Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Britannia in Brief by Leslie Banker and William Mullins is a wonderful guide to all things British -- especially those things which would be highly puzzling to Americans. It is just chock full of information that simply can't be found elsewhere -- or at least, not easily.

The book is divided into chapters covering:

1. So Where Are We Anyway?

2. Society

3. Culture

4. Politics and Government

5. Food and Drink

6. Language

7. The Quotidian

One of the topics that I especially appreciated was a discussion of the myriad of newspapers in Britain, who owns them, and their political history and current leanings. Unfortunately, the free newspapers that are constantly being proffered weren't included, but it's a huge help to have some order applied to the perplexing list of options.

There is also an extremely informative section on cricket, football and rugby (who knew there were two different types??!). As incomprehensible as cricket is to an unenlightened American, it is still somewhat amazing to learn that some "test matches" can last for a total of 25 days. No wonder it's never caught on in America, what with our national attention deficit disorder and all . . .

Also of great usefulness is an "offensiveness scale" rating of various British swear words. A word that seems funny to an American might get you slapped or thrown out of a pub if bandied about lightly among British people.

I was also surprised at the number of holidays taken in Britain: two public holidays and six "bank holidays." The public holidays, not surprisingly, are Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Some of the others fall near holidays (Good Friday and Boxing Day), but others seem to have no rhyme or reason (Summer Bank Holiday). The U.S., of course, has quite a few federal holidays, with a confusing mix of what types of businesses are open or closed. [As an aside, Sweden has tons of holidays that have religious significance, but when you ask a Swedish person why such and such a day is a holiday, you often get a vague response ("Kristi himmelsfÀrds dag" being one).] So it was something of a surprise to realize that the British holidays generally aren't in commemoration of any person or event, just an opportunity to give workers some time off. I'm all for that, but surely there have been enough battle victories, national heroes and notable people to have some dedication and celebrations. Then again, those Brits put living people on their postage stamps, so what can you expect!

There's also a wonderful section explaining the British educational system, including the confusing GCSE system. It was somewhat alarming to learn that a passing grade on the GCSE exam is 50%, and that "Princess Diana failed all her GCSEs." Hmm . . .

Each section ends with a useful FAQ section, containing answers to common misconceptions or questions which might be confusing. There is also a listing of UK Acronyms and a glossary at the back of the book, as well as a quiz to test what you've learned. All in all, the book is an outstanding source of information and interesting facts.

Final Verdict for Britannia in Brief: Five Gherkins, for being a wonderful collection of useful information


Brit Fancy said...

Seems like a cool book, will have to check it out! Who knew Lady Di did so poorly!

Michelloui said...

Great Review! Its certainly one for the library. Poor Princess Diana! I suspect her results were more that she didn't study as hard as she could rather than any lack of ability. I have a teenager going through GCSE's at the moment and getting them to study as hard as they can is a challenge!

Lisanne624 said...

Yes, Brit Fancy, I was a bit shocked at Lady Di's lack of achievement myself. You'd think simply writing your name on the test would at least get you 50%! I guess she just wasn't a great test-taker.

Lisanne624 said...

Michelloui, hope your teenager does heaps better on the GCSEs than Lady Di managed!

Anonymous said...

Writing you own name correctly on the test will get you 5%, informs a colleague who did as much in French......

And the Bank Holiday Mondays are actually a sign of the secularisation of the state, not to mention that it ensures that workers have the same number of days off every year. I do believe the British are also (one of?) the only nation(s) to give workers days off "in lieu" when a holiday such a Christmas Day happens to fall on a weekend: The Monday following is then given as a day off to make up for the unfortunate accident of the calendar.

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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