Saturday, 6 June 2009

Want a crash course in what makes the UK tick?

If you're an American arriving in the UK to visit or live, you'll immediately get an exciting sense of being in a foreign country, while at the same time experiencing a comforting feeling of familiarity because things here aren't all that foreign to us Yanks -- especially to fans of British music, TV, movies or books.

However, differences mount once you get beyond the first glance, and a brief bit of background on the history, slang and pop culture can go a long way to making sense of things. That background helps even if you've no plans to board a plane, but are simply intrigued by all things British.

I just finished a new book that serves up that background in a brief, contemporary, fun-to-read form that's perfect for Americans with little knowledge of the UK, and even old pros will find useful or enlightening information in its pages.

"Britannia in Brief: The Scoop on All Things British" by husband-and-wife team Leslie Banker (a Yank) and William Mullins (a Brit) serves as both history lesson and guide to life in the United Kingdom (they also write a witty blog of the same name). It could also help fans of Britcoms or Brit cinema decipher some of the slang, attitudes or comments they encounter (any U.S. fans of the Stereophonics wonder what the hell the song "Bank Holiday Monday" refers to? Check out Page 186 of this book -- just keep in mind that the lyrics of the song aren't an example of everyone's typical activities on these holidays.)

I spent about a month in the UK on vacations years before I moved here, and also learned a bit about it by way of British friends and boyfriends. Now I've lived here more than two years, so I'm not exactly a newbie to the information in this book. However, it still manages to offer several things I didn't know and give greater detail to things I knew of only in passing.

For instance, I live in one of the Home Counties of Berkshire. I just assumed all counties were called Home Counties and never thought more of it. Turns out that moniker only covers six counties that are immediately around London. Who knew? Well, OK, most English people probably knew that, but I sure didn't. Chapter 3 gives a good explanation of the leanings and types of newspapers, which is quite interesting to newcomers. I knew which ones were total scandal rags, but I didn't quite understand the different political leanings of the "highbrow" papers and what it said to the natives if they see you reading a given newspaper. This book breaks it all down, and keeps the explanations short and sweet.

I thought I'd just glance through a few pages of this book and relay a couple of facts, but I ended up reading the whole thing and found it a breezy, interesting read. You could finish its 238 pages on the plane ride across the pond and still have time to take snaps of the wing surrounded by clouds and catch some movie you'd normally never watch.

Keep in mind this book lives up to its title -- the information is "in brief." If you're a big history buff or like the full story behind a given situation or incident, this book won't fully sate your curiosity -- but it might just whet your appetite and tip you off to items you'd like to research more fully elsewhere. I really enjoyed the brief entries and getting a little knowledge on a wide range of topics here.

Tempted to read it? Then check back here in the next few days, when I'll post a contest to give away a copy of this book, thanks to the authors who sent one for me and one to share with my readers.

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