Throughout the centuries, Britain has led the world in all that is civilised, from culture to condiments and fast horses to the herbaceous border. Kate Green and Giles Kime make the case for our nation’s pre-eminent place on the world stage.
The Downton Abbey effect
We not only invented the television itself, but, from Upstairs, Downstairs and The Pallisers to Pride and Prejudice and Poldark, we love it when producers raid the dressing-up box for breeches, tailcoats and periwigs.
Savile Row tailoring
Our continental neighbours might favour a simpler, less structured look and lighter cloths, but, in chillier climes, we prefer something that embraces the contours of our physique and irons out any failings.
The default cheese of the ploughman’s lunch, the 1970s drinks party (on a stick with pineapple) and the cheese-and-pickle sandwich is a major UK export (up 4% to 75,212 tons in 2016). Strangely, we import it as well (more than 4,000 tons) and the Irish are said to be panicking about Brexit because they can’t sell the stuff to any other country.
These conker-coloured cows have travelled thousands of miles from their pastoral county of origin during the past 200 years. There are more than five million pedigree cattle in 50-plus countries, from South America to the Russian Steppes, Israel and Japan.
Dame Helen Mirren’s 2015 Tony for playing The Queen in The Audience on Broadway elevated her to the elite group that can boast acting’s ‘triple crown’: winning an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. The only other British actresses to achieve the trio are Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith.
The term might have been coined more than 30 years ago, but the sartorial spirit is alive and well. It’s a look that’s widely emulated: you’re as likely to spot the combination of waxed cotton, brown suede, quilted jacket, moleskin, cashmere, sticky-up collar, brogues, mid-calf skirt, Liberty-print shirt and studied insouciance on the Via Condotti or Boulevard St Germain as on the Fulham Road.
‘The sun’s over the yardarm somewhere in the world’ is the original, very British excuse for cracking open a bottle rather earlier in the day than might be expected. The phrase originally came from the Navy and referred to 11am on naval ships in the north Atlantic; today, a noggin/ tipple/tincture/snifter/just a quick one after work is part of the culture and a successful international export, as memorably expressed by American country singer Jimmy Buffet.
If we’d wanted to swan around in low-slung luxury cars that look more at home at Le Mans than in Leamington Spa, we’d have created our own riposte to the Lamborghini.
Instead, we made the Bentley, a direct descendent of the palanquin, which allows its cosseted occupants to step down from big, comfortable seats, unruffled by the vagaries of travel and, in the case of women, with modesty intact.
Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) is considered to have launched the detective genre and Arthur Conan-Doyle’s tortured brainbox, Sherlock Holmes, entered our lives in 1898, but it’s Christie who is synonymous with the country-house murders, vicarage poisonings, cottage psychopaths, nosy spinsters and finicky detectives that people can’t get enough of.
Bollywood turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a chaotic Punjabi wedding in one of numerous film adaptations; Nelson Mandela read him in prison; the longest-running modern production of Hamlet (the most adapted play) was in Lithuania; Japan built a replica Globe theatre in Tokyo 10 years before London did; the Folger Library in Washington DC has the largest collection of his folios; and most poignant of all was the 2014 performance of King Lear by children in a refugee camp on the Syrian border. The Bard may have come from Stratford, but he now belongs to the world.
Somehow, one small country has become responsible for the world’s third most common language (after Mandarin and Spanish) and the one that’s most studied by foreigners.
In 64 years on the throne, Her Majesty has retained a mystique no modern communication medium can crack. Children everywhere grow up in the knowledge that, somewhere, there is a real queen who wears a crown, travels in a gilded coach, lives in a castle, gives little away and doesn’t post on Facebook.
Well, not often anyway.
We’re terribly good at inventing them — cricket, football, rugby, golf, croquet, badminton, lawn tennis (probably lawns, too), to name a few — and now we’re accomplished at taking it on the chin when regularly thrashed at our own games. We’ve just got to take it as a compliment.
We no longer rampage around the world appropriating the cultural treasures of others, but we’re still brilliant at absorbing the ideas of others. This innate ability crystalised in English country-house style: blue-and-white china, chintz and paisley were all artfully repackaged and peddled back around the globe, with the result that you’re as likely to see the distinctive mix in the Hamptons as in the Cotswolds.
