Tag Archives: stereotypes

Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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Filed under Comedy, Politics, Racism

Greek comedian Katerina Vrana – she’s not cheesy, just getting feta and better

The show

Scotland, England, Australia, Greece and America?

I missed Katerina Vrana’s show Feta With The Queen at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, but I caught up with it a couple of weeks ago in London.

Katerina is a British-based Greek actress/comedian with a pure English accent who has a lot of hair and a lot of potential. Feta With The Queen is about her experiences as a Greek living in the UK and was a flawless comedy show with a flawless performance by a comedian who had a good script and total audience control.

Shortly after that London show, she flew to Greece to perform Feta With The Queen there and, last week, she flew to Melbourne for Australian shows until 17th December.

I talked to her yesterday, after her jet lag had abated. It was lunchtime in London and half past midnight in Melbourne, where she had just returned to her flat after her show.

“How long did it take to write the show?” I asked.

“About a year,” she told me. “It actually started in Greek, not English. I did it in Athens in Greek, though it was a slightly different show. And then I wanted to see if bits would work in the UK, so I started working on it in English in Spring 2012.”

“And it changed from the first Greek version?” I asked.

“It’s complicated,” said Katerina, “because stand-up is such a new form in Greece that they sometimes don’t know the conventions and how it works. So the simplest way was a very simple format of We do this… But, in the UK, they do this… And that would make them laugh. I obviously developed it for Edinburgh.”

“I somehow imagined,” I said, “that the Greeks invented stand-up comedy. They invented everything else in performance.”

“You would think so,” agreed Katerina, “But, like everything else, they probably invented it 3,000 years ago and haven’t touched it since.”

“Was Aristotle not doing knob gags?” I asked.

“Ooh loads,” laughed Katerina. “It was political satire with loads of knob gags. And a lot of sexism, which we do very well as a culture.”

“The British do that very well too,” I said.

“You’d be surprised how much behind us you are.”

“That’s not a phrase I want to hear…” I said.

Kateina Angel 7

Would you refuse to give feta sponsorship to this performer?

“Last year,” said Katerina, putting me back on track, “I tried to get sponsorship from feta companies in Greece and one of them was extremely positive but, after they’d said Yes, a week later, they got back in touch and said: We’ve just had a meeting and we’re not sure what stand-up comedy is, so we’re saying No.

“A friend of mine brought the CEO of that company to see my show last week in Greece and he said Well, we clearly need to sponsor this girl. So hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to get some sponsorship, because I’d like to go to New Zealand and possibly Montreal, though I’m not totally sure.”

“But, anyway,” I said, “after trying the planned Edinburgh show out in Greece in January, you also previewed it in Melbourne in Spring this year.”

“Yes, I thought the best way to preview it for the Edinburgh Fringe was to take it to another festival where I could work on it and perform the whole show as often as possible instead of doing one preview a month in London – and also to see if it had any resonance to people who aren’t Greek and aren’t British. Can it stand on its own if the people don’t live in the UK but have an understanding of the UK? If you are not Greek or British, does the show work? And it did.”

“And now,” I said, “having performed an early version in Greece and previewed it in Melbourne, then run it successfully through the Edinburgh Fringe, you have just played the finished Edinburgh version in Greece again…”

“People had sent me messages from Greece,” explained Katerina, “saying We want to see the show that got all the 5-star reviews in Edinburgh. So it’s the same Edinburgh show you saw in London with a couple of Greek swear words thrown in.”

“How did it go down?”

“It went really well,” said Katerina. “I had to add an extra show because they sold out. Greeks take forever to book. There was a very slow trickle of advance booking then, the day before I performed, all three shows booked out. So, on Sunday, I did two shows back-to-back.”

“And it being in English was not a problem for the audience?”

“No. But it’s not enough to be able to simply understand English. I tend to speak fast sometimes and I didn’t want to compromise by slowing down, though I did slow down some things in the end… Greeks tell you immediately if they don’t like something and someone did shout out: Speak slower! and I said (in a posh English accent) I’m terribly sorry.”

“Did you have to change the actual content for a non-British audience?”

“No, I did add a couple of Greek swear words instead of English because they were more natural in that context. But only tiny little tweaks like that. No massive changes. I wanted to take the show I did at the Edinburgh Fringe to Greece.”

“Did you revert to a Greek accent?” I asked.

