"Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited" - John Cleese

Author John Corby also writes as "Bulldogge" for the British Canadian newspaper.

A Farthingsworth of Tall Tales from Blighty's Fameless Blog
Newsflash from New York (no, not that one!) |  Are the British better drivers? |  The Story of the Telephone Kiosk |  Drinking Nelson's Blood |  Screaming Jelly Babies |  Flying to the UK is very dangerous! |  Brits to drive on the right |  Who hung the monkey? |  Upper class virgins |  Double, double trouble |  What a Lovely Morning for a War

Sunday, June 28, 2009

10 Reasons I Left Britain #3. London Buses

There is an old joke in the European Province of Britain about the Terrible Titans of the Thames; the Pirates of Pimlico, the Charing Cross Charioteers - aka ... London bus drivers.

The Pope arrives at the Pearly Gates of Heaven with a look of supreme confidence on his face. He touches Saint Peter on the shoulder, closes his eyes and recites a short private prayer, then begins to walk on through the gates for his long anticipated personal meeting with God. Saint Peter looks confused.

"Oi, hold on just a minute, Holy Father" he calls out, then rushes past the Pope and secures the lock on the gates. "How can I help you?" inquires the Pope with a quizzical look on his face. "You can't enter" replies Saint Peter. "Well, at least, not quite yet Holy Father" he sputters. "Would you mind waiting in the lounge while we process you?"

The Pope looks somewhat taken aback but, maintains his regal demeanour and takes a seat in the lounge outside the gates. While flicking through a copy of the "Catholic Times" that wouldn't be published in the mortal world until the next day, his eye is caught by another arrival at the Pearly Gates. The previous scene is repeated with uncanny precision as the Archbishop of Canterbury makes his arrival and, just like His Holiness the Pope, is directed to the lounge.

Now that the day's VIPs have been received and seated, Saint Peter turns his attention to the long line-up of commoners who have assembled outside the big gates. First in line is a deceased London bus driver. Saint Peter waves him straight through and directs him towards the lane leading to the throne of God.

The Pope and the Archbishop look each other in the eye and then at Saint Peter. In a spontaneous and simultaneous outburst of apoplexy they explode in anger and demand that the guardian of the gates explain why they, two of the highest ranking religious leaders in the mortal world, were held back while the commoner was waved through without any hesitation or delay.

"Holy gentlemen" says Saint Peter as he takes each one by the arm, "shall we take a seat in the lounge again for a moment while I explain." All three settle down into the comfortable silk covered chairs in the Heavenly lounge. With a strident and commanding voice, Saint Peter then tells the two holy leaders: "Gentlemen, your lifelong works of devotion in the mortal world are deeply appreciated, but the other gentleman was a London bus driver for thirty years. He put the fear of God into more people than the two of you combined."

Who's The Boss?
The haughty power of London bus drivers was reinforced by their deputies - the "clippies", formally known as "bus conductors". While drivers hurled their double-decked monster buses through the narrow, winding streets of London in a reign of terror, clippies would make sure that any passenger who dared to enter the bus knew exactly who was boss.

Double-Decked Gangsters
Gangs of double-decked bandits would roam the streets five at a time. They sought out line-ups of senior citizens waiting at a bus stop, anxious from having waited for an hour for a bus into town to collect their pensions. Flooring the gas pedal they would race straight on by, throwing up a spray of rainwater from the gutter onto innocent bystanders.

On The Buses
So you watched the TV show "On The Buses" and were deceived into believing British bus drivers are just a fun-loving bunch of regular guys did you? Now you know the terrible truth.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

10 Reasons I Left Britain #2. The Petty Aristocracy

Upper Middle, Middle Middle and ...?
Being of British descent, Canada has inherited the old country's social class system. We just don't do it very well. Here in Canada we have three tiers in our social hierarchy: lower middle class, upper middle class and "the rich". Nobody, it seems, calls themselves "working class". Even our left-wing politicians refer to their supporters as "ordinary people" or "working families". The Canadian social hierarchy is based entirely on material wealth. A knuckle-dragger with hairs on the palms of his hands can still be "middle class" if he has a detached home, two cars on the driveway and a steady job. If he gets lucky at Vegas he might even ascend to the ranks of "the rich".

A Mouth Full of Marbles
Things are so very different in the United Queendom. You can be homeless and as poor as a church mouse, but as long as you can trace your lineage to an "old money" family, you are one of the "nobs". You are a member of the upper class. Membership of the upper class entitles you to speak with a stiff upper lip (literally - and it can take quite a bit of practice to get it right) or, as some would have it, "a mouth full of marbles".

Actually, it is rumoured that some public schools (which are actually private schools) encourage filling the oral orifice with marbles in order to practice upper class speech patterns. The upper classes generally speak very slowly, very precisely and pad their sentences with archaic, obscure Latin and French phrases and polysyllabic words. But, of course, the nobs never use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice.

High Street High and Hard Knocks
The upper class maintain a lifelong loyalty to their high school and university. There are degrees of nobility within the top stratum. For example, "Eton and Balliol" outranks "Rugby and Robinson". Members of the Eton and Balliol sub-strata have to maintain a stiffer upper lip than Rugby and Robinson types.

Most of the upper class have become detached from their wealth over the centuries. A hundred years ago they might have been owners of one of Britain's "stately homes". These huge mansions are mostly in the hands of the state now. The "family" has lodgings within the stately home but the majority of the building is open to the lowly serfs. Upon payment of a modest admission fee, the lower orders can drag their knuckles through the stately corridors and gaze in awe at the fabulous wealth bequeathed to a grateful nation by a nobility that can no longer pay the bills for upkeep of their huge houses.

The Right Sort of Chap
Having a "title" does not even automatically entitle one to membership in the top tier anymore. "Gongs" are handed out to the hoi polloi these days. A trip to "Buck House" to shake the royal hand and receive an honour might make you feel like the dog's bollocks but, unless you are the "right sort of chap", you still haven't made it.

