Being English: A Few Notes On My Own Country - Part 1
I’ve travelled to lots of countries and, in a strange way, it often makes me reflect on my own country and people, the English. Sometimes when you step out of your own environment you see it with more enlightened clarity. And here’s the result, a sort of blog (full of sweeping generalisations of course, but rather credible ones nonetheless!) I put together in true English style without wanting to be seen to be trying too hard or being boastful about it!
If you are English, perhaps you will recognise some of the traits described below. If you are not English, maybe there are one or two things here which will help you to better understand and demystify some of what being English is all about. We are a strange and funny race of people, a peculiar and perplexing breed. Really, for good or bad, there’s no one else on planet earth quite like the English.
Always start with the weather. From potential heat waves to floods to snow at Christmas, English people are obsessed by the weather. It has come to shape our lives, albeit not necessarily because of its physical impact on our environment, but more to do with its impact on our conversations.
Whether to talk about the weather is not really much of a dilemma for an English person because it is reliably uncontroversial - the perfect conversation non-topic which enables us to fudge what we say and how we say it. And, critically, it is all but impossible to contradict someone else when you are both talking about the weather. Unless they’ve just been somewhere different, in which case a long and varied weather conversation is likely to ensue as you exchange contrasts (usually no more than a ‘drop’ of rain here, or a ‘nudge’ down in temperature there).
The best thing about the weather is that it is reliably unreliable, a moderately pleasurable and mildly satisfying topic. In comparison to the climactic extremes all sorts of other countries have to endure, in England we don’t have a lot of dramatic weather, but we certainly make the most of cherishing it.
Nature’s edge of exciting unpredictability and danger is mostly missing from the British Isles (apart from moments like Michael Fish’s ‘hurricane’ in 1987!). But the weather is so reliable because it has the capacity for infinite surprise. It is intrinsically fascinating and dramatically undramatic.
The geography of the English has shaped an island mentality into our psyche. Being surrounded by ocean and being outward facing ensured a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability about the weather. We take most pleasure when the weather surprises us. Many of us get excited when it rains extra hard and uplifted when the weather starts to brighten up. Weather can make or break the day of many an English person, but it will always be in the conversation somewhere.
Humour is our favourite all purpose coping mechanism. We cannot get enough of it, but we often do in a self-depreciating way. The English are people who can laugh out loud and cringe with embarrassment at the same time. Social interaction without humour for the English is like a game of football without the ball.
English people can be clumsily inelegant in interacting socially with unfamiliar people. Hesitation and mumbling are common. Dithering and ineptness can be socially acceptable, as can stilted incompetence. We are uneasy with extremes or excesses of anything and highly self-conscious on occasions. But it is humour which usually comes to the rescue.
English people have a virile undercurrent of humour pulsating through them, a defiant reluctance to take many things too seriously and a readily available instinct to chuckle at something quite personally embarrassing. Any sense or hint of pretentiousness is usually ripe for immediate demolition.
We revel in our harmless eccentricities. We are more fixated by peculiar subtleties than the size or scale of things. An excess or too much of anything is usually deplored. For the most part, we don’t do histrionics. We just do humour instead. The English have not needed revolutions for hundreds of years, some have argued, because they have so successfully pioneered satire instead.
Irony is deep in the blood of almost every English person and deeply and dryly embedded into much of our humour. As are constant understatement and self-depreciation. We cannot stand gushing, transparently insincere over-friendliness. Trying too hard - the ultimate sin - is seen as much worse than not trying at all.
Wrapped up in irony, the English joke without joking, feign to care sometimes without really caring, pretend to be serious but not actually being serious…so little is clear cut, so much is confusing to the outsider. Taking things for granted is another likely trait of an English person.
Humour nearly always rules. English people always seem to be in an almost permanent state of readiness for humour. It is our default mode, keenly used and finely tuned.
Our subtly complex and unwritten rules of humour act as parameters for many of our conversations.
The English absolutely love a bit of banter or repartee littered with innuendos. It is what many of us live for sometimes. Gentle taunting, teasing, wind ups and mock insults are all part and parcel of an English person actually demonstrating their affection for someone else. They are very circuitous ways of demonstrating it, but the English are masters of saying the opposite of what they mean. So to mockingly make fun of someone in a jocular way is almost a way of giving them your approval.
Privacy is critically important to many English people. We are obsessed with it. The English do not really like to be intruded or imposed on by those they don’t know. To an outsider, it gives the perception that the English are cold, reserved and unfriendly.
This, of course, increases the potential value of any gossip, which is part of the reason why we like to gossip and expressions like, ‘Oh really?’ are so prevalent in conversation.
Paying compliments does not come easy. But English people have a ritual of counter-complimenting. Insulting, sneering and swearing can often be permitted, even expected. Being earnest is not permitted because it seems too artificial and contrived. Nor are boasting, pomposity or self-importance. Feigning admiration is almost an art form. We are a nation of insatiably curious onlookers constantly frustrated by the draconian nature of our own unwritten privacy rules.
