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Culture & Customs

The People of Britain

The British, and in particular the English, have a reputation for keeping their emotions private and for being reserved in their public behavior. On public transportation, for example, people do not usually talk to other passengers. Like the population of any cosmopolitan city in the world, Londoners remain relatively unfazed by the constant barrage of diversity found around them.

"Queuing" in the United Kingdom is the ancient art of standing in line. People almost always form "queues" in shops, banks, at bus stops,  and movie theatres. "Jumping the queue"--or skipping to the front of the line--is considered extremely impolite. To display frustration is also considered poor form. The best course of action is to simply be patient and "get in the queue."

Fun and Games

Now you are in England, there’s no excuse (especially in the autumn) not to play ‘conkers’. Two people stand opposite each other holding strings to which is attached a horse chestnut (a conker) which has been soaked in vinegar to make it hard.  Each person then takes turns to hit the other’s conker and destroy it. Keep you fingers out of the way. Good clean fun, and the English are current world champions at it. 

Look out for some of the stranger local customs. At many villages in England, during the summer (once the cricket’s finished) there is Morris dancing, which is when two sets of grown men, with feathers, blacked-up faces and a set of sticks, dance jigs for charity money, and a free pint.

Festivals and Celebrations

In some Cornish towns there are parades with giants and ‘obby’orses made out of paper mache and odd scraps of material and the men put on dresses as lords of misrule, a peculiar habit you can still witness in theatrical pantomimes (put on mainly for children) which occur at Christmas and are best known to Americans in the antics of Monty Python’s Spamalot. Some actors cross the Atlantic to star in them: in 2006, it was Henry Winkler's turn as Hook in Peter Pan.

Guy Fawkes night on November 5th is when the people of England remember the attempt to blow up Parliament and burn a ‘guy’ on a bonfire and let off fireworks.  Guy Fawkes day is now joined with newer ethnic celebrations such as the Hindu Diwali (October 21st) and Moslem Eid (October 24th) where more fireworks are let off. 

On August ‘bank’ holiday, there is the biggest carnival in Europe in Notting Hill, brought to our shores by the population of Trinidad who began arriving in the 1940's and by the early 1960's felt sufficiently homesick to initiate a carnival when they finally realised that Britain had no sun! 

Also among the annual parade of festivities are the Lord Mayor’s parade (London actually has two mayors), the annual Boat Race (between Oxford and Cambridge), the Henley Regatta, oh yes and even the Changing of the Guard. Join in and become an English eccentric.

Language Diversity

While English is the primary language spoken in London, the city is bursting at the seams with diversity and people speaking many different languages. London schools have a host of languages from Punjabi and Urdu to Kurdish and Greek being spoken in the playground. Since their first arrival in the late 1940s, ethnic groups (of whom Muslims make up the largest sector, with Hindus next) make up 2.5 million people, the equivalent of the population of Wales and 500,000 new arrivals from the European Union (especially Poland) make up the new faces.

See how many languages you spot next time you walk around the capital.


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