Membership of the top tier is so attractive that some people feign membership in its ranks. I like to call them the "petty aristocracy". Stiff upper lips, noses in the air and empty wallets. Don't forget to raise your cap when you pass them in the street.

Friday, June 26, 2009

10 Reasons I Left Britain #1. The Weather

If you read the "10 Things I Miss About Britain" series of posts you may recall that #1 on that list was the British weather. How ironic, then, that it should also be top of this list! But the British weather tops both lists for two very good reasons: (1) summer and (2) winter. Here in the Toronto area we have four seasons every year: winter, summer, fall and winter again. Spring seems to pass by during the night. You go to bed with snow all over your lot. When you wake up the next morning your lawn is waterlogged because the hot weather has melted six months worth of accumulated snow. Summers are beautiful here in the Greater Toronto Area, but pass in the blink of an eye and then it's winter again.

Bloody Hippie!
By contrast, summers in Britain are a rarity. I mean real summers, not the warm rainy season that comes every year. I mean, blistering hot sunny days when the only comfortable clothing is a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. I was in Britain last summer dressed just like that. I could read the look on some people's faces: "bloody hippie". Of course, it wasn't a particularly hot summer; I had just forgotten how cold English summers can be. A few days later I had to change my "bloody hippie" clothes for an overcoat, scarf and gloves - in July!

Everybody has a Mac
I saw another person wearing shorts and sandals; I presumed that he was an overseas visitor too. The standard summer garb for a Brit is long pants and "trainers" below the waist with a shirt and "wooly jumper" above the waist. And, of course a "mac" (raincoat) for when it rains; because, chances are, it will rain.

In the "10 Things I Miss Most About Britain" weather post I mentioned the summer of '76. Now that was a good one. The summer of 1977 was much anticipated but failed to deliver a repeat of the tropical conditions of the previous year. 1978 also produced disappointment, as did 1979 ... and 1980. By 1981 I had given up and was packing my belongings to move to Canada.

The summer of 1982 was very hot and humid - here in Canada. I miss the short, mild winters of Britain but I don't think I will ever miss the inconsistent, disappointingly mild summers of the British Isles.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Buy Canadian!

"Lost Your Job Yet? Keep Buying Foreign" said the sign on the back of a car. Ironically, it was stuck on the back of what is now, by a quirk of the great recession of '09, a foreign vehicle.

When the proud owner of the car glued that sticker on the rump end of his van it was a domestic vehicle. Now it's Italian. The vehicle was a Chrysler. Chrysler was once the pride of the big three North American auto makers.

Back in the 1980's legendary chairman Lee Iacocca saved the company from bankruptcy and turned it into a financial success story. Mr Iacocca, now retired, is a Chrysler pensioner who is about to lose his pension now that the company he saved has - once again - looked bankruptcy in the face.

Chrysler is now owned by the Italian car giant Fiat. "Want to lose your pension? Keep buying domestic!"

But, that is not the key issue of today's Blighty's blog post. I am sure that very few expat Brits in Canada failed to notice that a Canadian company - Magna - has bought GM Europe. And which fine motor cars are included in that deal? None other than our old favourite - Vauxhall motors of Jolly Old England.

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I rented a rather dandy Vauxhall during our trip to J.O.E. last summer. It was very comfy, extremely fuel efficient and a vast improvement over the unreliable rust boxes that Vauxhall pushed out of its factory doors back in the 1970s.

And, oh what a bonus, when we go back to JOE this summer we will be able to proudly drive a Canadian car through the streets of Great Britain. My job will be safe.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Please please me

I remember it like it was yesterday. A group of four young British lads with guitars were making their first appearance in North America. They were guests on the Ed Sullivan TV show.

Yes indeed, I remember it like yesterday - when all my troubles seemed so far away. Or maybe it was the day before. No, I tell a lie; it was last weekend.

As my wife and I stepped out of the car I looked her in the eyes and said: "I want to hold your hand". "Help!" she replied at my unusually friendly behaviour. I reached for my wallet. I know that money can't buy me love, but it was good for a cup of coffee before the show started.

A Day in the Life
"Tomorrow is Father's Day" I said. "What did you get me?" "All you need is love" she replied. "But I've been working eight days a week at the store!" I complained. "And it's been a really hard day's night!". My wife looked straight at me and said, reassuringly, "yes, you've been working hard, but it will soon ... come together".

Getting Better
"With a little help from my friends" I said, "otherwise all this work will make me old before my time. Will you still love me when I'm sixty-four?"

Long and Winding Road
"Let it be!" she snapped and we walked all the way across the huge parking lot, in through the doors of the casino to the entertainment centre. Inside we met Ed Sullivan who introduced the four young British gentlemen with guitars.

Actually, they were really four young American gentlemen but they had learned to speak with quite authentic Liverpudlian accents. And they played all our favourite Beatles songs. If you ever get a chance to go see them, don't hesitate. They put on a great show. They are called "The Fab Four".

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Economic Stimulus

A Canadian tourist landed in Britain recently and checked into a hotel near Heathrow airport in London. He gave the clerk at the check-in desk a £100 note as a deposit then went to take a look the rooms.

While the tourist was upstairs checking the rooms, the desk clerk called the hotel manager who took the £100 note and rushed off to the local tax office to pay his VAT bill.

The official at the tax office took the £100 note and dashed over to the town hall to pay the property taxes for the VAT office building. Due to a strike at the Central Accounting Division in Whitehall, the British government was in arrears in its local council taxes.

The clerk at the town hall took the £100 note and sped to the offices of the Union of White Collar Workers to pay the union dues for the town hall branch of the union.

The Comrade-in-Chief of the union jumped into his brand new Bentley and drove across town to the hotel to pay off the £100 still owing on the bar bill from the last union convention at the hotel.

The desk clerk at the hotel accepted the £100 note and laid it down on the check-in desk just as the Canadian tourist came back downstairs.

"I don't like your rooms" said the Canadian tourist who picked up his £100 note and left to find another hotel.

