Images of Englishness 1

Ken writes:

There’s a nice anecdote* in Tom Stoppard’s New-Found-Land

An aged Home Office official is relating how he won £5 off British Prime Minister Lloyd George
Bernard. . . Presently, Big Ben was heard to strike ten o’clock. Lloyd George t once asked me whether it was possible to see Big Ben from the upstairs window. I said that it was not. `Surely you are wrong,’ he said, ‘are you absolutely certain?’ ‘Absolutely certain, Prime Minister.’ He replied that he found it difficult to believe and would like to see for himself. I assured him that there was no need. The fact was, my mother was upstairs in bed making out her dinner table: she had the understandable, though to me unwelcome, desire to show me off during my leave. Lloyd George pressed the point, and finally said, ‘I will bet you £5 that I can see Big Ben from Marjorie’s window.’ ‘Very well,’ I said, and we went upstairs. I explained to my mother that the Prime Minister and I had a bet on. She received us gaily, just as though she were in her drawing room, Lloyd George went to the window and pointed. ‘Bernard,’ he said, ‘I see from Big Ben that it is four minutes past the hour. The £5 which you have lost,’ he continued, ‘I will spend on vast quantities of flowers for your mother by way of excusing this intrusion. It is a small price to pay,’ he said, ‘for the lesson that you must never pit any of the five Anglo-Saxon senses against the Celtic sixth sense.’ ‘Prime Minister,’ I said, ‘I’m afraid Welsh intuition is no match for English cunning. Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the clock.’ He paid up at once. . .
. . . and that was a fiver which I can tell you I have never spent.

Fiction it may be, but it has a ring of verisimilitude about it. Note in particular the way Bernard exploits a piece of inside knowledge. The test of wits is carried out on the Englishman’s home turf, so he exploits it to his best advantage. Coming from New Zealand, I have feared the social traps that lay in wait for newcomers to the UK, so I have some sympathy for the Welshman in this encounter.

* Can you call something an anecdote if it comes from fiction? Presumably, not being true doesn’t stop something being an anecdote because surely a lot of anecdotes are really urban myths. But it doesn’t seem right to call something an anecdote if you know it is entirely made up and taken whole from fiction. Never mind.


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