What's the most English thing you've ever seen? The most English thing I've ever seen is an England fan's reaction to an Scotland goal. It was the Scotland-England game in 2013, and due to reasons, my friend and I were sat right in the heart of the England Ultras section, just a few rows over from that fucking oompa band. I'll give you an idea of what the England Ultras section is like: a tiny man twice my age and half my height nearly actually punched me for not singing "God Save the Queen" with enough gusto, despite the fact that I was actually singing "God Save the Queen". He had to go for a quick pint before kick-off to calm down. And people say we have no pride in our country.
Here's what happened when Kenny Miller, an unapologetically Scottish man, a man flippant in his Scottishness, scored a goal against England: a man five rows in front of me tore his England shirt off and threw it at the pitch. He had an England flag tattooed on his scalp, the man, an England flag tattooed so inelegantly that the edges were blurred, that the black ink had disintegrated into green. He ripped the England shirt off his back in one smooth, practised, furious motion, and threw it with all his might, where it just flapped open and glided to the ground. "Boo!" said the man. "Argh!" He strained his flabby torso in an act of distant aggression, and that's when I noticed his back was littered with further patriotic tattoos: bulldogs and Bobby Moore, further St George's crosses with ornate borders. "Argh!" he was saying. "Fucking!" Imagine: imagine being so in love with your country that your base reaction to Kenny Miller scoring a goal against it is to rip your England shirt off to reveal that your skin is literally more patriotic than a £44 Umbro shirt that is essentially a repurposed England flag.
And that is the most English thing I have ever seen.
Let's have some word association fun on this, England's birthday. What is the image that comes into your head when you see this word: patriotism? I'll tell you what comes into my head: it's a slightly greying St George's cross blu-tacked up between a window and some net curtains; it's a coach full of men travelling for upwards of four hours to go to an EDL rally; it's the English flag tattooed inelegantly onto the scalp of a man who is just furious at Kenny Miller. The underlying subtext is: anyone who vocally loves England hates anyone who isn't from it. English patriots are men who book time off work to watch England away matches and spend their spare time calling LBC phone-ins to reiterate their human right to still say "nog". The soundtrack to English patriotism is hundreds of men with low voices saying weeyyyyyyyy.
Is patriotism a dirty word, now? Is it a sullied concept? Because it's hard to think of patriotism without tying it, white hand in white hand, to the more core sections of the right wing of this country. Anyone who has ever sincerely said the words "Why isn't St George's day a national holiday?" has some really vocal opinions about halal. Anyone who thinks Good English Boys should be able to go to school today in a red and white outfit has almost certainly donated to Children in Need over Comic Relief because "at least the money goes to British kids". The Venn diagram of people who think the national anthem should be sung in schools and people who demand Spanish waiters brings them a "full English" when they're on holiday is essentially a circle.
But there is plenty to love about England, and the racist associations of patriotism shouldn't stop people from doing that. Firstly, and arguably most importantly, is Greggs the baker. When people ask me about my hometown, all I can tell them – with no little pride – is that it has four branches of Greggs to serve a population of just 90,000. There is a sit-down Greggs, and a Greggs that is open until 3AM. There is a Greggs beneath the new Tesco so you can eat three hot sausage rolls before you do your big shop. There is one Greggs that you can look out the window of and see another Greggs from. There is no need for that. And yet: is there anything more English than a girl in a minidress – no coat, mascara dribbling down her face after a bad night at Yates's – eating two sausage and bean melts in quick succession in the frigid October rain? She has spent her cab money on a box of Ribena. One of her mates is getting off with a lad even though she's just been sick in a BT phonebox. Nothing makes me feel more at home.
Carbohydrates are hardwired into our cuisine. The English have available to them constantly a huge array of crisps. There is a certain kind of crisp we refer to collectively as "fancy crisps". A crisp cannot inherently be fancy. A crisp is a slice of the cheapest vegetable fried in the worst oil and made to taste like a prawn. But you best know if your mum gets the Walkers Sensations out then someone respectable is coming round for tea.
I once explained the concept of a chip butty to an American girl. "It's chips," I said. "In a bap." "What's a chip?" she said. A chip is a fry. "What's a bap?" A bap is a cob, or a barm cake, or a bread roll, or whatever the fuck you call it according to delineated and invisible linguistic ley lines that dissect the country. "Ew," she said. "So it's, like, a carb sandwich?" Yes. We eat those.
Our language is beautiful and global. Collect a handful of people from various far-flung places in England and ask them this question: "What did you call them shoes you used to wear in PE class when you were in primary school? You know. You know the ones." The correct answer is "plimsolls", but someone is always willing to raise their fists in defence of "daps". We colonised all those countries and forced them to speak our language so now we don't have to learn French in school. Not a single fucking one of our regional accents make sense. What aliens came down from space and taught everyone in Birmingham to talk like that.
Someone always collapses at a British summer wedding. You've Been Framed is essentially one of the greatest archives of English culture in existence. It's granddads tripping over trampolines and falling into paddling pools. It's dads spraying a hose at your mum so hard she falls through a plastic table. It's someone's uncle accidentally booting an oblivious toddler in the face while trying to do a rabona. If someone has gone to the trouble of making, icing and putting candles in a cake, there is a dark and constant 20 percent chance that someone will drop it or fall into it. We cannot mark a death without a warm tin of lager.