Nobody earned any money that day, but everybody in town paid all their debt. Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed his delight at this encouraging sign of a bright future for the British economy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Blighty's Believe It or Not - Part 5 of 5

Our Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. This post concludes our five part series in which Blighty's Blog presents a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.

Legends of Old England - Part Five: The Devil Made Me Do It

How did the Elizabethans tell the time? There were no clocks for the average person to check. A farm labourer could look up to see where the Sun was in the sky. He might know that he could stop for a meal when the Sun was above the village church. But how would he cope when the sky was overcast, as it often is in Cloudie Olde England?

In The Nick
Despite this, the Elizabethans had a concept of when something occurred "just in time" as we might say today. "Just in time for what?" you might ask. If they didn't know what time of day it was, how could something be "just in time".

Think of it like this. An action could be "just in time" at any time of day. For example, getting into church before the Devil takes your soul. Since they had no concept of the measurement of time in hours, minutes and seconds they defined "just in time" in terms that they understood.

A very small amount of time was compared to a small wound inflicted by a sharp knife - a "nick". So a fine division of time became "a nick". Elizabethans coined the expression "in the nick" meaning "just in time". Later the expression was expanded to "in the nick of time".

In modern English "Old Nick" is a term meaning the Devil. Is there a connection, do you think?

I Am Ever So Sorry!

The British are famously apologetic. Some claim that we must have an overly developed sense of guilt, since we seem obsessed with saying "I'm sorry" all the time. But it was the Elizabethans who started us off on our road of apology.

I am sorry for bringing this up and I apologize if you find this trite, but actually the meaning of the word "apology" has fundamentally changed since Good Queen Bess's days. In it's original sense the word "apology" meant a justification of one's position or faith.

One famous piece of writing called "Apology for the Devil", although written in the 20th Century, used the original Elizabethan meaning of the word. Only later did the concept of expressing regret and contrition become assigned to the same word.

What the Dickens?
I have always thought this expression was a modern one. Like many people, I suppose, I assumed it was a reference to the author Charles Dickens. Not so, the expression dates back to Elizabethan times and refers to the Devil.

Witchcraft, or at least the pursuit of witches, was rampant in England from the 16th until the 18th centuries. The Elizabethans lived in an age of darkness and ignorance. Their world was ruled by the Church and the Devil was thought to be behind every act of misfortune.

The End (justifies the means)
This concludes our five part look at the legends of old England. I would like to publish my apology for any deception perpetrated in this series. If I told a lie - the Devil made me do it! Believe it or not.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Blighty's Believe It or Not - Part 4 of 5

Our Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. In a five part series Blighty's Blog presents a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.

Legends of Old England - Part Four: The Undead
A combination of physical exhaustion from labouring in the fields, lead poisoning from eating and drinking from pewter vessels and an excess of cheap and plentiful ale sometimes led Elizabethan peasants to collapse into an apparently comatose state.

Without the benefit of anything but the most basic of medical knowledge, the common folk had no way of knowing whether a person had drunk themselves comatose, or was dead. The life expectancy of the average man or woman was much shorter than it is today. There was no concept of "premature death". People became sick and popped their clogs at any age.

Awake and Arise
There was nobody to take away a dead person and prepare them for burial. Final preparations were left entirely to the family. A person who appeared to be deceased was laid out on a table inside the family cottage. The body would be watched for a couple of days in case it woke up. This is how the tradition of a "wake" was born.

Saved by the Bell
But, despite this caution, there was still considerable concern about burying people alive. So, the Elizabethans adopted the custom of tying a string around the wrist of the deceased. The string led to a bell above the grave. Family members would take it in turns to take the "graveyard shift" to listen out for the "dead ringer" who would be "saved by the bell". Believe it or not.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Blighty's Believe It or Not - Part 3 of 5

Our Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. In this five part series Blighty's Blog presents a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.

Legends of Old England - Part Three: Food Glorious Food
Inside the castles and stately homes of Olde England, barons, sheriffs, lords and ladies enjoyed the finest foods their money could buy. Quail's eggs, roast partridge and swan, boar's head and venison, washed down with fine French wines and brandy.

It was a completely different story for the commoners. Lowly peasants ate from a large kettle hung over a fire inside their cottages. Each day it was topped up with vegetables, grains and -occasionally - a rabbit or hare caught in the wild or ensnared by poachers.
The kettle never emptied; it was reheated each day. It was from this tradition that the rhyme "pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot nine days old" derived.

We'll be right back after this commercial message from our sponsor
You can buy cans of delicious Pease Pudding at Blighty's Tuck Store!
And now - back to our blog post ...

Chew the Fat - about bringing home the bacon
One of life's luxuries was considered to be hog meat. A man that could provide well for his family would "bring home the bacon". Guests would be invited to share in the family's good fortune and the side of bacon would be on proud display. A little bacon was cut and shared among the guests who would sit around the table and "chew the fat".

Mad About Pewter
Mugs, plates and dishes were made of pewter - an alloy of tin and lead. Pewter is an attractive metal but the lead can leach out into the food and cause poisoning leading to madness and death. Foods with high acidity were particularly susceptible. Until lead poisoning was understood many years later, tomatoes were considered to be poisonous.

Use Your Loaf

Bread was baked in an oven heated by hot coals below the baking racks. The lower portion would often burn before the rest of the loaf was fully baked. The burned portion was given to the lowliest ranks - the labourers. After the burned portion had been removed the "upper crust" was reserved for the VIPs.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Blighty's Believe It or Not - Part 2 of 5

Our Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. In this five part series Blighty's Blog presents a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.

Legends of Old England - Part Two: Home Sweet Home

Everybody (except fire insurance companies) loves the sight of an old thatched roof cottage. Thatching is an ancient and highly skilled trade. Thatch is a natural material and provides a fabulous layer of insulation. In days of yore, when good Queen Bess was on the throne of England, thatch was the only means of covering a home to keep out the rain and keep the heat inside during winter.

Slippery When Wet
Thatch is several inches thick and provides a convenient and cosy home for bugs, weevils, spiders, beetles, ants, birds, mice, rats, badgers, cats and dogs. Unfortunately, following an English rainfall (which can happen rather frequently reports Blighty's Blog weather bureau chief, Raney Day) the thatch can be very slippery.