Guns and rods
We invented driven shooting — the pioneering 1st Earl of Leicester was reputed to be able to drive birds into his billiard room at Holkham Hall — and remain the most desirable country in which to shoot driven grouse, pheasant or partridge, but what we actually export is fine gun-making.
Once gun-making companies had perfected the hammerless, breech-loading side-by-side shotgun in the 1860s, the design couldn’t be bettered — the boxlock and sidelock actions they developed are still used in almost all double guns.
It’s been said, rudely, that we invented condiments because our food was so boring. ‘This explains the sauces, the jellies and prepared extracts, the bottled sauces, the chutneys, the ketchups which populate the tables of this unfortunate people,’ wrote Alberto Denti in The Educated Gastronome back in 1950.
Two years after what is thought to be the first animal-welfare law — relating to cattle welfare and, later, bear-baiting and cock- fighting — was passed, a group of men sitting in a London coffee shop in 1824 founded the RSPCA to help pit ponies and cab horses.
The English garden
The English Landscape Garden (which reached its zenith with Capability Brown) became — and remains — one of our leading gifts to the world.
The graceful apology
‘You know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. I did a bad thing and there you have it.’ The words of Hugh Grant after his infamous 1995 escapade on Sunset Boulevard, proving that far from requiring humility, the ability to apologise requires heaps of self-confidence. When you eat humble pie, it’s best not to explain.
His discreet, murmuring tones make everything seem all right with the world, even if his subliminal message is often that, in the natural world, it isn’t. At 91, Sir David remains the ultimate wildlife presenter — who can forget him throwing away the script as he unexpectedly eyeballed a large female gorilla?
The Jack Russell
The small, sturdy terrier with the big personality has exploded out of its original stronghold in north Devon — where it was bred by the eponymous 19th- century hunting parson — to take over he world.
The tavern was a Roman import, even if we developed the pub’s egalitarian atmosphere, and beer — in the generic sense — has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia, but real ale is something that we’ve made our own, concocting it lovingly in casks from malted barley, hops and yeast and refusing to serve it at teeth-shattering temperatures.
‘World time starts here’ pronounces the official website for Greenwich Mean Time – or GMT. In other words, the time of day anywhere in the world relates to British time.
GMT (the average time the sun crosses the Greenwich meridian and is at its highest point) was put into practice here in 1847 to avoid chaotic and annoying disparities in train timetables; it was adopted internationally in 1884. And while there have been attempts to rebrand it as ‘UTC’ (which somehow stands for ‘co-ordinated universal time’) we all know that GMT is the real deal.
The BBC World Service
When it began, in 1932, George V said it was for ‘men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them’. Terry Waite, taken hostage in Beirut in 1987, said it was what kept him ‘mentally and spiritually alive’ during five years in captivity.
The world’s largest service broadcasts, from central London, an eclectic range of subjects in 28 languages, including Pidgin and Punjabi, and is listened to by more than 200 million people a day.
In 1767, an engraver and mapmaker called John Spilsbury invented the jigsaw. The picture on it was a map of the world and it was used for geography lessons.
Puzzles may have once been a gentle pastime for convalescents and families on rainy Sunday afternoons before the invention of the PlayStation, but they’re still popular. Now, who’s got the corner pieces?
Sir Edwin Lutyens
Sir Edwin Lutyens’s supernatural ability to distill all that is best about architectural styles, from medieval to mughal, meant that his work travelled well: to Madrid, Saskatchewan, Delhi and beyond, demonstrating that there’s no reason why creativity should be hidebound by tradition or location.
Lutyens’s fortunes were inextricably linked to those of Country Life: founder Edward Hudson, Lutyens’s champion-in-chief, commissioned him to design our former offices in Covent Garden.
The idea of keeping a menagerie of exotic animals stretches back to the ancients – the Egyptian pharaohs were great collectors – but for thousands of years the animals were kept for prestige and entertainment by the great and the powerful of the world, often reserved only for rulers and their friends. Some had opened their doors more widely; others had sometimes delved into research; but the world’s first true scientific zoo was founded in London’s Regent’s Park in 1828.
