Saturday 31 January 2009

Yow Cor Spake Propa

Do you understand the title of this post?

No, I thought not. However it makes perfect sense to me and (I hope) it makes perfect sense to people from Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. Note that I didn’t mention Birmingham!!!

Allow me to translate: it means “You can’t speak properly”.

If you say the title as it is spelt you will be speaking with a “Black Country” accent. The dialect is spoken in the towns mentioned above, a region of England known as “The Black Country”, an area just north and west of Birmingham (that does NOT include Birmingham), so called because the area is (or was) a centre for heavy industry, raising a level of pollution that covered the area in black soot.

I was born there, in the town of Walsall (pronounced in the accent as “Worsull”).

The Black Country accent does have similarities with Birmingham accent but to people from that area there is a significant difference. Outside the West Midlands, people claim that the two accents are the same, something that particularly irks those from the area. Worse, the Black Country accent is universally regarded by the rest of England as the worst accent in England.
Personally I think this is totally incorrect.

I left Walsall when I was almost nineteen and moved to Liverpool where I studied at university for three years. I was young, foolish and na├»ve. People would walk up to me and say “Which part of Birmingham are you from?” and I would say, “How do you know where I’m from?”

I had a huge problem communicating with Liverpool people because we simply couldn’t understand each other. Bear in mind that Liverpool is about 90 miles from Walsall. After Liverpool, I moved to Manchester, where I’ve been ever since. My Black Country accent has dissipated and now I speak with a strange “Northern” accent. However, my original accent does resurface when I am drunk or angry (so I’ve been told).

Back to the point of the post: I intend to give you all a little present – the ability to speak with a Black Country accent. Don’t thank me – it’s the least I can do. I love to see people improve their lives and the ability to speak in this wonderful dialect is a gift that simply cannot be refused. I particularly want American, Australian and Canadian readers to have a go.

Let’s start with a greeting. Say the following:

Orroit cocka

See – that wasn’t too bad was it? That means “Hello mate” (translated literally as “Alright Cocker” – “Cocker” being a term of endearment. In Walsall, if somebody calls you “cocker” then they like you.).

Next, try this


Easy – eh? That is roughly translated as “Bye – see you soon”

I think you’re getting the hang of this, so here are a few other words and phrases that you can throw into casual conversation with the English word next to it:

Yow” – you

Yow bay” – you are not

Wesh” – wash

Yowm riffy” – You’re dirty

Yowm kaylied” – You are drunk

The cut” – The canal

Where’s the suck?” – Where are the sweets? (or for Americans – Where is the candy?)

Kissa” – Face

Orroit me old mucker” – Hello, old friend

Ov node im fer ayjis” – I’ve known him for ages.

Olgu fust” – I’ll go first.

Tayters” – Potatoes

Oy woh” – I will not

Waggin” – Playing truant

Yown gerrin on me wick” – You are getting on my nerves

Is jed” – He is dead

Om guwin um” – I’m going home

Where’s me clobber?” – Where are my clothes?

Stop blartin yow babby” – Stop crying, you baby

It’s bost” – It’s broken

A poy ana point” – A pie and a pint

Oss” – Horse

Gimme an opple” – Give me an apple

Oy loike yow” – I like you

Yower” - Your

So now hopefully you can at least do a passable imitation of a Black Country accent. And if you think it sounds daft or stupid, just think – I used to talk like that all the time.

Finally, here is a demonstration:

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Weird Beer or Weird Beards?

I love a pint of beer but there are certain people in Britain for whom beer is more than just a refreshing way to wind down after a long hard week.

Last week I went to a “Winter Ale Festival” in Manchester, a celebration of fabulously strange brews with a winter theme, consisting of many different and varied types of ale from all over England. The majority of people who frequent such gatherings are normal everyday men and women who like to savour their beer and enjoy it for the taste and texture, in a similar way to tasting a good wine. I fall into this category. Others like to simply consume large quantities and get drunk. However there are others there for whom beer is a religion and whose views are so intense that they regard the normal everyday beer-drinking punter to be a clueless imbecile with the mental capacity of demented badger. And it is these people I want to talk about in this post.

Beer festivals are organised by CAMRA, a group of beer drinkers who, irritated the increasing amount of tasteless and bland beers invading our great British pubs, decided to make a stand to try to kick start the promotion of real ale. CAMRA stands for “CAMpaign for Real Ale”. They have had a lot of success and now have a staggering 95,000 members, the vast majority of whom are perfectly normal people. In fact, I know a couple of members and to be honest they are good to know because they are very knowledgeable about their ales and through them I have discovered some fine brews. However, there are a tiny minority who regard normal ale drinkers with contempt. I have been a victim of these beer bullies.

Normally when I attend a real ale gathering, I meet my mates there; this normally means paying the entrance fee, buying my souvenir pint glass and walking to the nearest dispensary to purchase a pint of a fine brew. On one of my first visits, to the Stockport Beer Festival, I walked up to one of the CAMRA volunteers and selected a beer with a strange name (they ALL have strange names as you will see later). I asked for a pint. This man refused to sell me a pint. I was astonished.

