To be able to deliver the classy and thoughtful zinger of an insult is of course a time-honored British tradition. And my compatriots do it quite well. So well, in fact, that even after being knowingly insulted (often a result of inordinate stupidity deserving of said insult), it’s difficult to feel bad. Such is the art form of British insults.
Consider this from William Shakespeare: “I desire we may be better strangers.” So much nicer to hear than someone saying, “Hey f*%$k off,” don’t you think? Or this classic among British insults from playwright Oscar Wilde: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Ah, the beauty of such poetic yet insulting words.
My moment of being on the receiving end of an artful insult happened on a misty mountaintop in the Lake District of England, just north of the lovely village of Windermere.
My wife, Therese, and I had set out on a short hike armed with a walking map of the area – a decent enough map acquired in a local outdoor store though by no means a more expensive and far more practical topographic one. It should also be pointed out that part of our planned route left the map near its top margin, moving onto another map that would have been extremely useful had we remembered to purchase it. But was I worried? Please. I have taught classes in navigation, earned the nickname “navgod” competing in Mark Burnett’s famous Eco-Challenge adventure race, and even published a book on finding one’s way in the woods. Owning only part of a map was more than enough map for me to navigate a short ramble over English hills and crags.
As we wandered up the track across sheep pastures and through a wooded valley toward a broad rocky ridge, the sun began to disappear and a light mist began to swirl around us. And, as is typical in the English Lake District, that light mist quickly turned into a thick blanket of fog, obscuring everything around us.
We continued along the track as it snaked up one side of a drainage to the ridge (the part cut off on our map). The plan was to skirt the ridge, more of a horseshoe as I recalled from studying a larger map in the store, and drop down via a different drainage heading back to town. Since we couldn’t see, I was navigating by feel. As we headed down, working our way out of the fog, it didn’t take us long to realize we’d actually headed off the ridge in the wrong direction and were on our way to the next village — miles distant from Windermere. That would never do, so we did an about face and retraced our steps.
Back on the ridge and in the dense fog, I was puzzling over the map when a couple of hikers materialized right in front of us. Smiling, one of the two, a woman, asked if we needed any help.
“Well, yes actually. We’re just getting our bearings…. We came from here,” I said, pointing to a crease on the map, “We’re now here. Where we want to go is right here,” as I pointed to a damp smudge on the map. “So I’m thinking we need to go that way,” as I pointed off in the direction of where I thought Windermere lay.
The woman furrowed her brow, peering at the map and queried, “Where do you think you are?” And so I pointed again, to the former damp smudge that was turning into papier machet right before my eyes. “Right here.”
She shook her head. “No love, you’re here,” she said, pointing to another smudge on the increasingly soggy map. I of course knew that was absolutely not anywhere close to where we were.
“No no, no,” I said. “We came from here, so no way we could be there,” pointing to the now disintegrating part of the map where the woman had indicated we were.
And back and forth we verbally danced for a couple of minutes until the lovely lady put her hand gently on my arm, looked earnestly into my eyes, and said quite firmly in a most clear and proper British accent, “You DO realize we live here.”
What she meant of course was “Listen, you sodden piece of week old mackerel, we live here, and you don’t, so if you want help, you speck of moldy sheep dung, shut up and listen!”
I took a deep breath, “Ummm, of course you do. So…which way do we need to go again?” And she smiled, tightly but politely, and pointed.
With that, Therese and I walked off in the direction she indicated, mumbling to each other there was no way she could be right, this felt so wrong. But, in short order, as the fog began to lift, we realized she was indeed quite right and Windermere sat below us just off in the distance.
My “navgod” status was knocked down a few notches that day with an artful British insult. Not that I mind really. I deserved it, and, in truth, how could I feel bad about being reminded that it’s always much classier to put someone in their place with poetry and style … that is, after all, the British way.