Once upon a time, an Italian historian told me this…
The British are a restless, disorderly race. They are not the cold people their stereotype implies. You rarely get anything as social as British pubs anywhere else. German beer cellars are not the same.
The British like to fight.
If two Italians have an argument, there is a long period in which they just stand and insult each other – “You bastard! – You asshole! – Are you an idiot? – You son of a bitch!” – They shout a long string of verbal abuse at each other, but there is no physical violence. The shouting usually draws a group of people round them and, slowly, the two men get closer to each other and the insults get louder. Only at a very late stage might one try to physically attack the other and – immediately – the onlookers will separate them and hold them back. Real fights are rare. There is a saying in Italy – The one who strikes the first blow wins – because there is rarely a second blow – The fight is stopped.
The British fight in a totally different way.
If someone is offended, he turns suddenly and the most he says is “Fuck you!” then he immediately hits the other guy in the face with his fist. No-one has time to separate the two because, by the time they get there, a full fight has started. I saw it happen in a pub the second day I was in England and I have seen it many times since. Very few Italians have broken noses, but lots of English and Scots do because, with their sudden fights, there is no time to protect your face from the first punch.
The other facet which confuses foreigners is that so many British look like losers. They dress casually and shabbily, they don’t repair the legs of their spectacles for years and they look like they are past caring but, at some point, this apparently laid-back loser will turn round and break your nose. It is not a country where you insult someone lightly.
I was in a pub standing next to a stranger and he muttered something to this other guy who looked like a real loser, a real meek man. There was the tiniest of pauses and the meek guy just hit the stranger full-force in the middle of his face. His nose exploded. The stranger went straight down onto the floor and never got up and the meek guy turned quietly back to his pint of beer.
The Romans had twelve legions to control their entire Empire, stretching from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. They had to keep two of those legions – two whole legions! – garrisoned permanently in Britain, because it was such a very difficult country to rule. The Germans, the Persians and the Arabs were all difficult too – dangerous frontier people – but the real problem the Romans faced in their empire was the Britons. In the 16th century, Cellini called the English “wild beasts”. Hippolyte Taine’s Notes on England, based on his impressions in the 1860s, said: “Friends and enemies alike described them as the most bellicose and redoubtable race in Europe.”
The British have always had a violent culture. And they have always displayed enormous tendencies to individuality. The British will walk miles to prove their fitness. They want to go to the North and South Poles and it’s the only country in the world where explorers’ biographies are enormously popular. The British are obsessed by Enduring and Surviving. They are fascinated – obsessed – by individuals. The British see the family as a collection of single individuals. In Italy, the family unit is everything. You have to be with the family. That is not the case in Britain. Individuality is everything.