The Brits don’t holiday well. They make fantastic explorers because they have the bloody-mindedness to climb Mount Everest with nothing but a light overcoat and a thermos. A few bright exceptions make excellent immigrants: marrying a national, learning the language, converting to the local dung beetle cult etc. But when it comes to travel, we’re ever so embarrassing.
There are two categories of Englishman abroad. The first is the bruiser. Painted bright orange by the sun, he has the physique of a baboon and the manners to match. He stands in the middle of the street with a six-pack of Fosters shouting at his pals to catch up. He can be found vomiting outside nightclubs or smoking duty free cigarettes in a prison cell. The bruiser regards any effort by the locals to speak to him in their own tongue as an attempt to start a fight. All this violence is doubtless due to a drop of Viking blood – the Beserker urge to announce one’s presence in someone else’s country by breaking everything in sight.
The second type is the middle-class albino (albino because, while the bruiser goes orange in the sun, he goes as white as milk). The albino wears a grey shirt, khaki shorts, grey socks, and sandals. Sometimes there’s a hat meant for cricket and layer upon layer of sun cream. Bizarrely, he can be spotted carrying an umbrella at midday in the tropics (“Just in case it rains”). The albino makes every effort to speak the lingo, although it always descends into shouting loudly and slowly in English. Within two days of arrival, his wallet is stolen and he has been stung so often by Mosquitoes that he’s lost four pints of blood. While the bruiser leaves the country in chains, the albino leaves it on a stretcher.
What both these types have in common is a refusal to experience or submerge. E.M. Forster captured beautifully in A Passage to India the paradoxical desire of the Englishman to visit far flung countries just to rebuild them in the image of the country he left behind. Every nation does this to a certain extent, but the Brits are quietly psychotic about it (notice how parts of Malaysia look eerily like Tunbridge Wells). We won’t eat the local muck; we won’t learn the ugly language. We’ll just complain about the heat and stay indoors drinking cups of tea. This is something I remember vividly from my childhood. Whenever we went abroad, upon arrival at the hotel my family would unpack what seemed like our entire home: travel kettle, tea bags, biscuits, foot powder, pillows, fans, creams, books, jigsaws. I once went to Havana with my mother and, overcome by heat, we spent an entire afternoon watching Quincy on the satellite TV in the hotel room. [Actually, that’s a damn fine way to spend any afternoon.]
Of course, America is packed with witty, wonderful Englishmen who have moved there in search of their own peculiar dream. One of my great heroes is John Tunstall, a humble boy who left London in 1872 and moved to the American West to become a cattle rancher. He set himself as a gun slinger and a latter-day Robin Hood against the mobsters who controlled New Mexico ranching. He became the best buddy of Billy the Kid. It was Tunstall’s murder in 1878 that sent The Kid off on his angry killing spree and led to his own assassination. The ability of a small number of men, like Tunstall, to totally reinvent themselves is as unique to the English as the inability of the vast majority of them to empathize with foreign cultures.
But I too am guilty of this national disease. I know that some time – and I know not precisely when – I’ll feel the siren’s call to return to Old England. A part of me will miss the passive-aggression, the rich tea biscuits, PG Tips, Ed Milliband’s Ever Increasing Grey Spot, Friday night punch-ups, bad dentistry, and a well made gin and tonic. The sun will never set on our empire.