Being English: Notes On My Own Country - Part 2
America excepted perhaps, are there any other countries on earth more obsessed by celebrity than the English? Celebrity worship somehow fits in quite neatly with some of the anti-intellectual tendencies of the English. The more minor and insignificant the celebrity, the more obsessed we seem to be. The more notorious or badly behaved their antics, the more newsprint and television air time they receive
We have an insatiable fascination with other people’s lives, especially when we learn that someone with a lot of fame and money actually has plenty of well documented flaws. Quite often the tabloid newspapers are blamed for making up scandals, but they only do so because we as a nation want to read the juicy bits of other people’s lives who are in the public eye. It is a form of voyeuristic pornography to sate our thirst for gossip.
In some ways, the royal family fits in well with idea of celebrity worship, only on a different sort of level and consistent with even more trivial behaviour. It is stimuli by proxy for all of us every time we read a report into what someone famous did, someone we don’t know from Adam.
But of course the great thing about celebrity worship in England is that we just love to see someone brought back down to earth after being put high on a pedestal. Tall poppies always come crashing back down to the ground eventually and the English, traditionally never a people easily impressed by anything or anyone, like to see it happen.
Having to travel somewhere, on public transport at least, involves some form of interaction with strangers. English people try to avoid contact with strangers as much they can. They feel obliged to avoid drawing attention to themselves which might involve invoking some form of privacy invasion or embarrassment potential. Maintaining eye contact with someone we don’t know for too long or inadvertently intruding on their zone of personal space might be interpreted as being too aggressive or flirtacious. If someone starts chattering away like a chatterbox to an English person on a train or bus, chances are he or she will think that person is under the influence of drink or drugs or just deranged.
People don’t generally like complaining too loudly, if at all, about undesirable things which take place on public transport like delays or strikes. The English have a little groan and get on with things, making the best of it. The number of times I’ve witnessed hundreds of commuters on the tube in London silently navigating around various disruption signs or wearily plodding in obedient file up static escalators for example, proves this neatly.
It’s the same with huge traffic jams. In plenty of other countries, many motorists would set off a cacophony of horns to protest at delays. In England motorists just sit and stare or fiddle with the radio, silently hoping that things will soon improve.
Like houses, cars are an important status symbol for English people to assert their personality and identity, as well as their vanity and social status. What other country in the world is quite as obsessed by what car someone drives? And which other country has so many personalised registration plates?
Yet cars also reflect the disposition for protecting privacy because we do not really have to interact with people we do not know while we are in them. Being inside a car also gives an Englishman (or increasingly woman!) greater licence to behave aggressively because the consequences of doing so are very unlikely to intrude through to invade his or her privacy. In the same way that he or she can be rude or insulting over the internet, it feels more anonymous and without consequences.
In a car an English person can pretend that other people around him or her do not really exist. In avoiding, or minimising, the possibility of personal intrusion and social interaction, cars serve a similar purpose to homes.
When it comes to working, English people can be both exceptionally inventive, but also set in their ways and neat routines. Many of us have a love-hate relationship with work. Like most things to do with being English, we end up reaching an angst-ridden compromise by middling along, muddling through and fence-sitting, doing what we need to do to get by.
Work for most people is a little mini-world of social interaction within itself that has its own boundaries, which often dare not intrude into the other personal sphere of someone’s life. There can be overlap from time to time. Yet, work is work and outside of work is a completely different mindset, often involving completely different people and behaving in completely different way to how you would behave in the work environment.
The English generally tend to work quite hard and long hours. Maybe that’s because they are not always very productive
When it comes to talking about their children, modesty is in and boasting is out for English parents. Mock denigration and despairing are part of a detached, cynical humorous resignation about the children. English people must not be seen to be taking their children too seriously, even if they secretly like to indulge them. Outward displays of affection towards their children in public can be regarded as cringe worthy. In a funny kind of way, children have also become something akin for status symbols for parents themselves saying, ‘look at my child, isn’t (s)he wonderful? what a fine reflection on how good I am (s)he is!’ In alter life this one-upmanship goes up a level as a parent waxes on about so-and-so’s wonderful qualifications achieved or career accomplishments, however unremarkable or indistinguishable from millions of contempories.
It is socially unacceptable for parents to boast about how good their children are, but disguised boasting has become something of an art form. Throw in some mock irony, fake self-depreciation and blatant ambiguity, and you can still get away with saying how good your child is, albeit in a more subtle way. Mock denigration of a child can border on the disdainful.
