Pretending to be English

Hat and I are eating breakfast listening to the shrill call of mouthy Egghead in the background (if he’s not careful I shall call Saidi and enquire as to whether he has a good recipe for Rooster Soup too). 

Tea. Toast. And Marmite. 

Is Marmite English, Hat wants to know. 

Yes, I tell her. Quintessentially so. 

So don’t Indian people like it? 

Not many. 

Or French people? 

Nope. 

Or Americans? 

They hate it. 

Does Asina – who is Tanzanian – like it? 

I doubt it. 

But she likes pili-pili. 

Yes, but Marmite’s not hot, is it? It’s salty. 

Does Uncle Fuzz like it? 

Yes. 

Is he English? 

Yes. (Even though in all his 76 years he’s never lived anywhere but Africa). 

Look. It says ‘100% Vegetarian’ on the label, Hat points out, that means Amelia can eat it. 

Amelia, like many 14 year old girls, has recently decided to give up meat. Unless there’s borewors on offer. Or biltong. Or steak. 

Do Kenyans like it? 

What? 

Marmite? 

Some, yes. 

The English ones? 

Yes. An anomaly, I know. But Hat’s line of enquiry is about much more than the love/hate relationship people have with Marmite. 

Instead it thinly veils a confusion about identity. 

Our conversation reminds me of one we had years ago – about a class project (when Hat attended Real School) to design a family coat of arms. Mine and Hat’s effort did not resemble her teacher’s example, an English Rose from Brighton. 

We knew which children were from Holland or Canada or Egypt or Tanzania because they had written in bold letters, ‘I AM FROM …’ and added a badly drawn flag by way of illustration.  All our effort did was prove that Hattie had a grandmother who must be very old (judging by all the sepia photographs I used – which will teach me for being a show-off) and a dead grandfather who used to ride a bicycle.   A grandfather whom Hattie never knew. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked, indignantly as I stuck a photo of husband’s father onto our piece of card ‘That’s Grandad Simon’, I said, and then, gently and in reverent tone one must adopt when talking about the departed, ‘he’s dead’. ‘No he’s not’, she snorted, examining the picture more closely, ‘he’s riding a bike’. 

Hattie’s teacher asked kind and interested questions about all the dead grandfathers and long deceased great-grandparents staring from liver-spotted images bearing testimony to lives spent in India, the Congo, East Africa.   

How exotic she remarked. 

Hattie didn’t think it was exotic.  She’d rather have had a coat of arms decorated as her teacher’s was, with pictures of Brighton Pier, Cadbury’s chocolate, pink and white complexioned children.  And a Union Jack.  That would mean she was English.   

I could tell you that’s the sole reason we eat Marmite: to reaffirm our patriotism, our sense of attachment to a place that’s never been home. I could tell you Marmite is a part of our heritage: I was obliged to bring it back to Kenya from boarding school in Britain for Mum and Dad when such imported luxuries were unavailable. 

The truth is I like the stuff. 

Because I am pretending to be English perhaps?  

marmite.jpg

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9 Responses to “Pretending to be English”

  1. nuttycow Says:

    Mmmmm Marmite. It’s the only thing I’ll have for breakfast (except a fry up of course!)

    I don’t think it’s about pretending to be English.. I think, as you say, it’s about what you like and, if it reminds you of England, is that such a bad thing? I must remember to pack vast quantities of it in my bag before The Big Trip 2009 (TM)

  2. Josa Says:

    I eat tons of Marmite – and I live in London. I love it because it turns a piece of dry toast into something I want to eat when I get in in the evening starving, but not wanting to put all the baby weight back on (again!). Having an interest in ancestors is very fashionable these days… not confined to the upper classes any more.

  3. tash Says:

    Just sent you a comment, but lost it to cyberspace… at the risk of repeating myself…

    Remembering back to those days when we used to prevail upon visitors to bring us Marmite – and Mars Bars – reminds me of a ‘friend’ we once had, who lived a few houses down the road. The only time we ever saw them was if they happened to hear we were off to UK, and they’d come and ask for two of the extra large jars of Marmite. A couple of times, Mum happily brought them back, but as she also loved stuffing her luggage with treats for all her real friends, the extra couple of kilos for that ‘friend’ used to grate a little… I well remember one evening the phone went and it was the same ‘friend’ – she’d just heard we were off to UK again. As Mum was speaking to her, Dave and I sat with Dad, speculating as to whether the phone call was to ask us to bring more Marmite back… “Well,” said Dad, “Ma might – but Pa won’t!”

  4. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thanks Nutty Cow: no, not a bad thing at all. And you’re quite right about the love it or hate it thing.

    Tash: I loved that. I hope your Ma didn’t either! Mailed Monday – hope you got it. x

  5. Kathleen Says:

    Marmite…its funny I don’t think I’ve ever tasted it. I’ve always thought it was some kind of horrible meat type thing like Spam and that it was from Australia. How funny to find out its all veggie and so English. Is it from the war years?

  6. carol Says:

    Tell Hat that I remember going to an Indians house in Kericho and they took us into their store where they had HUGE jars of really spicy and kali chutneys. Dad asked the gentleman when he ate his chutney – and was told that he put it on his toast every morning ‘just like you English people put marmalade on!’ So there you go – Marmite or Marmalade – but only if you’re English!!

  7. foxhollowjewelry Says:

    I have never had Marmite either, but I could live off of English Lemon Curd.
    But I shouldn’t….but I really could.

  8. Alice C Says:

    Perhaps the love of Marmite is genetic and you can track back through the generations to an original Marmite eater who lived in Brighton (or Hove). It might be linked to another gene such as blond hair and prove that Hat originally came from the Viking invaders. Do not dismiss Marmite addiction lightly.

  9. Raihanah Says:

    This is something I think about also, since my kids have 3 nationalities (American, British and Indian), yet live in Singapore! They get bits from my childhood in the US and remember a few years in England. But, when asked where they’re from, they don’t really have a reply.

    But, maybe that’s the way it is with many children- and will be in the future, as everyone moves around the world building more “melting pots”.

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