Hugh Dennis wasn’t quite sure how to react when his friend, Irish comedian Ardal O’Hanlon, told him he was the most British person he had ever met.
Was he being praised, teased, vaguely insulted or a combination of all three?
Never one to take such a comment lying down, the award-winning writer, actor and comedian decided to explore just what it means to be British and then try to put down his findings in words.
But what he hadn’t counted on was the ‘Games effect’ – Britain’s miraculous rebirth after a single month of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012.
From being ‘a nation of pomp, circumstance, democracy, a rather woolly established church and overpaid footballers’ which loved petty rules and regulations and exercised a pointless system of etiquette, we metamorphosed into a smiling Britain of achievement.
Every long-held belief about the British was challenged, not least that the Australians are better than us at sport. Suddenly we were beating them at everything whether that involved sitting down, standing, running, squatting or punching sports.
Yes, the London Olympics surprised the world. Not only did we provide ‘a Games much better than Mitt Romney expected, or the French hoped,’ but we also rebutted the idea that we are a nation of stuffed shirts, bad teeth, a terrible diet and a fixation with wearing long trousers even in hot weather.
The Games gave a gleaming new vision of Britain proud to embrace individuality and eccentricity and whose queen can send herself up and then descend by parachute.
The unexpected legacy of the Games has been that we now all know how to be British and to be part of a Britain which should be embarrassed by nothing and proud of everything, from sheep to chimneys, from the Spice Girls to industrial action and what had always previously been described as our ‘ailing transport network.’
With this new-found self confidence in mind, Dennis has inspected our sceptred isle and used the World Wide Web to remorselessly scour it inside out and come up with a funny, off-beat, warm and affectionate portrait of our complex, incomparable country.
From Britain as an ‘island nation’ with its seafaring culture and its unwillingness to be pushed around to its excellence at ‘inventing stuff, discovering stuff and getting stuff done’, Dennis brings us a feast of fun and fascinating facts.
So good, it makes you positively proud to be British!
(Headline, paperback, £7.99)