I always thought there was something funny about England. When I was a child in Ireland, we would watch That's Life! on the BBC on a Sunday night and see the locals roar with laughter at funny-shaped vegetables or dogs that said the word "sausages". I'll be honest: we laughed too.
And then Esther Rantzen's tone would darken. Without warning, we would be plunged into the miserable lives of children growing up in damp public housing, watching parents who filled their children's bottles with fruit juice and rotted their teeth being shamed or – the one I'll always remember – hearing the heart-wrenching story of an elderly couple duped out of their life savings by a travelling con man. On that particular occasion, Rantzen showed us a photo-fit. "Maybe you've seen him," she said, staring straight down the lens. "Maybe he approached you, maybe you saw him at a petrol station, a pub or a restaurant. Look around you. Maybe he's sitting in the room with you right now."
I looked around. The only people in the room were my parents and my sister. I tried to imagine a chain of events that would lead to a complete stranger being wedged on the couch with us. Furthermore, what would induce us to sit down, a family and this stray we'd taken in, to watch That's Life!.
Was this how people lived in England? Did strangers often drop by on a Sunday night to watch your telly? Did you all live communally? Were there only a few televisions?
It made England seem like the most foreign place imaginable, a place where groups of strangers clustered together round a flickering light, like survivors in a disaster movie. And in one of these huddled communities, a con man was looking at his own face, drawn in pencil from a pensioner's description, doing a long, fake yawn and going "Is that the time?" before getting ready to run. England was strange.
Of course, many years later it would become my home, and even though I have seen almost every inch of this country after spending the last decade criss-crossing it from theatre to theatre, England still manages to surprise and bewilder and amuse. I've been watching you for a while now, and here's a brief sample of some of the conclusions I've so far been able to draw. Please don't take them too personally.
First to go in disaster movies
Great cities have a gravitational pull. For me, there are basically four of them – New York, Paris, Tokyo and London – and they exist to distort the space around them. They draw the population in, usually young and ambitious and willing to endure shitty houseshares in the city's endless warren of sub-divided houses.
England plays host to London, much like it plays host to the Premier League. It used to be yours, and now it belongs to the world. You want proof of London's international iconic status? In any Hollywood science-fiction movie, when they show that montage of all the alien attacks from around the world, London always gets flattened first. I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen Big Ben flooded, zapped or struck by a meteor. That's how you measure global brand-reach.
If the English were to be glibly summed up as pragmatic but a bit moany, though, then this is the perfect capital city for them. The city is massive, and Londoners negotiate daily a ludicrously complicated transport system, by underground, overground, bus and boat. This gives them endless opportunities to complain, but it also forces them to perform route calculations of astonishing complexity, usually without even looking up, for fear they might make eye-contact, or show weakness, or share a human moment with a fellow commuter, which is not the way things are done in London.
My favourite-ever joke (of my own) is about Londoners and their gift for re-routing. It was about the response to the bomb attacks on 7 July 2005. This is the joke:
The media reacted as if the attacks would, or should, be greeted like 9/11 had been in New York. Of course, the attack was nothing like 9/11, and besides . . . this is London.
They've had the Blitz and then there was the IRA . . .
In fact, the response in London to the attacks was much more:
"There's been a bomb on the Piccadilly line!"
(Long, thoughtful pause and then, like a problem being solved . . .)
"Well, I can get the Victoria line . . ."
They're not that bad, honest
Attacking the English rail system may be a national sport, but it's a pleasure denied to me because of how bad the Irish rail system is in comparison.
For example, if you want to travel between Manchester and Birmingham, the country's second and third largest cities, there are three trains an hour, two of them direct.
If you want to make the same journey between Cork and Galway, cities of the same relative status in Ireland, you take a bus for four hours. The only way to do this by train is to make a giant V; you take the train to Dublin, on the other side of the country, get off in the capital and take a train back to the other coast again.
Unfortunately, the myth of how terrible the trains are here has become so endemic, and so pleasing, that even as I write these last few paragraphs, I can see you all putting your fingers in your ears and going, "La la la la, I'm not listening, I'm not listening."
Obviously, this is because of the magical trains they have in continental Europe, which glide silently and punctually from town to town while, at the front of the Virgin Pendolino service to Stockport, a dray-horse wheezes and heaves.
