Review: The Book Bag

Stuff Brits Like by Fraser McAlpine

With over 100 chapters on different aspects of Britain and Britishness, this book is both fascinating and hilarious. Just looking at the list of subjects is enough to produce a sardonic twist of that stiff upper lip: the chapters cover topics that range from offal to curry, from pedantry to banter, from conkers to rugby. There may be many chapters but this is no academic tome — each chapter is just two to three pages long, each is written with endearing affection, each is easy and satisfying — and quirkily funny — to read.

Many of Fraser McAlpine’s observations could be applied more generally to other countries as well as Britain. Reality TV, for example, exists in all four corners of the globe, while the Speaking English Abroad chapter could, with a couple of adaptations, apply equally to the US as to Britain. And football is, well, football the world over. But most of the subjects covered are quintessentially British.

Fraser McAlpine hits exactly the right note and he certainly knows his Britain. He observes every foible of the great British public with such good-natured wit and candour that only the most dour among us could possibly take offence (and yes, there is a chapter on Melancholy). In fact, he has been excessively kind in places. He waxes positively lyrical about the BBC (and two programmes it has spawned, The Archers and The Shipping Forecast), without a whiff of cynicism, despite all the bad press the BBC has suffered in recent years. But perhaps that’s not so surprising – he has, after all, worked for the Beeb for many years and, in any case, one shouldn’t be rude about one’s favourite Auntie. He’s only marginally more mocking about reality TV, from the endless singing/dancing/baking/sewing competitions to what he calls ‘augmented reality’ shows such as Made in Chelsea. His approach is understated, gentle, rather… British. (See his chapter on Social Reserve and Decorum… we Brits really don’t get hot under the collar much at all, it seems.) Sometimes, though, I’d like him to be a little less nice, a little more cutting, just for the fun of it.

There are some surprising omissions in Stuff Brits Like. The Call Centre, for example, is an inescapable – and much loathed – fact of Modern Britain. Rhyming slang, too, is curiously absent: it would have made a marvellous addition to a book such as this, and would have proved richly satisfying to American readers.

There are some delightful nuggets of information in the book – useless facts with which you can bore your friends in the pub. Did you know, for example, that the Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin features a picture of a dead lion and a swarm of bees, along with the Biblical quotation ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’? A reference, of course, to the Old Testament’s Samson who killed a lion and discovered a nest of bees in the carcass. You’re going to go straight to your store cupboard and search out that crusty old Golden Syrup tin now, aren’t you?

All in all, this is a most enjoyable read. It’s probably not a book to read from cover to cover in one go — it’s more a book for dipping into when you’ve got ten minutes, so you can read and fully savour the writer’s winsome turns of phrase and careful observations. So it’d be a great bedtime table book, or a book for a day when you just need a little cheering up without having to make too much effort.

For another account of Britain and things British from a more American viewpoint, have a look at Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson or The Anglo Files: A Field Guide To The British by Sarah Lyall.

Reviewed by Liz Green

4/5 stars

Via The Book Bag




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