The larger animals holed up in the roof lose their foothold and come tumbling down, hence the origin of the expression "it's raining cats and dogs".

Rodents, Insects and Big-Fat-Ugly Spiders

Smaller residents of the thatch, such as rodents, insects and big-fat-ugly spiders would burrow through the thatch and sometimes fall inside the house. The next most cosy part of the home was the family bed. But few people wanted to share their bed with rodents, insects and big-fat-ugly spiders so they built a canopy above the bed to catch the rodents, insects and big-fat-ugly spiders.

The canopy was supported by a post at each corner of the bed. Four-poster canopy beds are still popular today. Have you checked the top of yours for rodents, insects and big-fat-ugly spiders recently?

Dirt Poor
The floor of an Elizabethan home was usually just plain dirt. Only the wealthy could afford to build their floors from stone. The peasantry were considered to be those who were "dirt poor". Stone floors were a luxury, but they were also slippery when wet. Wealthier homeowners would spread thresh (straw) on their stone floors to stop them slipping.

A strip of wood was fixed across the bottom of the entrance doorway to keep the thresh inside the home. Hence the origin of the term "thresh hold". Believe it ... or not.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blighty's Believe It or Not - Part 1 of 5

New Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. In a new five part series Blighty's Blog will present a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.

Legends of Old England - Part One: Bathing

When I was a wee little lad Sunday night was bath night. For the rest of the week we would wash our hands and faces, but on a Sunday evening we would take a bath.

Right after lunch on a Sunday afternoon, father would switch on the "immersion" (for non-Brit readers that means turning on the electric heater in the hot water tank). By the evening the hot water tank was full of piping hot water - enough for the whole family to enjoy our weekly trip to the tub.

Smellie Olde England

But that was a luxury compared to life in England in Elizabethan times. Back in Smellie Olde England bathing was a very rare practice indeed. Folks just didn't see the need for it. They didn't have running water anyway so getting twenty gallons of hot water prepared involved boiling a cauldron over an open fire for hours.

Obviously this was something that couldn't be done in winter. Without the benefit of a warm home, nobody wanted to strip down to the buff for a bath. And, since winters in England can be very severe, with temperatures sometimes falling below freezing (editor's note: We thought Morris was being a little sarcastic in that last sentence, but we'll let it go this time) it would have been difficult to get the water hot enough with an outdoor fire.

Naked Young Maidens

So, bath time was the Merrie Month of May. Fair maidens would emerge from the family tub fresh and clean and ready to be wed. Most weddings were held in June when the lovely young damsels were still fairly neutral to the nostrils.

But, to make sure that their natural bodily processes did not offend the noses of their grooms, they would carry a bouquet of flowers to their nuptials. The practice of carrying a bouquet at a wedding continues to this day. Now you know why.

Don't Throw the Baby ...
Incidentally, the man of the household would be the first to use the Elizabethan tub, followed by his wife, then the children and finally the babies. By the end of the day the water would be so dirty you could lose somebody in it. So now you also know the origin of the expression "don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Monday, June 15, 2009

British Vets Benefits Restored

Local British veteran William Edge brought some good news into the store last week. The government of Canada has restored benefits to allied veterans born outside Canada.

Overseas born vets living in Canada had their benefits taken away by a previous government in 1995 as part of a cost-cutting measure.

It is a credit to the current government in Ottawa that, even during a severe recession, they respect veterans enough to realize they deserve the support of the country they now call home.

The picture shows Mr Edge (left) thanking Minister of Veterans Affairs Greg Thompson on behalf of all British Allied Veterans. Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship is in the middle of the group.

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #10. The British Accent

Oh, You Have An Accent!
I was in a hotel elevator in New Orleans some years ago. An American couple were in the elevator with me. The gentleman asked me which floor I wanted. "Fourth floor please" I replied. "O-oohhh, you have an accent!!!" exclaimed his wife in a thick southern drawl. Don't you wish that the right words would come to you in these situations? I could have replied (perhaps somewhat sarcastically) "and I presume, madam, that you speak standard English!". But I was polite and explained my origins and current domicile in Canada. She told me she recognized a "hint of British" in my accent.

A Hundred Miles
So what is a "British accent"? You can travel 100 miles in Britain and people will speak quite differently. My own accent is rooted in "Cockney", but a period spent in the north-east taught me a little "Geordie". She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is a "Yonner" from Oldham. We met in the midlands where people from the "Brummagem" area almost sing the English language. The accents of Scotland and Northern Ireland are remarkably unique and just as diverse.

Bi-Lingual Roadsigns
But regional variations in pronunciation are just the tip of the iceberg. Different languages are spoken in Britain. English, with all its regional accents, is predominant. Welsh is still very strongly supported by a lot of people. Cross the border into Wales and you will find bi-lingual roadsigns: English and Welsh. The Cornish language is dying out but there are still a few people down in the county where the palm trees grow who keep the language alive. And, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Gaelic is spoken. Unlike Canada, where many immigrant languages can be heard, Britain's languages are all native languages going back hundreds of years.

Ancient Teutonic
The English language originated from ancient Teutonic and has much in common with modern German. The English spoken in Chaucer's day would be unintellligible to modern Britons. The Georgian era brought a strong French influence which gave southerners the soft "ah" pronunciation of the letter "a" (as in "l-ah-st", "f-ah-st" etc). The north of England retained older pronunciations and is thought, by some scholars, to be closer to the older forms of the English language.

Yeh, Really Eh!
Americans may find British accents quaint but they have never sought to deny that they speak "English". English is the official language for air traffic control all around the world. It is still spoken - with regional variations - in many countries all around the planet. The idea of "standard English", also sometimes called "BBC English" is an anachronism. As my Canadian friends would say, "yeh, really eh!".

