Forget Italian pizza-twirling – what about Britain’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’? | Nigel Kendall

Not even morris dancing makes it on to Unesco’s list of intangible cultural treasures from around the world. So here are my top six contenders

The news that Unesco has recognised the pizza-twirling that goes on in Naples as an “intangible cultural heritage” sent us back first to the source for more riveting info, then on to the full list of intangible treasures from around the world, where we discovered to our dismay that there’s not a single one from the UK. Not even for morris dancing. Time, then, for six suggestions for consideration.

1 Pub etiquette

This collection of complex rituals should be studied and absorbed by all. A basic course might include tips on how to catch the eye of the bar staff in a crowded pub when you know it’s your turn, and a reminder that anyone who turns down the chance to queue-jump in front of you deserves a sincere thank you.

Advanced students may then progress to learn how to keep a round functioning smoothly and the art of holding the whip. Detailed knowledge of the actual food and drink on offer is not necessary and can in some cases prove to be a deterrent.

2 Tea-making

The Japanese and Chinese have their glorious green teas, and America has a concoction called Lipton, drunk neat or with lemon. Surely, it’s time for Unesco to recognise the making of real tea, as enjoyed by most people in Britain? This should be made with water 10C below boiling point, with the milk added when the brew reaches the desired strength. Putting the milk in before the teabag cools the water down prevents the brewing working its sacred magic and is, therefore, the work of the devil*. If you know, or think you might know, anyone who prelactates in this manner, unfriend them immediately and report them to Unesco. Teabags or other containers are good because you can easily remove them from the water to prevent the tea becoming bitter.

3 Pronunciation of place names

The accepted rules of English orthography fly out of the window when it comes to proper names, yet the decline of written communication may threaten these treasures, seemingly designed to trip up the unwary out-of-towner. Unesco should step in. Here’s a short list: Leicester, Towcester, Cirencester, Claughton (Lancs), Wybunbury, Strathaven, Magdalen College Oxford, Rievaulx, Udny, Mousehole, Salisbury, Prideaux Castle and Laugharne.

4 The shipping forecast

This national institution, which taps neatly into the British obsession about the bloody weather, celebrated its 150th anniversary in August – but has really only been widely loved since the advent of radio. Poems and songs have been written about it, and a regular audience in the hundreds of thousands tunes in nightly to be lulled to sleep by the steady rhythms of “Fisher, Viking, German Bight, North Utsire [pause, short breath] South Utsire.” As Mark Damazer, the former controller of BBC Radio 4, once observed: “It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are.”

5 The friendliness of everyone north of Watford

When I first moved down south from Manchester more than 30 years ago, I made the mistake of saying hello to people I didn’t know. They looked back at me as if I’d just vomited on their shoes and expected them to lick it off. Now when I return up north I have the opposite problem, since years in London have deprived me of the ability to trust folk who want nothing more than to spark up a conversation. The mass relocation of silent southerners to the BBC in Salford and the consequent migration north of other creative industries threaten the future of human interaction across the upper half of the country. Unesco must act now to ensure the survival of meaningless bus-stop chatter and pub conversation with strangers.

6 The rail fare rise

It is culturally remarkable that this annual kick in the wallet is the only thing that our fragmented rail network is guaranteed to deliver on time. Every December, shortly after the ritual autumn laying of leaves on the line, the rail companies tell customers exactly how much food they’ll be taking from the mouths of their children the following year. This year’s announcement of a hike of 3.4% exceeded most forecasts, unlike the rest of the once-great railway network. One day, a society that wants its citizens to own fewer cars and pollute the world less might make it convenient, clean and cheap for them to take the train. Until then, Unesco recognition is long overdue.

*Some unscrupulous cafe owners will give you tea in a mug with milk already in. This is to encourage you to stay longer, twirling your spoon in vain for flavour while your very presence makes their cafe look more popular than it deserves to be

Nigel Kendall is a freelance journalist and former senior content manager at Guardian Labs


Nigel Kendall

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