“No. If I’m talking to people in Greece in everyday situations, I do revert to a Greek accent but, when I’m talking to myself on stage, it’s easy to keep my British accent.”

“So, in a sense,” I said, “when you’re on stage, you’re not talking to the audience, you are monologuing in your head.”

“More or less,” agreed Katerina. “I’m basically opening the door so you can look inside my head.”

“And you might take this same Feta With The Queen show back to the Edinburgh Fringe again next year?”

“Yes – Maybe… Well, in whatever form it might have taken by then, because I’m going to keep working at it. I want to include more nationalities and I lived in India for a year and a half and I’d like to bring that in a bit.”

“In India,” I said, “with your English accent, they presumably thought you were British?”

An Indian guru - not a Greek comedy performer

Same hair; different approach: Indian guru, not Greek comic

“No,” said Katerina, “they didn’t know what to do with me because, to them, I didn’t look white enough to be British and my hair confused everyone. They kept saying Haha. Your hair is like Sai Baba.

“Who?”

“A guru in south India who died in 2011 with a lot of hair. I actually tried to see if I could get little parts in Bollywood films when I was in India, but they said I didn’t look foreign enough. That’s plagued me a lot in my acting career: I never look ‘enough’ of the thing I want to go for. I routinely get turned down for Greek parts because I don’t look Greek enough.”

“What does a Greek woman look like in theory?” I asked.

Penelope Cruz.

“She’s Spanish.”

“Yes. That’s what they think we look like… Like Salma Hayek.”

“She’s Mexican.”

“Yes. I get that a lot, especially in the US. Not so much in the UK, because so many Brits go on holiday to Greece that they know what Greeks look like.”

“So where do Americans think you come from?”

“They can’t even hazard a guess.”

“I suppose,” I said, “to seem Greek in America, you would have to be bald and suck a lollipop like Kojak. But ‘bald’ would maybe not be a good look for you.”

“I would lose half of my material,” said Katerina.

“Your show would presumably play well to Americans?” I asked. “You’re talking about British and Greek culture, but that can be understood even by people who have not actually lived in either country.”

“Yes,” replied Katerina. “But, at the moment, I’m concentrating on one continent at a time!”

“So what else in happening in Australia?” I asked.

Katerina performs her show in Thessaloniki  (Photograph by Sofia Camplioni)

Katerina performs first version of Feta show in Thessaloniki (Photograph by Sofia Camplioni)

“I’ve got some meetings with a couple of producers – I’m talking about bringing over some Greek acts and touring them in Australia, because there’s such a massive Greek population here.

“In Greece in the summer, as soon as May hits and the heat goes up in June/July, everything stops. Theatres close down; everything closes down unless you’re doing something outdoors – and stand-up does not work well outdoors because there are too many distractions.

“So comedians don’t work in Greece from May to October and therefore June/July would be a good time to take Greek comedians over to Australia because it’s autumn there. There’s such a demand in Australia for new comedy and new voices.”

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Three comedians & a baby in Australia + the problem of German stereotypes

(Part of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Things are looking up Down Under.

I got a message yesterday from Australia, which started:

Carlsberg don’t do Press Releases, but if they did perhaps it would read…

It then told me that amiable British sub-mariner turned stand-up comedian Eric had had a baby. Well, Helen had. This somewhat belated (it arrived on 31st January!) ‘press release’ read:

Tuesday December 27 2011 at Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, South Australia …. 09:03hrs ACDT (23:33hrs Monday 26 Dec GMT)

Blonde Hair. Blue Eyes. Both mother and baby are doing well. After a process that began on Xmas morning at 9am Both parents are tired but absolutely delighted.

Sorry we couldn’t notify you before, but we are exhausted and so are our phone batteries. This info is somewhat belated, but as you can imagine our lives have been literally turned ‘upside down’. We have been trying to send you this for a while now…

I also got a message from a euphoric Bob Slayer in Australia saying:

Hey, Mr John, The Drum magazine wrote a nice feature on me on page 21 in their centre spread and I had an interview on RTRfm Radio in Perth. I like to think that I managed to be surprisingly funny, considering it was 8:25am. I did not know before this there were two 8.25s in the day. My first show is tonight, tickets seem to be selling at a beautiful rate and I have negotiated free beer from the venue!

Comedian three in this blog is Paco Erhard, who is taking his 5-Step Guide to Being German show to the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival after a one-off at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on 13th February. This is the show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last August and wrote about in a So It Goes blog and in Mensa Magazine (Paco is a member).