Modesty usually prevails, on the surface at least. Taking yourself too seriously - the ultimate sin to any Englishman - is the difference between being earnest and being sincere. American superlatives are hardly ever used. Great success, wealth or prestige are often dealt with in an embarrassed, awkward way. People cannot easily applaud it or laud in others, preferring instead to resort to armchair cynicism and detached coolness wrapped up in linguistic inventiveness.
English people don’t really do extremism. That would be seen as taking things too seriously. We avoid emotional expression.
Although giving off the pretence of modesty can override the importance of modesty itself. Pretending to be modest about something can help to deflect or diminish envy from others, even people who are well known or close friends. That’s why English people are so particular with their manners, pleases and thank yous.
Boasting in English people does occur, but it takes on a more indirect and subtler tone, sometimes known as oneupmanship.
In no other country is easier to shove the natives off their own pavements. Many will obligingly move out of the way for you.
Sometimes small innocuous situations descend into a big awkward comedy of manners.
Whereas Americans might describe their politeness as positive, in England politeness is largely negative. Saying ‘sorry’ is often no more than a reflex rebuttal for something or other. Politeness is indicative of being inhibited
The contradiction from modesty and politeness comes from things like drinking and foul language when the English can sometimes revert from the surface bonhomie of self-effacement to aggression.
Confrontation and meaningful emotional engagement with another human being is usually regarded with dread. Cool reserve and dry dignity usually reign over indiscrete and emotional.
Our politeness ultimately stifles us and leaves us awkwardly restrained and emotionally constipated. But smooth charm goes a long way to making others feel at ease. Full blown rioting or revolutions have always been anathema to all but a tiny minority of the English. We don’t burn things down, we write polite letters of complaint instead.
Being Polite is often utterly essential to any social interaction, even one between two very intimately familiar English people. The English often manage to keep social interaction on a highly formal stratum and take politeness to a level of irrational overload. As Jeremy Paxman wrote in his excellent book about the English:
‘Our strict unwritten codes of ethics and manners seem to have been developed by the English to protect themselves against themselves.’
Saying goodbye is full of aborted handshakes, clumsy cheek bumping and half-finished sentences. We even have a phrase, ‘saying your goodbyes’.
We hurry our greetings uncomfortably, but our departures can be painfully drawn out, underpinned by a vague sense of incompleteness.
Sense of Fair Play
The sense of fair play has long been intrinsically central to what makes someone genuinely English. It may explain why the English are so good at queuing.
We are still outraged or taken aback by even the merest whiff of something being corrupt at a high level or someone cheating at something. The playing field must always be level and the balance fair. No one must be given an unfair advantage. The rule of law, once nostalgically epitomised by the friendly bobby on the beat, is always looked up to and reverently respected. The unwritten assumption is that all the relevant institutions and personalities of the law will remain uncorrupted and honourable. They will play fair.
Then again the English sense of fair play sometimes equalises itself out too much and backfires. They are not easily impressed by anything much at all. Even men who have achieved the most staggering things are not wholeheartedly looked up to or admired. Rather they are picked apart for any minor faults or shortcomings instead.
Most things are downplayed or mockingly disparaged. A stolid preference for the factual, concrete and common sense pervades. Advertising is made less straightforward of this because outright boasting does not look good. Showing off is unofficially prohibited.
We cherish our elites and simultaneously despise them - eg, private schools, or public schools, we cannot decide what to call them. In the same way, anyone who is exceptionally intellectual or brilliant at making money will be torn down a strip or not allowed to get ahead of themself. In a peculiar and perverted way, I think the English like to retain the belief that these brilliant people amongst their own race are really no better than they themselves are. So they will either pull them down with some mocking humour or denounce them with that wonderfully English phrase, ‘too clever by half’.
As George Mikes once remarked, an Englishman, even if he is alone, will form an orderly queue of one. Queuing fairly could be our national sport. We are masterful at standing in lines. Polite queuing is almost our default mechanism.
When Diana, Princess of Wales, died, the enduring memory of that occasion’s aftermath was the silent orderliness of thousands of people efficiently doing their queuing to sign remembrance books or lay flowers. In queues the English do things like tap their feet, look at their watches, fold and unfold their arms, let out sighs, let out bursts of whistling. They do many things, except break out of the queue itself or ‘cause a scene’ about the frustration of queuing.
English people largely find it challenging to be uninhibited, socially unconstrained and spontaneous among people they do not know well. Whereas an American will introduce himself by his name and where he comes from straightaway up front, an English person will be much more reluctant to do so immediately. When it comes to social interaction, we are often pre-occupied by not ‘putting our foot in it’.
English people can be stubbornly individual and eccentric. Yet we just love rules, queues and orderliness. English people have an social undercurrent of reserve and inhibition. Politeness and avoidance of conflict usually prevail. Etiquette sometimes overrides logic. Continuity and stoicism are seen as important.
English people love to moan as much as they love to queue. It is an incredibly therapeutic ritual for us to have a good moan from time to time, helping us to get things which have built up inside us ‘off our chests’. Sometimes we are a chronically pessimistic country with unrealistically low expectations. The English will moan about all sorts of things from the ordeal of working hard to the inclement weather and the traffic build ups.
