The question of what Britishness means crops up often over here. In the twenty-first century, with a population more blended than ever before with different races and religions and lifestyles, is there such a thing as Britishness? And if there is—er, what does it look like?
A couple of years ago, and less than 6 months after he took office, Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked citizens to suggest slogans or mottos of about five words that would sum up Britishness. I don’t know whether he ever chose one of these for government use, because he was most dramatically scooped. The press was so full of silly or satirical five-word suggestions that the serious point of the exercise virtually disappeared. The popular favorite, suggested by a reader who wrote in to the Times’ web site, was clearly Dipso Fatso Bingo Asbo Tesco. It’s stuck; it’s entered the modern lexicon. If you lived here, you’d see the joke; I can only hope that the humo(u)r will survive translation. Here goes:
Dipsomania is a medical and legal term for habitual drunkenness. With the British habit of shortening words (which is a big subject, since the British seem to think that it’s the Americans who shorten words, leading to the logical conclusion that we’re all doing it, but we just shorten different words), someone who drinks a lot can be called a dipso. (Evelyn Waugh had a character in Brideshead Revisited refer to Sebastian as a dipso.)
Editorials about binge drinking, and the habit of young people in particular to find it impossible to enjoy life sober, appear regularly. Dipso, then, is the first plank of the five-word platform.
Fatso is self-explanatory. It’s difficult to pick up a newspaper without reading about the obesity epidemic, particularly as regards children. Regrettably, this is often considered by British people to be the fault of the USA, because we send our nasty fast food over here expressly to undermine the health of the population. When McDonalds filmed a telly advert/TV commercial in Guildford and snarled up traffic for two days, letters to the editor of the local weekly blamed it on—you guessed!—Americans, despite the fact that it was a British film crew making an ad for British telly to encourage British people to eat at restaurants owned by British franchisees.
Here’s a tip: Americans do not cross the Atlantic for lunch. If you want fast food restaurants to dry up and blow away, eat somewhere else. I do. With all the great pubs around, it’s easy.
I think they added bingo only because it completes the pattern nicely. It’s not clear to me that playing bingo is a significant part of Britishness. Perhaps the originator of the phrase meant to indicate the concerns of the working class—the main users of bingo halls—or perhaps s/he meant to point to the something-for-nothing culture that is often decried in the press, but had to use bingo when s/he found that neither lottery nor compensation claim would rhyme.
In any case, bingo is big business here, with large bingo halls almost exclusively patronized by women. I spent an evening at one of these places with friends, just to see what it was like. So what was it like? Unutterably boring. I don’t understand why anyone over the age of 10 would want to go more than once.
Asbo should really be written ASBO as it’s an acronym, a condensation of Anti-Social Behaviour Order. This is a penalty imposed by a magistrate on someone who has been found guilty of being annoying.
An ASBO can restrict the guilty party in any way the magistrate sees fit; the miscreant may be barred from certain places, from contact with certain people, from the possession of certain items. A tagger, for example, might be banned from having spray paint. An ASBO can restrict what clothing may be worn, though this is usually an attempt to prevent someone from wearing gang colours or the like. If a twelve-year-old has been told by the local constable too many times to stop kicking a football at the neighbors’ windows, the kid might find himself restricted under an ASBO from kicking a football. The punishment is intended to be entirely individual and pertinent to the offense.
The law providing for magistrates to give out ASBOs came into being in 1998 and into widespread use in 2003. Since then, there have been reports of youths competing to see who can rack up the most ASBOs and/or considering attaining their first ASBO as a rite of passage and a badge of honour.
And finally, there’s Tesco—the largest supermarket chain in the UK. It may be quite true that supermarket shopping is part of Britishness.
Napoleon is said to have called Britain a nation of shopkeepers; I would certainly buy (as it were) the assertion that Britain is a nation of shoppers. The cost of living here is high; most people find comparison shopping is necessary if they want their paychecks to last to the end of the month. While neighborhood butchers, fishmongers, and greengrocers can still be found in places, and many towns still have open-air markets with stallholders selling these kinds of goods, more and more supermarkets are cropping up and virtually everyone uses them.
Not long after I moved here, I was surprised to read that in a poll asking what British people liked to do in their spare time, more than 50% answered shopping. (I hate shopping, but they granted me British citizenship anyway.) So Tesco, then, does sum up a goodly slice of modern Britishness, although the other big supermarket chains may resent being left out.
There you have it. Britishness = Dipso + Fatso + Bingo + Asbo + Tesco. There’s more information at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2852658.ece (which includes, alas, the information that the pool of entries included many that focussed on hatred of Americans and hatred of the French). Some of the funniest (to my eye) five-word offerings from that article:
— Once mighty empire, slightly used.
— Promoting ahistorical unity myths since 1066.
— Americans who missed the boat.
— At least we’re not France.