Book review: True Brits: A Tour of 21st Century Britain in all Its Bog-Snorkelling, Gurning and Cheese-Rolling Glory by J.R. Daeschner (Arrow Books, 2004)
When J. R. Daeschner first heard about ‘shin kicking’ he was intrigued. As an American who had lived in Britain for some time, he thought he knew a thing or two about the country. But he’d never come across this centuries-old ‘sport’, which had to be one of the most painful and infuriating ever invented. J. R. had to find out more, and soon discovered that Britain has dozens, if not hundreds, of similar acts of lunacy enshrined as traditions; strange-named events such as cheese rolling, gurning, bog snorkelling…
True Brits is a funny and fascinating travel guide to Britain’s oddest places. people and traditions. Readers can follow J. R. as he meets some of the great British eccentrics who involve themselves in a host of bizarre pastimes which include hurling themselves down a grassy cliff in pursuit of a cheese, coating themselves in prickly green burrs, hanging toast on trees and prancing around with reindeer antlers on their heads. In an attempt to understand why seemingly ordinary people do such extraordinarily strange things, J. R. talks to countless characters, watches them in action, and even participates in many of the events himself, encountering plenty of occupational hazards along the way.
If you think Brits are a little bit loopy, then this book is not going to convince you otherwise. True Brits is full of examples of Brits being, well, British – in all their eccentric glory. Whether it’s chasing a wheel of cheese down a hill, snorkelling through bogs or any other strange but oddly appealing activities, you’re bound to learn a thing or two.
Daeschner isn’t a Brit, so he has a fresh perspective on these quaint traditions. Each section starts with a description of what the event is about and its history. Then, his reactions on seeing the event for the first time. This is then followed by him re-visiting the event the next year, and he does take part in a few of them as well. What a trooper!
I’ve heard of a few of these activities, or, okay, I’ve heard of the cheese rolling contest. This book puts it into perspective, and also gives a fun account of what it’s like partaking or watching it. “The Man” tried to ban it for health and safety reasons, of course, but who are the council to hinder a tradition like this? If anything, the British are a stubborn sort of people, and that’s what I love about them. Terrorists set off suicide bombs in the capital, and they respond with a hearty “Hitler couldn’t beat us and neither can you”.
Brits may be a bunch of lunatics at times (at least to us foreigners), but they’re also very charming at the same time, and you just can’t help but become ever so slightly Anglophile reading about them. With a nice cup of tea, of course.
4 out of 5 burrs.
UPDATE 2021: … And then Brexit happened. 🙃