Secretly, many of us feel better after a good moan and ours days wouldn’t quite be complete without one. We moan about the weather, even though its extremes hardly ever impact with severity on our day to day lives. We moan about Christmas even if we have mostly enjoyed it. No one could really admit to fully enjoying Christmas. We moan about going on holiday even when we’ve really enjoyed ourselves.
We moan about traffic. We moan about time. There’s never enough of it to do what want to do or need to do. Or there’s too much or it, it drags too slowly when we have something we need to do or somewhere we need to go. For important people at work, time goes too swiftly. For the less important people it drags on too slowly.
Constantly, some of us English moan on and on, mostly in a light-hearted humorous way. Because to moan in a forthright, sincere way, well no one would like that, it would be socially unacceptable. Moaning serves the purpose of being therapeutic rather than purposeful.
In restaurants we enjoy quiet, restrained moaning instead of loud, direct complaining. The English do this because they fear embarrassment. There are few things we would dislike more than ‘making a fuss’ or ‘drawing attention’. If a waiter comes over and asks if everything is ok and we think it is not, we are still likely to say ‘Yes, fine thanks.’
And when we really summon up the nerve to complain, we still manage to do it all in an incredibly polite, timid, hesitant and strangely apologetic manner.
‘Sorry to be a nuisance but…’,
‘I hope you don’t mind me complaining but…’,
‘I don’t mean to be any trouble but…’
In America if high expectations are not met, they get onto their lawyers and look to sue. In England, where expectations are much lower anyway, the people will more than likely just shrug and utter ‘Typical!’
‘Typical’, an English person might utter, but not in a too serious way of course. ‘Typical’ is a generic, all purpose term of disapproval which conveys huffy indignation and resigned acceptance. I t might refer to the weather of course, or just a collection of unwanted events and unfortunate timings generally conspiring against us.
We are very reluctant to do anything meaningful about things we are not happy with because of the potential embarrassment of a confrontation. Our outlook on life has traditionally been fairly gloomy and cynical - ‘I told you so!’ being one of our favourite expression.
The pessimism is interlinked to the need for irony. Never assume the best, always expect the worst. However promising a situation might be, our peculiarly deep-rooted mindset prepares ourselves for when something goes wrong. So we end up ‘making the best’ of a situation or being grateful for what we’ve got. The bloody minded English are masters at being simultaneously peeved and stoical.
Health scares are perhaps a good example of the English over-dramatisation of unnecessary worry and low expectation. Health and Safety might be another.
The English might do pretend anxiety or self-doubt for things like exam results or job prospects - ‘I didn’t do any revision. I’ve got no chance with this.’ But they are adhering to the unwritten English rule of being modest, or at least appearing to be modest. Success should never be outwardly expected. Any prospect of attaining it must always be downplayed. And if success is achieved, it must be down to luck rather than skill or hard work.
Not something the English really do and they don’t really like seeing other people do it in front of them either. Displaying too much genuine emotion is regarded as rather self-indulgent. Anguished outpourings of emotion are regarded as socially unacceptable. The English have generally preferred instead to suppress or control their emotions. We don’t like opening up emotion, or indeed anything of much significance at all. ‘Pull yourself together!’ might be the instruction to someone, or ‘get a grip!’
The English regard ‘putting a brave face on things’ as the way to behave, especially in public. In this they take their lead from the royal family and the queen in particular. Remember the reaction when Diana died in 1997. English grief cannot be measured by how many tears are shed. ‘An outpouring of public grief’ might be a convenient and popular expression for newspapers to use, but it does not really accurately refer to anything the English people have done.
The English say sorry a lot. It is one of our favourite words. We use it mainly to avoid offending other people, which would in turn cause us embarrassment. People who don’t say sorry enough when they should say it are looked on very badly. You can never say sorry too much to an English person.
English people love to use ambiguous, multi-purpose words like ‘nice’ and ‘sorry’
Someone once said that being English always means having to say you are sorry.
Rarely do we have the qualities or will to be overtly assertive.
Very reluctantly do we accept praise. It is not the done thing to be seen as overly smug or satisfied.
Or maybe we’re all just grumpy and cynical stoics. Stability and security for the present, however mundane, often override desires for something vastly different.
The English have a stubborn, sometimes annoying, habit of not always saying what they mean. Politeness intrudes into the need for honest appraisal. So it means someone might be described as ‘lively’ when they are annoying, ‘careful with their money’ when they are tight, ‘forward’ when they are sleazy,
A lot of it goes back to not wanting to upset or offend people, which in turn would create the embarrassment of confrontation. Fear of saying the wrong thing overrides the obligation to say the right thing. So we use words with double meanings instead to be on the safe side.
English people have a perverse sense of satisfaction when their gloomy predictions become fulfilled. I think we actually get a kick out of being proved right about something negative. It is a peculiar mindset. The English are masters of self-delusion and hypocrisy. In fact, modesty and hypocrisy can be blended together in an uniquely English way.
The English can go form stiff and stilted to drunk and stupid. We can on occasions be passionate and emotional about all sorts of things, but mostly we suppress our impulses and urges, or pretend they are the opposite to what they really are. We don’t always tell people what we really think about things because we are uncomfortable doing so. So we leave them guessing instead.
