What Foreigners Love About Britain
Drizzle, blunt language, milk that tastes like milk… Why do so many things we Brits take for granted – or actively loathe – make outsiders jump for joy?
Dairy products. By Lionel Shriver, American journalist and author
I’m not being facetious. Whenever I return to the United States, I wonder if I don’t really like coffee after all. But it’s not the coffee; it’s the milk. Separated into constituent parts, scorched, and put back together again, American milk is worse than tasteless: thin and slightly sour, so it’s hard to tell when it’s turned. Only when I sampled round, sweet, real-food British milk did I realise I rather like the stuff. American “heavy cream” is exclusively available “ultra-pasteurised”, preheated to the temperature of Mars. Unlike the UK’s sensuously thick, motherly yellow double cream, this Yankee atrocity is runny, faintly blue, and tastes like melted plastic. It lasts forever (which is itself ominous), but who cares? So does Perspex. That doesn’t mean you’d put it on strawberries. Butter across the pond is waxy, a touch translucent and bland; it tears toast to shreds. Whereas British butter has a luscious mouth-feel, spreads at room temperature, and tastes so bright that a tiny pat enlivens a whole serving bowl of green beans. The worst thing about American dairy products? They still make you fat.
I love these windswept, rain-lashed isles for so many reasons. Perhaps my favourite is the British tradition for manners. Polite, cordial and respectful of personal space, you Brits make it so easy to mingle among you. That is all anyone needs to feel welcome and why the United Kingdom ranks among my favourite destinations.
The Dorchester hotel. By Britt Ekland, Swedish actress
I was sent to England to start my first movie under contract to Twentieth Century Fox, and they put me up in The Dorchester, in a cupboard — truly, a cupboard. I had my first press conference there too, and it got into the papers that afternoon. That’s how Peter Sellers saw me, and invited me to his suite. He had the Oliver Messel Suite, the suite that is on top of the whole Dorchester. You look over Park Lane going down towards the Queen’s gardens. To the left you see all of Hyde Park and Wellington House. There were two bedrooms, a dining room, a living room. It was just exquisite. It basically became my home for two years on and off when I was married to Peter Sellers. We went to other hotels, but that was always our return point. It’s still a very British hotel: the politeness, the service, the courtesy and the doorman with his white gloves.
Grey skies. By Gillian Slovo, South African novelist and playwright
England was imposed on me as a child, and chosen by me when I grew up, and I have lived here all my adult life. Even so, having spent my early years in another continent, I always felt slightly foreign, especially in my attitude to the quality of English light. I would peer through the constant filtering of grey and yearn for the vivid brightness of my early years. Until, that is, one day when I was walking on Hampstead Heath. It was raining – not spectacularly as it might have rained in Johannesburg – but gently, the air not monsoon-wet but damp in that unending English way. As I walked on, a small patch of soft blue sifted away the grey and a shaft of yellow light shone through the drizzle, and before I had time to stop myself, I thought: “Gosh, but this is beautiful.” It has continued to be so. Not the bright fluorescent dazzle of my motherland, but the soft pale mellow beauty of my adopted world.
‘An Honourable Man’ is published by Virago (£11.99)
Bridges. By Jussi Adler-Olsen, Danish crime writer
The joke over in Denmark at the moment is how obsessed Britain has become with us – you just wanted to be invaded by Vikings! But we love Britain too. I’m especially fond of London’s bridges. It’s the mood on them rather than their architecture. People are in a hurry – much more than in Copenhagen – but it’s a nice kind of hurry and I like to be among that. London’s daffodils also appear a month earlier than Denmark’s. If I’m in London for the first daffodils, it’s like getting two springs.
‘Mercy’ is published by Michael Joseph (PB, £6.99)
2am tea parties. By Greg Proops, American comedian
American people make friends much faster than Brits but it’s not always sincere. In Britain people have a long probation time for their friendships! They can be quite formal and stiff to start with but once they trust you, they’re incredibly loyal and would do anything for you. A good way to show that you’re one of them is to offer tea at ridiculous times – like when everybody’s drunk at 2am. Brits seem to do that a lot.
Cars. By Andreas Scholl, German Counter-tenor
I love British cars. I think German cars may be better from a technical point of view but they lack the character of English cars. My all-time favourite is the Lotus; it’s so lightweight, with a modest engine, and yet you still get you the true sports car experience. Soul is more important for me than engineering. I’m a big fan of ‘Top Gear’ too; it’s all about the more irrational things that make you buy a car.
‘Bach: Cantatas’ is released by Decca. Andreas Scholl and the Kammerorchester Basel are at the Barbican (020 7638 8891) on Feb 3
Swans. By Wilbur Smith, African-born novelist
I didn’t visit Britain until I was over 30 years old but my parents always referred to it as ‘‘home’’, so I’ve always felt it’s my heartland. One of the best things about Britain is its birds and my absolute favourite is the swan. I’m a member of a syndicate which has fishing rights on the Test river in Hampshire and there are about 200 swans on our stretch. I love their beauty, the way they sail along as if they’re nuclear-propelled, and their regal presence. I even love their arrogant attitude. When I’m standing on the bank and a family comes down to the water, the parents make eye contact with me as if to say: “Look mate, I hope you’re not going to be making trouble, because this is our river.” In return, if I want to cross a trout and there’s a family of swans sitting on top of them I say: “Excuse me you lot but would you get your fine, feathered arses out of the way? I want to fish!” I like the swans that live in Hyde Park too but it’s the country gentleman swans I really enjoy.
