How the Brits are using humour to defy attackers

Borough Market in happier times.

Borough Market in happier times.

OPINION: You've gotta hand it to the Brits. They stick to their mantra of keeping calm and carrying on. Even if they're seething inside and cursing you under their breath.

In the wake of the recent attacks on London Bridge and nearby Borough Market, the Brits responded as they typically do in a crisis, with an air of composure and biting bleak humour.  

Which isn't to say they weren't angry or upset. They were. They just didn't want to give their attackers the satisfaction of thinking they'd made them feel unsafe on their home turf.

The American mainstream media's typically hysterical coverage of the attack, describing London as "under siege", prompted a backlash from Brits on social media. A New York Times article describing the UK as "still reeling" from the shock of the previous attacks in London and Manchester drew particular ire from those who bristled at the mere suggestion they would respond in such a melodramatic manner. Didn't the realise their fair isles had withstood centuries of attacks? Hadn't they seen the photo of the man fleeing the attack with his half-full pint glass still in hand? 

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London's beer is infamously expensive, so this punter wasn't going to leave it behind.

London's beer is infamously expensive, so this punter wasn't going to leave it behind.

Many were determined to show their lives were as humdrum as they'd ever been. "Going to IKEA for meatballs and maybe a rug #reeling," one poster said.

"Tea and toast in the garden after yoga #reeling", said another.

The hashtags #reeling and #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling have been trending since the attack, with most eager to express that, while outraged and mourning the dead, they are by no means terrorised.

As John Oliver said on his Last Week Tonight show "to say [the UK] is under siege and its people are reeling is to imply that it is somehow weak enough to be brought to its knees by three monumental a....... and that as an idea is insulting."

Humour of the understated and ironic kind is a potent weapon in the British arsenal of getting on with the difficult business of life. When things go wrong, you don't scream and shout that the world's going to end. You accept that life can be a bit sadistic and get on with things. Of course that doesn't mean you can't have a good old moan with your mates down the pub afterwards. Provided you raise at least a smirk from them in the process (no point in driving them to still more drink). 

I was fortunate there were no major terrorist attacks during my years in London, but it always seemed something terrible could happen at any moment. Bomb scares on the tube were common and there were numerous small-scale incidents involving extremists.

But nothing stands between a Brit and his or her favourite hangout for long. The atmosphere at Borough Market, when I was there, was always supercharged with the energy of stallholders from all over the world calling out to tourists to sample their wares; the tourists delighted to be able to enjoy a world of flavours under one giant roof.

Police lay flowers at Borough Market.

Police lay flowers at Borough Market.

Although the market is temporarily closed, I have no doubt the punters will return in their droves when it reopens. After all, they've been doing it now for nigh on a millenium. While some foreign media have suggested that parts of London are now no-go zones, its residents are keen to stress they're anything but. "Only time Borough Market is a no-go zone is Thursday evening after work, when you can't move for the suits spilling out of pubs," one social media post read.

And London Bridge will remain, I am sure, a bustling conduit between the grandeur of the city's historic square mile and the hedonism of the food, drink and entertainment precinct that was Shakespeare's old stomping ground. That different worlds can co-exist so harmoniously, and often overlap, is one of London's great strengths.

Much of the city's energy is generated from having such a variety of people crammed into such a small space.  From new arrivals reshaping its centuries-old facades; it's a city that keeps evolving no matter what.

Many Brits are eager to show they're continuing about their daily lives as normal.
Sergey Borisov 123RF

Many Brits are eager to show they're continuing about their daily lives as normal.

Arriving in London for the first time, I'd expected people to be standoffish and even rude, so was taken aback when I met with nothing but kindness and generosity. From the moment a harried-looking corporate type offered to lug my two oversized suitcases up the stairway from the hell that is the underground in rush hour, I knew I'd arrived in a city that would confound my expectations. 

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Part of the reason people from such diverse backgrounds can live in relative harmony, I think, comes from the Brits' characteristic politeness and readiness to share a laugh, no matter what the occasion. That and Londoners ready acceptance that change is not just inevitable, but necessary. 

It can be a tough place to live at times. The extortionate cost of living, miserable weather and sense of being caught up in a whirlwind of activity that regularly sends your head spinning can get a bit much. Indeed there were plenty of occasions when - cycling back to my overcrowded flat through rain, hail and/or snow - I would have given anything for a pair of Dorothy's ruby red slippers which, with three taps of the heel, would have magic-ed me back to New Zealand.

But I'm glad I stuck it out for a good few years. London and its inhabitants taught me a huge amount about resilience; about the benefits of seeing the humour in even the most horrendous of situations.  

In many ways, the Brits' determination to keep calmly carrying on in the wake of the attacks is a potent act of defiance. In the words of Oscar Wilde, "Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much." Even if, I might add, you're only feigning forgiveness. 

 - Stuff


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