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London 2012: A 12-part guide to the UK in 212 words each

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Published: 27th Jul 2012 01:46:38

What do people visiting the UK for the Olympics need to know about the nation's quirks, habits and rules?

Accents

In the movies, one might notice British characters have a tendency to talk in one of three stock accents - "English gentleman" (eg Hugh Grant), "Scottish/Irish hero" (eg Mel Gibson) or "Cockney chimney sweep" (eg Dick Van Dyke). But in reality, the UK has a rich mosaic of many different accents. Dominic Watt, a linguist at the University of York, says in the Border regions, where he has studied, you can hear a different accent just by walking down a road or crossing a bridge. The differences aren't just in rural areas. The Liverpool accent is quite different from its near neighbour Manchester. Some even say they can detect a softer south Liverpool accent and a grittier one from the city's north side. Corby in Northamptonshire has an accent known as "Corbyite" that has tones influenced by the many settlers there from the west of Scotland. Researchers have described a new accent they call Multicultural London English influenced by Caribbean, South Asian and West African immigrants. Others have referred to it as Jafaican. Overlaid on the regional differences, Watt says class distinction in speaking is also greater than in other countries. The Olympics themselves offer an opportunity to sample these myriad accents, as Team GB has representatives who speak many of them.

The bobby

Fuzz. Po-lis. Old Bill. Plod. Rozzers. Bizzies. All are slang names for the police in the UK of differing levels of friendliness. Perhaps the kindest is "bobbies", after Sir Robert (hence "Bobby") Peel, who founded the Metropolitan police in 1829. Television captured or perhaps created the image of the "bobby" in Dixon of Dock Green. The series lasted more than 20 years until 1976. Dixon was avuncular, in touch with his community, a carer as well as a copper. He ended each programme speaking directly to the audience as though he really was the bobby on your beat. Look at Dixon through the eyes of a visitor and two things stand out. First, there's his helmet. Based on a Victorian design, it is still worn by many male police officers in England and Wales, particularly those tasked to smile at tourists. The helmet doesn't play much of a protective role, but it has proved invaluable at sporting events. Second, Dixon carries no gun. Forty years on and despite his screen successors being far more muscular, British police officers do not routinely carry firearms. For some this is the success of the British model where there is consent to the bobby's authority. Perhaps, though, the British are just sufficiently respectful of the truncheon.

Class

A three-tier class system is synonymous with the UK to outsiders, at least among those who boosted Downton Abbey's international audiences. But, says cultural commentator Peter York, it's much more nuanced than that. The British, he believes, are experts at chronicling each strata's many sub-divisions. This is a country, indeed, in which Nancy Mitford could categorise words as "U" (upper-class) or "non-U" (aspirational middle class) - looking glass versus mirror, for instance, or napkin versus serviette. The nation's favourite sitcoms rely on a keen awareness of class. For instance, the tension between upwardly-mobile lower-middle-class Captain Mainwaring and the downwardly-mobile upper-middle-class Sgt Wilson in Dad's Army. Or the attempts of the Trotters to escape Peckham in Only Fools and Horses. Yet York believes the UK is no more class-bound than, say, the US - simply better at signifying how the system works. The paradox, he adds, is that as the gap between rich and poor has increased over recent decades, so too have the number of flat vowels among the super-rich as pop stars and footballers joined the elite. "The assumption is that we are uniquely class-divided, whereas that is of course nonsense," York adds. "Everywhere has a class system. But it's our obsession in the sense that race is the American obsession."

Gastropubs

The public house is one of the few cultural institutions unique to the British Isles. Many visitors will be familiar with the acid-etched glass and high ceilings of a classic Victorian-style pub. Or indeed a horse brass-festooned country pub. But not all will understand the "gastropub". The Eagle in London's Clerkenwell opened in 1991 and is claimed as the first. The concept has since spread around the country. Gastropubs or "gastros" are supposed to allow you to eat restaurant food, but without the formality of a restaurant. The chips ("hand-cut") come stacked in a Jenga-like formation or served in a little metal bucket. Beef dishes are typically accompanied by a "red wine jus". To critics, gastropubs are a symbol of vulgar gentrification, a bourgeois pastiche of the humble boozer. But Observer food critic Jay Rayner believes they have stayed true to the traditional customs of the alehouse. "It has taken a working class institution and made it a middle class institution," he says. "But it still has this association that the pub has with British culture." They have helped improve eating out. In his 1946 essay about an idealised tavern, George Orwell fantasised about eating "a good, solid lunch —for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll".