I have sat on the Eurostar when they announce in Kent that the train is now travelling at 186mph; and the English people roll their eyes as if to say, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"
Bingeing on beer is in your DNA
The nature of English drinking has always been a subject of debate in the country, with a certain aspirational tendency which presumes that, with just the right tweak in the licensing laws, an eruption of cafes will occur and it'll be just a couple of glasses of chardonnay before the match. With the perfect piece of legislation, you'll all go Mediterranean.
This is never going to happen. Your drinking is all about binges and serious drunkenness, more in keeping with the Germanic and Nordic (and Irish) attitude to alcohol. People don't drink as heavily in warmer climates because it's hotter there, and hot and drunk don't mix. And they drink wine in hotter climates because that's where grapes grow; in northern climates we grow grain.
It's become the norm for English people to think that they are drinking at unprecedentedly high levels. But, as Peter Haydon, author of An Inebriated History of Britain, has pointed out, today's English "are rather poor drinkers compared with our ancestors". Before there was a plentiful supply of clean water, beer and ale had been staple, healthy parts of the English diet for hundreds of years. In the 16th century, it's estimated that the average person in England consumed around 850 pints of beer a year.
As with many heavy drinkers, it wasn't until Britain switched over to shorts that the trouble started. By the last years of the 17th century, it has been estimated that consumption stood at 24 pints of gin a year for every man, woman and child in England. In 18th-century London, where two pints of "mother's ruin" were consumed per person per week, gin was cheaper than milk. I'm not sure which part of that last sentence is more striking. Is it "two pints per person per week" or "gin was cheaper than milk"?
To you, this gin-epidemic episode might be old news. But we aren't taught a lot of English history in Irish schools. So you can understand my glee at discovering the gin epidemic. We get a lot of grief, the Irish, about being heavy drinkers, but you . . . had a gin epidemic. Oh sure, we like a pint now and again but . . . you had an epidemic . . . of gin. This is like finding out that your disciplinarian stepfather actually has a teenage police record for possession of marijuana.
Sorry, you didn't invent it
Preston football club's ground, Deepdale, is home to the National Football Museum, where I once spent a large chunk of an afternoon marvelling at the sheer brass neck of whoever had collected the memorabilia inside. The depth of exhibits is quite astonishing and 95% of them could be prefixed with the words "the actual". There are the actual balls from the 1930 and 1966 World Cup finals, the actual replacement Jules Rimet trophy (after the original was stolen) and, most impressively, the actual jersey worn by Diego Maradona in the 1986 "Hand of God" match. The thrill of seeing that jersey in a case in front of you can only be a fraction of the emotion that Maradona must have felt when he received a letter from an English football museum requesting it. He must have turned to whoever was standing beside him and gone: "No way! You're shitting me, right? This is a gag, isn't it?" To the best of my knowledge, there is no glass case in Hastings containing the arrow that killed Harold.
The museum should lay to rest one old chestnut, though. The English didn't invent football. They codified it, which is a different thing altogether, and a less emotive thing to shout about when you next fail to qualify for the World Cup. You didn't invent football because you didn't invent the ball, or kicking, or fields. We should only be grateful that the Victorians didn't gather together in a room and write the first rules for the use of the wheel, or fire, so that you can claim credit for them as well.
Villages have been dragging, pulling, kicking and running against each other for millennia; you just happened to be the ones with an empire when the upper class took an interest.
It was Cambridge University who initiated the first rules, in 1848; a further 15 years passed until the formation of the FA, and even then the game was sufficiently unrecognisable from the modern version that one of the delegates, from Blackheath, lost a vote to retain shin-kicking and the club promptly left to turn their schism into rugby instead.
And I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but I'm telling you this for your own good. Almost 150 years later, whenever an English team is beaten, the line bemoaning, "This, in a sport we invented", still gets trotted out.
You've got to snap out of this. It's like you want to pour vinegar into the wound. It's a bit like having Maradona's jersey in the middle of the national football museum. Had to pile on a fresh layer of pathos, didn't you? Couldn't just enjoy a nice day out at the football museum. Had to have a little bit of disappointment in the middle of it.
You like them more than people
England, which is a largely urban, industrialised nation, pining for an illusory rural past, treats the animal kingdom with an astonishing amount of sentiment. Just look how many of the classic animal stories are primarily concerned with the idea of a natural idyll under threat from modernisation: Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tarka the Otter, Watership Down – even Born Free.
