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A very British obsession

They say a picture tells a thousand words but when I get stuck on how to describe a character I give them a biscuit. Biscuits are central to British culture; and are really as important a talking point as the weather. If you can come to London and talk to a complete stranger at a bus stop about it being a bit drizzly today and how you’re dying for a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive, you will be getting that Real British Experience the travel agent told you about – especially if the person you’re talking to turns out to be an exchange student from Valencia.
Understand biscuits and you’ve got us bang to rights. Stay-at-home mums eat Viennese Fingers, pensioners will have a Rich Tea, comedian Victoria Wood made her name with jokes about Gypsy Creams, and talk show host Jonathan Ross arouses deep suspicion and a palpable sense of embarrassment in some Hollywood stars when he offers them his chocolate Hob Nobs.
In fact, we only drink tea as an excuse to eat biscuits. There are entire aisles in our supermarkets devoted to bikkies, which are not, by the way, to be confused with cookies. According to Linda Stradley of What’s cooking America, cookies are small cakes, and were invented in 7th century Persia to test oven temperature. Who knew?
As far as I am concerned, cookies are hard crumbly dollops of stuff, embedded with chocolate chips or raisins. Biscuits, on the other hand, are everything you can possibly imagine; from hard, flat, shiny Garibaldis, which I’m sure Tolkien was thinking of when he wrote about elven bread (‘We’ll have a nice cup of tea and a packet of Garibaldis, and then we’ll go and vanquish the dark lord.’), to Tunnocks tea cakes (the making of which practically destroyed the contestants on The Great British Bake Off last year).
And then there are the names of the biscuit manufacturers themselves. There is a story, in an advert for the Imperial War Museum, that a captured World War Two pilot, questioned by the Germans, said he had been flying a Huntley and Palmer bomber with a Peak Frean engine. Sweet.

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About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I like to; even when I can't think of much to say.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “A very British obsession

  1. Gosh, Jools, not even a Nairn’s oatmeal thin? The trouble is that you do admit your love for them, so I think your steadfast renunciation of McVities and all their works would mean that I’d have to portray you as a poor tortured soul, silently turning away from the excesses of modern consumerism. Although you’d have the occasional guilty foray into a forgotten tin of Fox’s party rings. After all, they have a hole in the middle…

    Posted by elainecanham | September 19, 2013, 3:43 pm
  2. Oh dear… I don’t feel very British today. You see, I don’t drink tea (can’t stand the stuff), and whilst I love and adore biscuits (too much!), I don’t eat them. For me it’s best not to have them in the house, because when they’re there, they’re gone – I can never have ‘just the one’. When they’re offered elsewhere, they’re swiftly declined, before I weaken. So where would I fit in your biscuity characterisations, I wonder? Great post!

    Posted by Jools | September 19, 2013, 3:32 pm
  3. Yes, James Bond, martinis; Hercule Poirot, tisanes; Lord Peter Wimsey, fine wine; Mma Ramotswe, red bush tea; now I start to think about it, the drinks list just goes on. Its those details that really make a character, and stick in your mind.

    Posted by elainecanham | September 19, 2013, 1:24 pm
  4. Interesting take on characterization. I realized about halfway through my last novel that I tend to use a character’s drink of choice in the same way.

    Posted by MishaBurnett | September 19, 2013, 11:41 am

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