Nationality

The English are British and lots of people think the British are English but that annoys the Scottish and Welsh because although some think they're British and some think they aren't and some think they are but don't want to be, they all agree that they definitely are not English.

The Irish mostly think they are Irish, apart from the ones who are Northern Irish, some say that makes them British and Irish. But others disagree and say they should just be Irish and then some say they aren't British either but part of the United Kingdom.

People from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland can all play cricket for England because they are British as can those from Ireland even though they aren't British. So can South Africans.

The English play football for England unless they aren't that good when they might try to play for Ireland.

Those from the Isle of Wight are English, from Anglesey are Welsh and the Orkneys are Scottish, but although that means they aren't from Britain they are still British.

The Channel Islanders depend on the crown which is what the Queen wears but they aren't in the UK or EU and those from the Isle of Man are the same, apart from their cats.

Railways

Rail Pricing Mysteries: The single/return puzzle: An off peak single to Manchester costs £73.20 but the return only costs £74.20. The split-ticket conundrum: It can be cheaper to buy several tickets for different parts of a journey rather than buy a ticket for the whole thing. The riddle of the conductor: Staff on trains may charge more for the same journey than those at the station.

Some visitors might think UK rail travel is expensive. Certainly, the 260m (0.16 mile) Tube journey from Covent Garden to Leicester Square, at £4.30 for a paper ticket, is a solid candidate for the world's most expensive railway trip. Then there's the complexity. Arriving at Gatwick airport and wanting to get a train to London, you would find three different operators run the services. All are different prices. Single or return? Two singles might be cheaper than a return. Do you want an "anytime" ticket in case your plane is late or choose an "advance" fare? The "advance" might be cheaper but is worthless if you miss the train. You could take an "off peak" ticket but be careful - what "off peak" means can vary. Confused? The fare structure may be confusing, but it allows the operators to target expensive fares at business travellers who are willing to pay while still attracting more frugal consumers who might be tempted by alternative transport, says Mark Smith, founder of rail website www.Seat61.com. And if you're from anywhere else in Europe, don't be too smug. The ticketing model is catching on elsewhere, Smith says. Visitors should also get used to: "No smoking, even in the vestibule areas." That means those bits between the carriages.

Newspaper humour

In the UK newspapers are not just there to convey news. There is also the venerable institution of "newspaper humour". The tabloids, of course are known for their knockabout proficiency with puns. Take the Sun's headline above a story about fears Pyongyang's regime had engaged in nuclear testing - "How do you solve a problem like Korea?" The tenuousness and corniness of the punning is supposed to be part of the appeal. Four becomes "phwoar" etc. The topless women of page three used to be accompanied by groanworthy punning. Now, in the Sun at least, they pontificate on economics, politics or philosophy for the effect of humour by sheer incongruity. In the broadsheets it can be a little more acid, exemplified by AA Gill's depiction of shadow chancellor Ed Balls ("the wide-eyed look of a man being given a surprise prostate examination") and the Guardian's Marina Hyde on Sting and wife Trudie Styler ("possibly the least self-regarding people on the planet they have done so much to save"). "The tradition of mixing entertainment with the most serious news, through the likes of parliamentary sketches, is almost uniquely British," says Tim Luckhurst, former editor of the Scotsman and now professor of journalism at Kent University. "What unites them is a lack of deference."

Public transport

Trains, buses and trams might seem natural venues to start a friendly chat. But do be careful.

For many Britons, initiating conversation with strangers on public transport ranks as a breach of etiquette not far below commission of High Treason.

Take the Tube through London in rush hour, for instance, and you will see dozens of strangers packed tightly together. Though they may be intimate in terms of physical proximity, each revels in splendid isolation.

Break this code of silence and you will be greeted with embarrassed silence (interrupted, perhaps, by nervous newspaper-twitching) as all around you seek to avoid your gaze.

Not all of the UK is quite so circumspect about small talk, however. Citizens in the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all take pride in being more welcoming than their aloof southern neighbours.

Nonetheless, etiquette expert Simon Fanshawe strongly advises against making verbal contact with one's fellow commuters and transgressing one of the UK's most powerful codes of behaviour.

"My advice would be to do it with extreme caution," he says. "If you do, expect us to be extremely gruff.