“I’ll sell you a half” he said. Before I could complain, he then launched into a lecture about people like me who come to CAMRA festivals and order pints of this and pints of that and therefore don’t get to try all of the other beers. He basically ordered me to wander around and have a half of as many beers as I could so that I could sample the variety of the ales on offer. “People who drink pints should be banned,” he went on. “If it were up to me I would only sell halves. People like you don’t appreciate good beer.”

Now if I had had two pints of beer I would have launched into a verbal war with him but, since I was supposed to be meeting friends I yielded to his argument and bought a half. Besides, his beard scared me!

I don’t want to generalise, but there are a number of CAMRA members who (and let’s be kind to them here) took more than their fair share of facial hair when it was being handed out. The TV presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, is always talking about “weird beards” and I reckon he got his inspiration from a CAMRA beer festival. Some of these guys have beards that a colony of squirrels could live in; huge bushy beards that erupt from their faces in an explosion of hair. If you attempt to stand closer than three feet in front of them, their beards will tickle your face – that’s if you don’t collide with their beer bellies first.

And that’s the second thing about these guys; their consumption of Britain’s finest ales has a very noticeable side effect. I have seen pictures of guys with beer bellies so vast that they can perch a pint or two on top of it – I am not joking. And the funny thing is that they are supremely proud of both their beards and their bellies. I’ve heard one say, pointing to his gut: “That cost a lot of money so I’m not going to get rid of it in a hurry!”

I may be poking fun at an elite group of CAMRA members but I do like most of the beers that they campaign for. But there are some that leave a lot to be desired. One of the first beer festivals I attended was particularly embarrassing. I bought a pint of beer that was absolutely horrific; the taste of it reminded me of an ashtray and it stank like the waste product of a sick bat. I couldn’t hand it back and demand my cash back as I was a young man and the CAMRA volunteer who had sold it to me was watching me with morbid interest. I had no option but to dispose of it in the toilet.

However, when I arrived there, I was surrounded by beer connoisseurs who glared at me because I had walked into the loo with a full pint of ale. Thankfully, I noticed that one or two cubicles were free, so I decided that was the best place to chuck it was the toilet itself, behind closed doors. I locked the cubicle and hesitated. I couldn’t just pour it into the water because the other ale lovers would hear me – so I waited for five minutes (hoping that they had finished their business and left). Then I flushed and threw the whole lot into the foaming water – at least that what I intended to do.
I missed - almost completely!!!

In my desperate haste I threw 90% of the beer onto the floor and of course it slopped out into the main area like a tsunami of ale in full view of a new set of ale lovers. And as I’ve said, it stank of bat pee.

I didn’t hesitate; I ran out of the toilet as fast as I could, colliding with some massive wobbling beer bellies and weird beards on the way. I didn’t want to look as if I had a very dodgy medical problem but I’m sure there are people who still talk about the blond nutter who zoomed past accompanied by the strange smell of bat urine.

That episode, thankfully was a one off and I have sampled many hugely enjoyable and tasty brews, thanks to CAMRA. And as I said above, some of the beers have marvellous names. To finish off, here are a few of my favourites. I can’t say that I have tried them all, but if you do encounter them, don’t be put off by the name – they really are lovely:

Windie Goat
Dog’s Bollocks
Roaring Meg
The Hanged Monk
Old Stoatwobbler
Piston Bitter (think about that one …)
Lion Slayer
Nelson’s Blood
Nelson’s Revenge
Liquor Mortis

I look forward to my next beer festival in Stockport in May. I wonder whether there will be a beer called “Weird Beard’s Revenge”? And I wonder whether I will be forced to drink it having written this post? To any CAMRA members reading this, I have to say – keep up the good work! This Plastic Mancunian beer lover really appreciates it.

Friday 23 January 2009

The Light Sleeper

A few nights ago I had a weird dream. I was tied to the floor and a warm sticky substance was dripping relentlessly onto my exposed forehead. It was like Chinese water torture, only much worse; the dripping substance was slowly and inexorably drifting towards my mouth.

I can picture you reading this and I can almost sense the disgust in your mind but please bear with me - it's not as bad as you think (though it could have been).

As the drip approached my upper lip I started to panic; and as I panicked I began to hear an unearthly wailing sound.

And then I woke up.

Waking up for me is a traumatic experience sometimes because I am so short sighted that shapes take on a menacing significance. On this occasion, as my crusty eyes opened, I could see nothing. The room was dark and the feeble street light from the front window barely illuminated the room. And then I saw it; the blurred shadow directly above my head. My heart leapt; I almost screamed. And I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, a huge drop of cat saliva would have plopped right onto my tonsils.


Spike, our old, greedy, dribbling cat was perched on my chest, and howling for food. He was so hungry that he was salivating all over my head.

“URRGHHHH!!!” I screamed, and tried to turn over. Spike, thinking I was going to grant his wish for a tray of food promptly stepped onto my face before dropping to the floor, meowing incessantly. The racket was so loud that I decided to feed him. Because it was dark, I staggered out of bed, trod on Spike’s tail (causing him to screech in pain), bashed my knee on the bedside cabinet and hobbled downstairs. Spike, in revenge for the pain, tried his best to trip me up as I went. When I returned, Mrs PM was still fast asleep, oblivious to my trauma and pain. I was tempted to wake her up because it was her fault that Spike had woken me up in the first place. Why? Well, let me tell you a little bit of history.

