The First Thing You Unpack

Am looking after a kitten in a Golders Green house for one night. The owners are a US couple, a detail borne out by one notable omission in the kitchen. There is no electric kettle. Just a coffee machine.

Neither person is a tea drinker. When visitors have asked for a cup they use the microwave oven to boil a cupful of water. Asking around the modern hive mind that is Twitter and Facebook, I learn that this substitute method is quite common for US households entertaining British guests.

In fact, I now know that in the US electric kettles are a distinctly rare kitchen appliance. Stove top kettles are a more likely choice for the mere 4 per cent of Americans who drink tea. One reason is the difference in mains voltage – 120v in the US, compared to the UK’s 240v – doubling the boiling time for electric kettles in the States. But there’s the whole ritualistic connotations of boiling an electric kettle that the US doesn’t have: it’s what you’re meant to do during a TV advertising break (fewer of those in the UK per hour of TV, making it more of a big deal). It’s something you can easily set up in a room without a cooker: offices, student rooms, hotel rooms.

Suddenly fascinated by this subject, I chat to people online and find that one US store, Target, does stock affordable electric kettles on their website, though they’re not always in the physical shops.

From a Brit who lived in LA: “After months of no joy at even Target I finally bought a new one in a Persian market on the westside of LA. Ridiculous.”

From a Brit in Arizona: “Been here 4 yrs and only spotted electric kettles within the last six months, at Target. In Arizona you make ‘Sun Tea’, teabags in water and leave it outside to brew.”

Target’s item description has one sentence that would never appear on a UK listing:

“- Boils faster than a microwave”

And by way of a counterpart appliance, I had this from an American in the UK:

“It took me nearly a decade to find a reasonably-priced decent waffle iron in Britain, which is standard kit in any US kitchen shop.”

But for me the most defining aspect of the electric kettle is its importance during one of the most stressful and defining experiences in life: moving house.

As one Brit reminds me:

“When you hire boxes from a moving company, the ‘how to pack’ instructions tell you to leave the kettle till last.”

And from another Brit:

“That’s exactly how it is: electric kettle packed last, and first item to be plugged-in. That first cup makes it feel you’ve arrived.”

Thanks to everyone on Twitter and Facebook for the enlightenment. Quotes from Stuart Nathan, Sophie Heawood, Caroline Corbett, @eighths, @cybermango.

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What To Celebrate

To become a UK citizen, the British government requires all applicants to make the following Affirmation of Allegiance:

“I (name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.”


There’s also a lengthy Citizenship Test to take about Life In The UK. Sample questions are:

– Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken?

– What and when are the Patron Saints’ Days of the four countries of the UK?

– What are bank holidays?

Well, they’re what we’ve just had, two previous weekends in a row. As a child, I associated bank holidays with a couple of things that always popped up on TV: James Bond films, and ‘Disney Time’, a special programme of clips from Disney movies, linked by a British presenter (Jimmy Tarbuck is the only one I can remember. There must have been others).

This most recent bank holiday weekend felt like a real life Disney film followed by a real life Bond Movie.

On the Friday, a royal Prince – William – married a non-royal girl – Kate Middleton – making her a Princess (Actually, due to those funny rules about heirs and bloodlines she was made a Duchess, but it was good enough). I can’t help thinking of the last woman to get a Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey – Sarah Ferguson – and how she was excommunicated from this event, while her children were invited instead. It’s suggested that she had her revenge by supplying her daughters with particularly bizarre hats.

Modern ways: I don’t have a TV, but watch the service on the internet, while enjoying the real-time jokey comments from people on Twitter. I enjoy the Abbey music and the sense of history, but find myself wincing at the more jarring anachronisms.  The service includes the phrase “I pronounce you man and wife”, rather than the more up-to-date ‘husband and wife’.

After that, I go down to the Not The Royal Wedding street party in Red Lion Square, Holborn. It’s organised by the pressure group Republic, who are keen to abolish the British monarchy by campaigning through the proper democratic channels, rather than anything that might get them arrested. Actually, that seems to be easier than ever right now: anarchists in Soho Square are bundled away by the police while the wedding is going on, purely for singing “We All Live In A Fascist Regime” to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’. Thus rather proving their own point. The reported charges are pure Thought Crime: “on suspicion of planning a breach of the peace”.

One time-honoured tradition of Royal Weddings is the souvenir mug, and the Republic movement has their own for sale today: it bears the slogan “I’m Not a Royal Wedding Mug”. They sell out by the time I arrive. But the Republic lot are keen to point out that they wish William and Kate no ill will personally. This isn’t about heckling a couple in love’s wedding – how mean-spirited that would be – but gently raising awareness that many Britons aren’t happy with  the whole monarchy set-up. Keep the weddings, and the titles, though. Says one female organiser “I am anti-monarchy, but I still want to see the dress. I’m still a girl.”

Also at the party is a stall where one can pledge allegiance to something British other than the Queen, in a reference to the aforementioned UK Citizenship requirements. The pledges take the form of triangular bits of paper pinned to the railings of Red Lion Square – a witty take on bunting. There’s quite a few pledges to Doctor Who by children, some to London, and quite a lot to tea. I pledge my own allegiance to Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the Web, without whom these words wouldn’t have their readership, there’d be no Royal Wedding on the Internet, or Twitter, or Facebook, or so much of what the world depends on today. Bring out the bunting for British inventors, I say.

One of the organisers recognises me and takes my photo:

Then on the May Day Bank Holiday Monday, with the news of Osama Bin Laden, we got the Bond film: a villain craving world domination tracked down by the good guys in his secret lair, then meeting a violent end. It’s not reported if the soldiers who dispatched Bin Laden did so with a corny Roger Moore pun, but The Sun obliges with its front page the next morning: “BIN BAGGED”.  The news shows footage of young Americans in Times Square shouting “USA! USA!” in jubilation at the news.

English people are obviously glad to hear of a terrorist leader put ‘beyond use’ as they say now,  but cheering and shouting “ENGLAND! ENGLAND!” in the streets for any reason other than football is thought to be A Bit Much. That most English trait of all: fear of bad social etiquette. Celebrate a wedding, not a killing.

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Unknown Pleasures: The Varicose Remix

To Cad & The Dandy in Hanover Square for a second tailored suit: this time for summer wear. Mohair, two button, light navy blue: their recommendation as an alternative to linen. The trouble with linen suits is their tendency to look utterly creased and grubby within minutes. Which I don’t mind so much, but I’m curious about the mohair argument and as a known-suit fancier I think I should own one.

C&D were featured in an article on the summer suit debate in City AM, which a kind colleague on the night shift had put aside for me. The sentiment ‘I saw this and thought of you’ is responsible for about 90% of my wardrobe, and indeed my library.


At the Whittington Hospital’s Imaging Department the other day for an ultrasound on my left leg. A decade after the removal of a large varicose vein, it’s come back to haunt me once more. Dad is apologetic about this, as it’s his family’s hereditary condition. I tell him not to feel bad, that it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being his son. Being English, I can’t let this statement hover for too long and quickly add, ‘And thanks for the full head of hair.’

So here I am again, back at the Whittington a decade later. I stand on a footstool in my underwear while a lady engineer applies the gel and the plastic thing on a wire and insists I look at the screen. I can’t make out what she’s referring to, and the only comment that springs to mind is ‘Isn’t there a Joy Division sleeve that looks like this?’

She says it’s good news: the new vein is operable after all.

‘You’ll be able to wear shorts again!’ she beams.

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