Sunday, June 14, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #9. The British Countryside

The Anglian Archipelago
Britain is an island, actually a group of islands. Canada has a land area 36 times larger than Britain. The whole of the British Isles would fit inside Hudson's Bay five times over. But the population of Britain is approximately double that of Canada. You would think that the British stand shoulder-to-shoulder from coast to coast to coast. Of course, that isn't the case. There are very large areas throughout the British Isles that are either unspoiled, uninhabitated or open countryside. Vast areas in fact.

Mighty Mountains
Britain has several mountain ranges (at this point Albertan and BC readers roll on the ground in uncontrollable paroxysms of mirth). So does a mountain have to be over ten thousand feet high to be called a mountain? There are many lofty places in the British Isles. If you were to fall off any of them you would be singing with the choir immortal just as surely as if you had an accident in the mighty Rockies.

Britain's highest peak is Ben Nevis in Scotland. It reaches a height of 4409 feet and to reach the summit climbers must scale 2000 feet high sheer cliff faces - or walk up the easy ascent trail on the other side.

Marching Through the Heather
One of the most unique features of the British countryside are the moors. Moorland can be found almost everywhere except the southeast of England. The moors are a treeless expanse of often steep hills, sometimes covered with rough grasses, sometimes with brightly coloured purple heather. I have never found anything to match the British moorlands anywhere in North America.

The White Cliffs of Dover
In the southeast of England you will find rolling chalk hills; the North and South Downs. Near Dover in Kent, these hills drop off sharply into the English Channel to form spectacular cliffs. East Anglia in east central England is very flat and very close to sea level. The land is drained by a series of dykes to prevent flooding.

Narrow Winding Roads
Wherever you go you will find small villages separated by winding narrow roads. The province of Ontario in Canada was first surveyed by Governor John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe divided the province up into square parcels of land each exactly 200 acres in size. Roads were nearly always dead straight for long distances. Not so in England. English roads were built to go from one place to another as directly as possible, but winding around natural obstacles and privately owned land. You can rarely drive very far on English roads without encountering bends.

English roads were constructed over a period of hundreds of years. Many roads were designed for the horse and cart and are very narrow indeed. Canadian roads were built for the automobile and, in most provinces, have wide shoulders and ditches either side to aid snow removal in winter. English roads have hedgerows either side from which you can pick berries to make "summer wines".

English Country Gardens
Rainfall in Britain is relatively high compared to much of Canada (well, no surprises there). The vegetation tends to reflect that. The scenery is greener than most of Canada and there is a unique scent of nature in the air following a rainfall that I have only witnessed in the lower BC mainland over here. And, above all, a gardening season that lasts almost the entire year! How many flowers are there in an English country garden?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #8. History

The British Invasion?
There is one thing that defines the history of the British Isles - invasion by foreigners. Britain has been invaded - or a target of invasion - many times. In contrast, Canada has only been invaded once. The American invasion of Canada in 1812 led to a war that Canada won. Yes, the United States and Canada have existed side-by-side for a long time but have only been at war once. Americans, of course, deny they lost the war of 1812, but is Canada still an independent nation? Actually, that's a tricky question.

Throughout history, every single time that Britain was invaded, the British lost. There are two arguable exceptions. The first was the mighty Spanish Armada. They didn't actually invade though. Sir Francis Drake chased them up the English Channel and made artificial reefs out of quite a lot of them (did I tell the joke yet about modern Spanish naval vessels having glass bottoms so that Spanish sailors can see the old Spanish navy?)

The German army glowered across the channel in the 1940s but never actually invaded. They read their history books and knew the British people succumbed to every single invasion in the past, but when the Luftwaffe came a little too close to the white cliffs of Dover, the eternally famous "Few" saw them off.

Italy 1 England 0
Italy was the first recorded country to actually violate the shores of Britain. The ancient Britons were a primitive tribal race compared to the Imperial Army of Rome. The Romans had technology, organization and advanced military skills at their disposal. They changed the face of England, but when they met the Scots they simply built a wall to keep them out. I met the Tartan Army on a London subway station once and I can well imagine how the Romans must have felt.

Denmark 1 England 0
The next major wave of invasion came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. These were my ancestors - the Vikings. The Vikings didn't bring civilization in the way the Romans did. Quite the opposite, in fact. We Vikings have hot blood and would rather rape, pillage and plunder than build nice roads. We did fill up a lot of North Sea ferries with some of our wilder chaps who caused quite a lot of bother over a wide swathe of England. We even settled, mostly in Eastern England, and ran the place for a while. Our legacy to England can be found in place names. All the villages with names ending in -by belonged to us.

France 1 England 0
Next up were the French. King William of Normandy sailed across the English Channel with a surprisingly large number of heavily armed Frenchmen all of whom were called Norman. A bloody battle ensued in a Hastings suburb called "Battle". The Battle of Hastings was characterized by the dominance of one of the most terrible weapons of war ever used - the longbow. Each side fired volleys of thousands of arrows into the air. As the sea of arrows came down the opposing army was torn to shreds. The Battle ended rather abruptly when the English commander-in-chief, King Harold, dropped his shield, looked up and said: "hey, look at all those arrows".

England 1 France 0
And Britain has relics of all these moments in its history. Iron Age settlements, castles, ancient churches and cathedrals, battlefields. Everywhere you go history surrounds you. So why is it that Canada lacks any trace of history older than the Battle of Quebec in 1759? In order not to offend Albertans I hasten to add that there is ample evidence of the existence of Dinosaurs in that province. But what of human existence? The answer is that Canada is a new country; this land does not bear the evidence of hundreds of years of human settlement and I miss that.

Friday, June 12, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #7 The British Aristocracy

The Toffs Have it Good
Isn't the UK a wonderful country? You can be born a lowly serf without two brass farthings to rub together, learn to play a guitar in a band, get rich and famous, then get an invitation to Buckingham Palace to receive a gong from the Queen. After that it's easy street for you; invitations to open village fetes, a seat on the board of major corporations; serfs bowing to you in the street. Blimey guv'nor, the toffs have it good!