When we moved into our new house we bought two black kittens called Jasper and Poppy and they were quite happy to sleep on our bed with us in it, in peace and harmony, moving only occasionally. However, when Spike, the cuckoo in our nest, arrived, he was so hungry all the time that he woke us up constantly at really anti-social hours. When I say “us” I mean “me". As you may have guessed, I am a very light sleeper and what annoys me most is that Mrs PM is the complete opposite.

I banned the cats from the bedroom and Mrs PM has struggled with this ever since I put my foot down. So to compromise, I foolishly allow them in the bedroom while we are reading, until it is time to turn off the light; then they are unceremoniously ejected from the room. On this night, however, Mrs PM had let the cats back in when I was asleep and, as usual, Spike had picked on me. Of course, he may have picked on Mrs PM first but waking her up is as difficult as trying to push a pea to London using just your nose.

Mrs PM can sleep through an earthquake – and indeed she has – twice! We don’t get earthquakes in England very often but Mother Nature decided to inflict one upon us last year. Being such a light sleeper, I was out of bed the nanosecond it struck. I was convinced that a burglar was trying to break down the bedroom door and in my confused semi-conscious state, I bellowed at the top of my voice, thinking that a burglar would flee if he thought that there was a maniac on the other side of the door. My screaming actually woke Mrs PM up on this occasion, as did the two hundred burglar alarms that immediately went off in the street when the tremor struck.

“What are you doing out of bed?” she asked in a bleary eyed state, before immediately falling to sleep again with a loud snore.

In these cold, dark winter months I can normally sleep quite well. It is dark when I retire for the night and stays dark until around eight in the morning. However, in the summer, in June in particular, it only begins to get dark at 10pm and by 4am it is light again and I find myself lying there in bed at 4:30 having been woken up by bright sunshine and the sound of the dawn chorus. I am so frustrated that I blame the cats for that as well. I’ve heard myself talking to Jasper:

“Call yourself a bloody cat? There are a hundred and forty two birds out there, making enough noise to wake the dead. Why don’t you round up the local moggy posse and sort the little buggers out?”

Jasper just sat there with that “Gimme food” look on his face.

When I complain to Mrs PM, she laughs and says “It’s not my fault you have transparent eyelids!”

Other things wake me up too, usually in the middle of a great dream. If a squirrel drops a nut in our front garden at 3am you can guarantee that I will be awake at 3am and one second wondering what’s making the racket outside.

I’ve tried wearing those blindfolds that they give you on aircraft. The problem is that I wake up with it still on and panic thinking that somebody has stolen my sight in the middle of the night, or find it missing and forget about it, only to rediscover it around my neck when I’m in the shower.

I’ve also tried earplugs with similar effects. Either I panic because I think I am deaf, or sleep through my alarm clock and end up at work two hours late.

Sometimes, Mrs PM can make matters much worse. She accuses me of being a duvet thief but the only person who wakes up on a cold winter’s night, shivering in the throes of early hypothermia is me.

Worse, she sometimes has a spontaneous, localised moment of being a light sleeper and suddenly screams out “What’s that noise?”. I get up, go downstairs, and usually find the cats having a party in the lounge, only to return to the bedroom to find Mrs PM snoring for England.

The worst thing about Mrs PM are her dreams.

Now I cannot read this woman’s mind but I certainly know when she is having a vivid and weird dream. Normally she cries out in her sleep, which immediately wakes me up. Sometimes, she wakes up, shakes me awake and asks a stupid question like “Why do the insects have to travel to Mars in a coffin? Surely the dentists will make them clean their paws first.” Then she falls unconscious again and starts snoring. I am such a light sleeper that her snoring keeps me awake for hours.

The worst episode involving Mrs PM and her dreams occurred the other week. There I was lying in bed in total bliss; I had caught the train to dreamland and was about to show my passport when suddenly Mrs PM kicked me. Furthermore, she kicked me so hard that I actually stumbled out of bed and landed on the floor. I was aghast. I woke her up and said “What the bloody hell are you doing? You’ve just bloody well kicked me!”

“Did I?” she replied. “I’m sorry. I was dreaming about a walking doll that wouldn’t stop chasing me; so I kicked it.”

And then she fell asleep and started snoring, keeping me awake for the rest of the night.

I need to take steps to combat my problem. How about ttaking these steps:

(1) Ban the cats from entering the room at all times when I am in bed.

(2) Buy a set of thick curtains that allow no light whatsoever to pass through.

(3) Soundproof the bedroom.

(4) Put Mrs PM in a straight-jacket.

Actually, I think one of those suggestions is a little extreme. I would cost a fortune to soundproof the bedroom.

Friday 16 January 2009

The Plastic Mancunian's Eye

I have made a decision about my new hobby for 2009. I was inspired by a couple of suggestions from people who stumbled across the post and when I discussed it with Mrs PM, she agreed that I should try my hand at photography. Mrs PM is a keen photographer herself and, while I simply point and click at the moment, she actually knows what she is doing and has offered to coach me in the technical bits and pieces.

Rather than cluttering up this blog with photographs, I have decided to start a brand new blog, cryptically called "The Plastic Mancunian's Eye". That said, I will post some of my efforts here too if they help to illustrate my inane ramblings.

Please feel free to visit the blog and comment on the photos you find there. I am a beginner so I am very open to constructive criticism (though I do reserve the right to feel sad if you are too cruel).

