Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Monday 2 July 2012

Home thoughts.

WHAT'S the most important thing you need to know to live in Britain?

It's probably the answer to the question 'Pippa Middleton - why?' but then no-one seems to have figured that one out yet. Perhaps the physicists at CERN will get around to it now they've found the God particle and can devote themselves to more important stuff.

According to convent-educated Theresa May the most important thing people moving here need to learn is bits of Victorian poetry, the first verse of a Georgian national anthem, and stuff about a nurse from the Crimean War who had so little idea of hygiene that death rates actually rose on her wards.

There's an argument to be had about how much any of that has influenced British culture, and whether harking back two hundred years or more does anyone many favours. But it can't really be argued that the contents of the Home Office's new citizenship handbook would better suit time-travellers to the 19th century than someone who's fresh off the boat in the 21st.

There is a massive problem with people who arrive in Britain and never settle in. I've knocked on doors where the woman of the house cannot answer my questions despite being here for 30 years because she's never learned English and barely left the building.

I've had to scour the streets to find someone who'll translate for me, sat in living rooms where life is absolutely no different from that of a country with far lower standards, not just of human rights but also hygiene and education. I've walked back to my car reflecting on the fact that the Middle Ages is sometimes only a five-minute walk from the petrol station.

I've been stuck with a hangover in places where you can't find a bacon sandwich in a five-mile radius, which is when even a journalist starts to wonder whether not drinking in the first place might have been a better idea.

The net result of that disconnect is people who don't feel they're part of things: who can't watch the news, who don't question what they're told or chat to other parents at the school gates. It promotes looking inwards when humans - and countries - are always at their best when they look out.

A little more cultural crossover is a great idea but of what possible relevance can the poetry of Robert Browning, wittering on about blossom'd pear trees and chaffinches on orchard boughs, have to someone who's finding their feet after fleeing genocide or poverty?

I've lived here all my life and although I know we won the Battle of Trafalgar and afterwards Nelson had a snog and then died before being pickled in a barrel of brandy, it's fairly unimportant to my daily life and the actual date it took place utterly irrelevant.

It makes far more sense for the citizenship test to include questions that will fit people for life in modern Britain, and actually be useful if you want to fit in on this sceptred isle:

1. Is having five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion -
a) binge-drinking
b) a normal week night
c) only to be risked if you buy bacon first

2. You have attended a charity event where you are introduced to Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. Do you -
a) curtsey
b) punch her on the shoulder, say 'nice one' and advise her to keep an eye on Harry
c) not curtsey on the grounds you are more royal than she is

3. You are in a pub with friends watching an England game. Using a bottle of ketchup, two pint glasses and some ready salted crisps explain the offside rule.

4. In 1,000 words or less explain why a professional tennis player's international ranking is not the same as their Wimbledon seeding.

5. An American offers to make you tea. Do you -
a) explain why the water needs to be boiling, not tepid; why the bag is added first, not last; and how long your personal preferences require the tea to be stewed
b) accept and politely hope for the best
c) refuse on the grounds they haven't a hope

6. Someone has suggested going to war. Do you -
a) worry about killing lots of people, the financial cost, and seek independent legal advice about whether military action is legal
b) make sure your lawyer doesn't say it might not be legal
c) put on some goggles and a neckscarf and climb onto a tank

7. True or false: As a citizen of the UK you are required both legally and morally to pay a reasonable rate of tax in return for free use of services provided by the state such as healthcare, pensions and education.

If we made that test a legal requirement of everyone who wants to be British - if we were all tested on these matters at the age of 18, born here or not, as with driving licences - then perhaps everyone would rub along a lot more nicely.

And Jimmy Carr would have to be deported.