Much is said about how irresponsible the youth of today are and their ‘lifestyle ‘excesses’ are routinely condemned. In truth, in spite of a headline grabbing minority, the young English are not quite all the irresponsible thrill-seeking hedonists they are commonly made out to be. They are conventional, industrious, moderate, cautious and sensible. Many of them plod along in contented moderation. Plenty are middle-aged before they leave university.
They might undergo a short period of ‘rebellion’ but on the whole, the desire for a stable and comfortable life overrides the temptation for radical excesses, which can still be occasionally indulged in at weekends or on holiday from time to time. They might pick a conscientious issue like global poverty or global warming to embrace under the ideal of ‘doing something to make a difference’. Yet the irony is that both of these things incorporate so many people, you could almost term them conventional movements for the uncritical herds to follow.
Aspiration rarely stretches beyond wanting to ‘settle down’, be ‘successful at work’ and ‘own their own property’. If you are looking for imaginative and rebellious, you’re probably looking at the wrong generation in England. Ensuring a future of stability overrides the desire to let their lives descend into an orgy of riotous pleasure-seeking. Young English people do like to have fun, lots of it often in regular bouts. But the form of fun they pursue is a controlled and regulated sort of fun which tilts around the axes of drinking to get drunk and shopping. These sorts of fun are usually cloaked in tidy routine.
Away from these pursuits, they are, in true English style, diligent, prudent and responsible. They are affected by the culture of fear and risk aversion. They are over-obsessed with safety just like everyone else, possibly because everyone else is. It breeds conformism and saps the spirit for adventure.
GAP years are supposed to turn young English people into mature, socially rounded adults. Spending a few years at university is effectively and unofficially about postponing adulthood for a few years. The tide may be turning now with the introduction of the weighty mill stone of tuition fees, but the role of going to university for English people has long had less emphasis on studying than on having fun anyway. Only now does it cost them a lot more money to embark on it and the outcome at the end is much more uncertain because there are so many other young people in exactly the same position with the same converging aspirations.
When it comes to sex, the stereotype of the English depicts us as being reserved, passionless and naïve. Yet we have by far the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe and when it comes to advertising, sexual suggestion helps to sell products perhaps more than anything else. The English struggle to mention anything sexual without making a joke out of it. Our default mechanism of humour instantaneously springs up at any sort of sexually suggestive innuendo. As always, if in doubt or unsure about something, an English person will make a joke about it.
Flirting might be described as the foundation of English civilisation as we know it. Add a dollop of humour to the willing consumption of alcohol, and you have a rather potent recipe for the opposite sexes engaging with each other. Even within relationships, we are naturally cautious and indirect in openly declaring our amorous affections for a long time. Everything is to do more with subtle hints, elusive uncertainty and careful manoeuvres.
To outsiders it might be perceived as shyness, arrogance or even repressed homosexuality. English people are unlikely to say what they really mean or feel up front or straightaway. But the real reason is to avoid embarrassment. We don’t like to be too open and official about emotional matters, probably because they risk breaching the precious boundaries of personal privacy.
Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers, but really we have become a nation of shoppers. The English just love to spend and consume. We have evolved to a society where there can be no such thing as deferred gratification. Everything can be slapped on the credit card today, and to hell with tomorrow. Shopping is what turns a lot of English people on. They take pride in it and invest a lot of time, effort and money in to doing it properly. The English love the notion of a bargain or having saved money on something.
Shopping can be hedonistic, individualist, materialistic and self-indulgent, but it is what many of us, particularly women, live for. Shopping is also about things like assertion of identity and personality, buying things with which we can display our own personal stamp of style of wealth. Yet the ironic thing is that so many English people, while wanting to assert their individuality, are actually conforming in taking part in the same ritual, aspiring to buy the same things from the same shops.
Wearing the right clothes happens to be a social skill and the English struggle with it. In true English tradition we are at our best when we have the safety net of strict dress rules and formal traditions to adhere to. Otherwise the English do not easily dress well because dress, in a way, is fundamentally a social skill. So the English, like many other things, created rules for it to alleviate potential unease.
From chavs in their shell suits to aristocrats in their smart pullover with a collared shirt, there is also something conformist about the way English people dress. We conform because we basically want to avoid the embarrassment of standing out and having attention drawn to us. The English like to fit in. Standing out or showing off are not really our thing when it comes to appearance. Any man who makes too much of an effort to look good or dress well can be suspected of being gay.
The English obsession with etiquette leads us to create more rules than might sensibly be required. We have created so many rules because we fear the awkward confusion and potential embarrassment of having no rules. Of course there are plenty of English people who take pride in rebelling with their dress sense and appearance - punks, Goths etc. who go off the spectrum. But look closer and you realise that most of these people are not actually doing anything which is genuinely original or individualistic. It is often a collective thing because English people have a deep-seated fear of really standing out.
