I’ve been living in the United States for almost two years now and after a childhood full of Saved By The Bell and New Kids On The Block and The Babysitters Club I hadn’t expected a culture shock. I was naive. We may speak the same language but we’re (literally) an ocean apart when it comes to everything else. Below is a selection of books that will help homesick Brits, satiate the curiosity of anyone that can’t get enough Downton Abbey, and offer a window into our weird little collection of islands. And yes, we really are that obsessed with the weather.
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox sounds like the sort of etiquette guide an English nanny might box your ears with, but is instead an amusing look at the weird and wonderful habits of my rain-soaked people. It helps explain why you could drive into me with a pickup truck, step on my toes, and throw your coffee down my front and I’d mumble a mortified apology at you. On a deeper level it helps explain why the British are so obsessed with class, the whole nation is like the Titanic and everyone has an opinion about who should be in steerage and who gets to drown in the fancy ballroom.
Americans call them cookies, we call them biscuits, but along with tea they really are the core of British life. If you’ve been invited to any sort of gathering, a business meeting, a friendly chat with your Aunt, a wake, and there aren’t biscuits available something is very wrong. The type of biscuit is also a crucial signifier of the perceived importance of the event. Plain biscuits are the British equivalent of poking you in the eye and peeing on your begonias, and if there isn’t chocolate somewhere in the offered selection, the host hates you. If any of the biscuits are foil wrapped this is the jackpot, it is either Christmas or the host is madly in love with you.
To navigate these sugary waters I recommend Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down which will explain what an Iced Gem is, and why, whether or not a Jaffa Cake is in fact a cake, (rather than a biscuit) it is a national obsession.
Despite what you might see on Downton Abbey, Britain is a very multi-cultural country. One of the best books I’ve ever read about the tensions and joys that this brings is by Meera Syal and is called Anita And Me. It examines those tensions in that most dangerous of arenas – the friendship between two teenage girls – and mixes Syal’s serious comedy writing qualifications with uncomfortably precise examinations of the emotions that come with that time in any teenager’s life. Main character Meena has the added complications that come with a multicultural background: she wants a world of English dinner options and Christmas celebrations, her family wants to keep its Punjabi traditions alive in 1970s England.