If the English had not had so many rules, we would probably still be fighting each other, having civil wars and revolutions. An important part of the identity of being English derives from the ability to make and correctly follow shared, common rules. The French never had rules like the English and it is no coincidence that they went through so many revolutions.
Rules help to suppress and channel our in-built aggression and anger. But falling back on rules also reinforces the awkwardness. Rules also help to instil another important English thing, continuity.
It is virtually impossible to even attempt an understanding of being English, or indeed being English, without spending time in the pub and observing some of the rituals such an environment produces. Generally, pubs are facilitators for social bonding and demolishers of pretentiousness. Whether they like it or not, everyone is pulled down to the same level in the pub.
There are something like 50,000 pubs in England and you will not find a higher concentration of popular watering holes in any other country, except maybe Ireland. They are well and truly weaved into the fabric of our social identity, a reliable prop of comforting continuity through the ages.
Inside the pub there is the banter, back chat and mock insults, but no emotions. Arguing is the most popular form of conversation, arguments that no one even conclusively wins or surrenders in. Its not the winning of an argument, it is the taking part in it, particularly for men. When women argue it tends to be for real.
Conversation has few boundaries and several diverse topics can often be linked in together. People are relaxed and comfortable enough in the pub environment, more than perhaps they would be elsewhere, to say what they are thinking.
Queuing to buy a drink, an Englishman will seek to get the attention of the person behind the bar rather than shouting or even speaking to them. This might involve some movement in the eyebrows, movement of the hand across the face or jangling of loose change. Anyone who looks too contented is likely to have a longer wait.
English people buy rounds for each other in pubs because it brings rule governing to a social activity and also incorporates English notions of fair play. Everyone is expected to buy their round. For a socially reticent people, it is almost the unofficial equivalent substitute for exchanging awkward pleasantries or gifts.
The English will come up with any excuse for a drink, even if it’s the end of a day’s work for example, or just the fact that it’s lunchtime. If something isn’t being celebrated with a raised glass, then sorrows can be drowned instead. Such an attitude helps to dispel any moral ambivalence we may have about alcohol. It somehow legitimises getting drunk, but more importantly it is the getting drunk which loosens our social inhibitions like nothing else does.
New Years Eve is a classic example, or any office Christmas party. Every year the extent of the anarchy and ‘rowdy party revelling’ is always over-hyped. The English have created something they love to do. They have created rituals with unwritten rules of how people should dress, or behave etc.
Consumption of alcohol in sufficient quantities is usually for the ritual of transition which English people go. We can transform ourselves from being tongue-tied and awkward right to the opposite end of the spectrum, being clumsy and crass.
It has the opposite effect to that of work. Alcohol is centred around the notions of fun, spontaneity, conviviality. To an English person, many of life’s pressures are soluble in alcohol. It is also a highly effective social lubricator which engenders an irreverent attitude to any distinctions of rank from things like class, wealth and status. Alcohol allows hierarchies to be temporarily discarded or taken less seriously.
Many English people can become loud and aggressive after excessive consumption of alcohol. In some ways, consuming alcohol to excess is a convenient way for the English to avoid dealing with their inhibited social unease. Alcohol is the most effective and readily available social lubricant, but it has never been effectively integrated into the normalities of English life like in some of the Mediterranean countries for example, which is why we have always frequently consumed it to excess.
‘On the continent people have food, In England they have good manners’ - George Mikes.
The English also do dinner parties. There’s something very stiffly uneasy about attending dinner parties because of the necessity to adhere to unwritten etiquettes - back to manners and politeness. It is beyond us to just sit down and tear straight into some food. Everything is ordered and structured (rules again) and dinner parties serve a much needed social purpose for releasing gossip.
The English relationship with food itself was like a loveless marriage - uneasy, uncommitted co-habitation. In our restrained, unemotional approach to it, we have low expectations of our food. Mediocre was the norm, but things might just be changing now.
Good food was long regarded as a privilege, rather than a right, in England. Being a ‘foody’ and having a selective taste for certain wines was, until relatively recently, seen as slightly pretentious. Being perceived as excessively earnest and taking yourself too seriously, like many other things for an English person, are not really socially acceptable. The English grossly underestimate the social importance of enjoying food together. Mostly, they eat whatever might be available whenever they are hungry.
In some ways the relationship the English have with food is like the one they have with sex. It has always been an extremely private one and if it is discussed in public it was done so in a way that ensures it will not be taken too seriously. There is an air of ironic detachment from proceedings, which perhaps explains why the gastro-porn of someone like Nigella Lawson has been so enduringly popular. We have come to love our television cookery programmes, but more for the television entertainment aspect than the appeal of the food.
The English have not always been a nation with the time and energy to shop and cook proper food, or at least we deluded ourselves into thinking we had insufficient time and energy to do these things. So it is strange for a country with so much history to have fairly limited culinary history.
Takeaway junk food and supermarket ready meals still suffice for millions of contented English people and reveal much about the country relationship with food. We don’t live to eat, we eat to live. So we have expressions of satisfaction after eating like, ‘That filled a hole.’ But at the aristocratic end of spectrum, the English would regard commenting on food as vulgar.