Lord Muck's Guide to the Aristocrats
The UK has one of the most extensive systems of titles and honours in the World, but what do all those titles and honours actually mean? "Lord Muck", as we say in London, is right at the bottom of the aristocratic totem pole. As one of the holders of that humble title I'll walk you through the aristocratic hierarchy of the British Isles.

Elizabeth II Regina
At the top is Her Majesty The Queen. She is the only person in the Commonwealth who can be addressed as "Her Majesty" and has sole authority to bestow titles and honours on her subjects (although governments often select the candidates or, in the case of Canada, forbid their citizens to hold foreign titles).

... And Her Kin
Next in the pecking order come members of the Royal Family who hold the title of "His/Her Royal Highness".

My Lords
Next in line are the peers. There are five ranks of the peerage:
1. Dukes
2. Marquesses
3. Earls
4. Viscounts
5. Barons
All except Dukes can be referred to as "Lord". All are members of the British House of Lords and were hereditary until 1958 . Since 1958 there are also Life Peers with the rank of baron. Persons called "Lord" or "Lady"+first and last name have courtesy titles meaning they are sons or daughters of a peer.

I Dub Thee
Below the peerage are two classes of knights entitled to be addressed as "Sir"+first name:
1. Baronets - a hereditary title
2. Knights - a non-hereditary title
Wives of knights may be addressed as "Lady"+surname

The Lesser Gongs
Orders of Chivalry

1. Order of the Garter (K.G.)
2. O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) has 5 grades:
i. Knights Grand Cross (G.B.E.) carries title "Sir"
ii. Knights Commander (K.B.E.) carries title "Sir". Female holders are called "Dame" (D.B.E.)
iii. Commanders (C.B.E)
iv. Officers (O.B.E.)
v. Members (M.B.E.)

Orders of the Bath (G.C.B. etc) similarly has five grades
Order of St Michael (G.C.M.G etc) similarly has five grades
Royal Victorian Order (G.C.V.O. etc) similarly has five grades
Order of Merit (O.M.)
Order of the Companions of Honour (C.H.)

Down among the weasels, stoats and ferrets comes "Lord Muck" - like owners of shops in the Commonwealth flogging British stuff. Is it too late for me to learn to play the guitar?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #6 Driving on the Left

Fight for the Right - to Drive on the Left
Last summer, following my return to Canada from a 3 week trip to the UK, I wrote a post for this blog about driving on the left. The left hand side of the road is actually the natural side of the road on which to drive.

The reason is steeped in history. In medieval times, knights on horseback would pass by the left of their enemies in battle in order to engage them in swordplay with their stronger right arm. In modern times, belligerent drivers have the benefit of being able to wind down the driver's side window to use their right arm for digital greeting gestures to other drivers.

Take the Second Exit You Stupid @#&^%$*!

There is an interesting side story from that UK trip regarding hand gestures. I was with a party of fellow visitors from Canada travelling in convoy. The lead car had the benefit of a GPS ("Sat Nav" in UK parlance). As we approached a roundabout the person in the passenger seat of the lead car stuck her hand out of the window and vigorously indicated with her fingers that we should take the second exit from the roundabout.

A lorry driver behind her misunderstood her helpful navigation signal and demonstrated his anger by tailgating her and leaning on his horn. It is always helpful to understand alternative interpretations of hand signals when travelling abroad.


Another aspect of driving on the left comes to mind when approaching a roundabout. British drivers take a clockwise path around the roundabout. Roundabouts (or traffic circles as they are called in Canada) are rare here. I discovered one near Kitchener, Ontario recently and was horrified when I realized that I would have to take a counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise in the UK) route around it.

Counter-clockwise is counter intuitive for one who learned to drive in the United Queendom. It is also very bad luck, a portent of evil. In the northern hemisphere, if one faces the Sun, it appears to move in a clockwise direction across the sky. Travelling counter-clockwise, "widdershins" as it is known to Neo-Pagans, is a movement against the natural order of the universe. If Canada ever adopts roundabouts on a large scale - which seems unlikely - we may expect accident rates to increase for unexpected and unknown reasons.

But drivers do not always stay on the left hand side of Britain's roads. In fact some of Britain's roads do not have a left hand side. Neither do they have a right hand side. They are too narrow to have sides at all. My wife encountered one such road in the south west of England last summer. It was so narrow that the overgrown hedgerows on either side of the road brushed against both sides of the car as she drove. It was raining quite heavily too (but of course). And it was dark. And we met a car coming in the other direction.

Move Over
Now that Britain is a well-established member of the European community, an idea to switch to driving on the right hand side of the road has been proposed. It will be a phased approach. Starting on 1st April 2010 cars will be switched over to the right hand side of Britain's roads. If the first phase is successful, trucks and buses will also make the switchover 2 years later.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #5 Pubs

I was berated by my daughter for not including pubs in the top 3 of my "10 Things I Miss Most About Britain". My daughter works, part-time, in an English pub. Alright, pubs may actually be the thing I miss most about Britain. But I didn't want to risk being labelled as a toper, dipsomaniac or habitual inebriate. According to what I hear, even the British will soon be missing British pubs - they are closing at an alarming rate.

What is happening?
Why are pubs going out of business so frequently? Some say the smoking ban has discouraged people from going to their local. Others blame the new generation of drinkers who prefer "clubbing" to "pubbing" and the giant supermarkets who sell cut-price booze alongside bread and milk.

How It All Started
Public houses started, hundreds of years ago, as a cottage industry in which local residents brewed high quality beer on their own premises and opened their doors to neighbours. Successful brewers grew into commercial operators and delivered their product to public houses on a horse-drawn dray cart. Casks of live ale were rolled into a cellar where they rested for a day or so to allow the yeast to settle. Beer was delivered to the bar room in jugs or pumped by hand through pipes from the cellar.

Big Bad Brewers
Following the Second World War many small breweries were swallowed up by big corporations. The big corporations did what big corporations are meant to do - make more money for their shareholders. There are two ways to make more money. Sell more beer and make beer more cheaply. They did both splendidly well. Lots of new pubs opened and beer was made more cheaply. Aluminum kegs full of pasteurized, dead beer handled better than oak casks full of live beer. But it didn't taste so good, so the big brewers spent millions promoting beer sales through image advertising.