At first the zoo was purely for scientists, but as John Nash redeveloped the park it was turned into a public space explicitly for scientific and educational benefit of the people. London Zoo (which was soon followed by the first aquarium) was an enormous success, and the concept was quickly replicated across the world.
The historical novel
Sir Walter Scott was coy about Waverley, a love story set in the Jacobite rising, and published it anonymously in 1814. The novel wasn’t considered a serious genre and Scott was nervous of public reaction, but the first edition of what is said to be the first historical novel in English sold out in two days – and Scott’s career created a genre that is still popular today.
Not everyone was happy, however: Jane Austen apparently said he should stick to poetry, writing ‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.’
In 1979, Harry Christophers, a former lay vicar at Westminster Abbey, founded The Sixteen (with 16 friends), and, since then, his ensemble has become a byword for exquisite standards of magically blended, technically dexterous and emotive choral singing.
It isn’t only genius and persistence that are required to take a giant leap in the world of science – you also need self-promotion. Penicillin is the revolutionary lifesaver that almost never was. Alexander Fleming was no showman and, initially, his discovery was ignored by his peers.
It wasn’t until the Second World War that Australian Howard Florey and his team in Oxford put the drug to medical use and pioneered ways of mass-producing it. The techniques were refined and expanded hugely in the USA; to-date a quarter of a billion needless deaths have been prevented.
The skiing holiday
Obviously, we didn’t invent skiing — it’s believed that China beat Scandinavia on that one — but we were the first to get the hang of doing it as a winter holiday, when Johannes Badrutt, owner of the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, challenged a group of English climbers to return in the winter of 1864, persuading them the valley would be just as beautiful in snow.
What have we done? Without an internet to search, Sergey Brin and Larry Page couldn’t have invented Google, the smartphone wouldn’t have been smart (don’t forget, we invented the real phone as well) and Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t have had reason to drop out of Harvard to start Facebook.
However, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the self-effacing Englishman who created the World Wide Web, isn’t to be found strutting his stuff in Palo Alto or joining the gold rush for driverless technology: he’s engaged in work with the World Wide Web Foundation, which co-ordinates efforts to further his invention’s potential to benefit humanity — beyond Instagram, ordering pizzas and general showing-off.
It would be more accurate to say that we started the fashionable amusement of whist (also known as triumph, trump, ruff, slam, ruff and honours, whisk and swabbers), a civilised Society pastime accompanied by polite refreshment that eventually evolved into bridge. The Turks have been credited with actually inventing bridge and it was American Henry Vanderbilt who developed the contract-bridge game we know today.
In 1680, William Dockwra and Robert Murray established the London Penny Post, a ‘stamped’, pre-paid mail-delivery system within the City of London. It must have been something of a luxury — when the Penny Black was launched in 1840, it covered delivery anywhere in the British Isles.
Anna, Duchess of Bedford, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, identified the yawning gap between luncheon and dinner, complaining that it gave her a ‘sinking feeling’. History doesn’t relate whether this was precipitated by hunger or boredom, but her solution was a solitary cup of Darjeeling and a light snack. She invited friends to join her and the phenomenon was born.
The flushing loo
Elizabethan courtier and poet Sir John Harrington installed the first flushing WC at his house in Kelston, Somerset, but British reluctance to acknowledge the existence of bodily functions meant that it wasn’t until 250 years later — by which stage, Sir Joseph Bazalgette had handily designed London’s sewage system — that Thomas Crapper, the son of a Chelsea plumber, promoted sanitary plumbing as an alternative to chamber pots.
Wherever you stand on the originator of the sandwich—some claim it was an ancient Jewish sage, Hillel the Elder—there’s no doubt that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich did as much for this simple gastronomic innovation as the 1st Duke of Wellington did for waterproof footwear.
Juggling his role as First Lord of the Admiralty with womanising and gambling meant the Earl had to multi-task: eating a piece of meat between two slices of bread allowed him to refuel while playing cards and the habit took off.
When the British quelled their fears about high-speed travel, they recognised its infinite possibilities, not only as an opportunity to whistle from Liverpool to Manchester at the breakneck speed of 15 miles an hour, but as a workhorse of the Industrial Revolution.