Rituals of offering food and even offering and accepting invitation for food are similar to the notion of round-buying in pubs. When it comes to food, the English behave like teenage fashion victims in adopting and absorbing all sorts of immigrant cuisines. Where else in the world could a dish originating on the Indian subcontinent be claimed as the national dish of England?
In fact, it might be said that the one meal which the English really excel at is the breakfast. A traditionally fearsome, cholesterol-busting plate of greasy food to ‘fill a hole’.
And of course, fish and chips, which serves the same purpose usually at the opposite end of the day. But mainly the chips. Chips, of course, were invented in Belgium, but have somehow become patriotically English. It is understandable why we love chips so much. They are a down-to-earth, unpretentious, no-nonsense food, which of course can be offered and shared around.
Organic food is an example of the English following a trend setting fad. We all think we are being different in eating organic food, or being seen to be different or superior, rather than the actual benefit of eating better. But it actually part of a large conformity. We invent fancy food allergies and special diets, but they are really no more than social fashions with few proven benefits.
Having a cup of tea is deeply ingrained into the daily routines of most English people. It is either a remedial sedative or a rousing stimulant. But most of all, tea is perfect for the mitigating some of the awkwardness of a social encounter.
‘I’ll put the kettle on.’ or ‘I was just about to make a brew.’ are perfect phrases for suspending a social interaction or conversation. In going out of our way to concentrate our efforts on making a decent cup of tea, the English have mostly perfected the art, taken it to a level of unrivalled intricacy which few other countries could match. Be it the routine of warming the pot or striving to obtain the correct balance of tea bags, water and milk, making a proper cup of tea has practically become a national art, and a mini sense of occasion envelops its serving at a certain and regular time of day.
Tea even extends into the vocabulary of other parts of our language. With wonderful understatement the expression, ‘It’s not really my cup of tea’ can actually be a deceptively withering criticism of someone or something, which brings us on to the next English attribute - understatement.
If an English person is deeply unhappy about something or even very livid he will summon up all his anger and say something like, ‘It’s a bit much isn’t it?’ If they about to explode into a rage of violence, they might be ‘at the end of their tether’. If someone is having real problems with something they are said to be ‘all over the shop’. When an entire government department is failing miserably and incompetently it is merely described as being ‘not fit for purpose’. If someone is loud and boastful they are ‘blowing their own trumpet’.
By the same token it goes completely the other way. If someone is looking a bit bedraggled or unwell they been ‘in the wars’.
‘How do you do?’ We often repeat this greeting to all sorts of people without really or sincerely meaning it. Then we ask about the journey to get there, again without really being too genuinely interested, before some weather Smalltalk. Whatever you do don’t swivel the conversation onto age, religion or money.
How many other countries write ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’ to identify toilets in public places? How many other countries persist with the exalted deferential terms ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’?
We also have many manners for food, where they are particularly relevant and you can twist yourself in knots attempting to remember them all and do them in the right order. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when asking for food are vital. Reaching across someone to grab food might provoke a look worthy of you having just heavily insulted them. English people are not supposed to talk with their mouths full of food. Noisy eating is also a big no-no. Fairness and being polite are usually the overriding obligations of sitting down to eat with the English. The meal is less about the food and more about the unwritten rules of the occasion.
Knives and forks are usually expected to be placed in a certain way at the end of a meal to indicate eating has finished. Bread has to be broken up in a certain way. Soup must be sipped from a certain side of the bowl. There is a strict ordering system for the use of cutlery. To an uninitiated outsider, much of it borders on the anal and petty. Some people even deliberately avoid eating too quickly in a desire to avoid appearing over-eager. Most of the English eat for the social occasion above the enjoyment of the food itself. And to round things off napkins will be used, but more for dabbing than full on wiping of the mouth.
Perhaps the most absurd, but always adhered to, ritual of all is that port must always be passed in a clockwise direction at formal dinners.
The irony, as of course there is always an irony with the English, is that the people at the very top and bottom of the class spectrum don’t really care what other people think about their manners.
No other country has come close to inventing as many far-reaching popular sports as the English. From football and rugby to cricket and tennis, most of the sports that matter to most of the world owe their organisation and rule-making origins to the English. They were invented in England.
But why were they invented in England? It was because of our inhibited insularity and social awkwardness, which needed an outlet in our leisure time. Young English men were socially uneasy and hormonally challenged. These two strange attributes were ultimately channelled into the controlled and structured environment of organised sports with rules. Inventing lots of rules and regulations helped English men to overcome their social inhibitions. They acted as facilitators and props for the social awkwardness, just like alcohol always has done.
Creating elaborate structures and rules for simple things makes social intimacies easier. In truth playing organised sport and games is really an excuse to making social contact and bonding with others easier. We pretend that the sport itself is the reason, but it is largely the enabling of socialising which has often been the driving motivator.
English people still retain a strong obsession with anything resembling games or challenges. No other nation excels like the English do at pub sports (combining two fundamental English things) like darts and snooker. Pub sports are like a children’s playground for adults.
How neat also that the creation of sports and their rules should also tie in with the English notion of fair play. Playing sport in an ethical manner has long been central to playing at all for so many English people. With a few glorious exceptions at the premier elite, the English are superbly well practised at playing a sport for the pleasure of playing rather than playing something to win it. Then again, you might say that sporting ethics are nostalgic nonsense. The English love inventing traditions to be nostalgic about them.