Real Ale
Handpumps started disappearing from bars; replaced by taps that allowed carbon dioxide to squirt tasteless, dead beer through a chiller into the customer's glass. It worked - for a while. Then came a backlash from consumers. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale started with a few beer enthusiasts and quickly grew into a major, powerful consumer group. Smaller breweries started to spring into life again and "real ale" (unpasteurized beer dispensed without carbon dioxide pressure) grew in popularity.

Groceries and Giddy Juice
Things looked good for a while but then along came "binge drinkers". Mostly younger drinkers who use alcohol as a drug to get a party night high and "lager louts" who disrupt football matches. Urban pubs lost their appeal and some of their business. Supermarkets started selling large amounts of beer, wine and spirits. Who needs to go to the pub when you grab a bottle of giddy juice along with your groceries? Pubs responded by innovating. "Gastropubs" sprung up serving high quality food. Pubs almost became restaurants. Then the smoking ban was imposed. Customers left in their droves. Then along came the global economic downturn and many people slashed their personal entertainment budgets.

Dark Brown Beer and a Ploughman's
These are dark days for the traditional British pub. Hundreds of years of tradition hang in the balance. The British pub is not - and should not be - a restaurant. The British pub is not - and should never be - a nightclub for binge drinkers. The British pub should be and I hope, at least somewhere in the Land of Hope and Glory, always will be a meeting place. A place where you can buy a glass or two of dark brown beer to wash down a ploughman's lunch. A place to swap tales, to converse with a friendly landlord, a place to belong, a place to sing, to play darts and dominoes and a place to meet and make new friends.

This blog post is dedicated to Shane and Kath of the Greyhound in Royton near Manchester, who are doing a grand job of fighting to keep the British pub alive. Cheers!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #4 Trains

A 2000 Year Old Horse
The most fascinating piece of railway trivia is not actually about trains, but the track on which they run. Sixty percent of the world's railways use what is called "standard gauge" track. This means the distance between the rails is a standard four feet eight and a half inches. But why such an odd measurement? For the answer we have to measure the width of the rear end of a 2000 year old horse.

Early railways in Britain were built along routes established by the Romans. The Romans built their roads just wide enough for two horse drawn chariots to pass each other and that was ... four feet eight and a half inches. So, believe it or not, modern railways use a track gauge that was determined by the width of a horse's ass!

The First British Rocket
An Englishman called George Stephenson is often credited with building the first steam railway locomotive in Britain (and the world). Stephenson was an engineer and, although he was a prime contributor and figurehead of the team that built the "Rocket", he was neither the first man to build a steam locomotive, nor did he do it alone.

The Speedy Mallard
Steam locomotives became the principal means for hauling passenger and freight trains around the UK until they were finally phased out in the 1960s. Some of the steam engines racing along the British permanent way became legends. One of them, the Mallard, set a world speed record of 126 miles/hr in 1938 in Lincolnshire, England.

A Small Pony's Bottom
There is one line in the south of England that has kept its steam trains. Its track gauge was determined by the width of a very small pony's rear end. It is the narrow-gauge Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. If you ever find yourself on the Kent Coast, take a ride on the RHDR, it is a unique experience.

Dr Beeching's Axe
In the good old days there was British Railways. It was owned by the taxpayer after the major regional lines were nationalized in 1948. Branch lines ran everywhere until the Beeching Axe came along in the late 1960s and shut down over half of the network.

I grew up in the south-east where Southern Region electric trains ran everywhere, every few minutes. These big, heavy green carriages wound their way through a maze of intertwined track in the suburbs of London. In the days before continuously welded track was invented, there was an expansion gap in the steel rails every few yards. As the heavy carriage wheels rolled over the gaps we would hear a characteristic "clackety-clack" noise that was music to my ears.

Arrested - for Train Spotting
As a boy I was a keen train spotter. Saturday afternoons would find me in the middle of a footbridge above the London to Brighton line, writing down train numbers, waiting for the elegant, luxurious Pullman to go by underneath. Today I would be spotted myself by CCTV security cameras and detained by the police under anti-terrorism laws for doing the very same thing.

Oh, The Good Times of Old England
In the 1990's the British rail network was privatized and things changed. I took a ride on the Trans-Pennine express from Huddersfield to Manchester a couple of years back. The carriages had been built in Europe and were lightweight with aircraft style seats. The train whispered its way across the Pennines. The experience was more like a short haul flight than a train ride.

The rail network in the UK has changed in so many ways since I left England at the beginning of the 1980s. The experience of riding a train will never be the same, but whenever I return, I try to take a train ride; it doesn't matter where, just a ride on a good old British train.

Monday, June 08, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #3 Football

Real Football?
Americans have a popular sport they call "football". The game of football has been played there for nearly ninety years! The first professional football league was started in the Excited States as early as 1920. Rumour has it there is another claim to the word "football" in a place called Europeland, but their game should really be called "soccer" because it is nothing like real football.

Ban It!
In Britain, the Romans introduced a game in which a ball was kicked around a field. It became very popular but by the 14th Century it had evolved into a very rough sport called "football". It was so rough in fact that, in 1314, it was banned by King Edward II.

A Sport for the Privileged

The game was revived and, in its modern version, the violence was transferred to the stands where fans now fight supporters of the opposing team. Two varieties of the game evolved; one played by the rules of the elite public school in Rugby and the other played by the rules of upper class Eton college. The word "soccer" was first used to describe Eton's version of the game of football. Later, other versions of the sport like Australian Rules Football, Canadian Football and, oh yes, "American Football" evolved.

500 Years
The term "football" dates back to 14th Century England; the term "soccer" dates back to 19th Century England. "Football" therefore has a five hundred year heritage advantage over "soccer". Another rumour (US origin) says that American Football dates back to the 15th Century when Italian player Christopher Columbus was transferred from Genoa to an unknown US team for a record-breaking fee.