Tuesday 13 January 2009

A Very British Post (Part Three) - Iconic Symbols

Did you know that I am a British icon? It’s true, I swear. The Queen, a fellow icon, when recently asked about me, said “Is there plastic in Manchester?” and our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said “Who?”

Yesterday, I went for a walk and started asking random people about British icons. Most of them told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was a weirdo. But those that took me seriously gave me many diverse answers. Britain is a place so full of iconic objects that I could write a book about them. And even then I wouldn’t cover them all. There are just so bloody many of them.

Moreover, these icons can be subdivided into various classes. I have therefore decided to split the icons into two classes: symbols and places. I will start with symbols.

Bagpipes/Kilts: I would like to meet the man who thought that bagpipes were a good idea. This Scottish instrument is one of the most bizarre ways to make music that I have ever encountered. Incredibly, the bagpipes don’t actually originate in Scotland (something that surprised me); there is evidence of bagpipe-esque instruments dating from the times of ancient Greece. However, the Scottish bagpipe has the most visibility today and the unique wailing noise is mostly associated with our northern neighbours. It is strange watching a piper play; he blows up the bag and plays the tune, yet the timing of the tune is totally different from the timing of his exhalations. As crazy as it sounds, I think that bagpipes actually work musically. I don’t know why And do you know what my favourtie bagpipe tune is? Don't laugh - I'm already embarrassed enough! It is “Amazing Grace” as played at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, when Spock’s coffin is ejected from the Enterprise. Brings tears to my eyes every time. What a sad fool I am.

As for kilts: I have often been in trouble taking the mickey out of our Scottish neighbours for wearing “skirts”. They don’t take this joke too kindly. To be honest, a Scot dressed in a formal costume complete with kilt and sporran does actually look very smart. Personally I wouldn’t wear a kilt for any amount of money – well perhaps a million pounds as long as there were no cameras to record the event.

Beefeaters: Beefeaters are really “Yeoman Warders” whose purpose in life is to guard the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Why are they called beefeaters? One theory is that part of their salary package included slabs of beef in the 17th century. In the time of Henry VIII, these guys were responsible for guarding prisoners, like his wives, held in the tower. These days, of course, the tower is not used as a prison and beefeaters are largely ceremonial. The uniform is ostentatious and flamboyant but it might not be a good idea to poke fun if you are tempted, as these guys are ex-army officers.

Bowler Hats: Whenever I think of bowler hats, I don’t picture a London city gent with an umbrella and a briefcase; I see Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (two of my all time favourite comic actors). And I’ve never seen anybody wear one, other than in films and in musicals - oh and in that video for "Rock Star" by Nickleback.

Britannia: Britannia is a symbol of the British Empire but originated in Roman Times as a goddess. She is depicted as a beautiful young woman, wearing the helmet of a Roman centurion, carrying a trident and shield, sitting on a rock with a bloody great big lion next to her. I think I would say she is beautiful if threatened by a trident and a lion.

John Bull: This guy is a little like America’s Uncle Sam. He is a rotund Englishman wearing a union jack waistcoat. I would say that he is typically British but the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish see him as English and don’t accept him. However, apparently he likes a beer, so that makes him okay with me.

Bulldog: Let’s face it, bulldogs are ugly brutes and the fact that this stubby little creature is the British mascot is really funny and typically British. Purists will say that this muscular little canine is a tenacious little beast and therefore represents the dogged spirit of your typical British citizen. How mad is that? I personally think we picked the ugliest mutt on purpose (probably after a few beers).

Cricket: I love cricket. Every summer you will find me and several thousand like-minded Englishmen sitting at a cricket ground watching England in battle with Australia, the West Indies, India, Pakistan, New Zealand or South Africa, relaxing in the sunshine with a pint of best English bitter. As a day out it can’t be beaten. Cricket, however, is seen as an enigma to those that don’t play it. As I’ve said before, I once tried to explain the rules of cricket to an American. It was almost impossible – I thought I had explained in great detail but terms such as "deep long leg", "silly mid-off", "googly", "bowling a maiden over" and "long hop" left him in a confused state. I came across this amusing “rules of cricket” that perhaps I should have used. It makes sense to me because I understand the rules. Does this make it easier?

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

That makes it all clear, doesn’t it? I’ll be testing you later …

Double-decker bus: Double-decker buses are used extensively in the UK and while they also exist in other places, Britain is deemed to be their home. Significantly the most famous double-deckers are the old red London Routemaster buses, that have sadly been replaced and exist for tourists and heritage only. I think they are great to be honest: as a kid I used to race up to the upper deck so that I could get a superb view of the surrounding area from the bus. To be honest, I still do this now.

Dr Who: Who (I hear you cry)? Yes “Who”! Dr Who is a British science fiction series about the adventures of a Time Lord (an alien time traveller) called Dr Who, who travels around through time and space in a blue 1950’s police box called the “Tardis”. It began on the BBC in 1963 and is the longest running science fiction series in the world. It was shown consistently between 1963 and 1989 when it was axed. It returned in a one-off special in 1996 and was relaunched in 2005 and has been going ever since. I am a HUGE fan of the show. “The Doctor” as he is known has “regenerated” nine times and we are currently on our tenth doctor with number eleven waiting in the wings. Enemies include the Daleks (left picture below) and the Cybermen (middle picture below), each British icons in their own right, as well as a rogue Time Lord called “The Master”. In addition to countless TV series there have been two movies. Every British person knows about the Tardis, the Daleks and the Cybermen, and those who claim not to are lying (in a vain attempt to keep their street credibility). For those of you out there in the world who have yet to experience the wonder of Dr Who, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. You won’t regret it.