And of course, humour plays its part in the way the English like to dress. Fancy dress parties are institutionalised into our social fabric - stag or hen nights or some sporting events - reflecting the ability of the English to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously. Men camply cross dressing (as some women also do) do it very deliberately for a laugh. In a strange way, this ability to dress (up or down?) for fun and laughter is probably the one that the English excel at the most and feel most at ease doing.
We can behave like oblivious ostriches in digital bubbles when our mobile phones become clamped to our ears or thumbs. Using a mobile phone is an effective barrier signal to strangers. In most other countries people use a mobile phone primarily for functionality. In England there is more to it. Some people deliberately like to be heard or seen using their mobiles in a certain way - usually a ‘look-at-me-I’m-really-important / busy / popular’ kind of way. But again, mobile phones are a also form of social prop, like newspapers. They help to erect a social barrier and postpone or reduce the possibility of having to have an interaction with someone we do not know or don’t want to talk to in a public place.
The great irony is that the English are fundamentally insecure and self-conscious about the shared identity of being English. We don’t really know with absolutely certainty what it means to be English. We can all list lots of different things we have in common, things we can identify with and things we like to do etc. but what is it in our character that makes us as English people ethnically homogenous? It is a very difficult question to answer with resounding satisfaction.
Those who choose not to conform to the values of being English are quietly but firmly and widely scorned. But they are, of course, tolerated in a moderately tut-tutting kind of way.
Contradictions: Who Are The English?
The English are more like to tell you who or what they are not - French or German for example - because its easier and wittier to answer that way. In many ways the English always seem to wriggle off the hook of what it really is that conclusively defines them. We can list things and identify behaviours, but much of it doesn’t easily or readily mould itself into something coherent. In short, being English is full of contradictions.
A conversation with an English person, to the uninitiated or unfamiliar, might sometimes feel like an exhaustingly complex and convoluted social game. We have become adept at saying the opposite of what we mean. Nearly every social situation is likely to be fraught with ambiguity and hidden meanings. The English have hidden depths.
Courteous reserve can morph into vulgar aggression. We can go from loudly obnoxious to socially handicapped, from boldly outgoing to quietly reserved. We can be incredibly polite but also ungraciously rude. These are two sides of the same English character coin. The English go from not making enough eye contact to making too much.
When an English person is direct and up front about something, it looks overdone.
Passive aggression plays a big part of the make up of the English and how they have got themselves to where they are in the world today. It seethes dormantly under the surface. Sometimes at certain moments we all secretly long to explode in frustration, but don’t do so because it is socially unacceptable so we bottle it up inside us, keep a lid on it and keep the upper lip stiff as much as we can
The English have a phenomenal capacity for collective self-deception. Denial is one of our favourite pastimes. The English are immensely contradictory when it comes to standards. For some things we have extremely low expectations (eg. Complaining about anything), while for other things we have very high expectations (eg. Rights of animals). We can be pessimistic and optimistic, often both at the same time. We are a nation of orderly disordered people, enigmatically indecipherable form the outside. While what is decipherable from the inside is not always easily understandable.
We become excited by rebellion but secretly crave the comfort of conformity. In spite of being such eccentrically distinct people, it is odd how many English people complacently accept the interference of the government into their lives.
The English are anti-intellectual, but we have had a well preserved establishment running our country.
You might say that the English are slightly delusional. We force ourselves into social interaction by pretending to be doing something else (eg sports and drinking). The English are unable to seek out human warmth and intimacy in a normal, straightforward manner.
The flamboyant excesses and eccentricities of Englishness derive plenty from the extreme ends of the class system where inhibition and fear or embarrassment is strangely the lowest. People from the working classes or aristocratic upper class don’t worry too much about things like embarrassment and shame.
The concept of compromise is deeply embedded into the English psyche. It’s why, as a country, we’ve never really had any dramatic changes or revolutionary uprisings. Progress has historically been evolutionary rather revolutionary, a series of gradual, subtle changes implemented step by step.
And I myself am one big complex contradiction slotting neatly into the messy stereotype. Some of the traits of being English I cherish, while others I abhor. Sometimes I love my country and the English people and their way of life, other times I loathe them. But in a truly English stoical way I’ll suppose I’ll just have to put up with them. What strange human beings the English are. The English are almost more unpredictable than their weather.
So there we are, the English. We are a ‘funny’ tribe of people…rather typically in both senses of the word. ‘Typical!’ an Englishman might mutter to himself, with slight understatement of course.
To read Part 1 of Being English: Notes On My Own Country, Click Here