‘Those in Peril’ (Macmillan, £18.99) is out in paperback in March
Radio 3. By John Banville, Irish writer
I am of an age when I still think of it as the Third Programme. It’s a glory of British culture, and one of Britain’s richest contributions to the world of civilised values. The wealth of music played; the ease with which the presenters convey, or discreetly conceal, their expertise; the discussions, interval talks and occasional drama presentations; all these make Radio 3 a thing to be celebrated and protected. When I hear British politicians, of whatever wing, attacking the BBC, as they like to do occasionally, I tremble with equal measures of apprehensiveness and indignation. I am Irish, and therefore only a hop across the sea from Britain, but I am far enough away to view BBC Radio as a treasure as precious – indeed, more precious – than the Crown Jewels. Vivat! Vivat!
The climate. By Antonio Carluccio, Italian chef and writer
I know the British like to complain about their weather. But when I’ve been holidaying somewhere hot and dry, I find it such a relief to be back because everything’s so green and juicy. The other thing I notice is the amount of personal liberty everyone enjoys. In other countries you don’t get that unless you’re part of some elite, but here everyone’s rights are respected (as long as you behave nicely).
Liberty fabrics. By Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Danish actress
To me they’re the essence of Britain. Maybe it’s because I always think of flowers when I think of Britain and so many of Liberty’s designs are floral. I first discovered the fabrics aged 19 on a visit to London. I was making some trousers and needed some material for a pocket. I saw this beautiful striped design in Liberty and ever since then I’ve been obsessed, visiting the store every time I’m over here and ordering fabrics online from Denmark.
‘Borgen’ shows on Saturdays at 9pm on BBC Four
Marmalade. By Dick Bruna, Dutch author and illustrator of the Miffy books
I first tasted marmalade when I came to London in the Fifties, and have liked it ever since. I also love classic British cars, particularly the Rolls-Royce, of course, but marmalade is what I prefer the most.
For more information about Dick Bruna, visit miffy.com
History at your fingertips. By Kate Grenville, Australian novelist
What astonishes an Australian in Britain is that there’s so much history that can be taken for granted. When you research in Australian archives, you’re issued with white gloves and have to surrender your water bottle and your pens before you’re let loose with even the most ordinary piece of 19th-century paper. In 2000, at the Public Record Office in Kew, finding details about my convict ancestor, I couldn’t believe I was issued with the Register of Petitions for Clemency for 1804 – all parchment and fragile old paper – as if it was no more significant than yesterday’s newspaper. No stern instructions about water bottles, no hovering librarian. These pieces of paper had meant the difference between life and death for these men and women, and they still vibrated with significance. What’s more, as a writer of historical fiction, and the descendent of a thieving Thames boatman, they inspired a novel that’s become a trilogy.
Kate Grenville’s latest novel, ‘Sarah Thornhill’, is part of a trilogy published by Canongate
Country weekends. By Sally Bedell Smith, American biographer
Three-hour lunches prepared on the Aga (a source of mystery and fascination for an American), soon followed by equally long and delicious dinners, capped off to my husband’s delight by port and cigars. Everything is informal, the conversation is lively and full of laughter. Dogs snooze and race for scraps, flowers are picked fresh from the garden, and wellies await in the boot room for long post-prandial walks, sometimes on nearby golf courses where dogs are as welcome as people. I am often reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. “Flea in his ear”, “dot and carry on”, “crumping bore” and “non-swanks” turned up on recent visits.
‘Elizabeth the Queen: the Woman Behind the Throne’, is published by Michael Joseph (£6.99)
Lively debates. By Georg Boomgaarden, German Ambassador to the UK
I’m fascinated by Britain’s debating culture. The joy of debating can be seen in every area of life here, and this is clearly where our modern parliamentary system originated. In particular, Prime Minister’s Questions is an extraordinary event to watch. Politics is a serious business but British MPs aren’t afraid to show their emotions (or loudly express their approval for, or rejection of, an idea), making political debate so much livelier.
The beaches. By John Torode, Australian-born chef
Even when it’s raining, British beaches are amazing: windswept with that fresh salt air. In summer they really come into their own. My favourite is a beach in Cornwall, Watergate Bay. Swimming there is a bit frightening, because the water’s so cold, but flying a kite in the sunshine with your toes in the sand is incredible.
Anglo-Saxon blood. By David Vann, American author
Whether I’m in the Lake District, visiting Wordsworth’s haunts, or in Scotland, standing inside a broch, Britain gives me what America can’t: a believable connection to history. The Anglo-Saxons interest me the most, perhaps because I write tragedy and tragedy is an attempt to describe what’s bad in us. They descended into barbarity for more than 500 years, after the Romans left in 410. They lived in the kind of lawless demonland that libertarians in the US would have us return to now, the rule of clans and hundreds of kings. But they also provided the half of our language that I tend towards in my writing. The paired heavy stresses of old English meter. Hringedstefna isig ond utfus. Curved-prow ship ice-covered and ready. A beauty found in cutting out grammar and heaping up boulders of content. That’s what I love most about those barbaric Germans who became the English: this brutal language that won’t be bound.
Taken from The Telegraph: 07.02.12