The English just love to cheer on a sporting underdog. It is almost instinctive and a default thing for most people to do. For example, when the FA Cup 3rd round comes along and the big clubs have to play the smaller clubs, everyone loves to talk about upsets and ‘shocks’.
And of course, we get carried away with sporting expectations. Our football or cricket teams are either the best or worst in the world, nothing is ever in the middle. Great triumphs are often followed by abject failures. Maybe it's time the English started inventing some new sports with extra elaborate rules to prevent other countries beating them!
Clubs and Societies
The English have clubs and societies for all sorts of obscure and unlikely things. And with clubs, societies, organisations and the like come committees, procedures and more rules. Because the English are fundamentally quite insular, socially inhibited and privacy-fixated, forming and participating in clubs and societies enables them to be more social than they otherwise would be outside the structures and rules of clubs. It is remarkable how the spirit of association and the inclination for social exclusion can be so highly developed in the same people.
English people do not take kindly to random, unstructured, street-corner sociability. Interaction must be properly organised and governed by rules and procedures. That’s where clubs and societies slot into English life.
Football is very important to the English. Almost everyone follows a team or religiously looks out for their results. And few things make the whole country get carried away more than when England are playing in a world cup.
Yet football in England takes on a very tribal nature and it is nothing particularly new. Pitched battles were being fought between rival English towns and villages as far back as the thirteenth century. Only with the arrival of the Victorians did the game finally become properly structured and organised to what we all know it as today with its rules and organised competition. Today no league is loved more by the rest of the world than the Premier League maybe in spite of because of only around one third of the players are now English.
The tribal nature of following football in England takes the form of aggressive chanting and singing. Collective banter between opposing clubs will involve antagonistic taunts, but it rarely spills over into full on violence. Winding up the supporters of another tribe or club is the main objective, followed by bragging rights. Humour is, of course, central to doing this. Football is the closest thing to a religion for many English people and it gives them a feeling of belonging to a tribe of like-minded individuals.
Plenty of countries around the world love cricket. But none, with perhaps the exceptions of India and Pakistan, love it in quite the same way the English love it for all its intricacies and nuances. In true English style, the people follow their team more devotedly and loyally than any other country in the world. The Barmy Army is a wonderful example of Englishness, encapsulating so many attributes of a nation’s people - getting very drunk, doing lots of tribal singing (plenty of it well organised of course), but fundamentally incorporating plenty of humour to boot.
You know cricket was invented by the English because it is the only sport which manages to incorporate breaks for meals and drinks. And the metaphors of cricket spill over into everyday use for English life:
‘Batting on a sticky wicket’, ‘The corridor of uncertainty.’, ‘Being hit for six’, ‘Being caught out’, ‘Playing a straight bat’,
And as for the names of the fielding positions, they beautiful encapsulate the richness of cricket’s quirkyness: short leg, fine leg, square leg, third man, long off, silly mid off, gulley, leg slip, cow corner, so it goes on.
In true English style, most people only follow the cricket by listening to it on the radio (or on the internet these days) to update themselves on the score. And the bits they enjoy most are the bits when there is no cricket and the commentators are merrily chatting away about all sorts of other diversionary topic instead like how good a cake tastes, the colour of someone’s shirt or the description of a passing bird. For this is the essence of cricket - an incredibly organised and rule-obsessed game which lasts all day long and is not to be taken too seriously. To call it a sport seems unduly ambitious. For the English spectator or follower it is more of a social pastime.
What could be more quintessentially English than Wimbledon, the world’s finest tennis tournament…which the English never have a hope of winning. That never stops us deluding ourselves though. Tim Henman, a sportsman so English you could not invent him, always got the hopes up every year as people dared to believe he might win, and of course he always fell just short after flattering to deceive. Yet somehow Wimbledon would just not be quite the same if an English person won it.
And of course, Wimbledon somehow always manages to bring with it rain to delay the play, thereby effortlessly incorporated something so centrally institutional to the English, the weather
Holidays offer the English a attractive form of escapism. They allow us to behave differently that we would do at home. Somehow the English on holiday transform into much more relaxed, sociable human-beings who either come back sun brunt to a crisp or whiter than when they left. They even go as far as feeling at ease talking to strangers and burst into bouts of selective spontaneity while on holiday.
Traditional holidays involving the English have a regulated sort of rowdiness to them. It goes without saying that organisation has to play an important part of any English holiday, wherever it might be.
And of course at the end of the holiday, there is that familiar ‘back to the grind’ of reality mentality which soon transforms us back to being properly English again.
English people don’t live in a house, they live in a home. Again, privacy is very central to an English person’s concept of what a home should be. A home has become a symbol of our identity and personality.
The analogy of living in a castle with a moat and drawbridge is not altogether inaccurate. Most people in England own their own homes. It is one of the most important aspirations of adulthood to buy your own house. Relatively few of us live in apartments like many people on the European continent are so used to doing. We like to have drives for our cars and gardens.
