NS March 2nd, 2009
I was recently asked to review a book written by a bloke (n. – ‘guy’) named Chris Rae. He’s written a guide for Americans visiting or moving to the UK, built largely around a British-to-American dictionary he’s been putting together online for some years now. Seeing as I have vast swathes of time on my hands and was looking for a way to fill my empty days, I relunctantly and begrudgingly agreed.
Actually, I felt pretty flattered to be asked and jumped at the chance to write a review of a book that a million other people hadn’t already read, but let’s not tell him that. We don’t want Mr. Bigshot Book Writer getting a head so big that it won’t fit through Borders’ sliding glass doors when he arrives for book signings up and down the land.
So anyway, I told him to send it on over and I’d give it a fair and honest write-up. Unbeknownst to Chris Rae, his fate now rests in my hands. He likely does not understand the magnitude of this undertaking and how what I say about his work could either make him or destroy him. My hordes and legions of followers cling onto every word I write, you see, and they will either summarily dismiss or wholeheartedly embrace the book based solely on my appraisal. With that in mind, dear readers, I give you the first official, shamelessly solicited book review here at Noble Savage with the understanding that I was not remunerated, monetarily or otherwise, for doing so. Obviously.
At only 115 pages (85 of which consist of the A-Z dictionary translations), The Septic’s Companion is not meant to be a comprehensive guide for tourists, by any means. It’s more of a cultural Cliff’s Notes on life in Britain and what differences an American can expect to observe when amongst our former colonial overlords.
The first thing I speculated about was the title; It didn’t strike me as particularly catchy and being called a Septic Tank (Yank) always feels a bit like being insulted. However, this illustrates a rather big cultural difference that Americans need to know about the Brits straight off the bat: their insults are often quite humourous and their humour can be rather insulting. While this takes some time and tenacity to get used to, I highly recommend learning to relax about it and appreciate British humour for its unique style, form and delivery. It really is an artform. The most important thing to learn is how to dish it out right back. This will either earn you enormous respect or cause your tormentor to shut his or her trap. Either way, you win. Protesting about how unfair, untrue or socially unacceptable it is will only get you five new nicknames, all of which will be much more derogatory than ‘Septic’.
The second thing I noticed about the book is the overall tone which is employed throughout. It is distinctly British: hilarious at times, dry as a mouthful of crackers after doing a bong hit, self-deprecating to a point approaching self-loathing and brutally honest, with just a whiff of superiority. Rae drops quite a few references to being a bit crap or only being in it for the money (as evidenced by the back cover) with his tongue planted firmly in cheek. I like it.
Overall, I thought the sections outlined were very good: concise, informative and funny. I especially liked the mini-chapters on the European Union, Eating Out, Driving and Drinking, which is, appropriately, the longest section in the book at 4 1/2 pages. There is more written about the subtle nuances and hard-and-fast rules of drinking than there is about the political geography, governance or languages of the UK. If you are from or live here, you will know why this is. If you are about to come to the UK or have just arrived, you will find out within the first 24 hours.
The dictionary is excellent, very detailed, and made me snort with laughter a few times. I even learned a few new words myself! I thought I’d heard them all before but some still sneak up on me every once in awhile. When I first moved here I had to be incredibly observant to absorb all these new terms and phrases or ask my husband to explain. This is why a guide such as The Septic’s Companion is so useful, particularly for stupid, lazy and fat Americans who want information at their fingertips immediately. Or, quite possibly, it is useful to those who come to the UK regularly, have expatriated here or are planning to immigrate. I could also see real Anglophiles and tourists desperate to look un-touristy (mainly students and those in their 20s) soaking up this info like sick on a sponge. That is to say, enthusiastically.
I have just a couple small criticisms, so bear with me. First, there is what I’m sure is a mistake in the Telling The Time section. It informs us that the Brits say “ten after three” but I’m fairly certain that Mr. Rae has officially been living in the States for too long now as I’ve only ever heard Americans say this. Most Brits say “ten past three.” I also noticed that there is a slight propensity to assume the readers are male and angle things towards them a bit, which is a little annoying but not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I let it go when I saw on his website that Rae is buddies with the fantastic feminist and comic Kate Smurthwaite of Cruella-blog. He must be alright then, if she hasn’t eaten him alive. I suppose I must let him live as well. Lucky man.
My final verdict? A useful beginner’s guide to UK culture and slang with the added bonus of being an entertaining read that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In short, it’s British. And what’s not to love about that?