Football: Whether you are a fan of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Celtic, Rangers or Walsall, football is THE greatest sport in existence and is THE sport of Britain. There is nothing better than spending a cold winter’s afternoon with a wagon wheel and a cup of Bovril shivering as your beloved team of warriors battle on the field of play. You become part of a tribe of like minded people who are completely focused on the game. You chant at the opposition; the more obscene and humorous the chant, the better. If you can’t make it to the game, you watch it on TV and hurl abuse at the blind linesmen and cheating referees. If it were up to me football would be played all year round. And for any Americans reading, I am not talking about the rugby-clone that you call “football”. I think you refer to it as “soccer”.

Grenadier Guards: These are the men wearing the red uniform who stand sentry outside royal palaces and are most famous for standing completely still in their huge busby hats while tourists and scamps try their best to make them twitch. However, be aware that Grenadier Guards are in the most senior regiment of the guards division in the British army.

James Bond: The most famous and greatest fictional spy in the entire world is 007, aka Commander Sir James Bond (KCMG, RNVR), a man who flies the flag of Great Britain as he jets around the world, killing psychotic megalomaniacs intent on world domination, while seducing gorgeous young women as he goes. It is rumoured that Ian Fleming used me as a role model for the super spy, but I can say that this just isn’t true. Compared to me, James Bond is an absolute clueless wimp.

London Underground Map: I find it bizarre that the map of the London Underground system is a popular icon amongst tourists. To me it is a simple means to find your way around the vast metropolis that is our capital without getting utterly and totally lost. All you need to do to find your way is identify the nearest “tube” station to the sight you are looking for and use this map to get to that station. It couldn’t be simpler. Having travelled on the tube many times, I can honestly say that it is a simple and very good experience – unless you hit the rush hour, which unfortunately for Londoners, seems to be all day every working day. In that event it is an absolute nightmare!

The Mini: The mini is, as the name suggests, a small car that somehow became an icon in the sixties, thanks to films like “The Italian Job”. It is difficult to believe that this little car was really popular from 1959 to 2000, when the manufacturers stopped making them. The good news, if you are into cars, is that there is a new model called the MINI (the name is in capitals to distinguish it from the previous model). However, this new effort is a little bigger and some mini enthusiasts don’t actually like it.

Pubs: Pubs are my favourite British icon and I have spent a fair amount of time in them over the years. There are approximately 58,000 pubs (short for “public houses”) in Britain and you can find at least one in every village as well as hundreds in towns and cities. In fact, sometimes you can be driving along a lonely country road and sometimes stumble into one in the middle of nowhere. Pubs these days are more than just places to meet and chat over a few beers. In recent years, many pubs double as restaurants and hotels and you can have a decent meal in the majority of them. A recent change in the licensing laws means that instead of pubs closing at 11pm, they can in theory stay open for 24 hours (though most choose not to do so). You can therefore find somewhere to have a nice cosy drink all day and most of the night, should you so desire. Another great thing about pubs are the names such as "The Red Lion", "The Royal Oak", "Lass o'Gowrie", "The Jabez Clegg" and "The Ape and Apple" - and these are just in Manchester. Below is a lovely little pub in the centre of Manchester with a fabulous name: "The Peveril of the Peak".

Red Telephone Box / Red Pillar Box: In recent times you could wander around Britain and see bright red structures almost everywhere. The public telephone box, containing a pay phone used to be ubiquitous but with the advent of mobile phones appear, sadly, to be in decline. Red pillar boxes are still omnipresent and are simply mail boxes. What’s weird about both of these truly British icons is that I have seen them on my travels to other countries, either in a British themed pub or as part of a rich foreigner’s strange collection. I find that bizarre to be honest.

Rolls Royce: I can’t help but admire Roll Royce cars. I would love to drive one but I can’t see that happening unless I win the lottery. Why? Because these cars are not meant to be driven by people like me – they are for the so-called elite, i.e. those with a stupid amount of cash to spend on them. That said, they are gorgeous cars. Sadly, they are owned by BMW, which to me doesn’t sound right.

Sherlock Holmes: Forget Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Perry Mason and Ellery Queen. The most famous detective in the history of fictional detectives is our very own Sherlock Holmes, the greatest sleuth ever to step forth from the imagination of an author. Sherlock Holmes had almost supernatural powers of reasoning, observation and deduction and no villain could escape once Sherlock was on his trail. Elementary, my dear readers.

Taxis: Many foreigners make the mistake of thinking that the black cabs (or Hackney Carriages) they see around London are used only in that city. In fact, the black cab is in use in many other places in Britain, including Manchester. Furthermore, London cab drivers are famous for their opinions and observations but that too is not limited to the capital; Manchester taxi drivers are exactly the same, keen to put the world to rights and offer solutions to every conceivable problem. My problem is that I am equally opinionated and end up clashing with them on a regular basis. I should learn to shut up and listen really.