Homes in England are about nest building, which can be achieved through one of the nation’s favourite pastimes, DIY. We have to modify or renovate a house to turn it into a home, even if there’s nothing much wrong with it left by the previous owners. People like to put their own stamp on their own home, usually at considerable disruptive effort and expense. Then not many years or even months later they will move out to do exactly the same thing in a new house, calling it moving up the property ladder.
To people from other countries this DIY culture of buying a perfectly good house then stripping it down and drastically changing it around might seem peculiar. What English people are really doing by enthusiastically engaging in DIY, is marking their territory. Then, when everything has been revamped they can fill it up with their own clutter.
Inside the house you are likely to find an area for showing off things like trophies, photos and certificates.
When it comes to mentioning the value of things, particularly houses, people are not comfortable talking about prices, but typically it is acceptable to moan about the burden of paying off the mortgage..
Estate agents are hated, but maybe this has something to do with the fact that they have to place a value on a house, a value which is also a judgement as well. Someone making a judgement is felt as being too intrusive.
A lot of effort goes into gardens. Along with DIY these are the real religions of English people. But mostly front gardens, which are predominantly for show and social availability. Whereas the back garden tends to be much more enjoyment orientated. That’s why we build things like patios and ensure the fences and hedges are high enough so our neighbours cannot easily intrude into our private worlds.
An English person is more likely to channel their energies into their home and garden than socially interacting with others. Here the English person is safe and protected from things like causing offence or embarrassment. They can relax and be themselves. And the English have their own unique term for what they do in their gardens. They like to potter in them.
And, reinforcing the notions of privacy, the English don't like anyone else to start building their homes near to where they live, which of course reinforces a shortage of homes to live in and, by keeping property prices high, continues to give them something to feel good about and talk about. Something called NIMBYism ('I'm all in favour of new houses being built, but Not In My Back Yard!') can be found everywhere and really it all comes back to the English obsession with privacy.
The English absolutely adore animals, probably more so than any other fellow human beings. Where the English go out of their way to feed the bird in their gardens, the French would more likely shoot them. Many English people go to incredible lengths to save or look after certain animals. And pets enjoy a remarkably elevated status in English households. They are allowed to take over entire houses and are practically worshipped. Some are lavished with hugs and kisses. Indeed, most of the emotional affection and attention that an English person has to give could well be showered on their pets.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals was founded before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which tells you much about the priorities of the English race. Many English are far more open, easy, demonstrative and communicative with their pets than they are with each other. How many times have you overheard an English person having a lively, amiable conversation with their loyal dog or cat?
Behaving affectionately towards our animals brings out our alter egos and the inner child wanting to break the rules by proxy. For some English people these relationships with their pets are the only significant experience of open, unguarded and meaningful emotional involvement they will have with another being. From dog shows to horse racing, animals are institutionally central to the lives of many English people.
It is also unacceptable to criticise other people’s pets, however badly they behave or wherever they chose to defecate. Pets can do precious little wrong in the adoring eyes of their owners. Pets are allowed all sorts of freedoms and liberties, beyond even what we might allow for ourselves. In fact, English people probably derive a certain amount of secret pleasure from the way their pets misbehave from time to time. So if an English person’s dogs is trying to have sex with your leg or is happily defecating all over the carpet, it will be curiously laughed off and forgiven.
History and Heritage
English people have a real sense of history, the bits they choose to patriotically remember anyway. The legacy of having an empire that painted one quarter of the world in the colours of these isles has been a heavy and uncertain burden to bear for the English, perhaps more so than it has for the Scots or Welsh. Many decades or generation after the sun set on the empire, many English people still retain a strong sense of how far it stretched, if only because of involvement of ancestors and the consequences of people who were once ruled by the empire having migrated and established themselves in England.
The National Trust is also incredibly popular. Many English people love nothing better than going to visit one its large country houses because of the sense of history and the educational virtuosity of doing so. The English have a keen curiosity for modern history, probably because they have always had a hand in so much of it.
Interestingly, religion has become largely irrelevant to most English people.
We only tend to be interested in religion for special occasions like marriages, funerals and christenings or hatchings, matchings, and dispatchings, as you might refer to them. The Church of England has been described as the least religious church on earth, which might be no bad thing. It is well meaning (but not too well meaning) fairly tolerant and non-prescriptive. The Church of England is the religious for many English by default almost to the point of being tacitly atheist. We don’t like to ‘make a fuss’ about religion. We are fairly apathetic and fence-sitting. It is not taken too seriously.
Believing in God is an optional extra for most of the English. Being seen to be too religious is not a social virtue, in the same way as being over keen or over earnest on anything else would be. Having strong religious convictions in public and appearing overly devout are particularly frowned on as well. As Tony Blair’s spin doctor once fretted, ‘We don’t do God!’ The English don’t really do God either.
Nonetheless, the rites, rituals and ceremonies, which supposedly revolve around religious significance, are central to the lives of the English. They are of course governed by unwritten social rules and formalities. Even though the English are uncomfortable with too much formality, they probably cope worse with too much informality.
