One of my favourite TV shows in the UK is the comedy programme “That Mitchell and Webb Look.” They do a sketch about an incomprehensible game show called Numberwang. You can’t ever really tell if you’re winning or losing Numberwang, or even what the rules are. The host will occasionally randomly shout out “That’s Numberwang!” to end a round, or when he’s arbitrarily chosen a winner.
Some aspects to British life and culture are like a real-world version of Numberwang.
The most obvious Numberwang in Britain is the game of cricket. it’s probably not that hard to figure out – there’s a kind of a bat and there’s a ball and clearly someone is trying to hit that damned ball with that flat bat thingy. But what’s really confusing about cricket isn’t just the game- it’s the inability for anyone who loves the game to explain anything about it without turning into an insufferable bore. Don’t ever make the mistake of asking a British person to explain cricket to you. It’s like asking someone what time it is, only for them to respond with a soliloquy about the difficulties of pocket watch repair during the waning years of the Habsburg Empire. The explanation will never end and you will be left not only not knowing what time it is, but no longer caring. Just tell me why those people are running back and forth! Oh never mind- and, er, good luck with all your googlies and er I hope the wicket man keeper guy gets the sufficient number of overs and unders! Can I go now?
2. The House of Lords
Similarly, it’s also impossible to understand, or even to learn about the House of Lords, one of the cornerstones of Britain’s system of government. That’s not because it’s a secret society, but because any attempt to ask questions about the Lords is met with opaque defensiveness.
Q: How does one get to be in the House of Lords?
A: It’s not just hereditary peers who have had their title handed down to them by their fathers anymore!
Q: Wait – One of your two main houses of parliament consists of people who inherited their role from their fathers?!
A: NO! Not all of them, we changed that a few years ago – we even allow women to be in the House now.
Q: Women weren’t allowed to be “Lords?”
A: Only up to 1958. But now anyone, of a certain type, can be selected to be one of the non-hereditary Lords.
Q: Selected? Don’t you mean elected?
A: Silly American, Peerages, as they are known, are either inherited or appointed, never elected.
Q: What? How is appointment to the Lords not just some kind of “ruling class reward system for privileged white men” if there’s no elections?
A: It’s better this way, trust us. Since they are appointed for life, without elections, they can get on with their business without worrying about politics. It’s more democratic this way.
Q: Er, if you say so. But I thought that laws were passed by, and government bodies were run by, members of the House of Commons. What exactly is this business that the House of Lords is engaged in?
A: That’s quite enough questions. Good day to you sir.
Q: Do you even need a House of Lords?
A: I said good day!
3. The British aversion to comfort
Taps that run hot and cold water together?! Poppycock- all water must be either freezing cold or boiling hot!
Air conditioning?! You mean you can “condition” the air when the weather is hot to make it cooler? What a bother. I prefer to sweat.
My food is burnt. I suppose I could send it back- I did pay good money for it. But instead I will soldier on and gnaw on this rubbish in solemn silence. After all, mustn’t grumble. Yes, this is the right choice. This is always the right choice.
4. Royal protocol and history
True story. I was once at an event where Prince Charles was expected to show up. We were given a briefing on royal protocol, including how to greet him with a curtsy or bow and a “good day your grand royal supremeness,” or whatever. It was all Numberwang to me. When Charles came around, all that tosh flew out of my head and I gave him a firm handshake and said: “Hey, how are you doing?”
In the UK, they take their royalty seriously. History lessons in schools here dwell in great detail on the lineage of the monarchy and their place in world affairs. Britons are raised to know all about the differences between Stuarts and Tudors, Windsors and Normans, but American brains aren’t trained, or designed that way. Here’s a summary of everything most Americans can tell you about the esteemed lineage and history of Britain’s Kings and Queens:
- There was Henry the VIII, he was that fat one who created the church of England because he wanted a new wife.
- There was that greedy one who kept taxing the colonies in America until we dumped all his tea in Boston Harbor. I forget his name, but he was a real sumbitch. Didn’t he go crazy or something after we whupped his ass in the revolution?