"If anybody so much as looks us in the eye, we assume they want our wallets. We'd much rather rustle behind a copy of the Daily Express."

Queuing

Many British people believe queuing is peculiarly British, or even English. But the first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1837 when Thomas Carlyle, referred to it as a French custom.

The British like to think they stand in line with patience and humour. At Wimbledon, the January sales, women's toilets in the theatre, queuing has almost become the point rather than merely a means to an end. No matter how dull the wait, the British keep on queuing.

Joe Moran, a cultural historian and author of Queuing for Beginners, says that the idea that the British are good at queuing arose after World War II. It was a reaction to a time when shortages led to arguments and police were often called to disperse crowds.

The Hungarian-born satirist George Mikes helped create the myth, writing in1946: "An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one."

But Moran says there is little real evidence that the British are particularly good queuers. They like the thought because it feeds into their self-image of pragmatism and politeness.

The lesson for any visitor perhaps is to be aware that the British think they are good at queueing. So if you want to get ahead, try to do it subtly.

British curry

Don't be fooled by the fact that curry is found in restaurants called "Indian" that are mostly run by Bangladeshis. Curry is as British as its favoured accompaniment, the pint of lager. Born to foreign parents, the British love both curry and lager as their own. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word curry derives from the Tamil "Kari", or the Kannada word "Karil". Although the root is Indian, South Asians have no single word to describe their many, distinct dishes. The word "curry" however, has helped sell Indian cuisine to the British. The Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs believes there are now 9,500 "Indian" Restaurants in the UK serving three million meals a week. The curry has developed to suit British needs. Vindaloo for example is a Goan dish of pork marinated in vinegar. The only thing certain about the British restaurant version is that it is hot enough to generate conversation. Chicken Tikka Masala is known as Britain's National Dish. One legend has it created by a Pakistani chef in a restaurant kitchen in Glasgow. The next big taste innovation could come from the "Balti Triangle" in Birmingham, Manchester's Rusholme Road, or Brick Lane, Southall or Tooting in London or perhaps one of the myriad restaurants that spice-up every British town.

Buying rounds

"He never gets his round in." There is no more damning assessment of one's character to be heard in the British Isles.

Rather than approaching the bar collectively, each member of the drinking party alternates fetching a collective order.

It's about more than beer. Being in a round means being part of a group. And taking turns to ensure everyone has a full glass in front of them means reciprocal bonds are formed between all of its members.

The system has a further practical function, ensuring that the bar staff are not overwhelmed by a procession of individual drinkers.

Not everyone is a fan of rounds, however. During World War I the practice - known as "treating" - was expressly forbidden in some areas because of fears that it encouraged workers in essential industries to drink more.

In 2011 the Sun reported that Prof Richard Thaler, an adviser to the prime minister, said rounds should be discouraged in favour of setting up a tab that is settled at the end of the night.

But among traditionalists, the round remains the preferred method of supplying an evening's refreshment.

"I think it's a lovely system," says Roger Protz, editor of the Great British Beer Guide. "It's all part of the convivial atmosphere of the British pub."

Self-deprecation

To listen to a conversation between Britons about their careers, say, or educational histories, an observer from a more forthright culture might be forgiven for assuming the participants were morbidly depressed. Chances are they'd be wrong. Self-deprecation is an inescapable part of British discourse. The only socially acceptable way to talk about one's achievements is to diminish them. The affection held for that paragon of self-mockery, Stephen Fry, is testament to the national love of this brand of humour. The UK is, after all, a country where showing off is considered the height of bad form and boastfulness regarded as the very height of vulgarity. Charm and wit, by extension, are demonstrated by making oneself the butt of one's own jokes. Outsiders might conclude that this tendency to self-effacement reflects the UK's diminished global status as a former imperial power. But don't be fooled. Times columnist Matthew Parris argues that this tendency is, in fact, a subtly disguised form of self-aggrandisement. "British self-deprecation is actually quite boastful," he says. "Its primary purpose is to show how relaxed, at ease and confident you are. It's a sign of being so in command that you can undersell yourself." So is British self-deprecation just one big humblebrag? We really are useless, aren't we, utterly useless.

What other quirks have been missed? Send us yours in 212 words using the form below.

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BBC News, 2012. London 2012: A 12-part guide to the UK in 212 words each [Online] (Updated 27th Jul 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1442992/London-2012-A-12-part-guide-to-the-UK-in-212-words-each [Accessed 1st Sep 2014]

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