Monday, 27 June 2016

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

by Kate Fox

Long, long time ago, when I was still living and working in England, I bought this book in an Oxfam shop. I loved it so much, I told all my office mates that, if they want to understand anything about the country they live, they have to read it. So they did, in turns. One of my colleagues said that, suddenly, all this (“this” being the weird behaviour of English) started to make sense. I’ve never seen the book again.

As much as I dislike the stereotypes, I found myself agreeing with most of what Ms Fox had to say about the English. Some of these stereotypes are endearing (like sense of fair play, gardening, humour, modesty, etc.), some are not so (hypocrisy, football hooliganism, obsession with class). None of them are exclusively English; it is the particular combination of them that sets the English apart from the rest of humankind.

“Agreeing with most”, I said, but not with everything.

To take a deliberately extreme example, the kind of hand-on-heart, gushing earnestness and pompous, Bible-thumping solemnity favoured by almost all American politicians would never win a single vote in this country — we watch these speeches on our news programmes with a kind of smugly detached amusement, wondering how the cheering crowds can possibly be so credulous as to fall for this sort of nonsense. When we are not feeling smugly amused, we are cringing with vicarious embarrassment: how can these politicians bring themselves to utter such shamefully earnest platitudes, in such ludicrously solemn tones? We expect politicians to speak largely in platitudes, of course — ours are no different in this respect — it is the earnestness that makes us wince.
What?! Watching the English was published in 2004, seven years after New Labour led by precisely this kind of nauseating politician won the general election. With a landslide victory. And that was not the end. Just look at the whole Brexit disaster. Given that Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with Cardiff and English cities of any size to speak of (no doubt, overrun by bloody immigrants), voted Remain, I can’t help thinking that it is exactly the stereotypical English who, in an act of mind-boggling stupidity, just have chosen to reduce Great Britain to Little England. And there is nothing endearing about that.

So, I guess, a new, post-Brexit edition of Watching the English is in order. One could hope that it would be as fun read as the original.

While I have every sympathy for anyone with a genuine food allergy, the fact is that only a very small percentage of the population actually have such identifiable medical conditions – far fewer than the number who believe they are afflicted. These English chattering-class females seem to hope that, like the Princess and the Pea, their extreme sensitivities about food will somehow demonstrate that they are exquisitely sensitive, highly tuned, finely bred people, not like the vulgar hoi-polloi who can eat anything. In these rarefied circles, you are looked down upon if you have no difficulty digesting proletarian substances such as bread and milk.

If you really cannot manage to have any modish food problems yourself, then make sure that your children have some, or at least fret noisily about the possibility that they might be allergic to something: ‘Ooh, no! Don’t give Tamara an apricot! She hasn’t been tested for apricots yet. She had a bit of a reaction to strawberries, so we can’t be too careful.’ ‘Katie can’t have bottled baby food — too much sodium, so I buy organic vegetables and puree them myself . . .’ Even if your children are unfashionably robust, you must take the trouble to keep up with the latest food-fear trends: you should know that carbohydrates are the new fat (like brown is the new black) and homocysteine is the new cholesterol; the F-Plan diet is out, Atkins is in; and on the genetic-modification debate, the official chattering-class party line is ‘two genes good, four genes bad’. As a rule of thumb, assume that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ food, except possibly an organic carrot personally hand-reared by Prince Charles.

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