- Queen Victoria- she ruled for like 100 years, covered up the secret identity of Jack the Ripper and invented a type of house design. Keira Knightley plays her in all the movies.
- There’s that King in the old newsreel footage who gave up the throne because he wanted to marry an American and not a royal inbred cousin. I think later on he became a Nazi and they locked him away in a cupboard or something until World War II was over.
- There’s Princess Diana. She was nice. We liked her. And then you killed her.
- Queen Elizabeth II, she gets to live forever and she has a big boat named after her.
4. Accents and the class system
You British people are really interested in each other’s class and accents. I guess you use this information the way dogs sniff each other’s bottoms – to determine dominance and social standing. But as a Yank, none of this makes much sense. I don’t mean it’s unfair or anti-egalitarian. I mean that it is bewildering and unnecessary. I have many questions:
Why do you have 6,000 accents in a country smaller than the state of Michigan? Why is it that people from the upper class often pretend to be from the middle class even though everyone can tell they’re not from how they speak? Why is it that if everyone claims to be, or aspires to be, middle class, that calling someone “middle class” is an insult that means they are a bourgeois conformist? If you have an upper and middle class, why don’t you call the next step down lower class? Or do you say “lower class” when “working class” people aren’t around to hear you? Why is it that when I can’t tell from your accent which class or which city you’re from, that you act like I don’t know the difference between a rhinoceros and a throw cushion? Why do you keep writing newspaper articles with titles like “The British obsession with class is firmly in the past?” Wouldn’t that be something only someone thoroughly (and currently) obsessed with class would even bother writing? As an American do I get a class? Do I have to register my class in a book somewhere? Can I invent my own class? What if I want to be “upper middle working class?” What if I want to be ‘classless?” Why are you laughing at me?
5. Buying a train ticket
I would like to travel 30 miles, from London to Luton. I go to the National Rail website, set my origin, destination and travel time, then click “Go.”
Again, I have many questions:
Do I want advance or anytime? Is my ticket peak or off-peak? Shouldn’t the system know that based on the time I’ve chosen? Why do I need to decide if a 10am train is peak or off-peak? What does “First off peak single” mean? What do they mean by a “valid route?” What frightening thing might happen to me if I take an “invalid route?” Does the train go off a cliff or something?
Let’s pretend that these difficulties haven’t put me off, and I click all the right buttons on the site – even then, it gets more complicated. I still have to choose a train company, which then transports me to an entirely different website, where I then have to register a username and password to proceed any further. Why do I need a username and password to take a short train ride? Why is there a choice of companies? Is one company better than the other? Do they run different carriages on the same train? Why do I want to go to Luton?
6. Dogs that drive
Driving on the left is no more or less valid than driving on the right. That’s not confusing. But it absolutely seems like a glitch in the matrix when people in the UK let their dogs sit in the front passenger seat, where the driver would sit in the USA. I just can’t get used to it. Driving dogs. Numberwang.
7. Buying a flat
Flats in Britain are sold as either leasehold or freehold Most are leasehold, which means you get the property for a fixed amount of time, say 50 or 99 years. After that, the property forfeits back to the original owner, called the Landlord, leaving you with nothing. Freehold purchases are when you just buy a place, and you own it – as one does in all the other countries on planet earth, except Britain. Why does this system even exist? Who the hell wants to buy a property when it means you’re really just borrowing it for an extended period of time (especially since leaseholds aren’t even that much cheaper)? Who are all these mysterious landlords who get to sell their properties but not really sell them? My theory is that leaseholds came about as a response to Britain losing its empire, but refusing to truly let go. I bet there’s some secret clause in the documents granting independence to Kenya, India and Hong Kong, that, in 2099 reverts ownership of all these countries back to the freeze-dried, preserved-in-a-jar head of the Duke of Westminster.
9. The British Constitution
Yes, we British people have a constitution. No, you can’t see it. Why not? Because it is un-written. What’s that? How do we know what’s in it if it is un-written? What an idiotic question. What’s in it is what we say is what’s in it. Yes, it’s got some very good things about freedom and justice and whatnot. Why don’t we write it down like other countries?
Why? Because …
Go ahead, ask me why there’s no number 8!