As I said at the beginning of this post, there are thousands of British icons – I have limited my list and still written, for me, a long post. I do apologise. However, feel free to comment and add your own icons or disagree with my choices.

In the meantime, do you remember the rules for cricket?

Oh, and if you want to start a campaign to make “The Plastic Mancunian” a British icon, don't let me stop you. I wonder how many votes I can count on?

I shall return with a post about iconic places.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

A Very British Post (Part Two) - British Cuisine

Let’s face facts: British food is not too popular outside Britain, particularly in Europe. I came across an article in the summer in which continental Europeans voted our food the least popular in Europe. Only three percent of our European brethren thought our cuisine was any good.

To be honest, I don’t know why. I love British food (though I have to admit there are some dishes that are a bit of an acquired taste).

Let me take you on a tour of traditional British fare. I have tried most if not all of the offerings below and can in most cases vouch for their quality and taste. So let’s begin:

English breakfast: What better way to start the day than with a plate full of grilled bacon, sausage (not the American sausage but the “Great British Banger”), baked beans, fried mushrooms, fried egg and grilled tomato? Believe me, it sets you up for the day (particularly after too much ale the night before). For added zest, slaughter your bacon and sausage with HP sauce, a thick spicy brown sauce or add some black pudding. I must tell you about black pudding (or “blood sausage” as it is known in some quarters). It is made by cooking pig or cattle blood until it is solid enough to congeal when cooled. In fact, the best black pudding comes from a town called Bury, which is just a few miles north of Manchester. As disgusting as it sounds, black pudding is actually surprisingly tasty. And I tell you what? If you are ever in England and sample a little too much of our warm beer the night before, there is no better hangover cure than a full English breakfast. I speak from experience. Oh - and the picture beneath the English breakfast is black pudding. Doesn't that look fantastic?

Fish and chips: First of all, let me just say that although deep fried, battered cod and chips wrapped in newspaper may not sound too appetising, let me assure you that it can be a divine meal, particularly in the north of England where the best fish and chips are produced. I wouldn’t advise eating it for every meal, simply because if you do you will almost certainly double your weight. However, as a one-off it is a great meal, especially if you add a tub of mushy peas to add a little flavour. When I really can’t be bothered to cook, I often stroll down to my local fish and chip shop (or “chippy”). Unbeatable.

Bangers and mash: As I mentioned above, “bangers” are traditional British sausages. I have travelled to many countries and never have I ever tasted “bangers” as succulent and delicious as the ones you find in the British Isles (including Ireland). And, as the name of this dish suggests, bangers taste divine when firmly embedded in a pile of fluffy mashed potato, with gravy as an option.

Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding: Really this means any roast meat (pork, chicken etc.) served with two vegetables, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding smothered in gravy. Yorkshire pudding originated in Yorkshire (of course!) but are eaten just about everywhere. In Yorkshire itself, the pudding is often served before the meal covered in gravy as a sort of starter. Strange lot, these people from Yorkshire. In France, this dish is considered so typically British that the French actually call us "rosbifs". Cheeky buggers! But to be honest it is better than certain Brits call them.

Cottage pie: I love cottage pie. Basically a cottage pie is cooked mince covered in mashed potato, which is grilled to form a crust. For added flavour, I usually grate some cheese on top as well. Truly divine.

Ploughman’s lunch: There’s a pub around ten minutes walk from my house that serves an amazing ploughman’s lunch with a wedge of cheddar cheese so colossal that you could ski down it. A ploughman’s lunch consists of chunks of homemade bread, cheese, salad, raw onion, fruit and pickles.

Lancashire hotpot: You can’t beat a good Lancashire hotpot to warm your cockles on a cold winter day. The dish originates in Lancashire, the area just north of Manchester and consists of meat, potatoes and as many vegetables as you can throw in. Throw the whole lot in a pot and leave in the oven for as long as you like (on low heat of course).

Toad in the hole: What do you get if you cross bangers with a massive Yorkshire pudding? The result is “toad in the hole”. Why it is given this weird name I don’t know. Weird ancient British humour perhaps? I am reluctant to speculate, given the oddness of my trains of thought.

Cornish pasty: These originate in Cornwall and are really beef, onion and potato pies. Well not pies exactly; they are semicircular in shape and wonderfully tasty.

Haggis: I’ve eaten haggis – once! I won’t eat it again, that’s for sure, but not for the obvious reason. If you don’t already know, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish consisting of sheep’s innards minced with onions, suet, oatmeal and spices and then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled for a few hours. It doesn’t sound very appetising does it? To be fair, it wasn’t the taste of it that I disliked; it was dry and stodgy and a real chore to eat. I’m sure that there are loads of people in Britain who love it – it’s just not for me.

Cream tea: Cream tea is a traditional afternoon snack in the county of Devon in the south west of England. If you visit the place, you will see cream teas advertised everywhere. A cream tea is not a cup of tea with cream. It is a cup of tea served with a scone, a dollop of clotted cream and a splodge of jam. Clotted cream and jam are not my cup of tea (if you’ll pardon the pun) but this snack is very popular all the same.