English Football Died in 1966
By the 1860s the British game of football had its own professional association and was organized into a league. The sport continued to grow in Britain until its demise following England's World Cup win in 1966. Hold on John, what do you mean: "its demise in 1966? Football is more popular in Britain now than it has ever been!" Yes, that is true, the game of football is more popular now than it has ever been. But did anybody notice that there aren't many British players left in the league?

Football is now a big money sport in Britain. When a team wants to win trophies it brings in talent from overseas. England may never win another World Cup for the simple reason that there simply isn't a big enough talent pool of English players left in the big teams. And that is what I miss about football in Britain.

A footnote: In 1905, in South London, a football club was formed near the site of a huge glass building erected for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park (moved to the top of Sydenham Hill in 1852). The building was the "Crystal Palace". I have been a fan of that team since I was knee high. If you can say "me too" I want to hear from you.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #2 The English Channel

Mes Amis Francais
Regular readers of Blighty's Blog might be tempted to doubt my reverence for anything French. Let me state for the record that I have a lot of good friends in Quebec and have the highest respect for French culture, the French language (ok, maybe not so much for Quebecois French) and, above all, les vins de France. With that disclaimer in the bag, I can now go on to bash the blackguards.

A Beach Too Far
English feelings toward the French were forever forged when an armada of thugs called Norman landed on the beach at Hastings and killed the King of England, a British chap called Harold. That was in the year 1066. For the last 943 years the French and the English have exchanged insults, snubs and ownership of swathes of each other's sovereign territory. Territorial disagreements extended across the Big Pond to Canada where, in 1759, the French were decisively beaten by the British redcoats who, having shown the French who was best, promptly handed ownership of the territory straight back to them.

Glass-Bottomed Boats
But I digress. The English Channel is probably the most important defence Britain ever had. It stopped the Germans marching straight into Britain during the Second World War and it provided an excellent route through which Sir Francis Drake chased the fleeing Spanish Armada in the 16th Century. An old joke has it that the modern Spanish navy uses glass-bottomed ships so that Spanish sailors can look at the old Spanish navy.

Rough Crossing

The English Channel can be a very rough stretch of water to cross. I recall one crossing from Boulogne back to JOE (Jolly Old England) during which the big ferry ploughed its way through monstrous waves that crashed over the deck of the big boat. The cascading seawater helped to wash the decks of some of the stomach contents deposited all over the ship by green-faced passengers.

Garcon! Garcon? ...

The English frequently make day trips across the Channel to load up with supplies of les vins de France. I recall sitting with a group of friends in a Calais cafe waiting to get served. The waiter was ignoring us. I tried to order une biere at the bar but the barman refused to serve me. "Il faut appeler le garcon" he told me. I returned to my table, raised my hand and called "garcon!", but to no avail. Les Anglais were not welcome at that French bar.

Passport Please
The English Channel has high white cliffs on the English side and to the south, on the French side, lie the beaches of Normandy where the D-Day landings took place in 1944. An old retired British Tommy visiting Normandy was asked for his passport by a French border services officer. "I don't have a passport" said the Tommy. "Have you been to France before?" inquired the French officer. "Yes" replied the Tommy. "Then, monsieur you should know that you need a passport!" insisted the French officer. "The last time I came to France was in 1944" responded the Tommy "and there wasn't a Frenchman in sight to show a passport to!".

And so the nearly thousand year old rivalry entre les deux nations continues. Vive le difference and twenty one miles of water between us.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

10 Things I Miss Most About Britain: #1 The Weather

Cold & Miserable
They say you can tell when it is summer in Britain - the rain turns warm. I remember British rain. That fine, light rain they call "drizzle" seemed to get into your bones and make you thoroughly cold and miserable. Sometimes it would be overcast and drizzly for two weeks straight. I recall waiting for a taxi outside Heathrow Airport one winter's day. The temperature was +2 degrees Celsius; it was drizzling and I felt colder than the day the mercury dropped to -29 degrees Celsius here in Toronto.

Danger of Frost!
A couple of years ago I found myself in England in January, listening to a weather forecast on "the telly". A cold weather warning was in effect. Motorists were warned to avoid all non-essential driving because the temperature might drop below freezing overnight. "Hmmm" I thought, "sometimes the January temperature in Toronto doesn't get above freezing for two weeks straight."

A Cold Day in July
And then, last summer, I was in the north-east of England. It was July. I was watching a horse show on a hill below the Penshaw Monument. The Penshaw Monument is a Doric tetrastyle folly (you can tell that to friends at a party sometime) dedicated to John George Lambton, Earl of Durham and the first Governor of the Dominion of Canada. The Canada link seemed very fitting because it was bloomin' cold there. I was wrapped in several layers but still I shivered from the cold - in July!

Lobster on the Beach

A few days ago temperatures in the United Queendom soared to the mid 20s. The British people did what they always do when there is a break in the clouds and a hint of temperatures in the tropical twenties, they jumped into their jalopies and headed for the coast. Those who didn't get stuck in traffic jams en-route to the seaside turned lobster pink sunbathing on Britain's shingle beaches.

Summer of '76
Were you in Britain during the summer of '76? Global Warming hadn't been invented then which is good, otherwise folks might have drawn some pretty dire conclusions when the temperature climbed into the 90s (Fahrenheit). in 1976, an 'air conditioner was something salons used after the shampoo had been rinsed out. We sweltered. At night we threw open our single-glazed windows in the vain hope that bedroom temperatures might drop low enough to allow us to get some sleep. But the summer of '76 was a freak event.

Oh, How I Miss British Winters
When I emigrated to Canada I thought how nice it would be to enjoy "real summers" and "real winters". I arrived mid-winter and started shovelling snow right away. That was almost thirty years ago; I feel like I haven't stopped shovelling since. After a couple of Canadian winters I revised my original thought to "isn't it nice to have real Canadian summers but wouldn't it be nice to have British winters again". Yes, in Britain it gets cold, damp and miserable for a few weeks and then it's spring again. Search as hard as you may, you can't find a snow shovel for love or money anywhere in the UK. Oh, how I miss those British winters.