Melissa Todd: What is the British way of life?

What is the British way of life

Recently one of my tenants asked if I’d provide her with a reference. Not for a new landlord, thank goodness, but a new nationality.

E is in the middle of taking the British citizenship test, a complicated expensive procedure, featuring a variety of convoluted questions – who was Henry VIII’s sixth wife? Who wrote the poem, She Walks in Beauty? Who invented the MRI scanner? How many golf courses might you find in Scotland? If she can get through that, and find the requisite non-refundable £1500, she needs two British referees to claim she’s of good character and committed to the ‘British way of life’.  I’m one of them.

What is this British way of life, though, and how can you prove you’re committed to it?

Let’s see. She can hold her drink. She does a nice line in sarcasm. What else is there? Oh, she pays her taxes, creates wealth, employs lots of British people on a casual basis, myself included; always pays her rent on time….but I’ve a huge space on the form to fill, she’s a good friend and a genuinely terrific person: I want to say more, but I simply don’t know what would be helpful.

What do they want, these faceless bureaucrats, of our eager new Britons, here by choice rather than accident of birth? She shops locally. That’s good, right? She spends a fortune on sacks of nuts to feed the squirrels in her back garden, which I find admirable; but then again they are grey squirrels, so perhaps this will be viewed as suspect, foreign behaviour?

She produces beautiful art, supports local theatre; she’s a great supporter and champion of her local community – I want to write she’s “very popular locally”, but does that make her sound like a woman of loose virtue? She’s so supportive of all my mad endeavours that in difficult times I have her photo as my screensaver, but even I can’t be convinced the government will keep her here just to feed my ego. Curse them.

Difficult as this is proving, I’d struggle more to reverse the process and provide a reference for my country for E to peruse. She is Norwegian, but looks and sounds vaguely Polish, so she’s grown accustomed to taking abuse whenever she opens her mouth outdoors, whether asking for a single at the train station or a cucumber at the corner shop.

At the Post Office last week she was told stridently to “go home”, which was vastly inconvenient as she’d just reached the top of a rather long queue. Having lived here twenty years, I imagine she’s used to the terrible weather and outrageous expense, but the abuse is new and wearisome, a post-referendum phenomenon.

But her friends are here, her business is here, her squirrels are here, so she puts up with the foul racist tirades she’s come to accept as part of Britain’s bounty.

British as curry, pizza, tea and chow mein.