I know this isn’t new. In fact it’s several decades old. But today is the day when America goes to the polls, after the most cynical, most polarising, most racially inflammatory and generally most ‘American’ election campaign we’ve ever seen. And it seemed like a good moment to reflect on what it means to be British:
For this, I turn to the unrivalled genius of Douglas Adams:
‘This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person was me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train.
I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of biscuits I went and sat at a table.
I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee and packet of biscuits.
It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird.
What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of biscuits, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.
Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with.
There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your biscuits.
You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know. . .
But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?
In the end I thought, Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened.
I took out a biscuit for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another biscuit.
Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice . . .” I mean, it doesn’t really work.
We went through the whole packet like this.
When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight biscuits, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one.
Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.
A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my biscuits.