Afternoon tea: We all love our tea in Britain. I prefer it to coffee and drink several cups during the day. Many other countries drink tea too but the problem is that outside Britain it is horrifically weak. The only country I have been to outside the British Isles that serves a decent cup of tea is Australia. Afternoon tea normally involves a good strong cup of tea and a sandwich. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t all eat cucumber sandwiches; it seems to be the required snack for members of the so-called upper classes. Normal people rarely eat them. Personally I love ham and cheddar cheese sandwiches smothered with Branston pickle.

Marmite: When it comes to marmite, people are in two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I love it. It is made from yeast extract (left over from brewing beer) and is a thick, brown sticky spread suitable for toast or sandwiches. The Aussies have their own version called vegemite but I prefer good old marmite because it is stronger tasting.

Jellied eels: I am very squeamish about eels, particularly after having eaten a clossal and disgusting eel stew in Hong Kong, which was full of all sorts of very suspect objects that I ate with trepidation and a shaky hand. The chances of me ever trying this traditional East London delicacy are extremely remote because of this experience. As the name suggests, this dish consists of eels, stewed in a spiced jelly and is available almost exclusively in London. I’ve never seen anybody from anywhere else in Britain actually eating them. We all have sense!

Bubble and squeak: I know what you’re thinking – what the hell is bubble and squeak? I have no idea why this particular dish has such a bizarre name. I have eaten it a few times and I can tell you that it doesn’t squeak and there are no bubbles involved (thankfully before AND after it has been eaten). Basically bubble and squeak is a simple concoction made up of cabbage and potatoes and any other vegetable you wish to throw in, all fried in a pan. And mighty fine it is too.

Scotch eggs: I love scotch eggs but I haven’t had one for years. I feel an inner craving for one even as I type. Contrary to popular belief, scotch eggs originate in England so why they are called “Scotch” I do not know. A scotch egg comprises a cold hard boiled egg, wrapped in sausage meat, dipped in breadcrumbs and deep fried. They are unbelievably tasty!

Bread and butter pudding: Only in England would somebody dream up the bizarre notion of baking a plain sandwich and serving it as a dessert. It is of course more than that. Bread and butter pudding is made by baking buttered bread in an oven with raisins, egg and milk. It may sound revolting but is actually quite nice, especially served with piping hot custard.

Spotted dick: This dessert causes smirks amongst those British people who love double entendres. “Have you a spotted dick?” is surely a line that has been included in a “Carry On” film or “Benny Hill” show at some point – I’d stake my reputation on it. As mad as it sounds, spotted dick is a very nice dessert. It is simply a suet pudding containing dried fruit that looks kind of spotty (because of the fruit). Where the “dick” comes from, remains to be seen (and again I don't really want to speculate)

Trifle: I used to love trifle as a child but these days I find it far too sickly. It contains every ingredient a child would crave in a dessert: jelly, sponge cake, custard, whipped cream and fruit.

I have one final traditional British dish to tell you about that I know for a fact any American readers will either be shocked about or will fall off their chairs in hysterical disbelief. I know this because when I was at university, this foodstuff had this affect on an American student I lived with for a few months.

Picture the scene.

I’m cooking in the kitchen and Eric, my American friend, strolls in and sits down.

Eric: Whatcha cookin’?

Me: You don’t want to know.

Eric: What d’ya mean?

Me: Trust me, you don’t want to know.

Eric: Come on. Are you burning something?

Me: No! I’m cooking a traditional English dish that may … well … shock you.

Eric: Come on now. What the hell are you cooking?

Me: OK – I am cooking faggots.

Eric: WHAT??????

Me: I am cooking faggots.

Eric stops breathing temporarily.

Eric: You’re joking, right?

Me: No. Here’s the packaging.

At this point Eric erupted in a cataclysmic explosion of pure uncontrolled hysteria that was so astonishing he fell off his chair, which was so hilarous that I reacted in a similar way. We both laughed so loudly and hysterically that it took us both a full ten minutes to recover our composure and be able to breath again. The conversation continued:

Eric: You do know what a faggot is, don’t you?

Me: Yes. It’s a spiced pork meatball from the Midlands.

Eric: I mean in the States?

Me: Yes – why do you think I didn’t want to tell you what I was cooking?

Eric begged me for the packaging so that he could take it home to show all his friends back in America. I imagine that he has the box to this day and still telle the story.

I hope this post gives you an insight into our culinary tradition. I have to say that in Britain today every cuisine you can dream of is available in supermarkets and restaurants but in a typical British home you will almost certainly find one of the above delicacies being consumed with gusto.

Anyway, I must go because unfortunately it is my turn to cook tonight. I won’t make the obvious joke about what it might be. And in case you don’t believe me about the faggots …

I will return with a post about British icons.

Friday 2 January 2009

A Very British Post (Part One)

Today, I came across an article that discussed the traits of British people, those items that are typically British and the various stereotypes and icons that foreigners consider to be quintessentially British. Intrigued by this, I decided to dedicate a couple of posts to this very subject. The first is about the people (of which I am a prime specimen).

On my foreign travels I have met many people who have fixed ideas about what it means to be British. Some people have the opinion that Britain is a bizarre place full of eccentrics; others think that we moan a lot; still more think that we are so reserved that the expression on our face never changes.