Weddings can turn into epic productions, stressful ordeals even, in venues akin to film sets, but the actual core of the ceremony itself tends to be a detached and awkward affair drawn out with comforting cliches and platitudes. The ceremony is more something to get over and done with than something to get overly and openly emotional about because we are deeply uncomfortable with situations where emotion is expected to be openly expressed. So at English wedding ceremonies don’t expect to see weeping and wailing in unconfined frenzies of joy and gooey sentimentality.
In terms of enjoyment and fun, weddings have probably come to be overshadowed by the prospect of the best man’s speech embarrassing someone and the fun to be had at the party afterwards. Similarly, many guest outside the family might recount the highlight to be the stag or hen nights beforehand where the only religious thing is the devotion to consuming huge quantities of alcohol.
Funerals are particularly awkward for the English because humour is largely unacceptable at them, openly at least. Funerals are forcibly solemn and earnest, which leaves the English naked, and unprotected with all their social inadequacies exposed. The English without humour…well its like someone removing a vital social organ or having the blood diluted. We struggle to function properly or communicate without a resort to humour or even irony, banter, mockery or teasing.
Yet, in spite of our religious indifference and in true English style, we manage to drop God into our everyday language. ‘Good Heavens!’, ‘Oh my God!’, ‘Jesus Christ!’ and ‘Bloody Hell!’, ’God’s Truth!’ being some of our favourite throwaway expressions, uttered rather casually. Religion devoid of its meaning but turned into humour for self-depreciating irony. How English.
Words are very important to an English person. England is a nation of compulsive readers and sometime writers. We cannot get enough of things like quizzes, crosswords and sudoku. Unsurprisingly, the English buy and devour more newspapers, magazines and books per head than most other countries. English men (and some women) even regard it as essential to have some form of reading matter available next to the toilet with them. Or maybe they just suffer from physical, as well as verbal, constipation on too many occasions.
Radio 4 is practically a national institution and programmes like Just A Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue typify the English love for the playfulness of using words. On television, Have I Got New for You serves the same witty purposes, at their most entertaining and humorous when deviating off at unintended tangents.
We also love cliches, heavily wrapped up in mock irony of course, or at least moaning about their overuse.
The linguistic playfulness of catchy newspaper headlines, for example, has also very much been an English speciality. We love puns, knee-jerk humour to alleviate our social dis-ease.
Favourite English expressions like ‘holding the fort’ to look after a shop or office, ‘sitting on the throne’ to use the toilet, have institutionalised themselves in everyday vocabulary.
Patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel, so the saying goes. Well the English might just be the most unpatriotically patriotic people in the world. Aside from lunging bursts of flag waving (Last Night of the Proms, royal family occasions, international sports matches) we are distinctly cool about displaying overt pride in our nationality. We don’t really know precisely what it is that makes us English so we grope around attempting to display it in different, and often clumsy, ways.
We cannot even agree over our national anthem - God Save the Queen - which also belongs to the rest of Britain. We have ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’ as unofficial, popular stirring anthems, but they both represent utopian ideals almost of a bygone era.
The English probably revel in their newspapers as much if not more than any other country in the world. Reading a newspaper in public is, of course, the perfect barrier for preventing the possibility of strangers intruding into someone’s privacy. English people can hide behind broadsheet newspapers on trains, but this is not quite so easy now that most newspapers have downsized.
Rather like pretending not to really watch much television, most people would not admit to wanting to read a tabloid newspaper and the exaggerated, scare-mongering, sensationalist fare they churn out. But read them millions of us most certainly do, and the celebrity gossip magazines too. Gossip has a high value in post-weather conversation.
The internet could have been invented for the insular, socially handicapped, word-loving, nosey English. There is nothing physical about interacting on the internet and no one can watch someone on the internet so they won‘t begin to feel embarrassed, unless they‘re doing it during work time in the office of course. Doing things in cyberspace somehow detaches itself from the day-to-day reality of life and allows the English to behave differently than they would otherwise do in interacting with each other.
Using only words means we can interact with all sort of other people, but in a way which doesn’t feel like a direct intrusion into our privacy and without provoking face-to-face embarrassment. Its is arms length interaction.
In their uniquely contradictory way, many English people will take great pride in telling you that they don’t watch much television, especially the most trashy sorts of course. It makes them feel morally superior. But secretly lots of them do because, after the weather, television is another essential social prop, something to engender conversation topics with.
The English obsession with soap operas is particularly fascinating. English soap operas like Coronation Street and EastEnders have to portray the lives of their characters in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner which is far away from the aspirational nature of soap operas in America, for example. This reflects the English distaste for artifice and pretension, and people taking themselves too seriously.
The most popular comedies on English television usually revolve around the ‘embarrassment’ factor. Or more recently, the very dry mocking irony of something like The Office or in the more outrageously grotesque, slapstick-esque form of Little Britain.
Even when it comes to reality television and Big Brother, many people still feel comparatively inhibited compared to how far contestants in some other countries go. The English take affectionately to programmes like The X Faxtor and Celebrity Dancing programmes because they want to feel part of them and talk about them in the form of recycled gossip. But the more the light of publicity and the promise of celebrity are beamed into these artifices, the stronger the testing of the rules of Englishness will be.
To read Part 2 of Being English, Notes On My Own Country, Click Here