George Orwell was smart enough to place his allegory of communism on a farm, since he knew the English reader would instinctively side against his own species. It's the same reason that the dog is the real brains of the Wallace and Gromit operation. Gromit is also the public face of the Kennel Club's "Good Citizen Dog Scheme", the largest dog-training scheme in the United Kingdom. It says a lot that the Kennel Club suggests that one of the main questions the course will answer is: "How do you learn to live with your new dog?" There's no suggestion that a dog-training course might teach the bloody dog to live with you.
Consider also the English ability to emphasise the tragedy for animals even amid horrendous human events – the horrified reaction to the IRA's bombing of the Horse Guards in 1982, or the hoax bombing of the Grand National in 1997, as if somehow targeting horses was a new low, rather than of relatively limited importance given the human damage inflicted. When one of the horses that survived the Horse Guards bombing died in June 2004, he got his own story on the BBC and this tribute from his commanding officer: "[Yeti was] the epitome of a grand old gentleman, increasingly frail but never losing his zest for life and never, ever forgetting his manners." It's as if the English have projected on to their animals the values they fear are disappearing from their own society.
The RSPCA is one of the largest charities in England and was the first charity of its kind in the world. It was founded in 1824 by a group that included anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, and became "Royal" when Queen Victoria lent her authority to it in 1840. Here again there is the odd juxtaposition where at the same time England was involved in widespread barbarism in the name of empire, she was taking time out to tell people to be nicer to animals.
Learn the lesson of Paddy's Day
In the last few years, there has been a campaign to re-launch St George's Day, in an effort to find a few non-sporting occasions for self-celebration. It was in part another expression of that bizarre section of England that likes to perceive itself the victim of a terrible injustice. How can the Celts have their day? Why has everyone heard of Paddy's Day and not of brave St George? Where are our parades?
There are a couple of simple reasons why St Patrick's Day is a massive global success story and St George's Day is not. Obviously, there's the drinking, the parades and the enormous Irish diaspora, which clung to the festival as a celebration of home and developed it into the cavalcade of Guinness and green that it is today.
England can have none of this. You have a diaspora, of sorts, in the sense that you have expats all over the world. This is fundamentally different to Ireland, however, in that your diaspora is mainly in Provence, where they moved of their own accord. In the tragic tale of Irish emigration, very rarely was anyone overheard on the coffin ships saying: "Well, we've just always wanted to run a small hotel in the Dordogne. The kids have reached that age, so we said, what the hell, let's go for it."
It also doesn't help that St George never even set foot in England. There are no historical sites to venerate, because he was never here. This is similar to the never-ending English devotion to the hymn Jerusalem, despite it being a long feedline to a very curt and obvious punchline:
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green? No.
And was the holy Lamb of God On England's pleasant pastures seen? Nope.
And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? Still a big nooo, I'm afraid.
And was Jerusalem builded here Among those dark Satanic mills? No. It wasn't. Sorry about that. (And it's "built", by the way.)
The fact is, you can't reverse-engineer something like Paddy's Day. And you probably don't want to. Are you ready to put aside your ambivalent attitude to religion and force the entire country to convert to Catholicism and then give the Church hierarchy unfettered access to the reins of power? We know you don't want it and I didn't move to England to sit through that again.
Face it, England is the victim of its own success. You can't gobble up other nations, absorb them into your flag, and then whine that your original flag doesn't get the attention it deserves. This is what you wanted with the empire; suck it up.
Moreover, it might be worth asking if there isn't a bigger price to pay for the kind of cultural success Paddy's Day has achieved. There isn't an Irish person alive who hasn't cringed at the sight of Guinness hats and leprechauns being bandied about like That's Who We Are.
Every year, we see the footage of drunken American kids wearing "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" T-shirts and getting hammered in our honour. Even at home, the day has always been a bit of an underage drinking festival. I appreciate the craic as much as anyone; I just dislike the entire nation being reduced to a caricature. All those campaigning furiously for a St George's festival might be wise to ask themselves if they want to see England narrowed down to a man in a cartoon dragon costume running down Fifth Avenue. "Tally-ho!" they'll shout, in a Dick Van Dyke English accent. "Tally-ho!"
by Dara O Brian