Here is a list of some of the traits of British people according to some foreigners:

Bad teeth: apparently there is a school of thought, possibly originating in America, that we have odd, misshapen, crooked, yellow teeth that stick out of our mouths like those of a tiger shark. I am aware that Mike Myers depicted Austin Powers to have dreadful teeth in his three hit movies but in reality our teeth aren’t that bad. From a personal point of view, I visit the dentist every six months for a thorough check up and usually come away without requiring any treatment. I have to admit that compared to our American counterparts, though, perhaps our teeth aren’t perfect. You seldom see a “Hollywood” smile in Britain, where people have a row of perfectly sized, even teeth that are so white you need sunglasses to look at them.

Obsession with the weather: I believe this to be true. Usually, the opening manoeuvre in a conversation is to talk about the weather. Why? Well my own personal opinion is that the weather in the British Isles is so changeable that you cannot guarantee what it will be like at any time during the day, even in the summer. This is one of the reasons I am so annoyed when I see a weather forecast in the morning. Carol Kirkwood will tell me, on BBC Breakfast news, that we should have a warm sunny day. So I leave the house without a coat or an umbrella and I can almost guarantee that I will be caught in a spontaneous, localised freak rain shower that drenches me from head to toe. And this is not just in Manchester either. Once I experienced all four seasons in one day. I went for a walk in May a few years ago and when I set off, the weather was beautiful. Within hours it was raining and then suddenly I was hit with a freak hailstorm. An hour later it was sunny again. This is typical of our weather is also the reason we talk about it all the time.

Obsession with the royal family: The royal family, for me, are merely figureheads and there are two key schools of thought as far as they are concerned. First there are those who love them and are utterly obsessed with them. Second, there are those who regard them as obsolete and want them to stand down. I am somewhere in between. Personally. I am not interested in anything that they say or do; to me they are just self-important celebrities who mean nothing. I wouldn’t care if the Queen’s head was removed from postage stamps for example. I never watch the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day because she is so divorced from reality that everything she says is irrelevant. Still, those that love them do so with gusto. As soon as there is a royal wedding the whole nation comes to a standstill and we all get out our flags and wave – well the royalists do anyway. I just go about my daily life as usual.

Politeness and being reserved: Foreign people see British people as both polite and reserved and to a certain extent this is true. As a nation we are not brash or pushy and we do like to say “please” and “thank you”. Where this comes from I don’t know. You can guarantee that if we have a grievance, we will generally address it politely and will not explode in a tsunami of arrogance and rage – there are exceptions of course. The only problem I see with the “reserved” tag is that we are perceived as being unfriendly, which is far from the truth. I feel that British people tend not to want to intrude and impose on other people’s lives. Personally I don’t care. I am reserved to a certain degree (unless I’ve had too much beer) and am a very friendly chap.

Stiff upper lip: In a similar way to being reserved, we are regarded as being devoid of emotion, i.e. we have the ability to maintain a “stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity. To be honest, I regard this as hogwash. Maybe in the past it was a desirable skill but in today’s times this “stiff upper lip” mentality is probably only encouraged in royalty and the military. That said, most British men will never admit to crying. I do, but only when caught out by a surprise ending in a film. I have been known to leave a cinema, pretending to “have something in my eyes”.

Queuing: I was surprised by this because people queue in other countries. We are perceived as a nation who will happily stand in a queue for hours and despise people who attempt to push in (like Germans for example). If you ever see a queue abroad and notice British people in that queue, just for a laugh try to push in. You will certainly hear these people moan and very politely direct you to the rear of the queue. However, if you approach politely and ask to push in, you may be lucky. From a personal point of view, I despise queuing and will endeavour to do my very best to push in – or simply avoid them.

Humour, irony and self-deprecation: We love to laugh at ourselves and put ourselves down and we are very good at it. In my opinion, we are the funniest people in the world, so funny in fact that a lot of foreigners just don’t get it. Take Monty Python for example. There are British people who do not like Monty Python, but the majority of us do – and we understand why it is so funny. On my first trip to America, we were staying with a family in New Jersey. As soon as I walked through the door, I was cornered by the head of the family who said: “Before we eat I want to know two things. First, why is Monty Python funny? Second, what the hell is cricket?” I struggled to answer both questions but the most difficult was why Monty Python was funny. To me it just is. Take the “Argument Clinic” sketch for example:

Now I find this hilarious. Do you? If you do, then you “get it”. And what about irony? For example, there is a feeling in Britain that Americans just don’t understand it. I came across this on the web recently:

SAN FRANCISCO MAN BECOMES FIRST AMERICAN TO GRASP SIGNIFICANCE OF IRONY - Jay Fullmer, 38, yesterday became the first American to get to grips with the concept of irony. "It was weird," Fullmer said, "I was in London and, like, talking to this guy and it was raining and he pulled a face and said, "great weather, eh?" and I thought "wait a minute, no way is it great weather." Fullmer then realised that the other man's 'mistake' was in fact deliberate.

Fullmer, who is 39 next month and married with two children, aged 8 and 3, plans to use irony himself in future. "I'm like using it all the time," he said. "Last weekend I was grilling steaks and I burned them to sh*t and I said, 'Hey, great weather!'"

Here are some examples of British humour from some of my favourite shows:

I’m sure you will agree – very funny.

Finally, I would just like to ask any non-British people reading this post what they think are the traits of British people (be nice, please).

I will return with a post about British food.