On his re-designed website, he quotes a line of mine:

Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

“Quoting a nonentity like me smacks of desperation,” I suggested to him. “And you have five star reviews you can quote from reputable publications. Festivals Review said you were one of the ten best shows at the Fringe!”

“Well,” he replied, “your quote expresses too nicely how I want to be seen to not use it.”

So what will Australians make of Paco’s German show?

“I try to refute German stereotypes,” he tells me, “but, ironically, I actually have quite a bit of difficulty making people believe I’m really German. I don’t look or sound stereotypically German enough, especially outside my solo show – ie in normal comedy gigs.

“Some people watch my act for 20 minutes, hear me talk about being German and they’ll still think Why is this Irish guy pretending to be German? It’s a weird, paradoxical situation. Should I put on a German accent and dye my hair blond, in order to convince people that Germans are not like they think?  It’s ridiculous that I should have to desperately convince people I am German, thereby conjuring up all the stereotypes that they allegedly hold about Germans, just in order to then blame them for thinking what I have just brought up and then telling them what we’re really like. Okay, this is an extreme description, but there is a bit of that involved in some comedy club gigs that I do.

“That’s why I like festivals more at present, because there the people come to see my show because they are interested in the topic and it is established well before the show that I am really German. That way I can just be myself more or less. However, I do have some sort of accent, so if I don’t say anything about where I’m from, they’ll sit there more focussed on trying to find out where my accent is from than on my comedy. Maybe I should just use my real name, Erhard Hübener. But I wanna see the MC who can pronounce that or the punter who will remember it after the gig, no matter how much he liked me. I could be on TV every day and, in the credits, I’d probably still be called The German guy. Oh well.

“I don’t think my show is a show about stereotypes. I try to go beyond that. But I do address the stereotypes at the beginning of the show. It’s important to me to do that in a clever, deconstructive, ridiculing way (although I still have one or two in there that are a bit naff… but hey, they get a laugh and I’m a whore…)… it would be a lie to say I don’t do stereotypes at all. However, I think you have to address them to get them out of the way. It would be silly to pretend they aren’t there. And, especially when talking to people who still cherish some of those stereotypes somewhere deep in their hearts, you have to pick them up where they are… they won’t follow you on the journey of your show if you depart from a point of knowledge or an attitude that they don’t have yet.

“I am off to Adelaide and Melbourne on the 21st of February and I think doing the Australian festivals will make me a much better comedian. In my comedy here in Britain I still lean on the (alleged) British-German conflict too much, which is one thing I really want to get away from. I was strongly influenced by my five or six years of being a compere to those Sun-reading package-holiday imbeciles in Majorca, most of whom I actually liked, but a considerable amount of whom gave me a lot of (stupid) shit about being German.

“Some Brits seem to think that they have a sense of humour or know how to be funny (there’s a difference between these two) when in reality they are just stupid, unoriginal and offensive. (But it’s okay, you know, because everybody knows that, just like fish, Germans don’t have feelings.) So I came to Britain thinking I would be up against a lot of hostility just because of my nationality and that I’d better talk about being German a lot and also giving them a bit of a hard time for being British. While I realised quickly that British people in Britain were very, very different from the ones I had encountered on Spain’s beaches, that old feeling of hurt and defensiveness paired with a certain aggressiveness remained with me for quite a bit of time and I think hasn’t completely gone away yet. It was a real epiphany a few months ago when I realised that most Brits actually quite like the Germans.

“Anyway, this whole issue won’t be, well, ‘an issue’ in Australia. Which will be a relief, a challenge and an adventure all rolled in one. I’m free of all that old We don’t like each other bullshit, that subconscious unrealistic feeling that somehow there is a rift between me and the audience (that I then involuntarily fortify by addressing it implicitly). I can’t use that as a crutch anymore. All of that material I had best forget about doing in Australia. They won’t care. So I will have to dig deep within myself for the things I really want to say. Which I already did to a large degree at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. But I know my show can definitely be further purged of all that. And I have a lot of stuff I’ve been wanting to say for a long time… and I will say it now in Australia. Also, I will improve the show’s structure a lot for Australia. And then I’ll bring all that back to Britain. (And also I will have free rein to say some rough things about Britain without hurting anybody’s feelings or getting bottles thrown at me :-D)

“I will need quite a bit of new material for Australia, but I see that more as an opportunity to finally use some great material I’ve been writing for years and that I never got to do.

