Largo Luis de Camoes, Portugal (Horacio Villalobos via Getty)
Artillery Row

Brits abroad are still so damn…British

After being marooned in Portugal for so long, thank goodness they are

It’s clearly not in the same league, and perhaps even a little in poor taste to the survivors, but I find myself feeling rather like the besieged residents of Lucknow during the 1857–58 Indian Mutiny upon first hearing the decidedly British tones of the soldiers with the relief force.

Having been marooned from the mothership on the Iberian Peninsula for about six months now, I am once again encountering “my people” in the wake of Portugal making the UK government’s Green list of countries that can be visited without having to quarantine upon return.

Listening to the Brits now clinking glasses, bantering and cracking dry jokes with a cocked eyebrow in the streets of Lagos in the Algarve, or in and around Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, I am reminded of a point that while rather obvious is one that had been cast into doubt by the strange events of this past year: Brits are still incredibly, absurdly British. 

There are the more obvious giveaways, such as the accents, from the more ribald ones like Cockney to the more musical modifications emanating from northern cities like Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. Then there’s the less quantifiable hints such as mannerisms, body language, posture, even a person’s countenance. Much of this is hard to explain or pin down entirely, similar to when you have to unpack the workings of a particular bit of English grammar that as soon as you start trying to explain you realise you can’t do so in a coherent way even though it’s as deeply ingrained in you as the ability to breath. 

Seeing all these manifestations, both overt and subtle, of the national character is heartening, I can’t deny

Seeing all these manifestations, both overt and subtle, of the national character is heartening, I can’t deny. During the past months of exile, whenever I met other Brits similarly marooned — living in camper vans at camp sites, staying in the same hostels as me, or bumping into them as they stood with a huge rucksack on a street corner consulting a map — I was similarly reminded of the strange alchemy fuelling the British character that is often so hard to define but which hits you between the eyes when you encounter it, especially after having instead been surrounded by so many other nationalities for so long. 

But I wasn’t as sure about what was happening to said national character back home, especially given all the discouraging news coming out: neighbours snitching on neighbours for breaching Covid-19 regulations, people shunned by friends and even family due to the perceived threat levels and accompanying risk assessments, or for having perfectly reasonably questions about stunningly important choices and decisions being made by the government that given their long-lasting and ultimately unknown impact had to be asked (and because those questions largely weren’t allowed to be asked, we got the stunning quagmire of the past year). 

I’ve met and spoken to Brits who got shunned. The stories of friendships and even familial bonds sacrificed on the altar of public health, or perhaps just on the altar of old-fashioned fear, as discussed by Critic writer Laura Dodsworth and disturbingly expanded on in her new book A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic, are gut wrenching to hear. You can see the trauma in the eyes, the grief and hurt. But that’s another story. This one is meant to be a good-news one, and it is.  There is reason for hope. The multi-faceted national character of our fair and strange Isle—including Northern Ireland across the water, of course—ain’t gone yet because of Covid-19. 

As I walked behind three young lads the slight cocksure swagger told me they were Brits

As I walked behind three young lads in Lagos, there was just something about the slight cocksure swagger, probably a few beers in, that unequivocally told you they were Brits just come abroad. How the hell did those guys end up pandering to all the government propaganda and confusion? was my immediate thought. Though maybe they didn’t. They certainly seemed set on getting back to the normal way of things. 

You can’t separate The Booze from The Brits abroad. For now, the drinking in Lagos is all pretty civilized. But once the strips of nightclubs, Irish bars and assorted places of revelry that I saw shuttered and closed in party towns like Albufeira when I walked through, are back online, it’s going to get much feistier, bringing out that less glamorous side of the British character, with all its associated problems.

But I get a bit bored with the never-ending self-flagellation about Brits and their boozing, especially given what everyone has been put through this past year. As the French novelist Michel Houellebecq put it: “It’s hard to understand other people, to know what’s hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all.” 

Obviously alcohol is all too easy to overdo, and arguably Brits do a service to the rest of humanity by providing a shining example of the perils of overindulgence. But give me a Boozy Brit over a sober sociopath, any day.

The resilience of the British character is most starkly illustrated by those Brits you meet who have settled on the Iberian Peninsula and made it home. I noticed this trend when living in the US and encountering Brits who had lived there for decades: the accent, the tendency to self-deprecation, the subtle turns of humour, the confusing blend of irony and understatement that might well mean the total opposite, the loyal intake of British media (though this must be getting harder to maintain where the BBC is concerned)—it all remained entirely intact.

Lagos is arguably home to the best English book shop on the whole Peninsula—and I checked out a lot of bookshops across more than 2,000 kilometres of my extended Camino pilgrimage through Spain and Portugal. The bookshelves of the Owl Story Book Store positively bulge with every famous author of the past — many of them British, or course — P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, E.M Forster, Pat Barker, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and so on. Run by an old English couple, when I bought a copy of John Buchan’s Prester John offering daring-do on the plains of Africa for some escapism, the husband told me with no hint of fanfare that his father had been friends with Buchan.

Manning the shopfront desk, the wife had the classic no-nonsense yet polite English manner with the cut-glass accent to go with it. When she answered a call to her mobile I heard, “Oh darling…” before I got back to scanning the agony of choices. I felt very much in a corner of a foreign field that is, if not forever, at least for the time being, very England. 

I felt very much in a corner of a foreign field that is, if not forever, at least for the time being, very England

You get the same feeling in the small square of Luís e Camões in the town of Cascais on the Lisbon coastline, once a summer resort for the Portuguese nobility and now a popular resort. On one side of the square the John Bull, Chequers and Duke pubs all lined up next to each other pump out pints of Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow and John Smith’s, while the Union Jack “flies” above the English translation on the menu boards outside, which, of course, include the full English Breakfast for the congealing Brits. 

“In the summer, this place is utterly packed, mate,” I heard a man say to his companion as they walked past me sipping my coffee while sitting on the base of the statue of Luís e Camões, considered Portugal’s and the Portuguese language’s greatest poet whose mastery of his language was on a par with Shakespeare. 

Entwined with the British character on display out there is, invariably, the Irish element thanks to the drinking culture and all those Irish pubs. During the pandemic, Ireland began to dispiritingly sound a very different sort of place to the Ireland of old, enduring one of the most draconian lockdowns in Europe and the curtailing of everything you assumed about the Irish spirit of liberation and rebelliousness. But, as with the Brits arriving, encounters with Irish abroad on the Peninsular suggest that national character is ticking along nicely too. 

Sitting on a beach watching the sunset at the Spanish city of Cadiz, I was approached by two teenage boys. They asked a question in Spanish with a decidedly Irish accent, while clearly trying to suppress a smile.

“Did you guys just ask me where the beach is?” I replied, making my bafflement obvious.

They burst into laughter before apologising and saying they thought I was a local and were just larking around. We had a chat, they were from Dublin, energetic, friendly and spirited as teenage boys should be, before we bid each other farewell. I watched them walk a short distance along the beach before launching another introduction at a young couple sitting on the sand. They were still amiably chatting with them after five minutes. 

It was the same on my extended pilgrimage, during which every Irish person I had the good fortune to meet left me inspired with their blend of wit, philosophy and camaraderie. Governments can do what they want — sadly much of it potentially causing long-lasting damage — but the spirit of a country and its people tenaciously live on, thank God, at least for now.

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