The Pony Club
It was started in 1929 as a branch of the Institute of the Horse, ‘for the purpose of interesting young people in riding and sport’ — good, clean, wholesome fun — the idea being that each hunt had a branch. The annual Pony Club camp, often with cavalry officers as instructors, was a mix of deadly serious preparation for tests and opportunities for larking around unfettered by health and safety.
We might pride ourselves on creating these academic and sporting powerhouses, but, really, they’re just another example of invention borne out of necessity. Initially established to educate paupers (Eton) and choristers (King’s Rochester), they proliferated in the 19th century as handy repositories for children whose fathers had been posted to the four corners of the Empire.
Classy, fast horses
Racing horses is nothing new — the Ancient Greeks enjoyed a day out the chariot races — but it was Henry VIII and Charles I who initiated discerning horse breeding, James I who spotted Newmarket’s potential, Charles II who overturned Oliver Cromwell’s joyless ban on the sport and Queen Anne who thought Ascot Heath suitable for a racecourse.
Of course, the UK bloodstock industry now faces stiff competition, yet its legacy is astounding: DNA from the Darley Arabian, one of three foundation Thoroughbred sires imported in the 18th century, can be found in 95% of racehorses today via the undefeated Eclipse (painted by Stubbs).
This simple yet essential item was created by a convict. William Addis, a rag trader, was in jail in the 1770s when, to relieve the tedium — and, presumably, the revoltingness of his fellow prisoners’ breath — he saved a bone from a meal and wove bristles through it. On his release, he set up what became Wisdom Toothbrushes Ltd; the company, which remained in his family until 1996, is the UK’s largest toothbrush manufacturer and exports about one-third of its products.
The white wedding
Wedding dresses could be red, blue, yellow or even black before Queen Victoria precipitated an almost overnight change, following her marriage to Prince Albert on February 10, 1840. The new nuptial fashion wasn’t only about looking demure — before the advent of dry cleaning, high-maintenance colours such as white were a status symbol, indicating that you could afford to pay someone to scrub them.
The Scout movement
This year, representatives of the world’s scouting fraternity will descend on Baku in Azerbaijan for the 41st World Scout Conference. The movement was a global phenomenon from the word go; within months of Robert Baden-Powell penning Scouting for Boys in 1908 (sales of 150 million to date), troops spread around the world like wildfire — or perhaps that should be campfire.
As the cradle of cricket, tennis parties and the fête, it was only natural that we should create a machine to produce carpet-like green swards on which every blade of grass is trimmed to within an inch of its life and every unfortunate daisy done away with. However, it was the Americans who really ran with the idea — or, rather, sat on it: they created the hybrid with a tractor on which you can rest your posterior while enjoying a beer from the thoughtfully positioned drinks holder.
The bar of chocolate
Until 1847, chocolate was only consumed in liquid form. Then, J. S. Fry & Sons decided to mix cocoa powder with cocoa butter and sugar and the rest is history. Apart from the very expensive Swiss or Belgian stuff, nobody does it better than us, still.
The French invented the butler, the Americans modernised him and the Swiss claim to have the best ones, but the image of the butler as an unruffled, if slightly smug, PA who always knows the answer and smoothly extracts his hapless employer from scrapes is down to P. G. Wodehouse’s creation. Why else would an international problem-solving website be known as Ask Jeeves?
You’d think that tweed, which was originally intended to protect crofters against inclement Highland weather, might be a tad warm for Mediterranean climes, however, not only did Coco Chanel, who had borrowed a jacket from her admirer, the Duke of Westminster, realise its potential for chic, but less hairy versions are proving extremely popular with aristocratic Southern Europeans, the sort of people who, annoyingly, never seem to perspire.
It’s a strange phenomenon that, wherever you are in the world, the music blaring from the taxi radio will have English lyrics. With record sales of 600 million, they became the first rock band to achieve worldwide appeal. Their secret? Doing what the British do so well: artfully absorbing influences from other cultures.
The department store
As a nation of shopkeepers, it’s perhaps inevitable that we should have given birth to what is believed to be the world’s first department store: Bennetts, a institution in Derby that opened its doors in 1734 and which still trades today. With the Industrial Revolution, bazaars and department stores became a way of life. And when we aren’t filling our baskets, we like nothing better than to indulge our retail fantasies on television, from Are You Being Served? to Open All Hours.
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