“I have some concerns, but they are less to do with the art, than the marketing. I’ve been bitching about having gotten a lot of grief from Brits about being German, but being ‘a German comedian’ simply is a fantastic selling point in Britain. I do think I had a good or maybe even very good show in Edinburgh, so yes, I delivered, but I think lots of people came because GERMAN COMEDIAN stands out of the crowd more than “British white middle-class comedian, number 2417”. It’s a selling point and it helps me. Not when I’m on stage – then I better be funny – but to get people into my shows. And I don’t know if this selling point is quite so strong in Australia. They live on the other side of the world, so their attitude to Germany is bound to be very different from Britain’s, which has had a direct relationship with Germany – in good times and in bad ones – for centuries. They might not go for it as much. Who knows? I hope they do.”

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Filed under Australia, Comedy, Germany, Racism, Theatre, Uncategorized

The rules of being an Italian stereotype

Yesterday afternoon, I flew back to London from Milan. The English girl in the next seat on the Ryanair flight was at university in Italy. We were talking about the bureaucracy there. Italy is a good place to visit. Not a good place to live because of the bureaucracy.

“I’ve never known inefficiency like it,” the girl said. “I thought England was bad… but Italy…!

“It’s the lying,” she continued. “Constant lying. If they actually said something would take two months, I might be irritated. But they say it will take ten days, knowing it will take two months, then I’m just very, very angry. It’s like they enjoy it.”

That morning, on a motorway near Bergamo, I had been talking to my friend who lives near Milan about the cliché of Italians.

“They’re very conventional,” she said. “The way they dress, the colours of the cars they drive. The neatness of the way they dress. The women’s make-up. It’s like they obey the rules they think are expected of them.”

“What about the cliché of bad Italian drivers?” I asked. “I’ve never driven in Italy, but they never seem to me to be as bad as the stereotype. There’s a problem in Rome, but it’s because they have enormous wide-open street junctions and no traffic lights. The system’s haywire, not the driving.”

“I tell people who come here,” my friend said, “that the most dangerous thing on Italian roads is to drive slow. You have to drive fast because everyone else does. If you drive slow, they will go straight into the  back of you. You have to drive with confidence even if you don’t have any.”

“They drive far too close to the car in front,” I agreed. “No braking space if anything happens.”

“They ignore all the rules on the road,” my friend said. “It’s like they think they’re expected to disobey the rules of the road, so they all disobey the rules because that’s the rule. They weave in and out and use the hard shoulder. They tailgate like they have a death wish. I’ve been overtaken a hearse at traffic lights. He ran the red light at great speed, with the cross on the bonnet wobbling.”

“It’s the legacy of the Ben-Hur chariot race,” I suggested.

“Mmmm,” my friend said as we were overtaken on both sides by speeding trucks.

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Two more tales of racism and xenophobia at ITV – both of them perfectly understandable in the circumstances

Following on from my recent blog about sex and Jewish stereotypes at Granada Television in Manchester during the 1980s, are two stories about executive perks and free cars.

I worked at ITV when money was swilling about.

After recordings of entertainment shows Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise! at London Weekend Television, Mercedes-Benz cars would queue up late night, waiting to take participants off home or to their hotels – the mini-cab company used by LWT drove only Merecedes-Benz.

That was fair enough.

Always treat your programme participants well – especially on ‘real people’ shows.

But I heard interesting stories at two of the other ITV companies I worked for – about the cars which top executives were given as part of their pay packages.

At Anglia TV, two of the top men at the company had been imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. So top executives were allowed to choose any car they liked within a certain price range provided it was not a Japanese car. For understandable reasons.

Granada TV was founded and run by the Jewish entrepreneur Sidney Bernstein. I was told that, in the early days of the company, top executives – as at Anglia – were given cars as part of their salary package, but they could only have non-German cars. Granada would not buy, rent or lease any German car. Again for obvious reasons. Though, by the time I worked there, this rule had been changed and executives could have German cars because, it was said, Sidney had been shown that using German cars made economic sense.

Perhaps that was an urban myth, though I suspect it was true.

Granada nourished myths.

But it is ironic that it was BBC TV not ITV which popularised the saying: “Don’t mention the War!”

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The British have always been a violent race

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.

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