything in any way that might cause inconvenience to anyone.

All of these things are true for the general So Very British public. There are a few additional factors that you need to be aware of specific to myself.

As a child my mother taught me to read. It was an accident, actually. She was trying to teach my older brother to read using large cards on the floor and asking him to pick up the ones with specific words on. Apparently I became irritated by his slow responses and starting doing it myself. Once I could read fluently I was voracious. My local library extended my loan limit from 3 books to 6. With hindsight this may have been an attempt to reduce my visits to two a week. It failed. By the time I was a teen I'd read all I wanted to from the kids and YA section, as well as a large part of my parents' personal library (mostly sci-fi and fantasy). The library let me start borrowing from the adult section and increased my book limit to 12. It was at this point in my life I discovered thrillers, murder mysteries and the plot twist. I also discovered that a distressing number of blurb writers included sentences like: "And who is the mysterious Mr Smith?" when there was no damn mystery about the man until after the plot twist.

After several books had been ruined this way for me, I stopped reading blurbs and took my chances with attractive cover art and intriguing titles. This generally worked out well for me. I read a lot of Mills and Boon, a range of Sci-Fi and Fantasy and a lot of classics. I will concede that after my fifth "Award winning generic fiction best seller" to contain paedophilia and other forms of abuse I decided I was happy to read purely for entertainment and not in an attempt to discover any great literary works of art, which terminated my interest in exploring much in the way of new genres.

So let's fast forward slightly. I am nearly 20. My outlook on life is drawn strongly from my reading experience, I've had most of my sex education from Mills and Boon and one (incredibly vanilla) boyfriend and I am startlingly innocent. This is when I discover Black Lace.

Mills and Boon have been quite raunchy at times, so it took a while for me to realise that the Black Lace books weren't really about the plot.They were very educational though. Certain purchases have taken me through a bell-curve of interest and awareness over time. First, the introduction of an idea (pain, control, humiliation, questionable hygiene, etc) into sex. Then, the understanding that some people are really very into this stuff. Finally the realisation that I am not. My awareness and open mindedness are developing apace while my level of experience remains the same. I have reached a fairly blase stage where I genuinely believe that I can read anything.

So one day I am at Waterstones. I select two random books off the shelf and hastily purchase them, feeling already that I have disgraced my Britishness. On the way out of the shop I open the bag to drop a receipt in and a glimpse of the back of one book sears a sentence into my mind. I close the bag and walk for a few steps before my brain catches up and translates what it saw.


No way.

I pause, briefly contemplate the potential harm of breaking my "no blurb" rule, sneer at my own silliness and read the whole thing.


Oh that is weird.

Yeah, no.

So there I stand on the steps of Waterstones with a book in my hand that I absolutely know I will never read. Do I walk away with it? The points went on my card and there is a permanent record now that I have purchased this book. They might refer me to other books based on the content of this one! I look at the other book - that one is fine. I'll read that. But this? What do I do? Keep it? Give it to charity?

Maybe.... Maybe I could possibly take it back? Surely if I swap it they won't mind too much?

I had to make my decision fast - I was in the way of anyone wanting to use the stairs4. Walking off and coming back later would just be silly.

I went back in.

I went to the shelf and flicked through the books again, this time carefully studying the blurbs until I selected one I wanted. There were three people standing at the till, all Waterstones' employees. I've built up my bravado. I'm going for it.

"Hi. I just bought this book. I haven't read it yet, but I'd like to swap it for this one."


It stretches.

The person behind the till stares at me for a very long time. I can only think how much more awkward this is going to get when they look at the books in question. I pull out my receipt and lay it significantly on the book I already purchased.

The cashier breaks eye contact to pick up the book and almost immediately returns their gaze to mine. I am made of steel and neither flinch nor look discomforted. We are both carefully ignoring the books now as the cashier processes the transaction.

Never having returned anything before, I am unprepared for the next question:

"And why do you want to return this book?"

Dear reader, have you ever had the pleasure of describing to a complete stranger that despite the widely publicised interest of men in activities between two consenting adult ladies, it is less common (and certainly not my kink) for women to be interested in the romantic activities of gay men? Further, that as this particular example of the adult genre promised to reveal the sexual awakening of a woman who joined a club specifically geared towards watching such activities after inadvertently witnessing a couple in an alleyway I was wholly disinclined to read it.

I feel I handled it well.

The cashier nodded (sympathetically, I think) and processed the rest of the transaction.

I left the building and have not returned since.


1 Albeit with factor 50 sunscreen, a minimum of disorderly conduct and without any opportunity to share my genitalia. Apparently I lack whatever pheromones the other British women can emit.
2 Alternative options include inventing an appointment to justify leaving the vehicle at the earliest opportunity.
3 The same does not hold true for a badly made cup of tea. The So Very British have been known to sigh regretfully when handed a cup of tea that does not meet their personal requirements. I have terminated meetings early on the slightest pretext rather than drink a milky cup of tea.
4 They were only about 6 foot wide, and people coming up one side would have to deliberately deviate their path around me.

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