Britishness in books

Another Monday, another entry in my 26-Week Book Challenge. This week is number seventeen, and I am revealing to you my favourite quote from a book, which I’m using as an excuse to talk about how certain books have a clear British feel to them and what I think of that.

Let’s start with the book and the quote. The book is Good Omens by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and the quote is actually one of the footnotes:

“NOTE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND AMERICANS: One shilling = Five Pee. It helps to understand the antique finances of the Witchfinder Army if you know the original British monetary system:

Two Farthings = One Ha’penny. Two ha’pennies = One Penny. Three Pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

The British resisted decimalised currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated.”

That full quote there sums up what I both hate and love about Britain, as a Dutch person looking at the culture from the outside. Britain and British people often cling almost religiously to things of the past, which in many cases gives this country its rich heritage. On the other hand it is also unbearably frustrating, because it doesn’t move with the times. The above quote is funny, but it is also absolutely true, and the country is still more or less going through this with metric versus imperial measurements. I still get blank looks from most of my colleagues when I tell them my height in metres, or my weight in kilos, and I have perforce learned to work with feet and inches and stones and pounds, even though it’s the stupidest system but one that I’ve ever personally come across. (The stupidest being fahrenheit. Don’t get me started on fahrenheit.)

The above is a very tangible way of establishing that a book is British in origin, and the very fact that it begins with ‘note to young people and Americans’ hammers the point home. Even if that weren’t the case, you would still be able to nail this book down as British as soon as you’d read a couple of pages. Why? Well, that’s a bit hard to explain…

This question was raised on the Fantasy Faction forum a while ago – why are some books inherently British in their feel, while others aren’t? It’s not just to do with them being set in Britain. My mum owns all the Harry Potter books in Dutch, and they’ve translated all the names to Dutch, including the place names. Ostensibly this would let the book take place in the Netherlands, but it’s still an inherently British book.

Language is part of it, but even that isn’t the full story. You can get your characters to say ‘bugger’ and ‘bloody <blah>’ all you want, but that doesn’t in itself make your book feel British.

The main juxtaposition posed tends to be British versus American. I’m conveniently leaving out other cultures here, because that just muddles the matter. To me, Britishness means self-deprecating humour, sarcasm, small-scale heroics, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. There is a certain apologetic self-effacing attitude in there as well. ‘Sorry, don’t mind me, I’m British. Awfully sorry, old chap.’ That doesn’t mean that ‘American’ books can’t be self-deprecating or sarcastic (Locke Lamora, anyone?) or small-scale, it’s just not as likely as in a British book. And yes, I’m using sweeping generalisations here.

Personally I rather like books with a genuinely British feel to them. For all that the Discworld is a unique world in a unique universe, many things can be boiled down to an observation on British culture. Even when tackling ‘foreign’ cultures this is done through a pair of British-tinted glasses, resulting in the kind of ‘Brits abroad’ cliche of people insisting that as long as you speak loudly and slowly enough in English, Johnny Foreigner will be able to understand you.

Britain is at times an incredibly frustrating country to live in. I hate the insular mentality that deep down insists that Britain isn’t part of Europe. Sometimes I say something at work, and my colleagues will go ‘oh, that’s to be expected of you Europeans’. When I then point out that they are Europeans as well, the reply is invariably ‘well, Continentals. You know what I mean.’ Britain’s attitude to Europe is that they want all the good bits but they’ll pass on the bad bits. Kind of like a marriage where the couple ignores each other if they’re in a bad mood.

I sometimes get annoyed by the excessive politeness Brits display. The kind that makes them apologise for sneezing even when there is no one else around to apologise to. (And even if there were, why apologise for something you can do fuck all about? Apologise when you sneeze in my face, otherwise I really don’t care.) The kind that makes you apologise to me when I stand on your toes. ‘Oops, sorry for being in the way of your foot.’ Well, if you’re going to be like that, that’s the attitude I’m going to have. My husband is (yet again) the long-suffering recipient of this.

Yet without all that, Britain wouldn’t be British, and books couldn’t be recognisably British. There are hundreds of books where you could not possibly point out whether the author was British or American, but there are also plenty where you can go ‘yes, this book was written by a Brit. Bless.’ And I’ll always have a special little place in my heart for books like that.

What about you? Can you name books that feel British to you, or distinctly American? Let me know in the comments!

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