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Pubs that do karaoke. Pubs that have lifelong barmaids called Sandra. Pubs with tarpaulins for smokers to huddle beneath when it's raining. Pubs that clearly haven't paid to have licensed Sky for the matches and are just patching the game in through a complicated series of cables set up by the landlord's son, who has a GCSE in IT. Pubs with dogs on the roof. Pubs where there is a man in a 40-year-old leather jacket who has been medically fused to the fruity machine. Pubs with high arcs of diarrhoea up the wall of the gents that you remember being there last time you were in that pub, which was a month ago. Pubs where men groan at you if you stand and wash your hands after taking a piss. Pubs where a man with a holdall full of duty-free cigarettes comes in and sells a load of weird looking Camels to everyone propping up the bar. Pubs where everyone bounces their glasses off the bar in time to "Is This the Way to Amarillo" when it comes on the jukebox. Pubs where there is a very dark story about why they don't have a pool table any more.
There is no town in the north of England that doesn't have a barber called "Ali Barber's" that offers £10 Dads 'n' Lads specials and a hairdresser called "Hair To Eternity" where hard nans get their rinses done. There is no town in the north of England that does not have a locally famous tramp. There is not a single picnic in England that hasn't at some point been thrown into chaos by the presence of a single wasp. There is a singularly English terror inspired by wasps. We cannot deal with wasps. We have a little bit of time for bees, but we cannot deal with wasps.
In the last ten days one of your mates has held a four-pack of Coronas up to you and said "Where's the nearest park?" This has happened to you. This has happened because of the desperation of British weather; we cling onto vapours of sunshine, go desperately puce in the sun, huddle on narrow cracks of summer heat outside pubs on moderately hot days. We talk about rain like it is important. We anticipate snow but nothing about our infrastructure can deal with it. Trains in this country are derailed by wet leaves, as though wet leaves are a rare thing that don't happen every single autumn like fucking clockwork. Have you ever seen an Englishman try to drive a car up a hill in the snow? I would recommend it. It is brilliant. They just cannot understand why they are sliding backwards.
Proper cheese. Fly-tipped sofas. Queuing up for Alton Towers in the rain. Your mum has a big purse with a load of disposable ponchos in it, so you wear them, looking for all the world like a dick too small for its condom, desperately hoping the drizzle won't stop you going on Nemesis. Fry-ups and Wetherspoons' Curry Club are both unique to our tiny island. There is no other country on earth where cafés have blurry polaroids of the exhausted-looking men who have just completed their "Gutbuster Breakfast Challenge". The French do not do Gutbuster Challenges. There is no such thing as an "... and eight slices of toast!" addendum in Denmark.
And it's beautiful around here, too. Not just rolling hills and bleakly gorgeous murder moors and tiny quaint villages where well-dressing is a thing: our cities are clots of chaotic planning, ruined by war bombs, scarred with gravelly tower blocks so monstrous they become handsome. Get high up and look down on an English city and just bathe in its angular chaos. Stay on the ground, nursing that Corona in a tiny park as the sun sets, as blue bleeds into orange, as jet trails cross the sky. Go to a farm and look at a cow. Cows are everywhere. We have loads of cows. Have you ever spent a few minutes just chilling with a cow? Go and have a go on a cow.
Walls with concrete and broken glass on the top to stop children scrabbling over them, worn smooth from children scrabbling over them. Teenagers drinking cider on park benches. Teenagers throwing stones and doing basic sex acts. Hard dogs. Big Sports Direct mugs. Local heroes. Sunday Sport headlines. Nik Naks Turned My Bellend Orange. Sex With Greggs Pasty Boiled My Bellend. This is England, and we keep hurting ourselves on the bellend. We are a nation ruled by our liquids: tea for soothing and for everyday, pints for suffering and celebration, rain to give us something to talk and to worry about.
Even the "Keep Calm and Have a Ruddy Gin!" teatowelification of modern British culture has roots in England's self-effacing history: we have humility, we have a sense of humour, we cannot as a nation ask someone if they want our seat on the train without getting really fucking awkward about it.
The strange, English national psyche. When you say you love your country, you're also saying "I'm still really proud we won that World War." When you say you're English, you're also saying "because I still know people who call that Londis on the corner 'the Paki shop'." But it's possible to like your country without wearing a Union Jack suit and standing for days outside the hospital the Duchess of Cambridge is about to give birth in saying things like: "I hope if it's a girl they call it Diana." It's possible to be proud of where you're from without sitting bolt upright in bed each morning and chanting "Rooney! Rooney! Rooney!" as part of your morning ablutions. You can love England and not be a dick.
There's a lot that's bad about England: it is a dirty, grey country seemingly littered with sex rings, with a feudal class system and a ham robot for a Prime Minister. It is having a very loud chat about migration at the moment, despite being the wealthy benefactor of years of colonial rule. It's still inexplicably economically reliant on the monarchy and people are willing to send death threats over vague plans to put more women on our bank notes. There are a lot of people walking among us who get joyful to the point of arousal over the idea of bringing back hanging. The weather is properly shit. K***e H*****s has somehow been allowed to happen. England is a shithole.
But it's our shithole. It's the NHS and chip butties. It's pebbledash semis and not being bothered by drizzle. It's inhumanly portioned café breakfasts and a really good night out. It's wearing shorts in March because there was the tiniest threat of sun. It's a country where even the supermarkets have a class system. It's the pathetic, doomed hope that our football team will do well in a tournament this summer. It's acid house and flight paths and crazy golf and Hooch and not having to queue at a fucking tabac to buy cigarettes. It is joyriding and Diggerland. It is a vivid, vibrant place where everyone has an opinion about Yorkshire puddings. Don't let men with scalp tattoos who are mad at Kenny Miller be the only ones to love it.
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